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Creating Jobs and a Sense of PlacePrint

Thriving Communities | May 29, 2012 | By Glenn Puit

A national expert in land use believes northern Michigan can greatly enhance its economy by designing walkable, urban communities that offer an experience unlike anywhere else in the world.

Chris Leinberger, of the Brookings Institution

Chris Leinberger is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor at the University of Michigan.

In a visit to Traverse City last week for the second annual Placemaking Summit, he said a critical component to northern Michigan’s future economic success is pedestrian and bike-friendly communities and thoughtful, well designed public spaces that feature the region’s greatest natural resources. Such “placemaking,” when well managed and backed by private sector investment, will attract young professionals so critical to job growth and economic development.

“The market is telling us to do it differently than we have in the past,” Mr. Leinberger said, noting demand for walkable urban communities is far outpacing demand for suburbs, in which drivers commute long distances to work.

“(The market is) telling us to build walkable urban places,” he said. “It’s a different way of building, and we are just beginning to figure this stuff out. It’s very hard to do.”

Mr. Leinberger’s speech at the Hagerty Center drew business leaders, planners, local township and county officials together to think about a community-based approach to developing public spaces of regional importance. The goal of the summit is for these local leaders to incorporate “placemaking” into their community strategies and master plans, and to think about ways such placemaking can be implemented.

Dan Gilmartin, executive director of the Michigan Municipal League, said Michigan can’t move fast enough in embracing placemaking and creating viable, attractive, public spaces. If it does not, the state will find itself losing out in the competition to draw high-paying jobs for its residents.

“Attracting and retaining really talented people brings jobs, and it brings an entrepreneurial environment,” Mr. Gilmartin said. “ Young people are choosing where they want to live first, then they look for work. Two thirds of them are doing that, and for Michigan, it’s an issue of choice and having a community, a region, and a state that people want to come to.”

Mr. Leinberger said the nation is now  in the midst of returning back to a focus on its cities and community centers after decades of costly suburban buildout. One of the key themes of Mr. Leinberger’s remarks was the need to rely on the public sector to put the tools in place for the development of these community public spaces, but the financing, development and management of communities needs to be private sector based.

“Placemaking is a three-legged stool, and it starts with the public sector setting the table,” Mr. Leinberger said. “I liken it to building the corral, and you tell the private sector don’t even think about going outside this corral. Inside the corral, it’s a free market. It’s a free for all. And so the public sector has a role to set the table and then get out of the way.

“The second leg is the private sector, which is putting up the bulk of the money,” he said. “The research shows for every $1 of public money, there can be anywhere from $10 to $15 of private money invested (in a public space), and then the third leg of the stool is about place management. Managing the place 24/7. Having a strategy.”

An example of how this public-private sector partnership can work in developing a community-wide public space can be found in New York City, at Bryant Park. The park at 42nd and Broadway was once known primarily for drug dealing, but a commitment to turn the park into a community asset was led by the private sector. Business leaders invested in the park by forming a private, not-for-profit corporation that is funded by assessments on businesses and property near the park, along with revenue from vending on the property. The park was completely revamped to feature everything from a carousel to games to retail to a gorgeous open space. The park now has more than 8 million visitors annually, and it is considered the American model for public space placemaking.

“It’s the finest park in the country, and it is jammed morning noon and night,” Mr. Leinberger said. “You need to figure out (in your community) where those walkable urban places should be. Define them, draw them on a map…they are usually 50 to 400 acres….and understand you should be investing in your infrastructure there, whether it be Wi-fi, broadband or sewer and water. Invest there.”

This drive for what he called “great urbanism” can at first meet resistance from some, but the fact is that single family homeowners who live near great public spaces eventually realize a price premium of 40 to 100 percent on their properties. With that type of return on their investment, even skeptical property owners will support public placemaking movements.

“(The goal is) to offer an experience you can only get in downtown Traverse City or Charlevoix,” Mr. Leinberger said. “People have to come to you for that experience and it’s your unique selling opportunity.”

Glenn Puit is a policy specialist at the Michigan Land Use Institute.