Wednesday, April 25, 2012

MI Place

The state of Michigan is banking on placemaking to help us diversity and modernize our economy. The state housing authority just launched this website: It has plenty of good info on successful places, links to other placemaking projects and helpful hints for communities to get going. The emphasis is on the built environment in larger towns/cities but a small town in NE lower Michigan is also highlighted. On miplace, I found a link to some really exciting things going on in Ft. Wayne IN including a music video by young rappers who want to stake their claim to the future of their town. I don't know Ft. Wayne other than we go past it on the way south and I'm not especially a fan of rap and I work more in small town/rural placemaking but even I was struck by the spirit of this video. Check it out, be inspired.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Learning Patience II

Another lesson in patience today. I set a record for time to ride in to school. The longest time to ride in to school. Here's the recipe for setting that record. Start with a not-so-common, stiff NE breeze (guess who lives SW of campus), Then pedal slowly since so you don't get your go-to-meeting clothes all sweaty, And be sure to take the mtn bike because a. its lighter than robo-bike and thus easier to toss in the back of the car when you get the ride home this evening b. you'll be in street clothes not in road bike clothes. And there you have it. A never-fail recipe for slow. Still it was an interesting 50 minutes. Toodling along into a stiff breeze on fat tires and in an upright position helps one develop patience.

On the balance beam

The health experts encourage all of us to find balance in our lives. Don’t work so many hours that you have no time for family, friends and for yourself. Find something you like to do other than work. Recharge your batteries. Have some down time. Don’t wait until your friend is facing a health crisis to find time to spend with him or her. And don’t neglect your spiritual side. A lack of balance could result in a nasty fall. The impression is that Americans work too much. Some people attribute it to materialism. Some think it’s due to a fear of losing your job if you’re seen as the kind of slacker who takes vacations. That may be true for some people, but it’s not just that. I know people who simply find it easier to work every day than to face the pile of work that will be waiting for them when they get back. From so much worry about productivity and cost-cutting, their employers have no cushion in the staff. If you’re not there to do the job, it doesn’t get done and there’s just that much more when you get back. I think there’s another reason. I don’t have the research in front of me to back it up. I was not able to find any citations in a quick search, but I’m sure somewhere in the social science journals, there’s evidence that work is our new community. I don’t mean it as a negative idea. Some people don’t live near family. Some people don’t have lots of friends outside of work. They are not all sad, lonely people. It’s that the job is in a career they worked hard to achieve and that they get real satisfaction from. They may have moved across the country for the career opportunity. It’s only natural that their career would then be their community. Still, there is that balance thing. Work, even work at a job that you like, that is very satisfying, that makes you positively giddy when you think about the fact that you get paid to do something so great, should still be just one dimension of the multi-dimensional creature that is you. If you can’t quite get away for several days at a time, at least get away to some place long enough to calm your mind and allow non-work thoughts to simmer upwards. Find your thoughtful spot. Find where you feel a sense of place. If you’re lucky, someone else has, either through their very cool career or through their avocation, help create or conserve such a place in your area. And if you need to make a business case for your downtime, if nothing else you rationalize it as an investment in time that make your more productive when you get back to work. No, on second thought, don’t do that. Find your thoughtful spot for your own health, not to enhance your productivity.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

