What Makes Metro Detroit Stick?

If you're an outsider, to read the mainstream media is to believe that Metro Detroit falls somewhere between the ruined despair of Baghdad and the jobless misery of Depression-era Oklahoma, our freeways jammed with fleeing twenty-somethings. And yeah, we've got our problems. We've certainly taken our share of economic lumps over the last decade and it'd be foolish to say everything is peaches and cream.

The fact remains, however, that Wayne County is home to 1.8 million people (making it the 13th most populous in the nation). Oakland County comes in at a hearty 1.2 million. That's a whole lot of people who call the metropolitan Motown region home. And those three million residents stick around because despite what media representations and demographic trends say, Metro Detroit offers reasons to stay.

The question remains however: How compelling are those reasons and are we doing what need to to keep them?

Over the last three years The Knight Foundation has teamed up with Gallup to figure that out. Using their "Soul of the Community" survey, they've been asking people (43,000 of them) in 26 different metro areas what they value most about the place they live in and, more importantly, whether it makes them want to stay.

What would keep Metro Detroiters tethered, happy, and asking for more? According to the survey, our educational institutions, social offerings, and access to parks and natural surroundings. Openness, or a feeling of belonging and acceptance, ranked equally as high.

"It's fascinating and refreshing," says Wendy Metros, media and film relations director at The Henry Ford. "Social offerings and education are, in my opinion, an investment in future generations. It says a lot about what people value now. Which I think is great."

When considering how well we address those quality of life metrics, however, the numbers were a little more sobering. Of the 10 categories, only higher education was ranked strongly in both importance and attachment. Satisfaction in social offerings, cited as the most important asset, was a work in progress. Still, knowing which assets drive greater emotional attachment gives us concrete targets to aim for.

Unfortunately, in comparing us with larger metro regions, emotional attachment to Metro Detroit ranked at the bottom. People in Philadelphia, Miami-Dade, and San Jose all showed a significantly greater sense of connection to their communities. While it should come as no surprise that attachment to metropolitan Detroit is higher outside the city proper and amongst the region's older residents, what may come as a shocker is that residents aged 18 to 24 were ranked as feeling the greatest attachment to their community.

Ironically this same population reported that they felt the least welcome or accepted by Metro Detroit.

So, where else do we struggle in particular? Well, the economy is the no-brain answer. This was true in the majority of regions covered by the survey. But investment in K-12 education, nightlife, and social connection among residents were in need of serious review.

What makes The Knight Foundation's survey so unique is that it recognizes that love of community has an economic upside, that prosperity is often linked to emotional attachment.

"The notion that there's a correlation between a strong economy and attachment attributes --particularly the three areas that they identified as important-- has been pretty consistent with the work we've been doing at Michigan Future," says Lou Glazer, president of the Michigan think tank.

The most surprising thing the Knight survey discovered was that, across all 26 metro regions, people have a near unanimous desire for strong social offerings, aesthetics, and openness. In most places, these assets were ranked one, two and three.

This outcome challenges the assumption that the top drivers of community attachment are economy, safety, and basic services. While all three are seen as important, they do not seem to be the be-all, end-all concern that politicians and opinion columnists claim. In fact, of the three only basic services ranked in the top five drivers (it was 5th).

"Places that are flourishing are places that excel at having the top attributes in this survey," says Glazer. "We have this notion that places that have the lowest taxes have the best economies - which simply isn't true."

These priorities should come as no surprise to Metromode readers. Since our publication's launch we have maintained that sense of place matters, that quality of life is determined by more than how big our paycheck, automobile, and front lawn is. Many of the survey's finding bear out the very premise of our magazine's narrative focus.

Nevertheless, the point of the Knight Foundation survey was not to pit one community asset against another. How important something is depends on the context in which it is presented. What the "Soul of the Community" study hoped to pinpoint is what makes people want to put down roots and build a life in metropolitan Detroit. They are hoping to focus attention on what local residents say they value most about their communities, then examine where those attachments are strongest and where they are compromised.

I spoke with various local thought leaders about the survey's results and what we can glean from them. They had both sobering and insightful comments.

