Posted By: Conan Smith
Betting on the Tracks
I have two small pieces of paper from my early childhood, given to
me by my grandfather when he was mayor of Ann Arbor. One is a note card
commemorating my first train ride, complete with a drawing of engine
and caboose. The other is my first driver’s license, authorizing my use
of tricycles, bicycles and all other vehicles within the city limits.
When I was a kid, we were just as likely to take the train as drive
to anywhere distant. My grandfather had prepared me for either
alternative, but as time moved on, it became evident that the tattered
driver’s license would be the more useful piece of memorabilia.
I’m not going to bore you with statistics this time. There’s
nothing numbers can tell you about our transportation system that a
45-minute rush hour commute won’t illuminate with more impact. Rather,
I want to share with you what I think we’re missing and what the first
steps to reclaim it are.
One hundred and seventy years ago, Michigan's first train took to
the rails. Even by frontier standards if must have been an unusual
trip. The rails were cut from oak trees. The car was pulled by a team
of horses. The route between what is now Toledo and the boom-town of
Adrian passed over (and often due to the weather, through) the thick
swamp that covered most of southeast Michigan. The forty mile trek
could take as long as two full days. Despite the hardship of the trip,
it was cause for great celebration. The coming of the rail meant
essential things for a community: new residents would move there, new
businesses would crop up, the town would be connected in an important
and constant way.
More than a century and half later, these things are still true.
Most people who live here, however, are rightfully skeptical that
that transit could ever be successful. In large part, we don’t know
where we’d get on and if it would take us where we need to go. In
truth, most jobs in the region are scattered an unreasonable walking
distance from any transit stop, existing or proposed.
For 50 years, as the individual freedom offered by the automobile
increasingly captured the American imagination (not to mention huge
quantities of the federal budget), we have ignored the sinister
consequences of a new kind of development: exploitative,
segregationist, and unsustainable. Harsh words. Understand, it’s not
the fault of the car. That’s a marvelous machine.
The machine at work here is political, a careless interaction of
short-sighted public policy and selfish social mores. It has torn apart
our region with grueling efficiency.
Restoring vibrancy to SE Michigan requires some keen attention to
what John Elkington called the “triple bottom line,” a commitment to
economic prosperity, environmental sustainability and social equity.
For too many years we have allowed our culture to fall out of balance,
relying on the strength of our auto industry economy to overshadow
increasing social inequities and declining environmental quality. Now
that our economic prospects aren’t so strong, these companion weakness
are being thrown into glaring light. Our regional renaissance must
recognize the unavoidable interplay between these three essential
Not coincidentally, there’s a regular drumbeat call for transit in
southeast Michigan. We are, after all, the only major metropolitan area
in the country without a comprehensive mass transit system. And transit
is a powerful development tool that serves the triple bottom line.
The economic benefits of transit are well-documented. Not only does
it elevate personal economy by reducing individual transportation
costs, but business located along transit lines appear to thrive
whether they are large or small.
According to the US EPA, most air pollution in our region comes from
automobiles. While technology is slow to advance, transit provides an
effective foil against toxic emissions.
Heaster Wheeler, Executive Director of the Detroit NAACP, has noted
that transit is an essential equity-builder in our region. And he notes
the need for white leadership on the issue. He and I agree that
skeptics should not be empowered to declare transit a problem of
“urban” (read black) or poor communities. But if transit is to work for
everyone, people must have places to come from and places to go.
One way to begin is by rethinking the shape of our neighborhoods. We
need to design places to live that are intentionally communal – that
foster interaction and interdependence. These places respect our
natural resources by using land efficiently and ensuring that water
pollution is effectively mitigated. They concentrate our economic power
into self-supporting cycles allowing more dollars to stay in our
region. And they help us defy the desire to separate, segregate, and
leave others to their own devices.
Enter “transit-oriented development.” This neighborhood design model
integrates mixed-use development and pedestrian-scale designs to
support transit and advance economic development.
