People and Cities

“First life, then spaces, then buildings – the other way around never works.” -Jan Gehl

This quote got me thinking. How many times do we as city advocates hang our hats on a shiny new development as a means to improve living conditions? It seems that for every perceived problem in a city- mobility, poverty, safety, etc.- we often attempt to ‘fix’ our way to prosperity.

We must never forget that cities are about people. The rest is just window dressing. Literally, in some cases. Architecture, commerce, government services and street design must aid people in improving their lives or they become part of the problem, not the solution. When perceived ‘silver bullets’ precede the collective desires of the citizens you lose.  If you think differently, I have a few empty cities in China to show you.

Fred Kent of the Project for Public Spaces likes to say, “when you build places around

Jan Gehl

What’s not to like?

people, everything changes.” As community leaders we need to view everything we do on behalf of the community through the human lens. Often times we fail at this simple task by choosing aesthetics over practicality and defer to passing commercial trends in lieu of human scale design. Buildings need to compliment local context, street design should help people to move freely throughout the community and public spaces must foster positive interaction.

We’ve all seen new developments that, while ambitious, dwarf a community’s character. Buildings that work perfectly in one city aren’t always a good fit for another. And if I drive by one more over-planned, over-produced park that sits idle for days at a time because its designers forgot that parks are supposed to be accessible and active places, I may scream. Sadly, these are the ones that often win awards. “Have you seen the lovely gazebo, sir?”


A perfect compliment of new and old in the Northville Town Square

The lessons that local leaders can learn from Gehl and Kent are numerous- involve the people, design for the people, create for the people. I’m all for new strategies and pushing the envelope in every direction imaginable, but new ideas are only great when they fit the community and obtain a degree of acceptance from the citizenry.

Achieving a consensus around issues can be difficult, but moving forward without one is dangerous.



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Are You Wondering About How to Make Your City Attractive? Here’s How-

Here’s a short video that is worth the time to watch.

With “How to Make an Attractive City,” Swiss writer Alain de Botton declares a six-point plan that all cities should follow. The video is a little bit urban design, a little bit energy and a little bit of a manifesto about scale that ultimately aims to place a city in the happy spot between “chaos and boringness.”

It is well done. Check it out. Thanks go out to The School of Life.

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Public Spaces, Community Places is a Big Success

Check out some great crowdfunding opportunities at Public Spaces, Community Places. The program is a partnership of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, Patronicity and the Michigan Municipal League.

The whole thing is simple- envision a placemaking project in your community, use the platform to get it funded and receive a matching grant via MEDC. It’s that easy!

The ideas are amazing. Take a peek at the projects, donate if you’re able and bring your own ideas forward. Twelve have already met their goals for funding and other projects are online now. There are trail head projects, art spaces, community gardens, greening of alley ways, and more.

Crowdfunding (peanut butter) and placemaking (jelly). The perfect match!

Rosedale Park

North Rosedale Park Community House in Detroit


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Farmers Markets: Highly Visible and Hugely Popular Once Again

Which came first, the city or the farmers market?
Like the proverbial chicken and egg, I’m not sure there is a right answer. You really can’t separate the two. The existence of one pretty much requires the other. Here’s what the history books say about it:
The ancient village of Uruk in Mesopotamia became what’s now considered the world’s oldest city around 3450 B.C. The first farmers markets are thought to have originated in Egypt over 5,000 years ago when farmers along the Nile brought their fresh produce to sell.
See what I mean?

Flint, Michigan

Flint Farmers Market

From those earliest roots of civilization, food has helped define a place and its people. Climate and geography dictate which plants and animals will grow…and how those food sources are acquired and eaten help to shape the local culture.

We are what we eat.
By popular definition, a farmers market is a place where the food goods are produced locally and vendors sell their own products. So it makes perfect sense that a farmers market can be the perfect catalyst for creating an authentic sense of place.
For a while it looked like we’d forgotten all that. Vibrant cities and farmers markets gave way to superstores and urban food deserts…while fast food chains tried to make it all look pretty much alike.
I’m happy to say it looks like we’re coming back from that cultural brink. Today there are farmers markets all over the world again. The smallest ones might be no more than three or four vendors on a sidewalk. Tokyo, Japan has the world’s largest with over 1,700 stalls.
Here in Michigan, farmers markets are once again a highly visible and hugely popular part of the urban landscape. Each has its own unique atmosphere, vendors, produce, and products. In fact, I’d wager that a good foodie could guess which city they’re in just by wandering through its farmers market.

And we are not alone.

Port Austin Farmers Market

Port Austin Farmers Market

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of operating farmers markets in the U.S. has grown from 1,755 in 1994 to 4,685 in 2008 and 5,274 in 2009. That’s a rise of 300 percent in a 15 year span. The USDA projects they will continue to grow at a healthy 10 percent rate per year.
The “why” isn’t surprising. Devotees will tell you there’s nothing more personal and social than belonging to a local food community. A farmers market can be a magnet and focal point for everything that’s unique about a city or village.

There is more to read in The Review about the rebirth of the local farmers market, the new breed of producers and consumers who have embraced it, and the role they all play in strengthening a community’s sense of place.

*From my column in The Review

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