Sean Mann is one of Michigan's biggest advocates for cities and urban areas. He currently leads the "Let's Save Michigan" campaign, a statewide grassroots effort to promote the importance of core communities and 'quality of place' to the future of the Great Lakes state.
Prior to heading up "Let's Save Michigan"
, Sean worked as a policy analyst on transportation and local government issues at the Michigan House of Representatives, where he played a key role in developing the framework for a light rail system in Metro Detroit. Before returning to Detroit, Sean lived in England for several years where he got his masters in International Relations and worked at the House of Commons as a researcher for the Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.
Sean is a drafter of the Detroit Declaration
and is the founder and commissioner of the Detroit City Futbol League
. He currently resides in Detroit's historic Hubbard Farms neighborhood, where he splits his time between giving 'world famous' tours of his beloved city and renovating the once-abandoned 1900s funeral parlor that he now calls home.
An old friend of mine informed me the other day that he's ready to abandon his plans to move to some unnamed exurb and finally move down to Detroit. I asked him if it was my years of nagging and convincing arguments about the benefits of living in the city that finally persuaded him.
No. It was apparently the Arcade Fire's latest release, 'The Suburbs' that got him to do some soul searching, which led him to the conclusion that his personal and professional life would be best nurtured in an urban area.
For all the arguments we make about the importance of living in cities and the reasons we give people to live in them, the rationale people end up utilizing to make their decision varies far more than we could ever anticipate.
This point was driven home recently in the very same publication by a young woman who loved this region but for certain logical and personal reasons decided to move to California.
In making the case for cities we will never reach a larger audience or the masses if our message is just doom and gloom, reprimands and dictates.
We have to be positive, broad in our scope and think outside the box on how we get people to advocate and think about the importance of certain policies. Just a few of my favorite arguments and train of thoughts:
Parks are Not Only Important but Something You Can Create: In a couple weeks, Let's Save Michigan is organizing a series of PARK(ing) Day events across the state. For a couple hours on a Friday afternoon, individuals across the state are going to convert metered parking spots into temporary micro-parks. In the process of mingling and relaxing with friends they are going to get an opportunity to use their creativity to demonstrate the importance of public spaces to our core communities.
Cities Are Just More Fun: Just read post 3 above.
Shopping Local Doesn't Have to Equate to Autarky: When we urge people to shop local, it is often misconstrued that you have to spend every dollar at locally owned businesses. In a very real way that's not practical and too intimidating and alienating to most of the public. A more practical plea is urging people to shift just a portion of their expenses from the national chains to Main Street. A recent Grand Rapids study found that if residents were to redirect just 10 percent of their total spending from chains to locally owned businesses, the result would be $140 million in new economic activity for the region, including 1,600 new jobs and $53 million in additional payroll.
Living in a functioning city isn't always more expensive: It's been my own experience and that of many of my friends who have lived in more transit friendly communities that while rent may be far more expensive in other locales, the cost of car payments and insurance and gas for commuting in Michigan can easily negate any saving you appreciate from our cheap rent.
Literally; Density is Sexy: (This is my favorite tongue-in-cheek argument) Nate Berg, an editor of planetizen.com, and I were once talking about the apparent prevalence of attractive people in dense urban areas. He pegged it as the CBQ or city beauty quotient. While neither of us have found funding for our PhD research on this yet, it's a fairly straight forward notion. You tend to see a lot more attractive people in dense communities. If you aren't, then you aren't looking or are standing next to your significant other.
Dense communities by their very definition are more walkable and have more transit options. Recent studies show people in more transit friendly areas are less likely to be overweight. Other studies have shown that people tend to be attracted to slimmer or, at the very least, or what we generally perceive as healthier looking people. Maybe there aren't more attractive people per capita in Brooklyn than, say, Livingston County. Maybe it is as simple as when you are walking around a denser city you are exposed to more people than you are when confined to a car, living in a parking lot to traffic jam to parking lot lifestyle. Either way you cut it, its going to be more fulfilling to pass an afternoon people watching on a bench in a dense urban area than outside a Dress Barn in some strip mall off US-23.
The problems facing Michigan are massive, and while there are signs of some form of economic recovery, unless we make some serious changes to how we do business in Michigan and what we value, our recovery will only be a brief interlude in systemic decline. Now is the time to reshape Michigan's present and future. It is a large task but an exciting one that hopefully we can get more Michiganders to embrace.
Maybe you won't start a parade in your city or a soccer league. That's fine. I'm fully aware that that's not everyone. But at the very least you could be a good advocate for your city.