There is no doubt that we need transit. We need transit-oriented
development even more. It is a strong and underutilized building block
for community revitalization and redevelopment. If our region is to
survive, to compete globally and nationally in the next 20 years, we
must draw residents and businesses back into the fabric of community.
To do that, we need neighborhoods that will support their values and
meet their goals. Transit-oriented development gives us options that
our region simply does not have right now.
It’s far past time that we should be prioritzing transit and
transit-oriented development. By giving these investments the time and
attention they deserve in our stumbling economy, one day our own
grandchildren will have the opportunity to trade their tattered
drivers’ licenses for that note about the train.
Posted By: Conan Smith
The Future, According to a Non-Prophet Organization
Today, I am officially middle aged. No longer one of the touted
21-34 year olds who are our inevitable future, I fall into the august
company of those who have writ the present. Overcome by my newfound
gentility, I feel compelled to expound to my younger brethren on their
role in building our region, and securing my comfortable retirement. At
35 I have seen a lot. Why, when I was born . . . no, enough of
that. Rather that retrospection, let’s look forward to tomorrow.
Here then, my friends, is what I urge: Defy the separatist legacy of
generations and build a future on the promise of clasped hands and open
Give us Metropolitan Solutions to Old Challenges
It would be foolhardy to carry on the notion that we can somehow
make a better world for ourselves by ignoring our neighbors. After all,
what good would the road be if it stopped at your city’s border? Water
flows downhill. Wind carries the smoke from your chimney through your
neighbor’s window. We are inextricably interrelated. Raise the call for
practices and policies that take problems out of the hands of the few
and recognize that solutions must be found on a metropolitan level.
Take, for example, the things that really bind us together: roads,
water lines, sewers the mundane but essential skeleton of our
region. Across all of Michigan’s metropolitan areas, infrastructure
maintenance is a major concern. Billions of dollars worth of road,
water and sewer upkeep have been deferred over the past thirty years,
in exchange for increasing investment in new construction. This system
is not sustainable over generations, and already we are starting to see
the consequences. We cannot continue to sacrifice what benefits us all
for what serves a select few.
Be bold and seek to understand what years of working independently have sacrificed.
Insist on Collaboration and Unity in the Face of Adversity
Michigan is one of the most governmentally fragmented states in the
nation and, while our fragmented system offers many benefits like
smaller, more accessible governments, it often results in local
interests superseding the welfare of the region. Cities everywhere are
facing shrinking revenue streams and struggling to provide municipal
services. By working together and sharing resources, local governments
can maintain and even improve essential public services like fire and
Cooperation is essential to building more cohesive regions and
making more efficient use of limited funds. Distributing revenue
regionally will encourage neighboring governments to work together to
enhance future revenue rather than to compete for tax base.
Consolidating services where appropriate will allow their more
economical and effective delivery. More importantly, the exploration
of these options – even if fruitless – reminds us that this nation was
made strong original on the premise “e pluribus unum.”
Be creative and find new ways to lean on each other to build community.
Transform our Insular Culture to One of Inclusion and Equity
We have found so many ways to hide ourselves from each other. I
contend that racism motivated the birth of many of Detroit’s suburbs –
not just black and white divisions, but the more subtle and equally
pervasive discrimination among competing white cultures. Our natural
human inclination to group with people who are like us and oppose those
who are different was amplified by public policies that allowed us to
concretely – and semi-permanently – define the borders of our
cities. Families that feared integration in Detroit public schools
gravitated to communities that could incorporate independently and form
their own school districts. Investments into “urban” communities
declined as suburbs grew. The fragmentation and segregation that this
system supported has caused our economy to collapse in on itself – not
because we have separate cities, but because we have evolved into
separate peoples. Our division must end.
We should strive for personal prosperity for everyone, by providing
housing, health care and education second to none. We should
economically stabilize our cities so every family has a strong
community to depend on. And we must proactively support those
strategies that reduce the racial and economic walls between our
communities that have been raised over the course of our nation’s
Be fearless, I urge you, and embrace everything that is different from what you know.
you are a visionary, academic, pragmatist or poet, yours is the voice
that will transform our region. Give us all your dreams. Give us your
insight and analysis. Give us your business plans. Give us your
song. We stand on the edge of disaster . . . or enlightenment . . . and
you can help us fly.
