Blog: Conan Smith

Post No. 1

I Only Wanted Something Else To Do But Hang Around
The 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 job. 

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 incomes.  

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 interdependency.

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.