John Eby: ‘Placemaking’ puts people first in urban agendas

Published 2:51 pm Thursday, October 20, 2011

Even before Dowagiac City Council returned from the Michigan Municipal League convention in Grand Rapids, I received a copy of the MML’s colorful new book, “The Economics of Place: The Value of Building Communities Around People.”
It made quite a splash in The Grand Rapids Press, from the editorial page to a front-page series on successful urban agendas which Oct. 4 featured an interview with MML Executive Director Dan Gilmartin.
The league brought some 500 people to Grand Rapids to discuss issues facing member municipalities and how to lead Michigan out of the depths of decades of despair.
“Placemaking” is a word I’d not heard before, although I understand retaining college graduates by creating a culture that promotes entrepreneurship and attracting top talent by building vibrant communities.
Sept. 21 in Cassopolis (“Small towns must get smarter to survive” was the headline I wrote for the story) I covered much the same debate through the discerning development eye of George Robertson of Kosciusko County, Ind.
His career took the former South Dakota development director to Schenectady, N.Y., after it was ravaged by General Electric layoffs and Louisiana after it was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.
Like the MML, Robertson suggested that chasing “big box” manufacturing jobs with tax incentives is a mistake.
Putting people first seems a quaint notion in our corporate culture wearing bottom-line blinders which obscure all else and apathetic voters who keep rewarding the same reheated politicians with perpetually rosy performance reviews at the polls despite the fact that the American dream is diminished if not dashed for ordinary citizens.
The last time I saw people come before profits was alphabetically.
“Placemaking” is defined as “turning a neighborhood, town or city from a place that you can’t wait to get through to one that you never want to leave,” which to me sounds a lot like Dowagiac even before The Disney Way formalized those desires.
When you build a place around people, you do everything differently. You design for the human scale by creating walkability, density, more social opportunities and safety. Creating these types of communities attracts talent theoretically.
Gov. Rick Snyder identified rejuvenating cities as a primary goal if Michigan is to return to the national prominence it once enjoyed.
“Communities are at the core of Michigan’s economic turnaround if we are going to attract and retain talent and compete globally,” Gilmartin said. “Seventy-five to 90 percent of the nation’s economic assets and drivers are in metro areas. Michigan needs to invest in our communities, but especially our larger metro areas. There is not one state in the country that is doing well that does not have a major city that is working.”
The educated “creative class” is what’s sought out in the big, wide world of the knowledge-based economy. Brains matter.
Two thirds of young people decide where to live, then seek a job.
Which says to me tourism, arts and preserving history are key considerations, which is why things like the Dogwood Fine Arts Festival, the Bonine House restoration and our museums matter and have been wisely nurtured by visionaries.
Cass County is home to the Edward Lowe Foundation.
I’m always amazed when our enviable public art collection is dismissively slammed with, “We don’t need more statues, we need jobs.” Start with the fact that they are contributed by private donors, not siphoned out of the general fund.
Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell says “uniqueness. The contrast of old/new and tranquil/vibrant” constitutes a “great place,” a “place I fit; a place I belong, like coming home. A place where memories are made.”
Walker (approaching its 50th anniversary, compared to Dowagiac’s 1848 start date) Mayor Rob VerHeulen mentions the Memorial Day parade, festivals and an expanding trail network which “connects us to each other and our neighbors.”
Again, it sounds like Dowagiac, which has toyed with developing along the creek.
Grandville touts two new “pocket parks” and a trail linking downtown to its riverfront. Library family night programs? Farmers market? They’ve got nothing on Dogpatch, which is developing Russom Park with Silver Creek Township with a trail to Sister Lakes.
Kentwood, where my college roommate lives, “isn’t blessed with a traditional downtown,” according to Mayor Richard Root, so “we’ve looked to our parks to create spaces that we can make our own. We have added more benches to sit on, more trails to walk on and installed a more adventurous play area for children. There are pavilions and picnic tables. They become gathering places and a place of the heart.”
Ditto Wyoming, with an initiative teeming with buzzwords like walkability, diversity and increased green spaces and parks.
East Grand Rapids also emphasizes expanded recreational opportunities, unmatched delivery of city services and outstanding schools to ensure a strong, vibrant, sustainable future. Dowagiac has devoted 2011 to envisioning how schools could be one in 100 and marshaling creativity communitywide.
I should also mention that another third of the Press front page was devoted to ArtPrize, a $450,000 competition with 1,582 works of art in 164 locations.
Remind me to tell my Cleveland art student daughter about Mia Tavonatti, whose stained-glass mosaic “Crucifixion” won the $250,000 grand prize after coming within a whisker of winning last year. although it was ultimately bittersweet because her mother, Anna Bradley of Crystal Falls in the Upper Peninsula, died Oct. 6 at 72.
We’re talking 400,000 visitors for a 19-day show.
Prize money is funded by the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation.
I know they’ve both been to Cass County because I met them here.
I should also mention that ArtPrize covered most of the front page Oct. 7 with three color photographs, with a sports column about the Tigers’ “Escape from N.Y.” down the side.
I guess my point, with municipal elections a few weeks away, is to ask if Dowagiac’s glass is half full or half empty?
After scouting some competition, our cup is positioned, with some positivity, to be running over because this little city has been placemaking around people even back when it was called quality of life.
Like it says in the book, “The best way to predict your future is to create it.”
You know who said that?
Abraham Lincoln.