Livable cities at the core of progress, 21st century development

LANSING — Some cities like Copenhagen and Denmark have been implementing smart growth policies for decades. These cities have become models that others abroad look to for direction.

Some cities, however, like Los Angeles are urban planning nightmares, growing faster than their governments could have anticipated or planned for.

Today, Copenhagen is widely considered the world’s most bicycle-friendly city with almost 40 percent of all trips taken by foot or bicycle. Los Angeles, on the other hand, is widely used as a worldly example of how not to plan cities.

People like Jane Jacobs and Jan Gehl have succeeded in identifying some general problems and solutions of progressive city planning, but what about place-based solutions? What about Detroit and Michigan? That’s the question the Michigan Municipal League’s book, Economics of Place: The Value of Building Communities Around People, sets out to explain.

Cities through the context of Detroit

When we look at what plagues our cities through the planning lens, as did the MML in 2011 when publishing Economics of Place, we see those problems are numerous and complex, but indeed they have solutions.

eop-coverAt a modest 170 pages, it’s an engaging and quick read for anyone from the seasoned urban planner to soccer moms and dads. The Economics of Place examines problems like transportation and population flight, and offers solid answers and sound logic for what went wrong and where we ought to go next.

Among many authors, Lou Glazer of Michigan Future, Inc., and Carol Coletta of Chicago-based CEOs for Cities offer readers business-oriented narratives about why good planning and creative problem solving will help Michigan’s communities be prosperous in the future. They give us refined lists and suggestions on how to improve our communities while honing in on the physical places nearby.

Dan Burden, director and co-founder of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute, offers more humanistic reasoning for public spaces based on our need to connect with places and people. He argues place matters more to people than a job or spouse, and tells us how to develop these cities and amenities that attract and retain educated and diverse people.

Placemaking: Is it that simple?

Although place is tackled from both business and humanistic perspectives, the Economics of Place suggests placemaking and supporting people like the Millennial Generation, will make all the difference in the years to come.

"... sustainable cities cannot exist without the 'contemporary trilogy' of: a job, an industry and a place."  ~ Robin Boyle

Many authors analyze how American cities changed through the turn of the industrial era. We watched, they say, our quality of places deteriorate as we planned around the automobile and replaced smart, simple practices with what we thought were convenient stores and livable suburbs.

In the 21st century, we’re again becoming more community-oriented as we shift towards service and knowledge-based ventures. New progressive policies, authors say, will not only help curb our reliance on resources, but will also build healthier communities more insulated from the shock wave of things like the Great Recession.

Robin Boyle, president and chair of Wayne State University’s College for Urban Planning, says place is a building block of sustainable cities, but it’s only one part of a “three-legged stool.” Boyle says sustainable cities cannot exist without the “contemporary trilogy” of: a job, an industry and a place. Talking about these factors individually is, and has been, part of the problem.

“It’s about the connectivity of these three drivers that makes a community sustainable,” Boyle says.

In trying to drive home the importance of where we live, Economics of Place becomes somewhat redundant at points, and somewhat anecdotal. While authors consistently argue for quality of place and why it matters, addressing diverse viewpoints and explaining for whom quality place works and why.

Progressive Policies

As more people work from home or create their own jobs, the argument for place seems to be becoming more relevant. Coupled with the explosion of smart devices, it seems we need rely less on cars and more on the people and the goods and services available where we live.

Many Detroit-based organizations, such as the Digital Justice Coalition, are harnessing this technology and have taken great initiative to create what municipal governments traditionally provide, including access to information and vital resources. You could consider organizations like these as forerunners of the “social entrepreneur” movement.

Dan Gilmartin, executive director and chief executive officer of the Michigan Municipal League, resonates with this movement and stresses the importance of this kind of civic engagement in place building.

“The products of enlightened civic engagement and the continued evolution of ‘micro governance’ models is a win-win situation for those involved,” he says.

Bottom line? The guarantee for Michigan’s revitalization lies within the quality of the people and the places where we live now. It looks like people are really starting to pay attention, Gilmartin says.

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