16 September 2012

Revitalizing the suburbs through cooperation: The Michigan Suburban Alliance shows the way (draft 16 September 2012)

(This image found in the online article, "Declining suburbs: Twin-Cities area project focuses on how to revitalize communities" in MinnPost. An article related to this blog topic.)

In several previous blog entries in  The Chaotic, Fractal and Complex City, I focused on the coming decline of the big box stores (see “The coming collapse of 'Big Box' and department stores and their urban impact” and follow-up entries), and a criticism of the concepts of Dr. Richard Florida, who proposes that the urban young professional creative class will be the primary vehicle for the revitalization of cities (see "It's alive.. It's alive" or another resurrection of the central city. A review of "The Next Major Real Estate Cycle: Walkable Urbanism" in Atlantic Cities .)  Although seemingly disparate topics, they have one commonality that links them together, the reorienting of urban areas due to emerging structural forces (such as the growth of Internet shopping, increasing petroleum costs, the loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs, growing service sector, the global economy, decline of the purchasing power of the middle class and changing demographics.)  Some of these structural forces have been prevalent for a considerable time period, others such as the growth of Internet shopping, have recently emerged. The suburbs as their core cities are confronting the same issues, but from a different perspective.  However, suburbs cannot bemoan their fate and rely on the ‘usual suspects’-local, state and Federal funding for their ‘salvation.’ They must innovate, adapt and form cooperative endeavors to transform themselves.  Although the stagnating economy in the U.S can be attributed to some of their problems, the structural changes confronting suburbs will remain to be a factor after the economy begins to improve and unresolved will lead to their transformation through market forces, which may not bode well for them or the overall metropolitan area. 

One such effort to transform suburbs has been undertaken by the Michigan Suburban Alliance .  In 2002, a group of leaders in the Detroit metropolitan areas realized that they were diverse, but had some common interests. Their webpage states:
…a light bulb clicked on in metro Detroit. These leaders realized that as diverse as their cities were, they shared important characteristics. They were older, located in close proximity to a major city and had little to no undeveloped land. Many of these cities identified as "inner-ring" or "built-out" suburbs. More importantly, these leaders saw they were all struggling with losing residents to newer subdivisions in younger suburbs, developers that were passing them over because they did not want to deal with the complications of "redeveloping" already existing infrastructure and a deficient state finance system that was disproportionately hurting their aging communities. Working together - to share resources when providing services, to voice their collective concerns and to craft a survival strategy - was the answer to overcoming their challenges.

The suburban characteristics described above are similar to many suburban areas around the U.S. Many ‘inner ring’ suburbs cannot expand, being completely developed or “built-out” Affecting their stability is the competition from ‘outer-ring’ suburbs who have undeveloped land and have newer housing units.  Developers do not want to redevelop existing subdivisions in these suburban cities.  It is much easier to take undeveloped land and construct roads, drainage and subdivision of land than to redevelop existing areas in aging suburbs. In addition, they have to be concerned with other issues such as mobility and sustainability-although not often addressed directly. 

The Michigan Suburban Alliance is a good example of an organization that is tackling these complex issues in a cooperative manner. One of the premier strategies by the Michigan Suburban Alliance is to facilitate redevelopment by means of their Development Ready Community Program. This is a process by which suburbs in the Alliance proceed through a series of steps to gain a Development Ready Certificate.  The criteria for obtaining the Certificate is based on Best Practices guidelines. (This is a large document and may be useful to save on your computer by using the ‘save as’ function available in most Internet browsers.) This is a rigorous, transparent and inclusive process which results in a master plan for redevelopment and an implementation schedule for improvements by each participating community.  The communities must be members of the Michigan Suburban Alliance.  This allows for funding of staff to aid them to go through the process. According to their webpage, eight communities have been awarded the Certificate, and eleven are in the process of becoming Certificate holders. Disappointingly, I could find no evidence on their site if this program had actually started to revitalize these communities in terms of more people moving into the area or job creation.

Two other programs which are highlighted are Golden Spike which encourages transit-oriented development and climate action planning.  These are interesting efforts, but not as well developed as the Development Ready Communities programs.

I find the efforts of the Michigan Suburban Alliance encouraging as a means to go ‘outside of the box’ by forming cooperative ventures to restructure communities, not waiting for market forces to correct the situation, for instituting progressive programs to address the problems and opening up of new opportunities.  The only item lacking, as previously mentioned, which would aid their case and other similar organizations is the documentation of the economic effect of their efforts. Other suburban areas which are facing the same stresses could take this model to form their own cooperative organizations.  

This process is an example of planning within complexity and the relational planning approach of Professor Emeritus Patsy Healy ( see Complexity Theory and Urban Planning in Urbana: Urban Affairs and Public Policy; also found in an edited book compiled of selected articles from the online journal in The Geography, Politics, and Architecture of Cities: Studies in the Creation and Complexification of Culture (McAdams, Michael A. ,  Ivani Vassoler-Froelich , and Jesus Treviño-Cantú , editors) published by The Edwin Mellen Press and Patsy Healy’s book Urban Complexity and Spatial Strategies: Towards a Relational Planning for Our Times (2007).)

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