Blog: Brad Garmon

Metro Detroit recently landed a $2.85 million Sustainable Communities grant to help the region become more dense and develop its transit options. Brad Garmon, land programs director at the Michigan Environmental Council, offers a free-thinking approach to connecting the historically disparate forces of housing, land use, and eco-consciousness.

Post 1: Sustainable Communities Aren't Born in Parking Lots

My first impressions of Detroit, back in 2001, were shocking by design. I drove north out of downtown, across the invisible wealth barrier to Grosse Pointe and on up to Metro Beach. The resulting, pit-of-the-stomach knot, I've since decided, comes from imbibing the region's potent cocktail of opportunity and injustice.

I've learned to channel that particular feeling (excitement? anxiety? anger?) into potent moments of tangible optimism, such as the recent day spent with members of the Detroit Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council –  and community members like the Ford Motor Company and the Sierra Club – envisioning a future downtown Dearborn connected by bike trails, parks, and commuter rail transit.

My most recent target is the $2.85 million regional planning grant to Metro Detroit that comes through the new federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities program.

Here's what this grant means to us if it's handled well: Southeast Michigan emerges in the next few decades with a world-class and prosperous core city, uniquely breathtaking neighborhoods, and a wide range of healthy, diverse communities in both city and suburbs.

How? By focusing the region on place-making; targeting a few vital infrastructure investments; and undertaking a radical strategy of deeply networked collaboration.

The transformation comes much more easily, without drama or trauma, than most of our region's leaders believed possible. Investors and researchers like the University of Michigan's Christopher Leinberger agree that there's a pent-up market demand for dense, walkable neighborhoods served by transit. It isn't like waging a battle; it's like opening the front door.

Why? Because government sets the table. Not by cutting taxes and regulation and services, but by cultivating a shared vision for our regionally significant assets and places; by making a few really strategic investments in vital infrastructure; and by aggressively partnering with private and non-profit agencies in the region to deliver the goods.

That's a tall order for a $2.85 million grant, but in this situation, the grant's aspiration is as important as its content. The money, granted to a regional consortium headed up by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) is part of an innovative federal initiative known as the Partnership for Sustainable Communities.  

That initiative, in turn, is based on the radical notion that public investments in transportation, housing and community development projects ought to be coordinated, and should feed into a clear, regional strategy that points us toward prosperity, equity and sustainability.

Trust me – it still sounds as radical in Washington, D.C. as it does in Metro Detroit.