How Marquette is using 'placemaking' to develop a thriving community

May 13, 2013

We've talked about a House Bill that aims to stop Michigan's 'brain drain,' but communities throughout the state need to do more to attract and keep young people in Michigan. 

Arnold Weinfeld, the director of Strategic Initiatives at the Michigan Municipal League , said that 2/3 of college graduates look for a location they want to live in first, and then search for jobs within that city. A generation or two ago, the process was reversed.

Because of this shift, Weinfeld said, Michigan communities need to start 'placemaking.'

"Placemaking are the actual actions that a local government, non profit, or neighborhood groups take to create the kind of place that people want to be in."

Once a community develops itself as a thriving location to live in, he said, young minds will want to live there.  And by extension, college-educated graduates help raise the per capita income and prosperity of the city.

What Marquette is doing right

"Community leaders across the state have been engaging in placemaking for a long time," Weinfeld said.

Michigan is a large state, he said, and has so many assets that can be leveraged to attract people to downtowns and neighborhoods.

Marquette began assessing itself in the 1980s to create a community that would attract new residents and keep the old ones.

Bill Vajda, the city manager of Marquette, said that making choices that let the city evolve has let it thrive.

"In Marquette we enjoy a heritage based on natural resources. We've really moved away from earlier economies to modern 21st century economies. Along the way you ask, 'Do I still need those railroad tracks or would I rather have a bike track?' Or, 'Do we still need a shopping mall or is the integrated ability to enjoy a park, do a bit of shopping, stop by a beer garden - is that the type of lifestyle people are looking for?'"

Vajda cited the once popular trend of urban renewal as a trend that no longer works anymore. Moving business outside the center of the city and paving over large pieces of land isn't what brings communities together.

Now, Vajda emphasized the importance of local government working together with local businesses and  knowing the possibilities local ordinances offer. 

"Local governments should be the host of the party, not the life of the party."

"Local governments should be the host of the party, not the life of the party," Weinfeld said. "Find a way to bring people together and give them what they need to take off. It's taken a few years to get it done, and it's a constant effort, but it pays off."

Can drained communities shift gears?

"Even though some towns might be in a tougher spot than others, everything we're talking about is scalable. There's no reason that a small community can't have a sharp downtown, take advantage of the parks they have, and be able to create an attractive place for residents and businesses," Weinfeld said.

The Michigan Municipal League tells local governments and residents to collaborate with large employers in their communities and reach out regionally to other towns that can help them move forward on providing services. 

The scarcest resource on the planet are those great brains.

Collaboration and repurposing resources are two key aspects communities in the process of placemaking should consider, Vajda said. 

"The focus of 'placemaking' is ultimately to capture young people. The scarcest resource on the planet are those great brains. If we are exporting those great minds to the benefit of someone else's economy, the purpose of our economic growth plans are defeated."

-- Lucy Perkins, Michigan Radio Newsroom

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