Is Your City (or Village) a Strong One?

So, this is brilliant. And simple.

Below is the Strong Towns Strength Test .

From the blog…

“We understand that cities are complex, adaptable systems that defy easy or precise measurement, so we asked ourselves: are there simple observations we use to signal that a city is either a strong town or on its way to becoming one?

Here are ten simple questions we call the Strong Towns Strength Test. A Strong Town should be able to answer “yes” to each of these questions.

  1. Take a photo of your main street at midday. Does the picture show more people than cars?
  2. If there were a revolution in your town, would people instinctively know where to gather to participate?
  3. Imagine your favorite street in town didn’t exist. Could it be built today if the construction had to follow your local rules?
  4. Is an owner of a single family home able to get permission to add a small rental unit onto their property without any real hassle?
  5. If your largest employer left town, are you confident the city would survive?
  6. Is it safe for children to walk or bike to school and many of their other activities without adult supervision?
  7. Are there neighborhoods where three generations of a family could reasonably find a place to live, all within walking distance of each other?
  8. If you wanted to eat only locally-produced food for a month, could you?
  9. Before building or accepting new infrastructure, does the local government clearly identify how future generations will afford to maintain it?
  10. Does the city government spend no more than 10% of its locally-generated revenue on debt service?”

How did your town score? Mine tallied a 7. Not bad, but room to improve.

I am a big fan of Chuck Marohn and Strong Towns. Their insights into the building and maintenance of cities are always thought provoking. You can join their network here. I joined today.

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Small Communities, Big Success Stories

Communities are a lot like people. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some are healthy and wealthy; others are struggling just to stay alive. Also—just like people—bigger isn’t always better. Yuri Gagarin, the first person to travel in space, was a mere 5 ft. 2 inches tall. Beethoven only had an inch more than that. Gandhi, Houdini, Charlie Chaplin…if size was all that mattered, this world would be a much duller, poorer place.

Here in Michigan, there’s no doubt that all our economic fates are at least partly tied to Detroit and our other major urban centers. But there are also plenty of smaller success stories to tell, and they all add up to a pretty big picture of Michigan’s hope for the future. These are also the stories that say the most about the vast majority of us. Our smaller communities are the biggest share of who we are as municipalities. A whopping 74 percent of our cities and villages have a population below 5,000. Of those, 35 percent are cities and the rest are villages.

Like former Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton (a mere 4 ft. 9 inches and 93 pounds!), our smaller communities may be small but they’re tough and capable, with unique assets and advantages. Anyone who ignores their potential is missing out on some of our best opportunities for future prosperity. With creative vision and strong leadership, they can respond to change and challenges as well as their bigger brethren, and can often see bigger impacts from smaller investments in a shorter period of time.

And that’s exactly what many of them are doing.

review-nov-dec2014-coverDowagiac (4.5 square miles with a population of just over 5,800) reclaimed its downtown by undertaking the behemoth task of relocating a state trunkline from downtown to a side street. The city and DDA gave the downtown a facelift, burying overhead lines and creating a pedestrian-friendly environment with public art in pocket parks all over the city.

Litchfield District Library may be one of the smallest libraries in Michigan, but it bested several much larger community libraries to win the 2013 State Librarian’s Excellence Award for the impressive way it serves its 2,400 patrons.
These are the type of things we need to keep in mind when we talk about economic development and revitalization in our communities. Even as Detroit’s bankruptcy continues to cast a big shadow on the world’s view of Michigan, countless historic downtowns throughout the state have held on and even prospered through these tough economic times. Main Street is back, largely due to innovative investments in placemaking strategies.

In The Review you’ll read about the first ten years of the Michigan Main Street Center and the communities it has impacted. Over $200 million has been invested in Main Street buildings, infrastructure, and public improvements. More than 1,300 new jobs have been created in Main Street districts. The building improvements alone increased local property tax revenues more than $3 million this year, while 250 new Main Street businesses are paying at least $3.1 million in annual sales taxes to the state.

Main Street successes include downtown living in Howell (population 9,489), with approximately 125 residential rental units in the Main Street district, located in the upper floors of two-, three-, and four-story historic buildings; and Hart (population 2,126), which re-energized its sense of community by transforming a former gas station site into a public green space and amphitheater.

*Adapted from my article in The Review

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Why Is Placemaking Important?

Below is an excerpt from the new book Economics of Place: The Art of Building Great Communities:

Why Placemaking?
Placemaking, at its core, is a response. It
follows in the long tradition of humanist reactions to
systems that come to rely too much on dogma and
tradition that runs afoul of everyday life. Federal policy
that favors similarity in housing styles, cumbersome
city codes that sap entrepreneurial spirit, and a lack
of effective civic engagement around decision-making
all lead to citizen dissatisfaction. Throw in overbearing
planning and zoning laws that often outlaw the types of
places that people covet, and you have a pretty potent
recipe for backlash.
Placemaking, in a nut shell, is about positioning
the human experience in everyday life above all else.
People are social creatures. At our best, we like
to feel part of a larger plan for our families and our
communities. Greeting people on a walkable street or
chatting with old friends while enjoying a public space
are important components of city life. So are groups of
entrepreneurs exchanging ideas at a local coffee shop or
a public art show that dots the neighborhood landscape
on weekends in the summer. All these events contribute
to the vibrancy of the human experience and have
positive impacts on culture, health, and the economy.

To read more, go here.

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Marquette Gathering a Hit With Civic Leaders

The premiere learning event for local and civic leaders in Michigan took place in Marquette this past weekend. The city is a perfect laboratory for such a meeting with the cutting edge efforts going on around downtown revitalization, brownfield development, placemaking and cultural enrichment.

Those in attendance were able to bike the Noquemanon Trails Network, experience the Iron Ore Heritage Trail and engage with local merchants and civic leaders who are making great strides in the Upper Peninsula’s largest city.

Keynote speakers included Jamie Bennett of Art Place America and Catherine Bracy of Code for America. Both of them were right on message- great community building starts at home and leverages all resources possible.

Next year we’ll be in downtown Traverse City, a beautiful place that is home to the Traverse City Film Festival and the National Cherry Festival. Come out and join us!

Check the hashtag #mmlconv for more.

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