Richard "Murph" Murphy and his wife, Cara Talaska, live just off Cross St. in Ypsilanti, in a real neighborhood where they not only know their neighbors, they get together for dinners on a regular basis. They don't have a garage, so they share a lawnmower with a neighbor who does. Their 100-year-old (give or take five years) home is within walking distance of downtown, Depot Town, Eastern Michigan University and their community garden plot at Frog Island Park.
For an urban planner like Murphy, it's a little slice of paradise.
"A big part of the reason we're here is it's one of the places that's close to being my/our ideal city," said Murphy. "Everyone in Ypsi is very enthusiastic about their neighborhood or their park, or something."
Logically, Murphy would fit right in. Participation and community engagement have been a way of life for the 28-year-old Ypsilanti planning manager – whether sharing his take on development as a core contributor to Arbor Update or helping developers find a niche in the heart of Ypsilanti.
A University of Michigan computer science graduate, Murphy landed an internship at Rutgers Center for Urban Policy Research while his wife was in grad school there. While he was gone, Ann Arbor began wrestling with its greenbelt plan and Murphy started weighing in frequently via Arbor Update on things like density and greenspace preservation. When they moved back to town in 2004 Murphy was spending 2-3 hours a day researching and writing for the volunteer-run Arbor Update while he worked on a masters in urban planning at U-M. He credits one post with landing him an internship with the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority.
"It was weird to be at meetings when they realized that these things called "blogs" were going on, and maybe they should pay attention to them," he said.
Meanwhile, Murphy finished his masters and took a "permanent" job with the City of Ypsilanti's planning department in 2006. He came in with the understanding that his position would be cut in 18-24 months, but within his first year three full-time employees left, and Murphy was hired to fill one of those positions.
Now he staffs the planning commission, walks developers through their projects, checks out the permit if someone wants to put up a fence in their backyard, and takes pride in knowing where to turn to get things done.
"Because I live here and am a planner, my learning curve for who does what is probably a lot faster," he says.
As much as Murphy and Talaska enjoy Ypsilanti, the places they choose to go when they leave say a lot about what's important to them, too. They road trip often to visit friends, and Murphy gravitates to real places that have some texture and story to them - industrial and port cities like Philadelphia and Seattle, stunning natural areas like Glacier National Park in Montana or Canyonlands in Utah. Places where he can get outside, walk around and see things.
"That's been my family vacation since I was 18 months old," said Murphy, who grew up in Chelsea. "I don't have a particular first memory of hiking or mountain climbing, it was just always there. It's probably part of my interest in being somewhere I can walk to places."
Murphy still contributes to Arbor Update now and then, and he also keeps a personal blog, Common Monkeyflower. (The name comes from a national park brochure picked up on a three-week, 7,500-mile road trip.) But blogging is a much smaller part of his life now.
"It was an itch that needed scratching," Murphy said. "In the past it was a means of being engaged and facilitating engagement. Now I have a somewhat more direct means for doing that."
Planning not only satisfies his urge to be productive and contribute, it appeals to his computer science background. Zoning ordinances are a lot like computer programs – complex rule sets often given inputs that weren't thought of when the rules were created.
Projects like the much-maligned Water Street redevelopment keep his work life interesting. Two different developers in the last 10 years have backed out of plans to redevelop the 38-acre chunk along Michigan Avenue and the Huron River. Murphy understands the disappointment, but he says the city's gotten more proactive about developing the property.
"We're looking at our goals and guidelines and saying, ‘Let's put it out there and see who wants to do what.'" Murphy said."
Ultimately he's less concerned about the specific uses for the site than he is about building something dense, compact, accessible and walkable. Something that fits the community – and lasts.
The buildings in downtown Ypsilanti, he points out, have been there for decades and keep being adapted to new uses. On the other end of the spectrum you have Washtenaw Avenue between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, where closed-up former restaurants sit vacant, ill suited to be anything else.
"I'm more interested in what it's form is than what its function is. We want something that will continue to work well 20-50 years into the future."
Amy Whitesall is a Chelsea-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit News and Seattle Times. She is a regular contributor to metromode and Concentrate. Her previous Concentrate article was Chicks With Sticks.
Murph at the Water Street Development-Ypsilanti
Murph at Home-Ypsilanti
Murph Doing His Best Nighthawk Impression During the Day-Ugly Mug Ypsilanti
Murph Trying On Some Sweet Kicks at Puffer Reds-Ypsilanti
That's Right It's Murph Again Accompanied by Some Mead at The Corner Brewery-Ypsilanti
All Photos by Dave Lewinski
Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer. He loves the Yps.
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