MiPlace.org is essentially a newly launched resource hub for an idea spawned years ago by the Michigan Sense of Place Council, an organization now co-hosted by the Michigan Municipal League and the Michigan State Housing Development Authority.
The Sense of Place Council is a sub-group of the Interdepartmental Collaboration Council that focuses on placemaking, a concept championed by Gov. Rick Snyder. Bill Rustem, the governor’s head of policy, was originally involved with the Sense of Place Council.
While placemaking has become the current trending topic in the development industry, it was an idea that first emerged in the 1960s as a strategy to create urban public spaces people gravitated to, rather than for cars or shopping centers.
With support from the governor’s administration, MSHDA took the lead on what is something of a branding effort to create MiPlace.org, a project it took on with input from the Michigan Economic Development Corp., the Michigan Department of Transportation, the Michigan Land Bank and other regulatory and permitting bodies.
“I like to think of it as a clearinghouse of information,” said Katherine Czarnecki, community assistance team manager for the MEDC. “What this website does is puts all the placemaking resources in one place.”
With talent attraction and retention a central focus in the effort to create vibrant and attractive communities to be competitive as a state, Czarnecki said there have to be great places for the talent to live and work. To build these places, cities need strong financial backbones for investments, and having a single place to find additional financial resources streamlines the searching process, she said.
The “tool kit,” as it’s called, links together all the state grants, loans and other incentives and is expected to be available online by the end of the month.
While it’s good for government and developers to understand what draws people to places, the basic fundamentals of economic development are required to support ideas like placemaking, said Kris Larson, executive director of Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority, who was speaking at a recent community forum.
“We have to work to embolden and diversify our economic base,” he said. “If you don’t have the education and employment (components) down and they aren’t functioning well … you’re going to struggle.”
Stressing the talent retention aspect that placemaking tries to address, Larson said people are looking for an open-sourced vehicle to engage the community in a more substantial way.
“We have to provide meaningful opportunities for engagement and that is hard to do,” he said. “There is the easy PTA-like format, but we have to find newer and more innovative ways to get people involved.”
The challenge for a community is defining what it wants to achieve, he said.
On the other hand, the challenge for industry professionals is to work through issues such as placemaking that appear from time to time within the sector and that attract a great deal of attention, said Mark Miller, an architect and senior planner at Nederveld Inc.
“Now we’re on the bandwagon of placemaking, and it becomes very difficult for us to try and figure out what that is — how do we quantify placemaking,” he said. “What makes a place compelling is not going to be the same for every municipality. We’re not going to figure it out with a 25-point checklist.”
Getting beyond buzzwords, Miller said the focus for establishing “places” should stem from the concept of city building, which is essentially the same “DNA” as placemaking but on a larger scale.
“More importantly, I think what we’ve lost sometimes is, as an entity, young folks — and just folks in general — need to step up and tell us what they want,” he said.