Blog: Sean Mann

Issuing the call for city champions is Sean Mann, director of the "Let's Save Michigan" campaign to promote core communities in the Great Lakes state. This week he wades into the sexiness of density and the need for better collaboration between Ann Arbor and Detroit.

Post 2 - Simply Put: Place Matters and We Need to Create Better Places

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.