Getting educated

While we don't rank with those communities that feel most positive about the quality of their  institutions, college and university education is still our strongest asset... and of high importance to Metro Detroiters.

Obviously, the region has a long legacy of topnotch institutions. Between Wayne State University, Lawrence Tech, The College For Creative Studies, Oakland University, the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and the region's many community colleges, more than a third of local respondents pointed to higher ed as something to feel proud of.

And it's an asset many are taking advantage of. Undergraduate student enrollment in the state has steadily grown over the last decade and recently topped 200,000. Unfortunately, state investment in universities dropped significantly over that same ten years, and so too did attachments scores over the three year survey.

"The governor's campaign ran on a lot of the attributes that the Knight survey found important," says Glazer, "and yet, at the moment, he and the legislature have focused their entire attention on cutting taxes. And for things like education and revenue sharing, which accounts for a lot of quality of place stuff, resources have just been slaughtered."

In 2008, Michigan ranked 44th in the nation with regard to student/teacher ratios and 32nd in per pupil expenditures, according to Glazer's organization. Our current fiscal priorities can't help Metro Detroit's already pessimistic view of K-12 education, with attachment rankings never topping 23 percent.

The Knight Foundation survey also signals that attachment to the region by college-educated residents is decreasing, with scores coming in 15 percent lower than the average for the other 25 Knight  communities. Their final assessment is that Metro Detroiters clearly value local colleges and universities, and that continued support and investment are intrinsic to their feelings about the community.

"I think that the governor does understand that this stuff is important," Glazer adds, "but he has to make it a priority."

Do I belong?

It's often been said that people in Michigan are nice. When I first moved to the state I was constantly told how warm, inviting, pleasant, and neighborly Michiganders are. It's the kind of label you hear all over the Midwest, really. And clearly it's perceived as a vital driver in community attachment for Metro Detroit. Residents ranked a feeling of belonging as the second most important determinant in their quality of life.

But the survey numbers tell a somewhat different story. While we may value openness and acceptance as key to whether we love our community, we're less satisfied with how much we actually accommodate the needs and desires of one another... or function as a cohesive community. This suggests that we may be good in one-on-one interactions but when it comes to enacting policies and lifestyles that appeal to a wide variety of residents we're behind many other communities. Only modest numbers of racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, and older citizens reported a sense of connectedness within the community. Their numbers peaked at 19 percent.

"As we talk about global Detroit and the importance of immigration and diversity, it's gratifying that immigrants and ethnic minorities feel, comparatively, the most welcome," says demographer Kurt Metzger, director of Data Driven Detroit.

Alarmingly, though, young college graduates felt the least welcomed, with only an average of six percent stating that Metro Detroit was the right place for them to live.

"We keep talking about caring for that demographic but we've been slow to deliver," says Metzger. "The kinds of things 18-24 year-olds are looking for in terms of walkability and public transportation and housing options - we just don't have in abundance."

Metzger says that of all the places in Metro Detroit, college graduates are most likely to be drawn to the city of Detroit. But that they would still probably struggle to find their place. "Unfortunately we just don't have that density of place, a place where people in their demographic naturally tend to gravitate. They have small pieces of places across the region --like Royal Oak or Ferndale  -- but there isn't that critical mass for them. And downtown Detroit hasn't developed to the point where it's a natural place for people to come together."

So, are there on-the ground efforts to make this demographic, so vital to the state's future, feel less anonymous and more connected to Metro Detroit?

"Yes. I think some of the philanthropic efforts that are starting to push for the development of Midtown help," Metzger offers.  "And there's the arts and culture advocacy of ArtX Detroit, some of Kresge's work, the NEI encouraging young entrepreneurs and, of course, talk about more public transportation. We're saying the right stuff for them. We just need to start doing the right stuff for them."

Arts, culture and other excuses to be around others

Consider these: The Henry Ford, Cranbrook, The Detroit Institute Of Art, The Movement Festival, The Arab-American Festival, The Detroit Zoo, Winter Blast, Maker Faire, Detroit Derby Girls, Drag Queen Bingo, the Tigers, Lions, Red Wings, and Pistons.

It is undeniable that Metro Detroit boasts a long and illustrious list of arts and cultural activities as well as community events. And we sure do like them.

