COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

The Economics of Place: Michigan as a Beacon in the Placemaking Movement

Fred Kent
Nov 12, 2014
Dec 14, 2017
Flint farmers market
The newly relocated Flint Farmer's Market in downtown Flint | Photo by PPS

The Michigan Municipal League’s new book, The Economics of Place: The Art of Building Great Communities, goes beyond placemaking as a concept, to offer real-world examples of economic drivers and agents of social and cultural change in Michigan’s own backyard. The following is Fred Kent's afterword in this excellent book, now available here

Michigan has truly been a beacon in the placemaking movement.

Ever since the governor’s declaration to put placemaking at the forefront of Michigan’s economic policy, place-led development has cropped up in what some would consider the least likely of places in this midwestern state. From downtown Detroit’s Renaissance to the recent grand reopening of the Flint Farmers Market attracting over 17,000 people from all over the region—Michigan is taking placemaking to heart in an inspiring way.

In many ways, Michigan’s history is not unlike much of the United States. Dotted with small towns previously dominated by industry, Michigan struggled like so many states in its shift away from the manufacturing economy. Developers only further degraded downtowns, moving commerce to big box stores on the outskirts and driving people away from the heart of the community. Eventually, people began to take notice and organizations were formed to tackle this seemingly insurmountable problem: how do we bring people back to the center?

But bringing business back to the center was only part of the problem. Creating ownership and reinvigorating the culture of the place is an entirely different matter. It was only once placemaking was introduced and incorporated into policy and planning that the spaces could finally become places.

Decades later, thanks to initiatives at the state, city, and foundation level, Michigan communities are leading the way in demonstrating the potential impact of placemaking projects and in evolving placemaking as a broad leadership, governance, and development focus. The state government is taking placemaking to an unprecedented level as the center of their economic development and place-based governance strategy, but it also has the support of seminal foundations and individuals like Dan Gilbert, The Kresge Foundation, and the Michigan Municipal League.

Over the course of the last decade, I personally, and several others on the Project for Public Spaces (PPS) team, have contributed to trainings and workshops in many communities in Michigan; from Flint, Midland, Dearborn, and Holland, to Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, and Harbor Springs. Some of our most powerful demonstration projects have also been in Michigan, not least of which is the incredible transformation of Campus Martius Park in downtown Detroit—now the magnet for the revival of Detroit, attracting billions in new investment in the blocks around it. The re-claimed Detroit Riverfront and the thousand-acre historic island park Belle Isle are also a part of this expansive, multi-pronged effort to drive revitalization of a whole downtown area using the placemaking process.

The FestiFools event in Ann Arbor brings people back to the center | Photo by MML

In the neighborhoods, the “can-do” attitude of Detroiters has them rolling up their sleeves in bottom-up initiatives, taking action in Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper (LQC) ways as a first step in reversing decades of decline. Initiatives like Peaches & Greens, The Alley Project, and the People for Palmer Park are excellent examples of this turn around. When PPS first got involved with Peaches & Greens years ago with the support of The Kresge Foundation, the area around the site was what we refer to as a place desert—a swath of cityscape without any safe, meaningful places for residents to meet and interact. Its evolution into a mecca within the community could only have succeeded because of this ambition to make a “dying” city better— from both the citizens and the leaders.

Decades ago we, as a society, detached people from place. We decided that places should be shaped based on theories and ideas, rather than the needs of people who already lived, worked, and played there. The development of people and places is the same process. If we keep trying to separate the two, our cities will remain divided.

While the shift to place-based strategies for economic development in Michigan might have been motivated by the state’s severe budget deficit and the need to make each tax dollar go further, the place-based strategy for economic development has been the crux for turning this place around.

More than this, Michigan’s struggles are not unique: budgets everywhere are tight—and citizens are starting to realize that they can’t wait any longer for investments to come from the top to fix or improve their neighborhoods. Michigan shows that by using what they have, including their existing excess of community spirit, any city, region, or state can make quick and effective changes in their public spaces to dramatic effect.

The question now is whether an LQC strategy can scale up to help create a more cohesive narrative around this comeback, incorporating everything from neighborhood collaborations to an increasingly dynamic downtown. If Detroit can learn the important lessons that its downtown’s resurgence has provided, and re-build a foundation of trust with its citizens around engagement and participation, the potential is immeasurable, and the same can be said for the state as a whole. Michigan is at the forefront of this bold new agenda that will play out and evolve over the years, but make no mistake—there is more work to be done. Where it will lead will be defined by these examples as it continues down this road in the years to come.

"Creating great places isn't a linear activity. Sustaining them is even trickier." Dan Gilmartin, CEO, Michigan Municipal League
The Beach at Campus Martius in full swing (Photo: PPS)
The Beach at Campus Martius in downtown Detroit in full swing | Photo by PPS
Fred Kent
Fred Kent
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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space