The Placemaking Agenda and Ann Arbor Politics

The Placemaking Agenda and its corollary, the New Economy Paradigm, are on the Ann Arbor ballot this August.

For a decade or more, Ann Arbor’s city politics have been driven by two contrasting views of its future. While political contests have sometimes revolved around personalities and personal loyalties, the crucial question underlying almost every race has been that of what kind of community Ann Arbor will be in the future and who (or specifically, what groups) will benefit from that future direction.  At the heart of this divide is the emergence of the Placemaking Agenda.

As has been well discussed here in the past, the traditional party divide (Democratic vs. Republican) is of little value in understanding Ann Arbor politics, since nearly all the action takes place in the Democratic primary.  But there is a real divide, not only in ideology but in the political actors.  This has been thrown into sharp contrast by a recent analysis in the Ann Arbor Chronicle.  What is unusual about this analysis is that, rather than displaying the candidates and those who donated to them, it lists prominent political actors and their donations to individual candidates.   The Chronicle, true to its fastidious ways, avoids attaching labels to the two factions.  But it does note that the candidates of one faction are endorsed by the Michigan Talent Agenda.

Michigan Talent Agenda endorsed candidates:

Christopher Taylor – Mayor

Don Adams – 1st Ward

Kirk Westphal – 2nd Ward

Julie Grand – 3rd Ward


The Talent Agenda

Lou Glazer is the founder of Michigan Future, Inc.

Lou Glazer is the founder of Michigan Future, Inc.

This sounds off-hand like something related to the entertainment industry.  But actually it is related to a drive to replace Michigan’s fading manufacturing-based economy with a “knowledge-based”, i.e., information technology-based, digital-age economy. This has been very clearly enunciated by a recent report, The New Path to Prosperity, from Michigan Future, Inc.  What Michigan Future says directly that it wants to achieve is a high personal per capita income, and not a high employment rate. From the report:

Our answer: a high-prosperity Michigan—a place with a per capita personal income consistently above the national average in both national economic expansions and contractions…Places with low unemployment rates, but also lower personal income, aren’t successful to us.

How is this to be achieved?  By bringing in the young “talent” who can participate in the knowledge-based economy, either as entrepreneurs or simply the needed workforce.  The key is to make our area a place where they want to be.  By increasing the attraction of the place, it will be transformed into a New Economy.  That is the kernel of the Placemaking Agenda.


The origins of the placemaking conception are lovable and sweet.  As explained by the Project for Public Spaces, placemaking as a word and concept grew out of the movement to create shared public spaces where a sense of community could be built.  It comes from the environmental movement and emphasizes a connection with nature and other people.  It calls for places where people can move around freely (pedestrian access), with shared activities, often artistic, joyful, and nurturing.  Pictures usually involve lots of young children. It is about places where the human family is at home.  A good Ann Arbor representation of this would be FestiFools, which takes over Main Street for a couple of days each year.

It also connects to the idea of the sense of place.  As we described in our previous post, this is a consciousness of what our community looks and feels like in a whole sense. This comprehensive environment can affect our experience of life.  A recent MIT review has an excellent history of placemaking as part of the evolution of an urban sensibility (see the second chapter).

But the word has been taken over to mean a formula to create an attractive location that has economic benefits. Michigan State University has established an entire department, the Land Policy Institute, around this concept.  As one would expect, it has generated a number of academic studies, workshops, etc. A substantive data-driven study by LPI, Drivers of Economic Performance (BIG file!) lists a number of elements as increasing desirability of a location.  It also unequivocally pairs placemaking with the New Economy (emphasis theirs).  “…the New Economy has created a scenario where people move to places with high endowments of amenities, and jobs follow.”  LPI has now published a study on placemaking that contains this triumph of plannerspeak:

Placemaking can be defined as the development or redevelopment of value-added real estate that integrates essential elements of local and regional allure (e.g., mixed use, walkability, green spaces, energy efficiency) to generate an improved quality of life, a higher economic impact for the community, enhanced property tax revenue and better return to the developer and investors, while minimizing negative environmental and social impacts.

(You’ll notice that we have shifted ground from the soft and fuzzy to the real estate.)

Beginning with Jennifer Granholm’s Cool Cities campaign (2003), the emphasis has been on making cities places that will attract the young, especially young professionals who are members of what Richard Florida called the “creative class”.  The idea was that if you make the city a place these valued workers want to live, they’ll flock in and create a positive economic environment for all.  Here are some of the most commonly cited attributes:

  • Walkability
  • Transportation alternatives (transit, bicycling)
  • Third places (places to hang out; cue the “vibrant downtown”)
  • Green infrastructure (parks, etc.)
  • Active public spaces with things to do
  • Cultural amenities, including public art
  • Attractive built environment (including historic buildings)
  • Environmental sensitivity, such as energy efficiency

Want to hear this beautifully explained by a current candidate?  Here is Christopher Taylor’s statement on behalf of  “the young”.

