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 local news site Arbor Update since 2004.  

Murph writes about the role of urban centers in a rapidly changing post-manufacturing economy.

Feel free to continue the conversation with your comments as metromode's guest blogger series moves to a bi-weekly schedule until September. 

Richard Murphy - Most Recent Posts:

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.  es, 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.

Post No. 4

"You don't have to  sacrifice environmental protection to get economic growth. The choice between jobs and environment is a false one: we can have both."

A 2005 survey by the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy found that 76% of Americans surveyed agreed with that statement: environmentalism doesn't come at the exclusion of economic development.

I'm certainly one of those 76%, but I'd take it even further: since the economy exists within the environment, economic development REQUIRES environmental protection - after all, it's hard to do business when everything around you is underwater or on fire. (To Lake Tahoe: how's the tourism trade this season?) Less dramatically, much of our economy relies on a healthy stock of natural capital - an economy that can be maintained in the long run (dare I say, a sustainable economy?) will run on the "interest" generated by that stock, while protecting the capital.

But I don't want to fall into finger-shaking asceticism. The intersection of environmentalism and economic development isn't all about tip-toeing fearfully around, nor is that the kind of topic you come to Metromode to read about. Fortunately, there's plenty of opportunity to talk about environmentalism that actually creates jobs.

As I discussed yesterday, part of this is the innovation that's forced through environmental regulation or happenstance: as the price of energy rises, we have to come up with new ways to build our houses so that we can keep warm (or cool), and new ways to get where we're going.  And if the increase is through taxation (a user fee on energy?) rather than simply through sitting and watching the price of gas tick upwards, then we've additionally got a funding source that we can use to jumpstart that innovation - and train the people who will be applying it.

Van Jones, of the Oakland (as in California) Apollo Alliance sees a huge potential for these "green collar jobs". An environmentally responsible economy isn't just about the researchers at the big universities, after all - it's also about the working people installing solar panels, blowing insulation into your walls, giving tune-ups to the turbines on the wind farm, and deconstructing obsolete buildings rather than demolishing them.

Some of these jobs are in fields that already exist, but aren't yet being recognized and leveraged as much as they could. Consider the rehabilitation of historic buildings. (I have to consider this example daily, thanks to my job description; today, you can consider it too.)  Rehab of older buildings is certainly a green endeavor - rather than using new materials to build new buildings, we're reusing the buildings we already have. Additionally, older buildings tend to be located in city centers and traditional neighborhoods - denser, mixed-use areas that are more walkable, reducing transportation energy requirements.

The Michigan Historic Preservation Network estimates that 50% of the costs of new construction typically go to materials and 50% to labor. Since rehabilitation requires assessing and working with the unique conditions of individual buildings, as much as 70% of the costs of rehab work are labor, with only 30% materials. Rehabilitation creates more jobs than new construction, because the cost is moved away from consuming material resources and towards leveraging human labor. ("Repair, don't replace.")

Other green collar jobs are still theoretical - the Apollo Alliance-backed Green Jobs Act of 2007 would dedicate funding to train workers for jobs in the renewable energy and energy efficiency sectors, while Sen. John Edwards just last week announced a Green Collar Jobs Initiative to train and employ 150,000 workers a year in the "new energy economy".

At a more grassroots level, organizations across the country are working to create a broad variety of green collar jobs, though most don't bother to use the label. The Boston organization Bikes Not Bombs teaches disadvantaged youth both mechanical and entrepreneurial skills through repairing and selling donated bicycles. Adult volunteers watch youth go from "snickering and inarticulate 14-year-olds to friendly yet intimidating professionals," as one stated it to me. Youth go on to get jobs as mechanics in bike shops - one program graduate even owns his own store.

Closer to home, Ypsilanti-based Growing Hope runs the Roots & Shoots Youth Entrepreneurial Program. Youth in this program grow high-value crops, such as organic herbs and cut flowers, for sale at local farmers markets. Again, program participants learn both technical and entrepreneurial skills, as well as assisting with cooking demonstrations.