Thanks for reading.
Posted By: Conan Smith
Building, Money and Power
Let’s take a tour through a prototypical first-tier suburb.
About twenty thousand people live here. They’re among the most
socially active people in the state; they lead nonprofits, donate to
political candidates and volunteer for community events. They own and
work in the downtown businesses and they shop locally, intentionally.
Community is essential to them, and the neighborhood is more than just
a safe place to park the car at night.
Their city is an orderly reflection of the design dreams of its
founders. Two or three commercial corridors stand out as major
transportation arteries – wide roads of three to nine lanes. On one
side the community is bounded by a highway; the others blend somewhat
seamlessly into the neighboring city. Neighborhoods are defined by
streets too. Square blocks of residential streets, mostly obscured by
mature hardwoods, are hemmed in by wider two and three lane roads. Here
and there a clear space of parkland or school yard breaks up a
comfortably dense aggregation of houses. Main Street comprises an
eclectic collection of shops and restaurants, government buildings and
second story offices. Sidewalks are ubiquitous although generous
percentages of land are given up to parking.
All but hidden from view is the enormous stress that this community
is under. The people who live here are generally ready to tax
themselves to maintain a high quality of life and sustain the character
of their city, but the legacies of a shifting economy and investments
in urban sprawl infrastructure and policy engines are taking their
toll. The streets aren’t as smooth as they might be. Vacated industrial
buildings await transformation to modern uses. Subtle reductions in
services (city parks get mowed every other week now and there are a few
less firefighters on the job) are starting to show through the veneer
of a once-prized and fought over community.
This scenario is common throughout metro Detroit, from Warren to
Roseville, Hazel Park to Farmington Hills, Inkster to Taylor to
Dearborn Heights. These communities encompass the variety of southeast
Michigan. They are growing and shrinking, racially mixed and
monochromatic, well-to-do and economically struggling. The crisis they
face is unique and structural... just like the solutions we need to
adopt to overcome it.
Michigan’s cities are slowly dying, starving for resources to
deliver high quality services and maintain existing infrastructure. At
some level, it’s all about money. To understand the difficulty of the
fiscal challenge cities face, you have to understand the interaction
between two complex finance policies that are part of the state
Constitution: 1978’s Headlee Amendment and 1994’s Proposal A.
Headlee essentially limits the growth in local property taxes to the
rate of inflation. Two things are at play here: the tax rate (i.e.,
the percent of a property’s value that an owner must pay each year) and
the tax base (i.e., the value of the property itself). If market forces
increase the tax base higher than the rate of inflation, then Headlee
forces cities to reduce the tax rate appropriately. The example below
shows how an increase in the market value of property greater than the
rate of inflation forces the city to reduce its tax rate.
||Tax Rate (Mills)
||$ 10,000,000 |
||$ 10,300,000 |
|5% Market Increase
||$ 10,700,000 |
||$ 10,300,000 |
A provides a similar tax shelter for individual property owners. It
limits the increase in taxable value on each individual parcel to the
rate of inflation (or five percent, whichever is less). When property
is sold or transferred, its taxable value is adjusted to its current
value. The example below shows how the taxable value “pops-up” when a
property is sold. Notice that the new owners are paying taxes on more
than $5,000 of additional value that the previous owners avoided.
|Year 4 (Sale)
of these policies serves to balance growth and taxation, and each has
its benefits. Proposal A, for example, provides a buffer against the
effects of gentrification in cities by protecting existing homeowners
from being forced out of their neighborhoods by rampant tax increases
due to growth in market value. A significant problem arises, however,
from the interaction of these two policies.