Glazer and his group have been very influential in setting the state agenda for economic development based on Talent.  Governor Rick Snyder, whose professional career was grounded in the field of information technology (he was the Chairman of Gateway Computers, which he left in 1997), has embraced the objectives and language of this “New Economy” effort.   The core concept is that Michigan must create the types of communities and regions (through Placemaking) that will attract Talent.  As (supported by a consortium) highlights, Snyder has emphasized “place-based governance”, or more simply, “placemaking” from the beginning.  Here are some excerpts from his address to the Legislature in 2011:

Today, I am announcing our next steps to help communities build the kind of places that will enable them to compete in a global economy.

  • Establish a process for evaluating the performance of economic development and placemaking activities.
  • Encourage new initiatives that support local and regional programs involved in economic development and placemaking.
  • Promote best practices for local and regional economic development and for placemaking activities.

Michigan government has indeed gone through some realignment in these directions.  Here is an interview on Bridge Magazine of Gary Heidel, “Chief Placemaking Officer” of MSHDA.  He explains:

The idea behind placemaking is simple: By improving the quality of life in downtowns and neighborhoods you will create more walkability, which will attract talent, creating jobs and economic development…Quality of life investments from both the public and private sectors focus on housing, mixed use, transportation, public spaces and recreation, entrepreneurialism, historic preservation, arts and culture.

Now MSHDA, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority,  is the state agency that is supposed to “create and preserve safe and decent affordable housing”.  But it is now providing personnel and funds to promote placemaking.  It is, for example, one of the supporters of Concentrate magazine.  We reviewed a speaker event that was sponsored by MSHDA via Concentrate in 2010.  Here is a report from MSHDA that seeks to integrate MSHDA’s traditional responsibilities with placemaking.

Placemaking is a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. It influences business development and expansion decisions, inspires downtown revitalization and historic preservation, builds community identity and pride of place, promotes diversity and stimulates the growth of creative enterprise. Placemaking has long been a key organizing idea behind MSHDA’s community development projects. Together with our many partners, we invest in Michigan communities to:  Enhance the quality of life of our residents; To attract and retain businesses, entrepreneurs and workers throughout the state. Place-based economic development—creating vibrant, sustainable communities—is a winning economic strategy that will provide the foundation for a new Michigan.

If one skims through the numerous memos available on the MSHDA website, it is evident that this “placemaking” dictum has penetrated even to the most basic of affordable housing funding applications, including the CDBG and LIHTC.  The 2015-2016 Qualified Allocation Plan description lists “A strengthened focus on project location and placemaking concepts” as the first item in priority changes.  To that end, it indicates further in the document that projects will have to submit WalkScores (walkability) and distance from the nearest transit stop.

The MSHDA details are illustrative of how a ruling paradigm can overtake an entire governmental substructure.  There are many more examples and policy issues that could be brought forward.  Quite a few of them can be seen resonating through Council actions of the last decade.  Just one example: Percent for Art was launched with many public statements that Art would make us into a community that would attract the Right People. (As the guy said in the movie, “but that’s another story”.)

The Golden Future – but for whom?

As with any political agenda, there are likely to be winners and losers with this one.  While not voiced fully, those opposing the “talent agenda” candidates have identified some of the issues.  Who will benefit from bringing in this favored demographic via the potential cost in public money and altered community priorities?

Some of the supporters of the “talent agenda ” candidates have derided opponents as being old fuddy-duddys who don’t want anything to change.  Joan Lowenstein, for example, is the gift that keeps giving.  From labeling residents as “sulky”,  and then elderly, she has now moved on to “prissy”.  But doesn’t classic economic theory suppose that people act according to their own best interests?

There are many more reservations about the “talent agenda” than a simple resistance to change or the wish to be able to stay in one’s home in a nice community.  What kinds of people do we want to support in Ann Arbor?  Do we only want to make this an affluent community or do we want to retain our diversity of incomes and occupations?  This is a regional question as well as a city-based one, but one reason I personally moved to the 5th Ward is its yeasty mix of all kinds of people.  I love our little houses (and bigger houses) with people from all walks of life.

Why am I bringing out this populist theme?  Because the New Economy folks are pretty unambiguous that the point is to make wealth, not to make a diverse community.

