Introducing a meditation on the underlying themes in a discussion of the future of Ann Arbor.
Concentrate, the online magazine that has a strong pro-development stance, recently (March 4, 2010) sponsored a speaker event called “Downtown Development – a Generational Divide”. The intro on the website was ominous. “Who decides what Ann Arbor’s downtown looks and feels like? Are we making it a place where young and talented people want to be? Is density good for our community?” Many of us who are tired of being called “NIMBYs” for supporting neighborhood integrity and historic preservation found ourselves on the defensive, since it seems to imply that the old folks better get out of the way and let development blossom, because that’s what the young want. (Some of the comments on AnnArbor.com’s story reflected this defensiveness.) But the talk wasn’t like that, and the panel, which consisted of two “younger generation” and two “older generation” types, avoided all the pitfalls and pointed the way to a number of discussions that we are having and should continue to have. The evening also highlighted the need to examine the underlying assumptions that are guiding much of the talk about Ann Arbor’s future.
Dan Gilmartin, executive director of the Michigan Municipal League, was the speaker. He has apparently been giving the same talk all over Michigan. (The MML is an educational organization that promotes the causes of cities.) His message is blunt: Michigan is sinking fast, and it’s never going to be the way it was. We have to change. But much of this was predicated on the loss of the auto industry, less of an issue for the Ann Arbor area. (We are the company town for the University of Michigan, which looks as though it is staying put.) Still, he made an important point. It is important for a city, including ours, to attract and retain young people who will bring their vitality and creativity to bear on making new kinds of economic opportunity.
Gilmartin was supporting a campaign that has come out of Detroit, called Let’s Save Michigan. A handout passed out at the talk had the following bullets, not visible yet on the website. I wish they had done a little copyediting before putting it out.
What We’re For
- Attracting and keep (sic) a talented/educated workforce by offering livable communities, green jobs, vibrant downtowns, and arts and culture.
- Targeted economic incentives by bringing jobs to cities and urban areas.
- Improved quality of life by promoting bars and restaurants, parks, and museum in walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods.
- Innovative job creation by incentivizing entrepreneurship and small business.
- Smart city redevelopment by rebuilding downtowns and repopulate mixed-use areas.
- Sustaining and improving existing infrastructure by maintaing (sic) and improving public transit in urban areas.
- Appropriate taxation policies that reflect our modern economy and promote better use of existing infrastructure.
The language is garbled and sometimes opaque on careful reading, but the theme is a familiar new urbanist one with a strong dose of “Cool Cities” (what the points about economic incentives indicate are a mystery).
Gilmartin’s talk was easier to understand and well-presented. He started right off by saying that there was a cultural and attitudinal divide in discussions of Michigan’s future. “Michigan is in such a funk.” Everyone in Michigan is, he said, basically managing the decline, right down to the municipal level, where we talk about how many police and firefighters to lay off this year or next (sound familiar?). He urged us to change the conversation.
Much of the talk was around the idea that Michigan has to move beyond the old paradigm of a one-industry state where people could get a good job without a college education to one that entices the young talent to stay here and create a new economy. In 2008, Gilmartin said, Michigan was 37th among the states in per capita income. Meanwhile, the young Millennials (defined here as young adults under 35) are not staying; 46% leave Michigan after graduation.
Now here is where we get to the crux of his thesis. He says they are not leaving because they don’t have jobs, but because they don’t find the experience of living here sufficiently enticing. While in the old paradigm, people moved to where the jobs are – now (young) people move to where they want to live, then create the jobs.
“Place attracts people.” With the global economy, knowledge-based industries are the future and people can work anywhere because of the Internet and general connectiveness. So young people will choose where to live first, then look for work. They are choosing urban centers. Citing a study in Fast Company magazine, he said that the young innovators choose “fast cities” like London, where one out of eight work in a “creative industry”.
What this means about jobs is that we are relying on these young innovators to create them. “We need to measure job creation in ones and twos instead of thousands.” So for job growth, we have to bring the creative innovators here, where they will make the jobs.