Whether through encouraging the expansion of existing sectors, creating new job training programs, or supporting the efforts of scrappy non-profits, all of these involve reducing our consumption of natural resources by leveraging human skill: job creation through environmentalism. With the discussion of these jobs in full swing from Oakland to DC, I'm disappointed to see that I'm the first to mention in on Metromode - what are we as a region going to do to ensure that we lead (or at least keep pace with) this trend?

Post No. 3

From obstructionism to opportunity?

A few weeks ago, a group from MoveOn demonstrated outside Representative Dingell's offices here in Ypsilanti, calling him a "dinosaur" for his views on global warming. A group of counter-demonstrators from the UAW arrived shortly afterward to show their support for Rep. Dingell.  The parties were apparently able to come to an agreement, though, as Rep. Dingell this week introduced legislation to create a broad carbon tax.

Unfortunately, my Representative seems insincere. The Detroit News sums it up well as "a brilliant political counter-move," an intentionally unrealistic plan meant to derail any talk of regulating emissions. Rather than engaging in productive dialogue, Rep. Dingell has lobbed a hand grenade into the conference room so that he can point and laugh when nobody decides to pick it up.

Would increased energy taxes be so bad for Michigan's economy, though? Considering the blame placed on "off-shoring" for the UAW's woes, one has to wonder. Shipping auto parts and finished cars (or the entire inventory of WalMart) back and forth across the world is only possible because of artificially cheap energy - businesses can move production to wherever cheap labor is available, shipping finished products cheaply across the world. With increased energy costs, however, this math begins to change. The higher the cost of energy, for whatever reason, the more it makes sense to produce close to the destination.

This is more often stated with regards to tourism, "With the rising price of gasoline, Michiganders are expected to vacation closer to home this summer." I've heard it said that Ypsilanti's annual Heritage Festival, held in August, was originally organized during the energy crisis of the 1970s as a way for families to have fun locally. Agriculture (one of the State's three largest industries, along with tourism) provides other clear examples: as the cost of shipping increases, retailers will figure out what should be obvious: that shipping apples from Washington or Argentina to Michigan makes no sense, at least from August to November.

Higher energy costs make it more advantageous for Michigan's residents to buy products produced in Michigan, rather than sending our dollars elsewhere. Meanwhile, our powerhouse educational institutions can be expected to lead the way in energy efficiency innovations - a recent study showed that Michigan's University Research Corridor compared favorably to better recognized research clusters, both in bringing in Federal grant money and creating patents.

I can't say that increased energy costs would be a panacaea for Michigan's economy - certainly, both businesses and individual residents would have to adapt to higher prices.  Consider the very real damage posed to Michigan's economy from climate change, though, ranging from crop damage to reduced Great Lakes shipping - and consider that "keep everything the same" is probably not the best idea for our economy right now. With the very real national interest in combatting climate change, shouldn't we be helping steer the attack, rather than dragging our heels and falling to the rear?

So let's looks back to Rep. Dingell's proposal. Boosting the gas tax by 50 cents, immediately, is unrealistic, and would create severe hardship for a great many people - I expect his suggested tax on other forms of fuel is similarly dramatic, though I haven't seen numbers. However extremely he's chosen to make the statement, though, he does have a point: personal automobiles account for only a portion of greenhouse emissions, and changes will have to be made across the board, rather than by continuing to kick one industry.

Maybe his truly "brilliant political move" is yet to come. Perhaps the Representative intends this shock-and-awe proposal as a demonstration of how much work we've got ahead of us - and will soon be rolling out his real plan: increase the tax on gasoline by 10 cents annually, and similarly ratchet up the tax on other energy sources. The proceeds from the tax will be dedicating to providing alternatives - tax credits for high efficiency appliances and added home insulation, improved mass transit systems, rebuilt local agricultural systems, pedestrian and bicycle-friendly cities, a functional national rail system, and research funding. This more gradual approach will provide people with time to react, the dedication of proceeds to helping citizens adapt will enable those adaptations, and the changing economic environment - as well as relevent research funding - will encourage us to move forward.