Earlier this year I found myself reading USA Today, because that's one of the luxuries having a third grade education affords you, and came across a fairly mundane article about these tough economic times. The articles focused on small cities in North Carolina struggling to weather the current economic storm. It's an innocent enough until, for no apparent reason, the author decides to throw in:
“Main Street Mount Airy (N.C) itself looks nothing like the boarded-up downtowns in much of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.”
You gotta be kidding me. Is that sentence really necessary to tell this story about the demise of the textile industry in the south?
Without a doubt, the Great Lakes region has taken the brunt of the recent downturn in the American economy, with Michigan certainly suffering more than most, and it is easy to use Michigan and particular, Detroit, as the media's posterchild or exhibit A for whatever ails our republic and way of life. But are our main streets and downtowns really as bad as everyone makes them out to be?
The USA Today comment, and other similar media portrayals, are broad strokes of negativity that ignore the recent accomplishments of our cities. You know fully well that Washtenaw County has a promising downtown in Ann Arbor and a downtown with limitless possibilities and potential in Ypsilanti. But they are anything but lonely positive outliers. Across the state, Marquette, a city that the folks who consider this fly-over territory would write off for dead, was voted the most Distinctive Destination in 2010 for a contest by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Similar distinctions have been awarded in recent years to Holland, Marshall, Petoskey, and Saugatuck. Traverse City, Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids have made significant strides in reviving their downtowns—making them more walkable, denser, and, overall, more appealing. We are even seeing new signs of life in Flint and Detroit.
But this isn't the Michigan that is covered by the national media. Who do we have to blame for that? Sure, a part of it is because it's real and a portion of it is laziness on the part of media, but we also can't escape blame ourselves. As much as we may bitch about how the national media portrays us, in the end, their language isn't far off from what we say about ourselves.
We need to stop being our own worst critics and start taking actions that make the rest of the nation appreciate the state we love. All too often we are the ones who beat up on ourselves and are the ones that are first to point out our shortcomings and reinforce negative stereotypes.
As a young person that cares about the future of this state and its communities, it's frustrating to see friends flee the Michigan looking for things that they can often find here, if only their minds weren't already warped by popular misconceptions and stereotypes.
But what is ultimately most disheartening is to see people in Michigan tear down other parts of this state and feed the negativism. Yes, times are tough right now in Michigan, but they aren't nearly as bad as the talk radio and the comments sections of the local newspaper websites would lead you to believe.
I spend a good portion of each week in Washtenaw County, where it's not uncommon to hear people make disparaging remarks about our state's largest city. And while I think attitudes have improved, there are still misconceptions, stereotypes and general sentiment that Washtenaw County can thrive without a viable Detroit. FALSE. I won't rehash Lou Glazer's arguments, but Ann Arbor, because of its size and resistance to density and recent development trends, is simply not capable of being Michigan's economic hub.
Michigan can't thrive without a viable Detroit. So instead of knocking the Motor City, go and explore it, understand it and appreciate it. And don't just go to a Tigers game and a bar afterwards. Get away from downtown and visit the neighborhoods and institutions that make it America's most distinctive city. And if you need help finding your way, let me know. There is nothing I enjoy more than giving tours of my city. And with any luck, hopefully you'll become an advocate for Detroit. Lord knows it needs more.
At the end of the day, no one will tell our story better than us. So what story are we going to tell? We can either speak amongst ourselves and to others of the positive things that are going on in Michigan and take action, address our shortcomings, and then build on our assets to bring about a revival of Michigan. Or we can continue the negativity and feed into and reinforce the media stereotypes that hold us back.
Having worked in the legislature for years, I would hate to think that the state's future is solely in the hands of our elected officials. To create the types of cities people want to live, work, and play in, to bring about change in Michigan, people have to care as well.
But the solution to keeping our college graduates here, or attracting others, isn't just about talking positively about the state or what we need moving forward.
The Let's Save Michigan campaign urges Michiganders to accept responsibility that their personal actions have shaped the current state of Michigan, but more importantly, will shape its future.
First off, we'll never have distinctive and engaging communities if we fail to support the businesses and institutions that make them that way. Through our campaign we push individuals to shop on their Main Street and support local businesses and to stop accepting Meijer's faux Main Street façade as an acceptable alternative.
Furthermore, it's essential for us to be engaged in public policy debates during this period of transition. We must take the time to vote, to patronize cultural institutions, to support public festivals, and to even consider living in a city.