Did you notice that the Proposal A “pop-up” resulted in an
increase of taxable value of 10 percent on the one property? If this
happens across many properties in one year – or if the pop-ups are even
higher (imagine a property that changed hands after 15 years) – it can
force an even more significant Headlee rollback. This is somewhat
artificial because the full effect of the pop-up is felt in one year,
rather than averaged out across the years that growth was held in check
by Proposal A.
The end result is that the Headlee rollback caused by Proposal A
pop-ups reduces the overall tax rate in a city so much that tax
collections grow slower than the rate of inflation. With health care
costs increasing at seven percent annually, retirement obligations
growing and public safety costs eating up around half of a city’s
budget, revenue growth this slow is a recipe for financial ruin. In
fact, some estimate that as many as 70 Michigan cities sit on the brink
of bankruptcy because of this policy problem.
Under Michigan’s current systems of municipal finance and urban
investment, there are only a handful of strategies local leaders can
use to combat this phenomenon. They can promote redevelopment, which
doesn’t count in the Headlee calculation. They can collaborate with
neighboring communities to provide services, which shares the cost
burden (sometimes) and can result in more effective delivery
(sometimes). And, they can beg for structural reforms from the State.
As wonderful as it is to see old buildings rejuvenated,
redevelopment cannot save any city from this fiscal predicament, no
matter how vibrant the market. Our hypothetical city above would have
to generate $40-$80 million in new development every year to keep up
with costs. In communities like Michigan’s inner-ring suburbs, which
are 90 to 100 percent built out, this is an unlikely proposition.
Since we can’t build our way out of this problem, it is up to the
Legislature to make the fix. The Michigan Municipal League articulated
the Headlee/Prop A dilemma nearly four years ago, but lawmakers have
continuously failed to acknowledge the ravaging impacts it has on our
cities. In fact, a proposal passed this month by the
Democrat-controlled Michigan House of Representatives would place a
moratorium on the pop-up, further depressing revenue and shunting urban
interests just as their Republican predecessors have done.
Michigan’s cities will not dig their way out of this hole without
structural reforms to the state’s local government finance system. It
will be tragic if one of them has to fall into bankruptcy to convince
our lawmakers of the seriousness of this issue.
Posted By: Conan Smith
Looking Back for a Way Forward
: Smart Growth and sustainable development; autonomy and interactivity "The 37 million acres that are Michigan is all the Michigan we will ever have..."
-Michigan Governor William Milliken
Twenty five years ago, Governor Bill Milliken sent
a stirring message to the Michigan Legislature, calling for a
government response to a pattern of land development that he envisioned
would cripple the state’s cities and devastate the farmland and open
space that so many residents treasured. His call to the Legislature
was rooted in a broad package of bills ranging from reforming the
process for land division to eliminating inconsistencies among
Michigan’s three zoning acts. Only one bill ever managed to pass both
houses of the Legislature – the Michigan Natural Resources Inventory –
and that program, which would have provided a comprehensive database of
land cover and land uses, was never fully funded. The consequences I
don’t have to explain to you.
Part of the Milliken package was an attentiveness to urban areas
that neither Democrat nor Republican has equaled since. In his
biography of the governor, Dave Dempsey recalls Milliken’s unorthodox
approach to southeast Michigan and the struggling central city of
Detroit: he cared. He cared enough to risk the displeasure of his
party contemporaries who even thirty years ago saw Detroit as a lost
cause. He cared so sincerely that it won him the enduring support of
Detroit’s iconoclastic new mayor, Coleman Young –
an alliance that probably secured his next two reelection bids.
Milliken knew then what obstinacy has taught us today through the
school of hard knocks: as goes Detroit, so goes Michigan.
Three decades later, that message must be extended beyond the core
city to include the inner-ring suburbs that are now facing the same
crisis of disinvestment and population decline that plagued Detroit in
the 1970’s. And it must be heeded, at long last.
We’ve built roads that we can’t afford to maintain. We’ve built
communities that don’t provide a third of life’s essentials (food, for
example), necessitating extensive travel for basic amenities. We’ve
abandoned as many neighborhoods as we’ve built over the last fifteen
years, leaving core cities like Flint and Detroit hollow shells with
infrastructure for two to three times the current population. We have
created a society that will inevitably collapse in on itself under the
weight of our own ignorance and arrogance.
