Blog: Brad Garmon

Brad Garmon is land programs director at the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC). MEC is a non-profit advocacy organization with offices in Lansing and Detroit, representing more than 60 environmental, faith-based, and public health groups across the state. MEC works to establish public policies that ensure safe, healthy communities and protection of Michigan's natural resources.

Brad grew up prowling the arid western prairies of Kansas, discovering geography and the power of place working as a land surveyor, occasional farm hand, satellite image processor for a NASA climate change research project, and managing a biological research station.

He holds degrees in earth science, geospatial analysis, and English. He arrived in Michigan on a late October night in 2001, carrying images of Motown and Hemingway in his head and everything else he owned in the back of an '86 Ford Ranger. He is now married and lives in Lansing, where he enjoys biking and running the River Trail, working on his house, and editing Capital Gains, Metromode's sister publication in Lansing.

Brad's work focuses on urban redevelopment, natural resource protection, land use, and community development. He's on the board of directors of the Community Economic Development Association of Michigan (CEDAM), the leadership council of People and Land, and the Growth Management Leadership Alliance of Smart Growth America.

Brad Garmon - Most Recent Posts:

Post 5: Culture or Infrastructure?

So, here's a simple question my wife asked me: Who do you hope reads this? Who could make the changes you're suggesting?

The people I most hope read this are the people making decisions about what we are going to build next: transit systems, electrical grids, water and sewer systems, bike lanes, sidewalks, roads. It boils down to infrastructure.

But who is that, exactly?

Decisions made locally – lots of low-density, auto-dependent malls, housing developments, office and industrial parks – push regional transportation planners to add more highway lane miles and pave more rural roads to provide mobility.

In turn, the willingness of regional transportation planners to build those bigger, wider roads encourages locals to allow more low-density auto-dependent development.

Michigan is just wrapping up a road widening on a five mile stretch of M-59 highway in Oakland County – going from four lanes to six lanes – that cost around $50 million. That's about $10 million per mile.

Was it the best use of the money? For some people, maybe. For the region as a whole? No.

Which brings me back to the two most important pieces of the new Sustainable Communities regional planning grant: first, we need a shared, regional vision – fewer plans, and plans that have more buy-in from more people across all walks of life in Metro Detroit. Second, we need to give our infrastructure planners a shorter list of priority investments and projects that everyone believes in.

Two visions are worth taking a look at in that regard.

First, SEMCOG's Sustainable regional planning grant was preceded by SEMCOG's Framework for Sustainability in Southeast Michigan, adopted by the group's executive committee in May 2010. It gives some indication of issues that need to be addressed, including transit investments, infrastructure limitations and local planning coordination.

That document recognizes that we will only prosper if we have a common regional vision for future infrastructure decisions. It's not just about lane miles; it's about transit projects, including Woodward Light Rail, Detroit to Ann Arbor commuter rail, and a line from Washtenaw to Livingston County.

Second, the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC), where I work, has a first-draft vision of what we'd like Michigan to look like in 50 years. It includes proposals for our great cities, for policies to help build more sustainable communities, and strategies for transportation and protection of our Great Lakes assets.

MEC has also spent the last year hosting meetings all across the state to listen to people's vision for a future Michigan connected as it once was – by affordable, fast and convenient rail.

For me personally, this all starts with transportation.

We need a new regional plan that starts with a realistic look at transportation in all its facets – its relationship to residents and neighborhoods, what modes make sense going forward, and how to pay for the maintenance of all those lane-miles and bridges we spent the last 60 years building.

There is a fundamental shift that needs to take place. We need a new conception of transportation specifically and infrastructure generally.

Rather than being designed simply to move lots of cars or water or electrons, infrastructure needs to be re-envisioned as the basic building blocks of community – it underlies our basic health and our regional economy; it connects us to education and neighborhood life; it offers us access to each other and the wider world.

Part of SEMCOG's sustainable communities program, as it stands today, is directed at "culture change", an education and outreach program predicated on the notion that in order to create sustainable communities they first have to convince people that they should want them.

I have my doubts about the necessity of this.

There will always be people who want to live in rural areas, or on a lake in Oakland County. We won't have to change their minds and we shouldn't try.

What we can do in the coming decades is build communities connected internally by regional transit. Neighborhoods designed around those transit hubs, with residential density and jobs. Mixed use neighborhoods with grocery stores and parks and schools right around the corner, accessible by foot or bicycle.  

