Blog: Conan Smith

Post No. 2

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 generation.  

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.