But in arguing for personal actions and Michigan's future, the Let's Save Michigan campaign can't help but highlight the state's greatest asset. Amidst all of the recent turbulence and transudation, Michigan's cities have emerged as unparalleled playgrounds for the creative that want to leave a mark on a community and maybe even the world.
A few personal examples that jump to mind when I think of our burgeoning culture of opportunity:
Last spring in Detroit I witnessed the revival of the Marche Du Nain Rouge. A champion of Detroit pulled together a group of friends and organized a revival of a 1700s parade where people were asked to dress up as alter egos and help banish a personified version of an evil dwarf, which according to ancient lore has been taunting the city since its inception.
What started out as an off-the-wall attempt among friends to revive a long forgotten tradition turned into a brilliant event that brought out some 300 costumed people on a beautiful afternoon to march through Detroit's Cass Corridor . . . . which is certainly not one of the city's more vibrant stretches. The revelers were merrily led by the rogue Detroit Party Marching Band to Cass Park in front of the Masonic Hall, where speeches were made and the Nain Rouge was eventually burned in effigy in a steel drum, ringing in spring and hopefully bringing good fortune to Detroit for the coming year.
I myself started the Detroit City Futbal League, an adult co-ed recreation soccer league in Detroit, even though I hadn't played 'organized' soccer since I was 10. What made the league unique and resulted in some 400 participants was each of the teams was based around the historic neighborhoods that make up Detroit. In the process, the league fostered stronger ties within communities and across the city while promoting the notion that Detroit is more than a burnt out hulk of decay but is comprised of a series of distinctive communities. Most importantly, six people told me they were moving in to the city based on their experience in the league!
It seems like foundations and government programs are always striving to create hip destinations for artists and creatives, throwing around grants for thousands, if not millions of dollars. My very own neighborhood was able to do this through a yard sale and a handful of flyers. When the annual event was coming around last month some neighbors got talking and realized that nearly all of the participants were in bands. By renaming the yard sale, "The Rock 'n' Roll Yard Sale" and listing all the bands living in the neighborhood we were instantly able to brand the neighborhood as residential destination for musicians. And we used the event to expose bargain hunters to available apartments and houses in the neighborhood. While anecdotal, each of my neighbors and myself can report an uptick in people asking about available housing in our 'up and coming' musicians neighborhood.
For those who weren't there, I'm sure these projects sound silly, mundane, or insignificant, but they proved a couple of things. Firstly, quality of place isn't always about "brick and mortar" establishments. The desirability of city goes beyond the coffee shops, restaurants, and public spaces. While those are important, it is also about the community and the people that make up the city, and the events that bring them together.
Michigan's cities are for creators and those who enjoy watching creators in action. Our cities are places where young people can become entrepreneurs and impact the social dynamics of a city. If you are a young, ambitious individual in Detroit, Flint, or Ypsilanti (where I see a tremendous amount of potential for creative entrepreneurs) there is an opportunity for you to step in and take an active role in shaping the future of that community.
While it would be easy to say that the state's dismal job market is a cause for the kids fleeing Michigan, surveys and the last census have shown that two-thirds of young people, who are key to developing and diversifying the state's economy, are choosing where they want to live and then they look for a job. Furthermore, surveys by our universities have shown that a good number of the graduates who are leaving the state have a job offer in Michigan but decide to leave anyway, or don't even bother to look for a job here in the first place.
There is no single panacea for what ails Michigan, but it is detrimental to our future not to recognize that place matters. Individuals are placing a greater premium on their surrounding environment and the lifestyle that it supports. And while we have a lot to take pride in here in Michigan, in many ways we fail to create the types of communities that are going to attract a talented work force and help us move forward.
Why is it important to develop viable urban areas? Well a recent report in the Harvard Business Review put it best: To put it simply, the suburbs have lost their sheen: Both young workers and retiring Boomers are actively seeking to live in densely packed, mixed-use communities that don’t require cars—that is, cities or revitalized outskirts in which residences, shops, schools, parks, and other amenities exist close together.
BUT YOU ALREADY KNOW THIS. You wouldn't be reading this publication if you didn't already have an appreciation for communities that aren't indistinguishable, chock-full of box stores, and unsightly and pedestrian unfriendly 7-lane roads with overheard electrical lines and lined with Long John Silvers and PT O'Shenanigans.
So what are we going to do to create the types of communities where we want to live, work, and play?
Well, the Let's Save Michigan campaign was created to answer that question by advocating for a new focus on our city centers and main streets and to push for policies and personal actions that will make them more livable and desirable.
