Blog: Richard Murphy

Richard "Murph" Murphy is a computer geek turned urban planner living and working in Ypsilanti.  He is also a seasoned blogger, having maintained his own site, Common Monkeyflower since 2001, and contributed to Arbor Update since 2004.  

Murph writes about the role of urban centers in a rapidly changing post-manufacturing economy. Join the conversation on our new interactive blog!

Post No. 5

If I were King of Michigan...

I get five posts here on Metromode, and this one's number five. While I'm certainly opinionated enough to provide you with more, I'm going to have give a lot of topics short shrift here. In my other posts, I think I covered my major themes:

  1. Cities are essential. Michigan's future depends on creativity and adaptation, and we're competing with the rest of the world for the people who will be leading the way. If our cities, and here I mean our older urban centers, are allowed to wither further, we will lose that competition. We must nurture our cities back to health in order to return Michigan to prosperity.
  2. Economic development does not require environmental degradation - quite the opposite, in fact. An economy that depends on environmental harm will eventually fall, while environmentally sound business is a field with countless opportunities that have not yet been explored. Are we going to explore those opportunities, or ignore them?

In considering where to go from here, I have to revisit my first post. Dale, my urbanist partner-in-crime, rightfully objected to my first post.  He points out that I am too strongly stating my parents' move to the country as a matter of simple preference. He is quite right.

Much of what we think is "what people want", or "the market at work", or otherwise the result of some sort of organic process is, in fact, the result of heavy regulation. To change the way things are, and address Michigan's troubles, we have to understand what we've done in the past to get ourselves here. This isn't just someplace we've ended up. A century of policy and regulation - federal, state, and local - has steered us to where we are. The status quo is the result of heavy "social engineering" in terms of land use regulation, transportation policy, mortgage lending practices, and tax policy decisions.

This is very good news. Trying to create change out of whole cloth, impose some new order onto things in their natural state, is difficult. But that's not a situation we're in - plenty of things are already in place, and we just have to sort through and figure out what to keep, what to change, and what to add.

Have I got suggestions? Sure do. Many of them are about place and built form:

1. Mass transit. And more mass transit. And still more. Every acquaintance of mine who moves to Michigan expresses shock at our death of local and regional transit - we are a backwater in their eyes. After living in central New Jersey for two years, I found the trains the thing I missed most after moving back here. Mass transit - local, commuter, and regional/intercity networks - are part of a healthy transportation system. They are part of quality of life.  hey are part of economic development. Cars alone are not sufficient: it's as if we're so proud of our capillaries that we give up our arteries - and die. Of the major metropolitan areas in the country, we are quite unique in our willful and continued neglect of this part of our transportation system, and we need to fix this. Let's start with increased Amtrak service, the Detroit-Ann Arbor commuter line, and improving the interface between DDOT and SMART. (Say, wasn't there talk of merging those last two a while back?)

2. Build pedestrian and bicycle friendly communities. One third of the American population cannot drive. They are too young, too old, physically unable, or destitute. Walking and biking are economical, healthy, environmental, and equitable forms of transportation, and communities where walking and biking are viable modes of transportation are pleasant places to live and work. We need to recognize that transportation funding is not about roads - it's about transportation. We need to ensure that our schools, parks, employment centers, and shopping districts can be reached without a vehicle. Part of this is about spreading our transportation dollars more evenly. The other part?

3. Allow more compact development.  Yes, I said "allow". Not "require". For the entire history of zoning and land use planning, the emphasis has been on spreading development out. Visit any community in Michigan and look at their zoning ordinance - you'll find regulations requiring minimum lot sizes, maximum units per acre, minimum setbacks and separations between buildings. We've made our street right-of-ways wider and wider over the years, requiring that our homes and businesses consume more land, more asphalt, more utility lines, more, more, more. Regulation of density was originally designed to address the sooty slums of Manhattan and Chicago during the industrial revolution - applying those same principles to modern-day Ann Arbor, Novi, or Canton makes no sense. 

