Friday, June 27, 2014

The Politics of Placemaking

I think a lot about cities while I'm running. In particular on my running route through my new neighborhood in downtown Lansing I'm seeing the city through new eyes even though I've worked downtown for over eight years. I think a lot about what makes places great - great places to run, great places to live, work, great places to be. But I also think about how we get there, and I'm always running through the politics of placemaking in my head.

A few weeks ago at the annual Congress for New Urbanism meeting in Buffalo, New York I was thinking a lot about politics. Despite my not so secret desire to be more involved in urban planning, there's a lot of politics that gets in the way. Part of what I do as a lobbyist for cities is navigate the politics. They are real, and they can be really divisive. 

I feel like all of the things we discussed at CNU and all of my work at the Michigan Municipal League is a no brainer. Of course people want public transit, vibrant downtowns, walkable neighborhoods, great parks. How could they not? It just makes sense, and there's zero arguing that, right? Then we hit that wall that is the state legislature/state department/county board/city council/(insert other political entity here). As intuitive as it seems, there are still political roadblocks.

Recently I was discussing the sheer number of traffic lanes in downtown Lansing with a legislative staffer. Captiol Avenue outside of my office has two parking lanes, three driving lanes and turning lanes. It's ABSURD. So much so that I can (and have) laid in the middle of the street. Granted this photo is at night, but it could happen pretty much any time other than peak rush hour...and even then this street needs MAYBE two lanes on a busy day.

I should not be able to do this in downtown Lansing.

I was discussing with this staffer that there is way too much infrastructure. He looked at me and said, "According to whom?" And I was like WHAT?!? Seriously?!? It's SO obvious.

A few years ago Lansing put a bike lane on Saginaw Street, a street that was 4-5 lanes across and needed two of them at its busiest. The bike lane took up a completely unnecessary traffic lane. The feedback from haters on Facebook was shocking. People were scathing. How DARE we take a lane we don't need and dedicate it to bikes? I was honestly shocked. And appalled. How do you people not get it?

As undeniable as I think these principals are, politics does not always agree. That's the challenge with placemaking, although the undisputable research put together by great groups like CNU, The Brookings Institution, and The Project for Public Spaces (to name a few...there are many) has been helping to reshape the conversation.  This isn't a political argument. Placemaking is an economic argument. The focus on creating great places is critical to job creation and talent attraction and retention. This is not a liberal or conservative argument. It's the only one that makes sense - it's a necessary investment.

Despite the challenge of continuing to navigate the politics of placemaking, it's getting easier. People are starting to get it. It's not fluff. It's real, and it's critical. Navigating the politics of placemaking is one of my favorite things to do. So how about if we leave the politics at the door and work together to get something done?       

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