The shift to sustainable communities isn't something that has to take place in our heads. It needs to take place on the landscape.


Post 4: The New Sustainability

The environmental community I'm proud to be a part of has been focused, at least since Thoreau and John Muir and David Brower, on the notion that fostering individual, intimate connection to the natural world helps us secure a viable ecosystem.

What followed, naturally, was a movement both passionate and noble in its dedication to preserving awesome big places, subtle connections of microscopic creatures, and to human access to the richness and diversity of earth in all its crazy, pungent, unregulated amazingness.

That's incredibly important work. Some of my favorite people are the foresters and the ecologists and the hydrogeologists who work to understand and preserve the mechanisms underlying the world we depend on.

But environmentalism has changed dramatically in recent years, embracing another related scope of work with big implications for the natural world.

Rather than connecting us to nature, this side of environmentalism focuses on connecting us to each other and our communities.

The Sustainable Communities grant program I've been writing about this week brings this shift to the forefront in a big way, focusing on uniting three historically disconnected aspects of community development: transportation, housing and natural resource protection.

Just think for a minute about how those three features intertwine in your own neighborhood, town or region.

Is housing for the elderly close to destinations? Can kids ride their bikes around the neighborhood? How about to school? How would you access eggs or bread or fresh veggies without a car?

In truly thriving regions and communities, there are lots of options for all the above.

There are built-in connections and linkages that provide resiliency and offer multiple ways to get around and connect to the people and places that comprise a fruitful, productive life.

And that, in a nutshell, is the new sustainability. It's environmental sustainability redefined as place-making, as nurturing community interconnections, accessibility and relationships.

As a side benefit in these types of communities you also more often bump into people who surprise, challenge and inspire you – some people you know, many you don't, and many of whom don't think, look or behave like you. That kind of spontaneous interaction is good for the economy and builds resiliency in our communities.

My good friend, Conan Smith, lives in the Old West Side neighborhood within an easy walk of downtown Ann Arbor. He's survived for two years without a car, and he's also woven into the fabric of his community.

It's impossible to walk down the street with him if you're in a hurry, because he's bound to run into at least five people who want to chat – about work, about life, about the community.

His days, I would contend, are made richer and more productive and less fossil-fuel dependent simply because he lives in a place where – due to human-scale community design and higher residential density – spontaneous interaction is the norm rather than the exception.

The federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities defines sustainability by focusing on Six Livability Principles. They are the heart and soul of the program, and therefore central to the regional planning initiative the SEMCOG will be undertaking in Metro Detroit.
These sustainability principles are about more than environmental improvement. Places that embrace them are also more economically resilient.

Shelley Poticha, who directs the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities at HUD in Washington, D.C., put it like this in an interview with Builder Magazine earlier this year: "When you look at the regions that are really embracing walkability, investing in transit, and thinking about natural resources protection, these are the regions that are weathering the downturn best."

"Denver is a good example," she says. "Yes, they took a hit, but most of the housing foreclosures are out at the periphery in "drive to qualify" neighborhoods. The city center and suburban centers around the region that have focused on place-making are still doing well – places like LoDo, the Denver Tech Center, Boulder, Broomfield, and similar towns."

In other words, the places that work well in sustainability terms – less driving is required to handle daily tasks – are also places that facilitate business connections, promote economic interactions and stabilize property values.

There are places in Metro Detroit where all of this happens right now. But we need more of them. Lots more.

And the new regional Sustainable Communities grant can help us identify and prioritize these places and projects, and build the partnerships that make them happen.


Post 3: Empowering the Metro Network

Collaboration. Partnership. These are terms that generate lots of excitement but carry historically mixed results in Southeast Michigan. The region's talked that talk for years, and still hasn't learned how to walk.

The new $2.85 million Sustainable Communities Regional Planning grant headed to SEMCOG is an opportunity to change that. It offers the region a way to design a truly collaborative initiative from the ground up.

The return on that investment would be huge, and would lay the groundwork for better synergy and implementation of a wide range of future projects and vital initiatives.

Here are two suggestions for getting there.

Map the Network


The power of networks is fascinating. Not the small-talk-over-cocktails or the Facebook-friend-me kinds of networks, but the systematic, mathematical, mappable kind of network.

Social network analysis is an emerging set of tools that helps us connect better while also helping us visualize, understand and manage our position within and in relationship to the wider world in which we operate.