"Social and entertainment and cultural opportunities are clearly important to how people feel attached to their community," says George Moroz, special assistant to the president for The Henry Ford. "This is mainly because they are opportunities for people to get together. It's how we experience and enjoy things as a community."

But Moroz also believes that organizations like his need to make a greater effort to reach out to younger residents by creating programs that appeal to their interests. He sees this as a way to strengthen their attachment to Metro Detroit.

"We try to host events that we think will have  particular appeal to young creatives," he says. "Some have been smaller events like Pechakucha --which we've hosted and want to host again-- which draw a couple hundred people or so. On the larger side is our Maker Faire. As a celebration of tinkerers and inventors, we think it's especially important because we think it's always been in the Metro Detroit DNA, this desire to make things."

Last year's inaugural Maker Faire drew nearly 19,000 people, showcasing both local and national inventors, makers, and home brewed engineers. The event returns to Dearborn at the end of July and Moroz says The Henry Ford is looking into ways it can "keep that maker spirit going throughout the year."

To other cultural institutions he advises, "Institutions need to get out of their comfort zone from what they've been doing and learn how to engage a younger audience with different priorities then they're used to. You've got to be willing to take some risks."

Getting past me, myself and I

Where Metro Detroiters really came up short, according to Knight, was in our ability to show we care.

More than seven out of ten people surveyed claimed we just don't care enough about one another. Could it be our bewildering number of metro cities, towns, and townships that contributes to our sense of disconnection? After all, what separates Farmington Hills from Farmington? Or Warren from Center Line? Or Lincoln Park from Allen Park? Do we know how to work together as a region?

"I think that we can be very parochial in the region," says Metzger. "We go to work wherever we go to work and we go back to our little community and there isn't a lot of movement back and forth. And because we don't have regional transportation we don't have that natural, personal interaction. We do tend to care very much about our property values and about how our immediate community is doing, and care very little for anyone else."

"I live in Pleasant Ridge, which is kind of ridiculous, one of the smallest cities in the area," he adds. "Pleasant Ridge doesn't necessarily care about Royal Oak or Ferndale unless we have to share services with them. I think it's one of the problems that holds the region back. We don't see the bigger picture."

Metzger thinks a greater commitment to regional policies might help us to understand how each community links to the other, nurturing a greater sense of support for one another. With the Obama administration's $200 investment in rail service between Detroit and Chicago - connecting Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Detroit along the way – an increased sense of regionalism may emerge. Coupled with the Woodward Avenue rail project, young professional talent will hopefully find increased interconnectedness.

"I think the idea that we got behind a regional tax for the Detroit Zoo was a positive step," suggests Metzger. "Maybe it'll get some people thinking that regional transportation... or even just how to connect two bus systems is a good idea."

"I don't know what the answer is but we've almost got to impose some kind of regional effort," Metzger adds. "It may not make us all care about each other, but if there was any way to start showing that the pie can be bigger and that we all benefit then when a business comes into the city of Detroit we can all share in the glory of that success. Somehow we have to be able to see that one community's gain is everybody's gain."

So, will change come?

Lou Glazer of Michigan Future takes a long pause after being asked the question. He points to the foundations and communities that are starting to align their thinking with the conclusions of the Knight Foundation survey.

"Hudson-Webber and Kellogg and Kresge, in particular, they get it," he says. "You see it starting to take hold in Detroit and Grand Rapids; somewhat in Kalamazoo and Lansing. Not, unfortunately, in Ann Arbor because it has such an anti-density bias. Ann Arbor is really not a leader in the state here. But Ferndale and Royal Oak are finding their way along in this direction."

He pauses again.

"The honest assessment is that the kind of attributes in the survey, and the kind of attributes we've been talking about, and the kind of attributes presented in your publication were not even part of the public conversation 10 years ago. So, we're in the conversation. We're making progress in getting people to think about these issues. But certainly we're not yet at the point where people are willing to make it a priority."

For a terrific (and quick) summary of what the Knight Foundation's "Soul Of The Community" project entails, check out this 2 minute video.

Jeff Meyers is the managing editor of Metromode and Concentrate. He is also an award-winning film critic for The Metro Times.

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