First off, I'm not going to go on some expletive-riddled tirade on curb cuts and box stores, but our physical environment matters (as much fun as that may be) but so much of what we need to do is a matter of design and being more strategic about what we are already doing. Let's Save Michigan proudly advocated for Complete Streets legislation, the promotion of streets that are designed for all its users, which was recently signed into law. Still, we must do more to create less car-dependent cities, including promoting transit. Not only is there a moral argument that people should have an ability to live a less car dependent lifestyle, but there is a clear cut economic argument that these assets improve property values, create more desirable human environments, and leads to better use of existing infrastructure.
We have to be smarter about utilizing our limited resources. While our state is facing chronic budget shortfalls we currently give away more in tax breaks than we collect. Yet we fail to assess the effectiveness of these tax credits or ask critical questions of their implementation. Why isn't new development encouraged near existing infrastructure to keep down long-term public costs? Why are we as a state subsidizing the creation of faux Main Streets in cornfields when our existing Main Streets are struggling to stay afloat? Why does the state subsidize low-income housing but not ensure this housing is within proximity of transit lines so people can get from one point to another? The same could be said for hospitals.
As a state we need to determine what our funding priorities are and ask ourselves if simply cutting budgets will return us to prosperity. How will we have vibrant cities when we are now 49th in the nation in arts funding, at just 10 cents per person a year? Why will people choose to live in Michigan when our financially strapped cities are drastically cutting the basic services of our society for the past 150 years like, police, libraries and parks?
Ultimately we must demand of our leaders to ask, just because this is how we've done things in the past, does that mean it's the best allocation of resources or going to create the types of communities that are going to revive Michigan.
That oft-rehashed Faulkner quote crosses my mind a lot as I pass through Michigan's cities.
Our cities have become the sad international poster child for the failed American dream. And I'm not only talking about the decay of Detroit but also the abandoned factories that dot the entire state, the shuttered strip malls, and expansive sprawl that rapidly shows its age and shortcomings.
These everyday gaping wounds are in part the harsh realities of international economics, but also an undeniable reminder of our history of hubris and poor foresight.
Writing about the decline of Michigan is nothing new and I certainly don't have to rehash all the economic gloom and its underlying statistics that surrounded this region and state for the past decade. However, there is one statistic in particular that weighs on my mind daily: nearly half of Michigan's college graduates are leaving the state within a year of graduation, and just as alarming, we are perennially near the bottom in inward migration from other states.
This is a much talked about topic across the state from blogs on this site to the chambers of the capitol to the barbeques of baby boomers discussing their children's new lives in Chicago, Portland, or New York.
If we think about the omnipresence of our history, it is worth remembering that young people leaving Michigan is nothing new. It has gone on for generations. I myself got out of Michigan as quickly as possible after graduation. But unlike nearly all of my college classmates, I actually decided to come back.
We live in an age where talent is more important than ever before and we can't afford to become less educated and less entrepreneurial in an increasingly competitive global economy.
A few years ago we got a lesson about the importance of having talented people in Michigan that I'm afraid we've already forgotten. In 2007, Comerica Bank, formerly the Detroit bank, moved its headquarters to Dallas. Justifying the move, the CEO of Comerica said nothing of tax rates, but stressed a need to "continue attracting and retaining talented employees" to stay globally competitive.
I don't judge anyone for leaving. Instead I see it as a clarion call for us to get our act together. For close to a year now I've been heading up the Let's Save Michigan campaign, which was born out of the necessity to address the decline in Michigan's human capital -- not just lament about our situation, but advocate policies and actions that will help turn Michigan back into the type of place young and talented people want to live in.
There is no silver bullet to solving what ails Michigan and anyone that suggests so is a snake oil salesman (or a politician). The solutions are more elusive and complex, ranging from a series of legislative initiatives that vary between the ambitious (totally revamping taxation and economic development policies) to the mundane (making transit more rider friendly) to the personal decisions we can make on a daily basis (shopping on our main streets).
In a crass sense, history can be boiled down to a series of notable moments and places that defined an era where there was a perfect convergence of necessity, individuals, and scale. I think more than anywhere else at this moment, Michigan in its efforts to redefine itself has the potential to define this era. The opportunities that this historic moment presents literally keeps me awake at night.
Through the Let's Save Michigan campaign we try to convey that sense of opportunity that Michigan has to offer because we aren't just surrounded by the gaping wounds of our past but the everyday possibilities of what we can create here in Michigan.