A Michigan urban agenda
All of sudden their seems to be a renewed interest in developing an urban agenda for Michigan. If this is more than just talk that would be very good news. Having vital central cities that anchor big metropolitan areas is a core characteristic of the most prosperous states––particularly those with high private sector employment earnings per capita.
Most college-educated households, like the rest of America, live in the suburbs. But a growing proportion of college-educated households—mainly those without children—are choosing to live in central-city neighborhoods. This is particularly true for the most mobile segment of the population—young college graduates without children.
What is different over the past decade or so is that suburban growth in high-prosperity metropolitan areas is now accompanied by growth in their central cities. The evidence is that the most successful regions across the country are those where both the suburbs and central cities are prospering.
So it is hard to imagine a high-prosperity Michigan without the cities of Detroit––first and foremost––Grand Rapids and Lansing/East Lansing becoming far greater talent magnets. If the drive for an urban policy is to help grow the Michigan economy, these are the cities where resources and attention needs to be concentrated. All cities are not created equal when it comes to growing the state’s economy.
When it comes to the specifics of a Michigan urban agenda here are my thoughts on what matters most for the state to help Michigan central cities. The suggestions are all based on the notion that the essential ingredient to successful cities is that they are repopulating. That they offer the services and amenities at a decent price that will retain and attract residents. The state can’t––and shouldn’t––do everything. But there are some areas where its participation can make a huge difference:
- Public safety matters most. People aren’t safe and/or don’t feel safe they will leave and potential newcomers will not stay. This is police, but more. Lighting, clean, code enforcement, etc. matter too.
- Transportation is the lever that can best steer development. For decades we have had––and still do––policies that favor roads and suburban and rural communities. We need a change in transportation funding and policy that makes transit––in metro Detroit that needs to include light rail at least on Woodward––biking, walking etc. a higher priority and steers funding towards big metros and their central cities.
- Development incentives. Quite simply the historic preservation and brownfield tax credits need to be restored. They worked. And there still is a gap between what the market will bear in terms of price (even with subsidies like Live Midtown and Live Downtown now in place in Detroit) and what it costs to redevelop. For decades (and continuing) government has subsidized suburban housing (single family, home ownership). Why is that “right” and subsidizing urban housing (multifamily, likely mixed use, and largely rental) “wrong”?
- Who provides the services doesn’t matter, the quality does. So if the city government is incapable of providing quality services, fund or create an entity that can. (Think the Education Achievement Authority , Governor Milliken’s putting state police on Detroit freeways, plans for a new health non-profit agency replacing a city government run departement in Detroit, etc.) City government incompetence shouldn’t be used as an excuse not to provide funding.
- Something needs to replace the decade of cuts to revenue sharing to cities. The state has historically helped fund the provision of local services. The combination of stricter and stricter limits on local government’s taxing power and revenue sharing and transportation funding cuts results in even the best managed cities unable to provide the basic services and amenities needed to repopulate.
- If the state will not reinvest in cities, then there needs to be some new system of municipal finance put in place. Best done at the regional level. The current system––particularly in a place like Detroit––leaves cities without the tax base to fund the services that are needed.