The report from LPI cited above also has this paragraph:

Increased creative class employment is associated with positive population change and higher per capita income. This is consistent with previous findings (Adelaja et al., 2009). However, creative class employment is associated with a lower resident employment level. This indicates that the greater the percentage of professionals employed in the creative class, the better the community’s potential for future population and income growth, but not resident employment levels.  (see p. 44)

Get that? Current residents will not see a positive increase in employment.  This is consistent with an article by Richard Florida (yes, the Creative Class guru).  What is now being called “talent clustering” is beneficial to the talent class but not to service and blue-collar workers.  Indeed, they suffer because of higher housing and other costs.  Florida concludes,  “It’s not just a vicious cycle but an unsustainable one — economically, politically, and morally.”  And this is the guy who originated the whole Creative Class idea!

If you reread the statement by Glazer and Grimes, you’ll note that  the point is not jobs, not employment, but an opportunity for high levels of personal wealth.  (Note that a high per capita income is an average and can be driven by a small percentage of very high incomes, while a median income figure would better denote the income status of the population as a whole.)  So it appears that the “Talent Agenda” is quite inequitable.

Something to think about before voting in a Democratic primary.

NOTE:  All but one of the “placemaking” candidates won the primary (Don Adams did not succeed in toppling the First Ward incumbent, Sumi Kailasapathy).  Like every political race, reasons for these results are complex and vary with each contest.  For example, Christopher Taylor far outspent any of his rivals, and there was a three-way race in the Third Ward.  We can’t draw any conclusions about the weight of the placemaking agenda in this outcome.

UPDATE: A post by Washtenaw County planner Nathan Voght, writing on Concentrate magazine, makes a forthright argument for placemaking.

Why is creating “places” a key to transformation of the corridor? Millennials and Baby Boomers together make up the largest segment of the population. Attracting and retaining these age groups is critical to building communities now and in the future, as Millennials will make up most of the work force and represent the future of the economy, and Boomers are downsizing, looking for walkable places with amenities, and have disposable cash. These segments are driving a shift in housing and quality of life that “places” provide, where access to transit, downtowns, and walkable communities is the highest priority.

Voght is the manager for Reimagine Washtenaw, which has incorporated plans for transit-oriented development of denser housing alongside the corridor.  However, it seeks to create the walkable community in an area where most people will be living only to travel elsewhere (downtowns and employment centers) to work and shop.

SECOND UPDATE:  A thoughtful article in The Guardian warns against the cool city push (another way to express the placemaking agenda).    It calls this “policy-making by tribalism” and points out that often tangible benefits to people who actually live in a city are ignored.  From the article:

Those benefits are the heart of the matter, though, and city planners should not limit themselves to the things that will attract young, well-educated people. Their central focus should be to make their cities more affordable and diversified than they were before. When the focus of city governance shifts away from winning spots on magazine lists and towards useful service provision for as many constituents as possible – cool people, uncool people and the vast, middlingly cool majority – the US will finally have the urban renaissance it has been promised.

THIRD UPDATE: An article in Bridge online magazine updates some of the demographics (yes, young people are moving out of Michigan).  The reason could be – jobs!  Some interesting comments also point to Michigan politics and lack of civic infrastructure.


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7 Comments on “The Placemaking Agenda and Ann Arbor Politics”

  1. Jeff Hayner Says:

    Another excellent article that gets right to the heart of the matter, and explains so much of what is going on in our local governing ecosystems. At council a few weeks ago, in speaking against continued funding for SPARK, I came right out and said it – this entire push for economic development and placemaking is nothing more than the geographic redistribution of wealth. I am often criticized for speaking too bluntly, so I was thrilled to see you explain my point with such clarity.

    The problem with this new approach to enticing the creative class is that the first and second wave creative class members are thrown under the bus in search of new, shiny happy people…

  2. jamiepitts Says:

    Very interesting to see the big picture here!

    I am a member of the so-called creative class and I am concerned that the goal of attracting my subgroup to Ann Arbor might be used to justify an over-focus on commercial activity. Commercial activity is just one facet of life, it does not have to define our everything especially the space we walk through. What about family life? What about civic life? What about our elders?

    It is also important to deeply understand the needs and concerns of people when designing a space, and not just think about “eventual intended outcomes”. If anything, focusing on concerns might prevent unintended consequences.

    To speak to the notion that the creative class may be an important group, I should point out that in many places where tech and creative people are very numerous, life can actually be pretty bland (I am talking to you, Silicon Valley!). So be careful about attracting too many of us ha ha.