Today a growing coalition of business, political and social leaders
are accepting the importance of sustainability as a guiding principle
in public policy and investment decisions. We are turning to the
strategies of more frugal generations and recognizing the ancillary
benefits they offer, like a more interrelated human community and
neighborhoods that ooze Norman Rockwell character.
At the heart of this movement is a set of urban development principles commonly known as Smart Growth.
Ten fundamental goals underlie the policy and development approaches to
sustaining cities in this model, and they hearken back to a time before
the 1970’s subdivision became the dominant community type. Mixed land
uses create room for the neighborhood grocery or Main Street-style
shops and restaurants surrounded by housing. A range of housing
opportunities provides small apartments and studios for young couples
and retirees as well as single-family detached homes with room for
children and gardens. Transportation is deliberately targeted to be
multimodal, allowing families to trade in a car for bikes or to take
advantage of mass transit that is both efficient and functional.
The provision of these neighborhood characteristics is backed up by
policy decisions that support long-term sustainable development and
recognize that investments made by government today – particularly when
it comes to development – have a very long reach. Effective Smart
Growth implementation balances the need for intense public
participation in the visioning and design processes with providing
clarity and consistency for developers. Investment decisions by
government target the reuse of existing infrastructure to maximize its
value and reduce the strain on maintenance budgets.
Smart Growth communities are attracting a new kind of consumer from
a generation that grew up without a strong sense of place. These are
the young, talented workers of the knowledge economy who are easing the
transition from manufacturing to service-based industries as the basis
of our financial system. For many of them, the communities of
southeast Michigan offer a perfect venue to exercise their creative
vision and innate American pioneer spirit. They are reviving
neighborhoods in Detroit, Highland Park, and Roseville. They are
taking the street designs of English and French planners from
three-hundred years ago and laying the fingerprint of a community that
communicates globally and shops locally on them.
They are sometimes hindered, however, by generations of local rules
and traditions stacked up on one another like a pile of fall leaves,
with little acknowledgement of the underlying intent of regulation.
The member cities of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance recognized
this and called for a program that would articulate the best practices
in the country for fostering redevelopment and provide technical
assistance to those who had the political will to change. The
resulting Redevelopment Ready Communities project is at work in twelve
of the region’s inner-ring suburbs, helping them transform a legacy of
abandoned industrial sites and outmoded post-WWII housing into
opportunities for enterprising new community builders.
All of this action, however, must not be local. There is a
compelling need for state and regional strategies to support the
renaissance of Michigan’s cities, which will place its highest demands
on state government and insist that lawmakers stop poking cities in the
eye, pledging undying affection while undermining the fiscal mechanisms
that create stability and security. The Michigan Environmental Council
has called for "Smart Investments" from state lawmakers to create the
regulatory environment in which Smart Growth works. Any urban agenda
has to start with money. It’s not necessarily new dollars or tax
increases, but it is decidedly about prioritizing our spending to
support the cities that have served as the foundation of our economy
for generations. Again, not so that they can continue business as
usual, but to aid in their evolution as places of choice for a new
Bringing vibrancy and economic prosperity back to Michigan and our
region is a complex endeavor, but land use decisions have to be a major
component. There was a time when government and the private sector
agreed that cities were the right place to invest their dollars and pin
their hopes. It was a formula that created the atmosphere for
innovation that pervaded the early 20th century. Over three
generations we have learned how to surmount the environmental and
social failings of that model, and it is time to restore primacy to
cities as the centers of Michigan’s economic recovery and the hope of a
thriving and sustainable future.