Working with a researcher who knows the science and mathematics of network (he once mapped illegal opium networks for the state department in Afghanistan), I've seen firsthand the potential benefits of this type of analysis. I've used it to expand and improve collaborative projects, reach out to like-minded partners and clarify shared values in large groups.

It's the kind of tangible, concrete tool that
if baked into the Sustainable Communities regional planning grant from its inception would make us more effective individually and more innovative collectively.

It could impact all levels of sustainability and community investment work in Metro Detroit, from helping us better understand the social fabric that helps hold key neighborhoods together to showing us how a big healthcare initiative could be meshed with a massive non-motorized transportation investment.

It could point us to the crucial, personal connections we need to improve partnerships, or help us locate and elevate people whose voices aren't being heard at all.

In other words, social network analysis is a tool for collaboration infrastructure that could help make sense of all the community-based resources, initiatives and opportunities that are converging in the region today, from Detroit Works to urban gardening, transit planning to affordable housing.

Big projects, like the Woodward Light Rail and regional commuter rail projects need to be connected to the recent Livable Cities grant program focused on MidTown; the Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office connects to the Neighborhood Stabilization program.

Social network analysis is the infrastructure to get us there. It's the collaboration tool of the 21st century.

The Sustainable Communities planning grant is an opportunity to bring it to Metro Detroit in a big way.

Network Government

Stephen Goldsmith, the former mayor of Indianapolis and director of the Innovations in Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, has done some writing on the subject of "networked" government, some of which I agree with and some I don't.

But one thing I think is clear: going forward, government entities like SEMCOG will probably have to be less focused on providing specific issue expertise and services directly, and become much more adept at facilitating public partnerships that deliver high-quality programs.

In his book, Governing by Network: The New Shape of the Public Sector,
Goldsmith quotes the facilitator of an innovative federal park program at the Golden Gate Recreation Area in California:

"Rather than see themselves as doers, we try to get our people [public employees] to see themselves as facilitators, conveners, and brokers of how to engage the community's talents to get our work accomplished," park superintendent Brian O'Neill told him. "My job is to figure out who our strategic partners should be and how to bring them together and inspire them to be part of it."

That kind of approach needs to become central to the Sustainable Communities consortium and its efforts in Metro Detroit.

Why? Because too many skilled people and specialized programs in Metro Detroit still operate at the region's periphery, even as new or possibly redundant projects are taken up by other actors.

SEMCOG
the region's federally designated transportation planning arm is the lead agency and fiduciary for the Sustainable Communities grant.

But the actual grant applicant, thanks to federal requirements, is "a multijurisdictional and multi-sector partnership consisting of a consortium of government entities and non-profit partners."

SEMCOG has done regional transportation planning, but has never been responsible for a regional housing strategy or built a plan for regional nodes of transit oriented development. But there are partners in the region ready and willing to help with exactly those tasks, and they have expertise and resources already devoted to such strategies.

A truly networked government model, guided by social network analysis, would be able to identify and elevate these programs.


Post 2: Transportation, housing, and environmental agencies join forces in a revolutionary trio

Yesterday, I introduced a new $2.85 million Sustainable Communities Regional Planning grant SEMCOG’s new $2.85 million Sustainable Communities Regional Planning grant –  one of only 45 in the country – headed into our region. I suggested that it offers Metro Detroit a rare chance to redefine itself around great places and important projects, and to engage more people and new partnerships in the conversation.

To explain how, I have to back up a bit and spend a minute on the project's funding source – a pretty radical new initiative at the federal level.

The Partnership for Sustainable Communities is an Obama administration initiative that's generating lots of excitement in the circles I run in – smart growth, affordable housing, community economic development, urban planning, green building, etc. – but hasn't necessarily found a mass audience yet.

Here's a quick rundown of a few characteristics that I think make this program – and therefore Metro Detroit's new regional planning grant – different than most anything that's come before.

Multi-Agency

This is the first time in recent memory – maybe ever – that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are all sitting in the same room making funding decisions together.

OK, maybe that doesn't sound too radical. But it is.

And just like the feds, Metro Detroit's big players in land use, housing, and environmental investment work in isolation. We have great agencies building affordable workforce housing; others are doling out tax credits to clean up a contaminated industrial parcel, and still others are figuring out where to put a new transit stop. But they're doing it separately.