do be do be do

Our town is small (about 15,000 people) and our area a bit remote. It’s not on the way to anywhere else in the US. The nearest larger town in the US is 90 miles southwest, and it has about 25,000 people. Otherwise, it’s 150 miles west to a town of 50,000 or 150 miles southwest to a town of 150,000 people. For people accustomed to the hustle, bustle of one of those ‘larger towns,’ there doesn’t seem to be a lot to do*. For students from a metro area, there really doesn’t seem to be much to do. In talking to some of our students recently, most of whom are not from this area, I asked what we could do here to enhance our sense of place. One reply was ‘have more activities.’ That’s a common comment from our students. They agreed that there is plenty to do in terms of outdoor recreation, for which our area is well known. ‘The outdoor thing is pretty well set,’ they explained, ‘we need some indoor things, too.’ I described to the students a conversation I had with a local mom a few years ago. Her kids enjoy BMX riding. She wondered whether we couldn’t have an indoor BMX area for kids so they could pursue that activity in the 8 months that are not conducive to that particular sport outdoors. I explained to the students that my unsaid reply to the mom was that what the kids actually needed were XC skis. The students agreed that it had been polite of me to keep that comment to myself. It would not have been a constructive response in that conversation. So I let the students convince me that cold weather activities are not for everyone and that some people, including some of them, have a need for indoor activities. Again, politeness prevented me from saying ‘well there really are things to do here, you just have to find them.’ That would have sounded too much like my mom asking me and my brothers if we were bored. That would send us off looking for things to do or else we’d be cleaning the garage. So instead of blaming the students for not finding things to do, I intentionally watched for events for the next several days. Let’s see, there was a local artist’s show opening at the art center, there was the weekly art film at the local public library, there was a play by a local theatre company, there was a talk at the public library by an author visiting the area, and a few other things. So there are activities. Either the students did not know of them or did not think to take advantage of them. The events are publicized. Still, the students would be correct if they said they did not know of them because publicity doesn’t hit home if people are not receptive to it. So it seems we need to help our students become more receptive to these events. I’m not suggesting that students lower their expectations about what ‘something to do’ means. I’m suggesting they expand their horizons. How many art openings have they been to before? How many author talks have they been to before? How many live theatre productions have they been to? Small towns present the opportunity to do that. No, you won’t be able to fade into the background at such events. You will be a new face. But everyone won’t go silent and turn to watch you enter the room. They will appreciate someone new. Instead of just telling the students to go to the art opening, we should say, ‘perhaps we will see you at the art opening.’ Knowing that they will know someone there could encourage them to go. To use the jargon, it also models the behaviour we want to encourage. My ultimate goal in all that isn’t just to provide some entertainment for the students. It’s to get them to realize that these events don’t happen by magic. A group of like-minded people come together and put them on for the benefit of the community. In the future, the students will be those that put such events on in their communities. I would like the students to go one better than that mom in the BMX conversation who had actually said ‘they should build an indoor BMX arena’ without specifying who ‘they’ would be. Our students could be the ‘they’ who see a need and work toward meeting that need. But in the mean time, it’s up to us old-timers to help them realize that there are events out there and they can go to them and eventually work towards becoming the people who make them happen. ------------- * There is a larger town right across the river, but as similar as it is, it is still another country – with different money, foreign fees on credit card purchases, a sometimes not so quick stop at customs both ways, items not permitted to bring across the border. Many of us routinely cross back and forth. Even so, when it comes to ‘things to do,’ we can’t entirely rely on what they have going on. We need some of our own.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Learning Patience on the Bridge

One way this place informs my life is the fact that we’re on the Canadian border. My academic pursuits take be across the border each week. I also enjoy hearing the news from an-outside-of-the-US perspective and learning about Canadian politics (well, mainly via the Rick Mercer Report). Canadian TV is handy that way. (It’s still the old grainy style of TV so one TV upstairs is the Canadian TV). Usually crossing the border is not a problem – every now and then there’s the random check -- but with summer coming on, the traffic across the bridge is increasing and thus the delays on the bridge are increasing. I had gotten spoiled by quick crossings this winter and forgot to leave extra time for getting back to the University this past Friday. It was about 45 minutes instead of the usual 5-10 minutes. Sitting on the bridge teaches one patience. There’s nothing to do but wait. Does no good to stew and steam. The view of the St. Marys River makes it more tolerable than traffic jams on an interstate. It’s always a great sight across the up and down the river from the bridge. Technology helps, too. I made an appointment I’d been procrastinating about, checked my phone messages, updated my list of things to do. And that’s without a smart phone. I always put the car in neutral at the top of the incline and coast. Don’t know why everyone doesn’t. Brakes and steering work with the car switched off. It saves gas and reduces pollution. Maybe it doesn’t occur to others. Maybe they just like the idea of their car running. Or maybe they have friends in the petroleum business and want to make sure their friends are getting enough sales. (Is that why people leave their cars running while they go into a store?). Every once in a while I see a bicyclist on the bridge. My respect for heights (not quite acrophobia, just acro-concern-ia) prevents me from being that environmentally conscious. Next time I will remember to leave more time. The only time I feel frustrated on the bridge is when I’m in a hurry to get somewhere. I won’t have so many appointments once school’s out in a few weeks, so that helps, too. Happy crossings everyone!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