    But really, Ann Arbor is a very special place with many different kinds of people, and any project should aim to capture and extend what makes it such a great city.

    • varmentrout Says:

      Beautifully said, Jamie! Yes, I’ve read several articles about Silicon Valley and the impact of an over-emphasis on that industrial sector. Among other things, housing costs go through the roof. It could be argued that some of that effect is already happening here, though happily it is not a consistent picture.

      I hope to write more about the affordability issue in a different post (eventually), but I appreciate your insights about quality of life issues as well.

  3. petemooney Says:

    I don’t follow local politics closely enough to respond intelligently as to all the details of the different factions’ agendas, but it seems to me that attempting to encourage future economic growth is something that ought to be on everyone’s agenda.

    I’ve lived here essentially all my life, and while the local economy has always been, some what, insulated from the ups and downs of the auto industry relative to the rest of the southeast Michigan Ann Arbor isn’t an island. I recall in the 1970s downtown was struggling following the closing of Fiegels and Goodyears. More recently, the closing of Pfizer had a huge impact on northeast Ann Arbor.

    On the issue of a large creative class pricing out other folks I don’t doubt that has happened in Silicon Valley, and perhaps in Boston’s high tech corridor. But I don’t think Ann Arbor’s likely to become the home to the headquarters of Apple, Google, Facebook, Intel etc. In other words, we aren’t and won’t be Sillicon Valley. More likely we will complete to become a regional high tech hub like Salt Lake City, Omaha, Raleigh etc. None of these places have housing prices that rival New York or the Bay Area.

    If Ann Arbor does succeed in attracting new, high tech jobs it’s difficult more to see how this would negatively impact local workers. These folks will eat in restaurants, buys home though realtors, buy cars, go to the dentist, have kids in soccer/baseball etc. all of which would presumably benefit employees/business owners involved in those activities.

    I agree with you that economic diversity is important, but I also think that our city and region need to pursue strategies to bring jobs/employers her.

    • varmentrout Says:

      Yes, economic growth is always important and I don’t mean to turn this on its head and suggest that we don’t want any high tech jobs or the (presumably) young workers that they would bring in. We are already hosting quite a few start-ups in this area (I haven’t tried to track them but have read a number of reports). I’d like to point out that we do have a Google base.

      What I’m objecting to here is the idea of tilting all our public policy and many of our expenditures solely to this one future objective. This has many implications, as there are often choices to be made about budget allocations. The Google instance is an example. (I wrote about this 5 years ago: ; the city actually set aside money to pay for parking downtown and created an economic development fund only to bring in Google’s Adwords office.) While our budgetary situation has leveled off somewhat, we are still facing many choices where money spent in one direction eliminates possibilities in another. This is too large a subject for a comment.

      As to housing affordability, this is already a major consideration in this area, and one which I hope to cover in a future post. But the target group is already feeling the pinch, as described in a couple of Concentrate articles. Among other things, this has an impact on the pressure to change our zoning (as mentioned in the article).

      Thanks for your serious and thoughtful comment. This is a subject deserving of discussion at length.

  4. Steve Bean Says:

    Wow, those LPI people just lay it out there. Economics über alles, “while minimizing negative environmental and social impacts”. In other words, net positive economics, net negative everything else. Got it. And then “positive population change”. By that I don’t think they mean lower population (which I would consider positive pretty much anywhere on the planet). It’s a little creepy, actually.

    I liked Chris’s video on “the young”. (Also nice to see “forannarbor” finally get some traction in an election.)

    Nevertheless, I think the economic focus has all those folks you reference, Vivienne, missing the forest for the trees. (I used that elsewhere recently and then read it in Jeff Speck’s book, Walkable City, yesterday—coincidence?)

    It doesn’t matter “who”, it’s about “why”. And that influences the “how”. Heck, Nathan Voght lumped Millenials and Baby Boomers together. Isn’t that like 80% of living adults? (Maybe I exaggerate.) So he’s (and everyone else is) talking about everyone (because kids are always a given in these things, right?). So let’s get off of the group focus and get back(?) to a community focus. At best the current focus is misguided; at worst it’s starting to sound like solely profit seeking.

    • varmentrout Says:

      I’m sure Nathan didn’t mean to imply that Gen X doesn’t matter, but it was rather odd to see the bookending effect on the generations.

      Yes, I agree, the community focus is what we need. That is my concern about the Placemaking agenda: it doesn’t really seem to address all sectors of the community, in fact can be assumed to make life harder for some. Who benefits? and who decides who should benefit?

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