Placemaking and Economic Development

Adapted from my column in ‘The Review’ May/June Issue 2012 regarding the work of my colleagues at the League.

Kalamazoo Skyline

Summer is just around the corner. If you’re like me, you’re eagerly anticipating spending more time outdoors, walking/riding your bike to a neighborhood ice cream store, dining outdoors, or taking the family to a music event in the park. These are the types of experiences and places that define community, make it unique, and give us a sense of belonging. This is what we call having a “sense of place.”

The League has always been about investing in our communities. But our narrative has changed. Over the past decade, we have seen a huge shift from an industrial economy to a new economy that requires a more educated workforce. With almost half of college graduates leaving our state, and two thirds of those moving without jobs, this changes the way we need to think about our communities and regions. Young people (and boomers, I might add) are looking for a style of living that includes walkability, arts and culture, a green environment, transit options, and an entrepreneurial environment. The competition for attracting and retaining a talented workforce is no longer with neighboring communities or states, but with the global community. Add in the power of social media, and you accelerate everything!

If we had talked about placemaking a few years ago, it might have felt like we were on a feel good social mission, but today it has become an economic necessity. Communities and regions are our economic engine and the need to invest in them is critical or Michigan will lose out big time. So what is placemaking? We see placemaking as the art of indentifying the unique assets of a community to create and develop strategies and outcomes around quality of life and economic sustainability that best connects people with their place.

Some interesting data from the University of Michigan’s Closeup survey of local government found that almost half of our cities are engaged in placemaking programs/projects for economic development purposes, with 62 percent of respondents saying that they have some or complete confidence in placemaking as an economic development tool. Twenty-five percent of village respondents reported that they are engaged in economic development placemaking programs, with 44 percent of those having some or complete confidence in placemaking as an economic development tool.

Fred Kent, President and CEO of Project for Public Spaces, recently told me that he sees Michigan as one of the leaders in placemaking, and this comes from the guru of placemaking himself! In this month’s issue, you will see some inspiring placemaking initiatives. Alpena’s collaboration in creating a northeast hub of arts and culture is contributing to revitalizing its downtown. The energy from Harbor Springs’ new placemaking committee resurrected its DDA and resulted in two new restaurants. Examples abound all over Michigan.

The state is coming along as well—passing  Complete Streets legislation; a governor who talks about placemaking and has created an internal government placemaking committee; and a proposed reinstatement of funding for arts and culture after a decade of cuts. The League has been working hard to lead this charge by partnering with organizations and individuals around the state and country to foster new and creative ways to redefine and economically strengthen our state through placemaking.

So as you begin to enjoy the onset of summer, look around your community and ask yourself what makes you proud to live there, what places and activities impact your daily life, and what you can to make it even better!