The opportunity is to put these agencies at the same table, and give them a venue to lay their cards on a table at once to see what kind of hand the region is really playing with.  

The result would be better linkages between projects, and potentially huge synergies. Place becomes the nexus for investment.

A few other potentially game-changer funding programs also fall under the Partnership for Sustainable Communities banner, including Community Challenge grants – those landed in Flint and Traverse City – and TIGER II transportation planning and capital investments. Oakland County and Ann Arbor each secured one of those.

The combined sum of the grants for the three agencies is $409.5 million. And while that might sound like a lot, it's not a big amount of money for these agencies, and doesn't yet touch the bulk of their mainline funding programs like the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) or highway funds.

But I believe over time more substantial program resources, and even other agencies – perhaps agriculture and energy – will get pulled together in these types of interagency partnerships.

Competitive

The model laid out by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities program makes infrastructure and public investment dollars competitive rather than programmatic.

Why is that significant? We're entering an era where federal resources – all infrastructure resources, really – will be more limited. And the traditional earmark approach that built our current sprawling region is on the way out.

In most instances, we can't afford to maintain what we've already built, and building more of the same just doesn't make financial sense. No one feels that more than an agency trying to fix bridges or update aging sewer systems with an ever-shrinking budget.

The alternative, then, is that a smaller number of better coordinated, more strategic investments get funded. Those will be projects of regional significance, with local partners and leveraged funds, and that achieve multiple goals at once – creating jobs while reducing pollution and advancing social justice, for example.

Regional

The Regional Planning Grant program isn't the biggest pot of money under the larger Partnership for Sustainable Communities banner – just like Ann Arbor's TIGER II capital grant for its Bridges project was magnitudes larger than the SEMCOG's regional planning grant.

But in truth it's the flagship program. Why? It puts regional, metropolitan level planning at the forefront of pubic investment decisions.

That shift reflects an increasing focus on what the Brookings Institution calls Metropolitan America – the robust assemblage of big city, suburbs and small rural towns where most people live, and which generate most of the country's economic output.

As we've known in Metro Detroit, knitting together a collection of independent fiefdoms into a functional regional unit is the big challenge and bigger opportunity of the 21st century.

Two more revolutionary components of this program – sustainability and collaboration – will take a bit more explanation, so I'll save those for tomorrow.


Post 1: Sustainable Communities Aren't Born in Parking Lots

My first impressions of Detroit, back in 2001, were shocking by design. I drove north out of downtown, across the invisible wealth barrier to Grosse Pointe and on up to Metro Beach. The resulting, pit-of-the-stomach knot, I've since decided, comes from imbibing the region's potent cocktail of opportunity and injustice.

I've learned to channel that particular feeling (excitement? anxiety? anger?) into potent moments of tangible optimism, such as the recent day spent with members of the Detroit Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council –  and community members like the Ford Motor Company and the Sierra Club – envisioning a future downtown Dearborn connected by bike trails, parks, and commuter rail transit.

My most recent target is the $2.85 million regional planning grant to Metro Detroit that comes through the new federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities program.

Here's what this grant means to us if it's handled well: Southeast Michigan emerges in the next few decades with a world-class and prosperous core city, uniquely breathtaking neighborhoods, and a wide range of healthy, diverse communities in both city and suburbs.

How? By focusing the region on place-making; targeting a few vital infrastructure investments; and undertaking a radical strategy of deeply networked collaboration.

The transformation comes much more easily, without drama or trauma, than most of our region's leaders believed possible. Investors and researchers like the University of Michigan's Christopher Leinberger agree that there's a pent-up market demand for dense, walkable neighborhoods served by transit. It isn't like waging a battle; it's like opening the front door.

Why? Because government sets the table. Not by cutting taxes and regulation and services, but by cultivating a shared vision for our regionally significant assets and places; by making a few really strategic investments in vital infrastructure; and by aggressively partnering with private and non-profit agencies in the region to deliver the goods.

That's a tall order for a $2.85 million grant, but in this situation, the grant's aspiration is as important as its content. The money, granted to a regional consortium headed up by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) is part of an innovative federal initiative known as the Partnership for Sustainable Communities.  

That initiative, in turn, is based on the radical notion that public investments in transportation, housing and community development projects ought to be coordinated, and should feed into a clear, regional strategy that points us toward prosperity, equity and sustainability.

Trust me – it still sounds as radical in Washington, D.C. as it does in Metro Detroit.



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