Strategies to design and invest in Michigan's smalltowns

In the first year there were four. Last year there were eight.

And if that exponential growth is any indication, the number of Michigan cities and towns participating in a program to revitalize their communities through citizen involvement may double again as projects take hold and visions become realities.

Now in its second year, PlacePlans is assisting communities across the state in creating unique, vibrant and livable downtown areas through a strategic planning process.
 
It's a joint effort between Michigan State University and the Michigan Municipal League, funded by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority through the MIPlace initiative. The goal, say coordinators, is to encourage economic activity that keeps Michigan competitive by transforming communities into places that attract and retain young people, talent and employers.

"The big picture here is to create places where people want to be," says Warren Rauhe, from the MSU School of Planning, Design and Construction. "The program provides a wonderful opportunity to build up great places where people want to live, work and play—and participate in economic development."
 
Starting small
 
Although a relative newcomer, PlacePlans has roots in a decade-old program at MSU that has involved smaller communities. That program, called the Small Towns Design Initiative (STDI), aims to improve the quality of life in Michigan's small towns through projects related to physical environmental design.

Examples of previous work by STDI, says Rauhe, include streetscapes, parks, bikeways and trails, agricultural land preservation and residential development. Communities qualifying for STDI services have ranged in population from 500 to 15,000, and included townships, charter townships, municipalities and not-for-profit or local citizen groups.

"The rationale was that small communities around Michigan weren't getting a great deal of assistance," says Rauhe, who is the director of the program that started in the early 2000s and continues to broaden in scope. "When you put it all together to date, we've approached about 100 communities all over the state. There's not a single location in the lower or upper peninsula that we haven't worked in."

That popularity, Rauhe says, led to a modification of the program's scope in the past couple years. Today, the initiative includes collaborations with larger towns and cities, and has provided much of the basis for the programs, resources and approaches deployed through PlacePlans.

"We're across the spectrum now," says Rauhe of STDI. "It's a much broader initiative that started with small towns and led to the PlacePlans program."
 
Setting the stage
 
With a foothold in practices tested through STDI, PlacePlans provided design and technical assistance to four communities in 2013, and continues to service eight in 2014.

"I look at the whole process like you're putting on a play," says Rauhe of the steps involved in the placemaking program. "You need to have something that's happening, you need an audience, and you need to have a stage."

The first step, Rauhe says, involves the "audition"—or selecting the towns or cities. Once selected, the PlacePlans coordinators set about organizing community members into teams and work groups, and in collecting data about the existing locations.

MSU faculty, staff and students from MSU and the MML then lead a series of public meetings. Key influencers are interviewed concurrently, including property owners, major employers and representatives from large institutions within the community. A number of state agencies are also invited to be involved, including the Michigan Department of Transportation and the Department of Natural Resources.

Rauhe says that attendance at the public meetings can range from a few dozen to several hundred. Each meeting has a specific purpose. The first focuses on visioning. The second zeroes in on interaction and design development. And the third involves presenting design concepts and making recommendations for funding sources, ordinance changes, and public-private partnerships to pursue.

"We get people talking to one another," says Rauhe. "It's a major consensus building process. At the end of the day, it's not just about useless reports and images. It's about coming to an understanding of what they're trying to accomplish."
 
Putting plans in place
 
Allegan, Alpena, Sault Ste. Marie and Dearborn were among Place Plans' four pilot communities to develop strategic plans for their downtown areas. Projects ranged from redevelopment of a historic riverfront in Allegan to creation of a public plaza in Alpena. In Dearborn, citizens have set out to redevelop a transit hub, while Sault Ste. Marie is looking to connect an underused downtown district with tourist areas.

"Placemaking is a process," says Luke Forrest, program manager with the MML. "It's a different way for local government to think. Generally, there aren't job functions for 'place managers' or a job description for maintaining the quality of place in a community."

In 2014, eight communities were selected from a pool of 35 applicants. All were focused on revitalization based on a community's strengths within core "quality of life" areas.

"We had a ton of great projects," says Forrest. "It was really tough to pick."

Of this year's PlacePlans communities, MSU is charged with facilitating strategic thinking in Jackson, Flint, Cadillac and Marquette, while the MML is charged with overseeing efforts in Detroit, Holland, Kalamazoo and Midland.

Current PlacePlans projects include creating pedestrian corridors, connecting neighborhoods to downtowns, encouraging business investment through improved physical design, cleaning up and repurposing blighted areas, and creating unified developments that provide structure for future investments.

Driving it all, Forrest says, are involved citizens and local organizations deciding what they want their city or town to be.

"Despite everything that's happened in Michigan, we have communities with great bones," says Forrest. "You might see that nice core downtown, a little intersection, a central park area, access to water or multi-story buildings with mixed-used potential. A lot of the infrastructure is already there, and the assets are in place. It's just about focusing in and making places a little livelier." 

While not a PlacePlans venture, Forrest observes that current activities like the Capitol Corridor project in mid-Michigan provide solid examples of placemaking that connect downtowns with neighborhoods. The project's use of public charrettes to involve citizens in planning the revitalization of a 19-mile "main street" from the Capitol to Webberville is similar in nature to the PlacePlans process, he says.

"The key for us is to get the ball rolling on a community vision for what can be done," says Forrest. "Our goal is to create a lot of activity that leads to more projects and more investment in those areas."

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Ann Kammerer is the development news editor for Capital Gains.
 
Photos © Dave Trumpie
 
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
 
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