Posted By: Conan Smith
I Only Wanted Something Else To Do But Hang Around
first photo of me (not technically, but with poetic license) was shot
as my heavily pregnant mother and ruggedly bearded father ran the
rapids on Canada’s Black River. At age six I had my own backpack and
was proud to have hiked the Big Carp River trail in the Porcupine
Mountains. By the time I was 20, I’d worn a hole through a very pricey
pair of Vasque boots – the kind with lug soles made for strapping
crampons onto. At 26, I secured real employment with the Michigan
Environmental Council, cementing what most thought was a permanent gig
where my long hair and penchant for holey jeans wouldn’t disrupt a
fiery passion for community organizing and political change.
So, less than a decade later, here I am, hair shorn, neck wrapped in a tie, shilling for suburbia. What the hell happened?
In my nascent years in environmental advocacy, I started to hear a
mantra from conservationists, home builders, realtors,
environmentalists and urbanites. It was best encapsulated by Michigan
Farm Bureau president, Jack Laurie: "We can’t save our farms until we
save our cities." As I spent day after day fighting urban sprawl by
pushing for development regulations and urging funding for farmland
preservation programs, Michigan’s system of funding unsustainable
development contradicted what I heard everybody asking for. My
frustration built with every new highway lane to the hinterland and
each “economic development" dollar we spent moving jobs from one
struggling city to its low-tax neighboring township.
Until someone said, come run the Michigan Suburbs Alliance. Much to
the horror of friends and family (“You work for who?!”), I took the
The suburbs have gotten a bad rap over the past couple of
decades. Depicted as homogenous bastions of fast-food and white faces
where rich kids smoke pot and commit petty crimes out of boredom,
suburbia became synonymous with blandness and despair. Influential
social critics like James Howard Kunstler in his landmark book "The
Geography of Nowhere" laid heavy blame on modern development for the
demise of the American dream:
The tragic landscape of highway strips, parking lots, housing
tracts, mega-malls, junked cities, and ravaged countryside that makes
up the everyday environment where most Americans live and work [is]...a
land full of places that are not worth caring about [and] will soon be
a nation and a way of life that is not worth defending.
In truth, there are many faces on the suburban die. I’ll be the
first to admit that there are those communities where beige is the
pervasive color, sidewalks are anomalous, and green grass is the
product of chemical dependency rather than a sign of a healthy
environment. But there are a number of suburbs that share a deep
connection with traditional cities. Places where culture abounds,
people congregate, and front porches outnumber garages.
According to the Brooking Institute, a fifth of America’s population
lives in these "first suburbs." In southeast Michigan, they are cities
like Dearborn, Royal Oak, Ferndale and Hamtramck, renown for art
galleries, ethnic festivals, great restaurants and social
diversity. Nation-wide, inner-ring suburbs are more reflective of
America’s population than any other group of communities, mirroring the
country’s growth in racial diversity over the past three decades. They
offer better access to the American dream with higher than average
employment, college graduation rates, housing values and median
Simultaneously, there is a strong economic link between first-tier
suburbs and their core cities. In fact, CEO’s for Cities notes that
there is a multiplier effect between cities and their suburbs in which
dollars generated in one have ripple effects of 15-25 percent in the
other. We know from practical experience that when a core city
declines, its suburbs follow. Sadly, in Michigan our response to core
city degradation has been to create protectionist policies that
insulate neighbors from the inevitable impact of decline rather than
embracing metropolitan programs that recognize our essential
These are the hard questions that are facing our region today. Call
it an urban agenda, a blueprint for economic revival, or a plan for
21st century sustainability, all of the region’s leaders are beginning
to understand that systemic change is an absolute necessity if we are
going to thrive in the new economy that is being thrust on us. Other
MetroMode bloggers have articulated the dynamic opportunity before us:
Jacob Corvidae’s call for an energy revolution,
Lizabeth Ardisana’s plea for pragmatic action,
Kerry and Bryce Moore’s transformational plan for sustainable manufacturing,
John Austin reminding us that we’re just one of many loops on the rust belt . .
This week, I’ll try to add the small-city component to their
thoughts in what is obviously becoming a consensus call for change.
No city or suburb can offer everything to all of its residents,
especially in this rapidly globalizing world, so it behooves us to
better understand how we can work together to strengthen the vitality
of true urban communities in Michigan.