A Quality of Place Agenda

Governor-elect Snyder was right on when he wrote in his ten point plan that “many of Michigan’s youth are looking for an appealing metropolitan community – and many are moving out of state to find it”. As is the plan’s list of place attributes that are needed to compete for mobile young talent: safe/walkable urban neighborhoods with vibrant third places, transit, parks/outdoor recreation and the arts.

The Millennials, more than any previous generation, are concentrating in big metropolitan areas anchored by vibrant central cities. For Michigan to prosper it’s central cities – particularly Detroit – must be places where young mobile talent wants to live and work.

Through fundamental policy change the Snyder Administration can help create that quality of place. It largely requires changing the direction of three state agencies.

MSHDA can be a major player in the creation of vibrant urban neighborhoods. But far too often they are not both because of their almost sole focus on low income housing and their rules and regulations that prefer to invest in suburban style development even in urban neighborhoods. We need an explicit change in its mission to include both low income housing and creating vibrant urban neighborhoods. And to change its policies to favor development consistent with walkable urbanism.

The Department of Transportation probably is the most important state agency for creating quality of place. It also probably is the agency with policies that most work against creating the kind of neighborhoods young mobile talent are looking for. Its funding formulas favor rural, rather than big metro, roads as well as vastly favor roads over others forms of transportation (transit, bikes, walking). Its rules and regulations, like MSHDA’s, are written for suburban and rural, not urban settings.

We need changes to the funding formula that would base road funding on population not road miles and that would provide transit funding at the constitutional maximum of 10%. Also design standards for urban roads need to be completely overhauled consistent with walkable urbanism.

The M1 light rail line may well be the single most powerful tool for creating a Detroit that can compete for young talent at scale. Getting it funded and built needs to be a state priority.

Parks and outdoor recreation are amenities that matter to young talent. The state’s natural resources department (no matter what its name) through its land trust fund can fund the creation of new parks in our cities. But that too would take a change in policy which currently heavily favors rural and wilderness locations. Beyond the trust fund, special parks like Belle Isle could benefit from conversion to a state park. We need to charge the department with responsibility for expanding parks and outdoor recreation opportunities in our big metros, particularly their central cities.

Finally the arts. State support for the arts peaked in the Engler Administration at a little more than $25 million annually. Not a big amount, but with a big impact. It is a key amenity for young talent. Restoring state funding for the arts, possibly with a challenge to corporations and foundations to match, is an essential ingredient of a quality of place agenda.

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