And what do the young creative innovators want? A sense of place. An urbanized area where they run into lots of others like themselves (but not too much like, they treasure diversity). Open space. (Hooray for the park on the Library Lot!) Museums and cultural opportunities. Walkable communities. Cafés. Bike paths. Informal “third places” where they can gather (Commons, anyone?). Green design. They want communities built around happiness and well-being, that aim for excellence, not mediocrity. Accessibility. Sociability. Much of this is about what commentator Alice Ralph later characterized as “density of experience”: what Gilmartin called “1000 nights” worth of activities. (That’s two nights a week for 50 weeks a year for 10 years, after which the Millennial gets married and moves to the suburbs.)
Except maybe for the 1000 nights concept, there is little here that any thinking sensitive person would contest, and it seems that Ann Arbor already fills a lot of those criteria. But then we launch into a new discussion: the role of density in achieving all this. As Gilmartin said, we hate two things: sprawl and density. “You gotta figure that out.”
It was clear that moderator Jeff Meyers and the institutional host of this talk, Concentrate, wanted to make the discussion about density and development, though that was not the major focus of the talk. The panel, Anya Dale (a planner who works for Washtenaw County), Ray Detter (of the Downtown Citizens’ Advisory Council), Richard (aka Murph) Murphy, (a founder of Arbor Update and until recently the Ypsilanti city planner), and Alice Ralph (a civic activist who most recently wrote the Commons proposal) neatly side-stepped most of his efforts to make the subject contentious on a generational level, as the title implied.
In answer to a question about whether the Millennials felt too entitled, the panel agreed that we need a diversity of options for all ages, including more housing choices (other than, as Dale said, single-family houses or expensive downtown condos). Meyers then asked who gets to define the character of a neighborhood (and, he added, is this question too focused on aesthetics); he interrupted Ralph to ask whether that should be current or “future” residents. The panel generally answered that the “neighbors” (current residents) should decide, regardless, as Murphy said, of age and tenure (he left the operational question of contacting future residents aside). Detter also made the point that increased downtown density should not extend to the near-downtown neighborhoods that come under the Central Area Plan, where scale and character were considered important by the plan and the residents alike. (This was not a direct answer to the question but met the implied challenge, since much of the recent controversy has been about the near-downtown Germantown area, where one of Concentrate’s principals has an interest in the Moravian project.) Ralph made the insightful comment that the presentation was about encouraging a positive social development, not about encouraging business, commercial and development interests to create more of what they already have. Murphy observed that some near-downtown neighborhoods (the Old Fourth Ward) already were quite dense (density being defined as number of housing units per area) and that other near-downtown neighborhoods could help meet the challenge of increasing density without altering scale or character by allowing accessory apartments. This would acknowledge that many households are quite small now (1-2 people) and allow more people to live in that area.
Meyers then asked if you couldn’t have medium-size buildings in between, but Dale said that is not how a successful community works; the solution is transit. There was then a turn of the discussion to improving transit, so that (young) people can live many places in the area (not just downtown) and get places they need to go efficiently. Murphy mentioned that there are areas elsewhere besides downtown that could accept a lot more density (State Street/Eisenhower being an example); if good transit systems exist, this is a good workable solution. All four panelists agreed that regional transportation as well as local transportation was important.
So the panel was able to show pretty fair unanimity on this question: how do we create more diverse housing and greater residential density in our community? But some of the underlying questions were not addressed.
1. Does the thesis put forth by the speaker that we can and should intentionally create a community that will draw young talent to Ann Arbor in order to provide for a future economic benefit make sense?
2. If so, is residential density at all part of the strategy?
3. What is the current state of that demographic in our city?
4. How does this idea fit into our overall hopes for Ann Arbor’s future and where we go from here?
UPDATE: Jeff Meyers, the editor of Concentrate, wrote a lengthy comment and rebuttal to much of this post, which I have posted below under comments. (It was sent to our gmail address after he was unable to post a comment in the ordinary way on the site.) I won’t comment on his statements except to acknowledge that I was evidently in error regarding Newcombe Clark’s current involvement with Concentrate, for which I apologize.
SECOND UPDATE: Crain’s Detroit Business has a story about 20-somethings who have come back to Ann Arbor – for the quality of life, among other things.