Our regulations have required residents and businesses to spend more on infrastructure and transportation by pushing everything further apart, at the same time destroying the farmland and natural spaces that make Michigan such a beautiful place to live. Every community in the region needs to take a hard look at its zoning ordinance and ask, "Does this create the kind of community we want to be? Or does it simply perpetuate low-quality development from here to the horizon?"

4. Relatedly, we need to minimize competition for development and coordinate planning. We need to either merge local governments or institute regional tax-base sharing and stronger requirements for master planning review by neighbors. We are completely incapable of competing with other cities and other states when we are locked into competition with our neighbors two miles away. Michigan's local government structure made sense in the 1830s, when it was created, but our fragmentation and discord is dragging us down.

5. "Fix it first!" This is the best title for a policy I've heard in a long time, and I lament that we have not pursued it more diligently. Whether roads, water, sewer, or any other infrastructure, prioritizing the upkeep of existing systems over new extensions is just plain responsible. Infrastructure policy plays a major role in the creation and maintenance of places.  When we neglect our older infrastructure, we allow our region to literally decay from the inside out.

6. Support and revitalize our older core cities. Our older communities are built-out and shackled with legacy infrastructure and personnel costs. From Ann Arbor to Flint, Royal Oak to Hamtramck, all off our older cities are experiencing financial problems that stem from history and state-level policy. Regardless of how good or bad the decisions made at the local level, these older cities are to large extent at the mercy of larger forces. We as a state need to consider the role these communities play, and support them accordingly.

Please do not mistake these recommendations as the result of big city bias! Keep in mind that I grew up in farmland outside of Chelsea, one of those "friendly, small-town feel" communities that nearly every master plan in the region says that it wants to promote. I completely understand  the attraction of small towns, and I think they are a very important part of our region - but we're not building them these days. 

Walk around a small town and notice, well, first, that there are sidewalks. Notice next the houses - they're closer together than in newer development, they face the sidewalk, and they do not feature garage doors as their most prominent architectural feature. We say we want quiet, friendly small towns, but what our regulations and policies are creation is nothing of the sort - we are requiring an undifferentiated mass of subdivisions and strip commercial development, and that's what we're getting.

So we need to look at what we say we want, and we need to look at what we're getting. And we need to talk to our neighbors, and ask them what they want. Because, in the end, what they want is the same as what we want - good places to live and work and raise our families. (I realize entirely how sappy this all sounds, but, trust me, this is the way I think and talk.) And we need to figure out which of our policies and regulations are getting in the way of this, or working at cross-purposes, and we need to get rid of them.

Good places are the bedrock of successful economies - if we cannot build places that we want to be, we will not be able to create the economy that we want. But creating good places is not enough, so I'll add:

6. Encourage and support small businesses. Small businesses are where innovation and economic growth is focused. We can recruit the Googles of the world to come to our communities - but the Googles of the world, like the Pfizers, can just as easily leave. We are better served by ensuring a large number of small businesses and entrepreneurs, spreading our economic future broadly across many backs. Large, mature companies have their place (I'm just barely old enough to remember when Borders was nothing more than an Ann Arbor bookstore), but "business recruitment" is not the same thing as "economic development".

How do our policies encourage or discourage small businesses? Do we have tax incentives available for all sizes of business, or just the large ones? What kind of support do we provide for people who are just starting out?  Organizations like Ann Arbor SPARK, SBTDC, and the MSU Extension are critical to training and nurturing the next generation of businesses, and we need to ensure that these entities have the resources to support our future.

That should be enough to keep us busy for a while, right? Overhauling our land use, transportation, and economic development policies is not something that happens overnight - we've got nearly 200 years of momentum to think about, after all - but we cannot fix our problems simply by nibbling a little bit here or there from the state budget. We need to consider, at every level from the neighborhood to the state, what it is that makes our communities worth living and working in, and we need to figure out what we're doing that's preventing us from getting there.

Thanks for reading.