change of seasons, almost

Our DQ is a real local favorite. It's not one of those big city, dine-in restaurants. OIt's a walk-up. You step up to the window, order your treat and enjoy it either sitting on the few benches right there or more typically taking it with you, say, down to one of our wonderful parks on the St. Marys River. Given our climate and the fact that there is no indoor space for customers, our DQ is closed in the winter. The re-opening of DQ is thus a harbinger of spring for us. It generally opens sometime right about the public school spring break. The opening was delayed a bit this year because they had to replace a freezer. But yesterday was the first full day open. And we had snow flurries. So, yes, people did stand in line to get a blizzard in the snow flurries. It's not at all unusual to see people arms crossed to stay warm while waiting in line at the DQ in April and even May.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

how much nature?

When it comes to natural areas, more can be better. But since conserved properties are often taken off the property tax rolls, sometimes there can be resistance to designating another property to conservation status. When one property comes off the tax rolls, others have to make up that difference. But the conservancy groups respond with a.) the conserved property does not require the services local property taxes pay for and b). the conserved properties increase economic activity, for example through increased tourism. The conservancy might not mention the increased property values due to the contribution to the area’s desirability for newcomers. That might sound too much like gentrification, but the area might indeed find itself better able to attract professional workers if there are those kinds of assets that young professionals seek in a place to live. That makes property taxes go up on newly purchased properties. I’d be interested to see how the data supports the claims and counter-claims. It’s probably out there, I just have not searched for it. Any of you readers have insight on that?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A unique take on place

A town just south of us has staked part of their claim to fame on their dark skies. St. Ignace, Michigan, already a popular tourist destination because it’s a gateway to Mackinac Island, is capitalizing on the dark skies initiative. With all the light pollution around the country, people would like to come to a place they can actually see the stars, planets, satellites, meteors, and northern lights. West of town in the Headlands, the city is developing a Dark Skies Park and looking for local businesses to kick in some of the required local match for state grants for the park improvements. The park has gotten national publicity and is expected to increase tourism which would benefit businesses. A unique twist on placemaking, capitalizing on existing natural assets and boosting the local economy.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Red Queen

In Through the Looking Glass, Alice found herself running alongside the Red Queen but despite their running, they were not making any progress through the landscape. The Queen told Alice that “around here, one must run as fast as one can simply to stay in the same place.” Biologist Leigh VanValen (1973) borrowed the idea to explain that organisms must keep evolving to keep up with those that are getting better at eating them, keeping from being eaten by them, infecting them, or appropriating resources that would otherwise be available to them. Organisms constantly evolve just to keep up with the other organisms they share the ecosystem with. I had occasion recently to ponder how the Red Queen hypothesis may apply to communities. Our communities must keep running just to keep up with the constant changes in demographics, global economics, technology, and other dynamics from regional to global levels. If we stop, we risk extinction. We shouldn’t lurch from trend to trend. Some towns – like one about 100 miles southwest of here -- have large, gaping holes in their downtowns after some developer with the latest idea of a downtown hi-rise development went bust. Maybe someone urged caution, maybe not. But we mustn’t be so cautious as to do nothing. Let’s be careful and practice due diligence, but change we must. Plenty of other towns sat by while the world changed out from under them and now find themselves going extinct. We need forward-thinking people to help a community keep its collective eyes on the future; we need cautious people to prevent the holes in the ground. Thank you forward-looking people, thank you cautious people. What we don’t need is people that think everything should stay just as it is. It won’t. We might stay the same, but the world changes and we will find ourselves at the mercy of outside forces. We need, as a community, to decide what is valuable that we want to keep as-is and what we can do to keep up with the world while preserving those features. Even the natural, historical, cultural features that we want to preserve need some stewardship and need our messages about them to be continually updated. We need to agree on a way of identifying preferred options and how we can try to achieve them. Examples are out there to draw from. Even here in Michigan. A few communities have laid out their plans and, not coincidentally, are now among the few communities in Michigan that grew in population from the 2000 to 2010 census. The Michigan Land Policy Institute is studying those examples and sharing their insights around the state. Our descendents won’t appreciate it if we let our special places drift off into over development. Nor will they appreciate it if we let them drift off into extinction because we didn’t keep running.