America is coming around, if slowly, to understanding the need to address climate change, and Representative Dingell is savvy enough to know it. I'm confident that he's got something up his sleeve like the plan I outlined above, and I look forward to his unveiling it.

This isn't the post I originally meant to make today, but it wanted to be made, and it fits in well with one I had meant to make: tomorrow, expect more on environmentally-friendly job creation.

Post No. 2

My family has driven Fords for as long as I can remember. There was the odd foray into a Honda or a Subaru, but always back to Fords.  

My wife is from a GM-UAW family, so our car is, of course, a GM vehicle, and always will be. But let's not delude ourselves. "Buy American" has become more and more nebulous as supply and assembly plants have hopped from state to state and continent to continent. It's quite possible no Michigan resident touched our "Detroit" car between design and dealership, making it quite similar to, say, a Hyundai or a Toyota, now that we've got tech centers for both of those manufacturers popping up in the area.  

Certainly, there's some benefit to having the headquarters of the "Big Three," sorry, Detroit 3 in the area, various back office and support staff remain here, and the companies support various community and cultural institutions. But the bottom line is this: Michigan must move beyond the automotive mindset in order to prosper, or even to survive. Michigan is well into the post-Fordist economy. Manufacturing work is no longer a dependable pathway to the middle class that can absorb Michigan's workforce. But we haven't figured out what happens next.

We were warned 40 years ago.

This is hardly a new problem, noted urban writer Jane Jacobs warned Michigan as early as 1969 that our economy was in danger, when her book The Economy of Cities singled out the Detroit auto industry as the model of a stagnant regional economy. The very success of the large auto companies would prove our downfall by minimizing experimentation. Cities are economically valuable, said Jacobs, not in spite of, but because of their inefficiencies. Successful city-regions are stews of economic activity, with lots of individuals and small businesses experimenting in wildly different directions. The inefficiency of experimentation, trial-and-error, and duplication of work by various small-scale companies maximizes the chances that new ideas and new industries will emerge.  

Think of Silicon Valley as the model of this. Microsoft and Google don't come up with most of their new ideas, they watch the startups, buy up the ones that come up with good ideas, and then polish those up and market them. The innovation happens in the small companies; it's the integration and marketing that the big corporations do.

A century ago, Michigan hosted a  myriad of auto companies, experimenting in different directions (gas, electric, even steam!). But by the '60s, Jacobs was calling out the Detroit region's auto industry as the opposite of a healthy, innovative, regional economy. Here was a region that had focused all of its energy on the agglomeration of a few large companies in one industry sector, and on streamlining those companies for maximum efficiency. We may have gotten very good at making automobiles, said Jacobs, but we did this at the cost of being good at anything else.  

Now that the automotive industry is forced to reinvent itself, we're figuring out why this is a problem. We're unprepared for what's next, we're barely willing to admit that something has to be next, and, when we discuss it, many of us stuck in the mindset of monolithic large industries. "Biotech is the next big thing, let's recruit some big biotech companies!" we say, failing to learn the lesson that a few big companies in a few industries is what got us where we are today.

Don't build industries, build places.

What we have to realize is that we can't, as a region, pick one or two industries, recruit a few large companies, and nurture them into the replacement for the automotive industry. We have to nurture thousands of small businesses in hundreds of different fields, and see what emerges. Unfortunately, our existing business incentives are ill-suited for this purpose. We know how to offer tens of millions of dollars to Google or Toyota (valuable additions to the region, to be sure), but we can't do the same for the people working on great ideas in their garages or spare bedrooms, we don't even know who they are.

But look back to my first post.  What these artists, innovators, and entrepreneurs want are interesting places where they can be around interesting people, they want to be able to walk down the block to the corner brewery  or coffee shop, run into people, and swap ideas.  (Conveniently enough, I was in the middle of revising this post at the local pub when a neighbor wandered up, and we got to talking shop.)

