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A Case for Place: By creating places that attract people, Michigan in using the concept to boost communities

June 7, 2013

When you think of Michigan, it’s natural that you think of automobiles. “We’re the auto-centric capital of the world,” says Gilbert M. White, a REALTOR® and placemaking consultant in Haslett, Mich. “We [the state of Michigan] were good at producing sprawl and now we want to build people habitat,” he says.

“Michigan remains a state with some small industries that revolve around manufacturing. That won’t change,” says James Tischler, community development division director for the Michigan State Housing Development Authority in Lansing, Mich. “But we need to diversify now that the recession is over. The current administration has established a high priority for re-establishing prosperity in the state.”

They’ll do that through placemaking, a growing international movement that capitalizes “on a local community’s assets, inspiration and potential, ultimately creating good public space that promotes people’s health, happiness and well being,” according to the Project for Public Spaces.

In the Beginning

“Out of the recession came a governor who readily embraced this movement,” says Tischler. So, the state started benchmarking, not just economic policies, but talent, as well.

“The data was startling. When you research where the millennials and entrepreneurs were migrating, they were moving to a number of metros. Where in those metros they were going, got us to recognize place,” he says. “They’re not going to the suburbs, and that’s a national trend.”

In fact, the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® (NAR) and the Michigan Association of REALTORS® (MAR) confirmed that trend in recent studies. All of this led to creating places in Michigan cities and downtowns that would attract people. From renewing a park to full-scale place planning, this concept will, according to Tischler, “help us ecologically. If we save our cities, by definition, we save our farms, fields and crops. It also brings more people to our cities, increasing job growth and economic prosperity.”

White agrees. “Michigan is uniquely qualified because we recognize the need to change our economic model,” he says.

It’s Working

Placemaking as a concept is working in Michigan, says Tischler. “Would you believe that in the past two years there have been more than 11,000 new workers in downtown Detroit? There are 35,000 residents, 42 percent of whom are millennials. Residential vacancy in downtown Detroit is at 4 percent, and in midtown Detroit it’s at 2 percent,” he says. “Our No. 1 concern is that there’s not enough supply for the demand.”

Much of that, says Tischler, is thanks to Rock Ventures, the development arm of Quicken Loans, which owns 17 buildings in downtown Detroit. Rock’s placemaking plan is centered on creating six distinct and unique destinations that draw people to the region, give them an experience that will make them want to return frequently and where they will want to spend more time.

“Their strategy is to bring in a couple thousand millennial interns each summer. About half stay. This summer they’re ramping up pop-up retail which is adding to the activity mix, and it’s all about placemaking,” says Tischler.

Because placemaking begins at the community level, it made perfect sense for the REALTOR® Association to get involved. After all, REALTORS® are the eyes and ears of communities. “Real estate is local,” says Kathie Feldpausch, senior vice president of the Michigan Association of REALTORS®. “REALTORS® are in the neighborhood all the time and are aware of or directly involved with the groups doing these projects. They sell place.”

White agrees, “Consumer preferences and demographics are changing. There are opportunities for REALTORS® based on the fact that the market is demanding information on desirable places with great people habitats. Just look at the popularity of Walkscore.com, and you’ll see what I mean.”

Micro-Level Placemaking

With that in mind, MAR decided to support placemaking on a micro level. The association adopted Lighter Quicker Cheaper (LQC), a concept promoted by the organization Project for Public Space, which offers small grants to community members and organizations so that they can do smaller placemaking projects in their communities. Grants provided by MAR, with funding from NAR, of $500 to $1,500 are given to projects deemed suitable for the LQC concept. The idea, says Feldpausch, “was that these smaller projects would energize the project as a whole. You must go through incremental steps first, and the best use of our resources was as a supplement to the larger projects.”

White adds, “The LQC model is a bottoms-up approach to placemaking. We’re taking small, incremental steps where the community resident is the expert, not the planner, politician or engineer. This is directly connecting the REALTOR® with those people living in these communities on a daily basis. If you’re successful with it, you increase values and demand because you have better neighborhood.

“Placemaking is essential for real estate, says White, because, “As a matter of public policy, and for a variety of reasons — social, economic and environmental — the state of Michigan recognizes the importance of creating and maintaining great places. And, who better in the private sector to lead the way than the REALTOR® community?”

The first phase of MAR’s LQC concept was implemented in Lansing in fall 2012. Each of the chosen projects had a REALTOR® sponsor, a clear concept and a community-wide resolve to see it through, according to Feldspausch.

Grants were given to individuals and community organizations for projects that would contribute to bringing people to a specific area. For example, one grant went to Friends of Reutter Fountain Park in downtown Lansing. They used the money to hold weekly concerts to encourage people to visit the park and the famous fountain. Another grant went to the Lansing Downtown Neighborhood Association to use for homemade and highly designed signs to announce meetings and encourage residents to attend.

“We have a park across from our office that is underused, why not hold a weekly yoga class?” says Feldpausch. “Building place doesn’t always mean building; you can use the built form that’s already there and encourage its use. By doing this, you don’t have empty streets and that translates into safety.” In fact, she says, projects can happen in a big city or a small town and be rural or urban. There are no boundaries.

Phase one was so successful that MAR is ready to launch phase two with six local associations across the state.

“They’ll use the template we developed to run the program at the local association level,” she says. Once phase two is up and running, MAR plans to give NAR the template so that other associations can download the packet of information and implement the LQC grant program at their local association.

Age Old Concept

The truth, says Tischler, is that placemaking is already happening all over Michigan. “Our strategy is to link them together, then model how the processes and activities occur to encourage more activity from a state level in developing the model.”

It’s vital that communities have both the strategic-level placemaking and the micro-level placemaking happening. “Even some award-winning architectural and landscape designs fail miserably in placemaking. If you’re not attracting people, it’s not a great people habitat,” says White. By bringing in both the community residents and the strategic thinkers, these places will help rehabilitate neighborhoods.

“A study conducted by the Knight Foundation and Gallup shows that how you feel about your community is vital to its growth. Those communities that had the highest satisfaction scores (community attachment scores) also had the highest growth in gross domestic product (GDP),” says White.

The truth, says Tischler, is “people have an inherent sixth sense when it comes to great places. It must have great form, which is the arrangement of mass and space within a neighborhood.” Great form, he says, along with the concepts of placemaking, increase activity.

Of course, when any community has activity, it increases the livelihood of local businesses and prosperity. “Quite simply, placemaking is a simple concept with huge impacts,” says White.