My parents' generation wanted nothing more than stable jobs that let them get out of the cities and buy their own homes in quiet subdivisions. My generation doesn't want that. We want to get back into the cities, where we can meet interesting people doing interesting things. We want dense urban neighborhoods and pedestrian-friendly, fine-grained downtowns where lots of different things are happening. We know we're going to be switching jobs and even careers, and we want messy places where there's enough going on that we can figure out what comes next for us.

And if we can't find those places in Michigan? Well, that's why so many of our college graduates end up leaving the state. If Michigan wants a healthy economy, it needs to rebuild healthy cities. If Michigan's going to have an economic savior, it won't be Google, it will be Detroit.  And Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo, and Ann Arbor, and, yes, my very own Ypsilanti.

Post No. 1

Just over a year ago, my wife and I bought our first house, here in Ypsilanti. Why Ypsi? Well, it was sort of a compromise location, actually. I would have liked Boston or Minneapolis; she was more looking to southern California. So, compromise. We'd already moved back in-state for me to go to grad school, and our families were here, and the Boston / San Diego question just wasn't resolving itself, so, Michigan.

But where in Michigan? Mostly, it had to be walkable. "Within walking distance of the library," was her major criterion, and "within walking or transit distance of enough potential jobs that one of us doesn't have to drive to work," was mine. We looked around in Ann Arbor, but a life of indentured servitude to the mortgage company wasn't our style; Ypsi, Ferndale, and Hamtramck were more our speed. Notably absent from consideration were the types of places where we grew up: surrounded by farmland outside of Chelsea, in my case, and a wooded tract on 30-some Mile Road in hers.

Our parents grew up in Detroit, then moved out to the middle of nowhere as soon as they could; I see my generation turning that around and moving into smaller homes with smaller yards (or none whatsoever), in traditional neighborhoods and downtowns rather than getting away from things, we want easy access to urban amenities. (And not just our generation, even my parents are planning to sell their house and downsize into town soon.)

Ypsilanti ended up being our pick for being closest to the jobs we already had, and we're pretty ecstatic with our choice. I walk or bike to work, and come home for lunch; I can do most of our grocery shopping on the way home, spread over the farmers' markets (there are two), Ypsilanti Food Co-op, and a new Mexican grocery. Walking distance of the library? Yes and yes again: within a short walk we've got not just the public library, but Eastern Michigan University's library, which offers library cards to all Ypsi residents. Within a two block radius of our house, we've got a coffee shop, Chinese, Mexican, and Lebanese restaurants, both cheap pizza and great pizza, by a book store, and three bus lines. Just a little further, both Depot Town and downtown Ypsilanti, with their restaurants, venues, stores, bars, etc.

Even more important than the raw geography, though, are the people we end up finding in our neighborhood. We're not the only people attracted to places that have a real sense of place, after all. I really can't go anywhere without running into neighbors who own businesses, do interesting academic research, run non-profits, are artists or musicians who are all of the above. Really, I think I'm probably the least interesting person I've met around here. (Here I have to encourage you to "Buy Indie in Ypsi" at this Saturday's Shadow Art Fair ) here in Ypsi, where several of those more interesting friends and a few dozen other craftsters will be offering up clothes, music, photography, zines, and whatever else they've come up with lately.) It's also important to note that lots of these people have kids. My observations are hardly limited to fresh-out-of-college singles who are going to be moving to some shiny distant subdivision in a few years.

Now, a government sponsored "cool cities" brand is certainly not the coolest thing in the world, but there's certainly some credence to the "creative class" idea that it's based on. People doing interesting things want to be close to other people doing interesting things, want to be able to run into each other at the coffee shop or bar or wander over and strike up front porch conversations about our last projects, half-planned events, or ideas for new businesses. Unfortunately, Michigan is pretty deep in the shadows of New York, Chicago, Portland, Austin, and a dozen other cities when people start thinking of vibrant, interesting, creative places. Pulling out of our boring rust belt image is going to be important to making post-manufacturing Michigan a good place to live. And, sure, I've got some ideas on how to do that.

Check back tomorrow to read about some of those ideas.