Michigan politicians often paint a bleak picture that suggests every professional
under age 25 is leaving the state. But plenty of college students like Nikki Schippel are devoting their lives to revitalizing the Capital region.
Schippel, 20, is an intern with the Northwest Initiative, a group improving Lansing’s Westside neighborhood.
She works closely with the Northwest Initiative's director, Jessica Yorko, to show the city how they see the Westside—as a growing community full of gorgeous houses, diverse businesses and the potential to be a destination spot.
This week, Schippel will dive into the issues many urban core cities face, like transportation, gentrification and identity.
All Photographs © Dave Trumpie
It would be an understatement to say that neighborhood revitalization efforts would be impossible without support from a cohesive and determined group of local residents and business owners. Quite frankly, the idea of revitalization wouldn’t reach the lips of local politicians if it weren’t for neighborhood residents and local grassroots organizations rallying together for a common goal.
The question is, “How do neighborhood leaders and grassroots organizations lead a successful revitalization effort in a very diverse community?”
While I may not have all the answers, I can recommend a style of engagement that helps break down barriers that inhibit communication between residents, including differences in race, ethnicity and income-level.
I have never run into a person that wasn’t interested in creating jobs, keeping a roof over their head and putting food on the table. I also haven’t met anyone disinterested in improvements that make their neighborhood and roads safer for their kids, or finding ways to kick back and enjoy the people in their lives that they love the most.
I like to assume that these values transcend worldwide, but communication is key.
Cross-cultural differences certainly exist—and thank goodness! However, communication between residents increases when we remember that, despite our differences, the most fundamental human needs are the same regardless of where you come from or how much money you make. In creating conversation and showing compassion toward those elements of the human condition, communication and trust will likely increase and neighborly bonding will follow.
Much of my internship at Westside Alliance tends to be conveying a mouthful of information to the business owners and their employees. Whether I need to tell them about new developments regarding the road diet or clean ups, convince them to attend an event, a workshop, or to fill out a survey, or would like their window space for an advertisement, I have found my message goes much further if I first inquire about their day or catch up on what was going on in their lives last time I stopped in. The relationships I’ve formed as a result of this personal engagement give my work purpose.
I have found in my experience as an advocate for place-making along the Saginaw corridor, that if you want to connect with every resident in a neighborhood, you need to deliver your message by hitting on the needs and answering the concerns of each individual or group. If the point is to convey information in a way that garners support, you need to break down the technical terms and definitions and tell residents exactly why something matters to them.
And there isn’t a resident not worth reaching out to. After a low turnout rate at the first Design Lansing meeting for the Saginaw/Oakland corridor, I was told to organize groups throughout the entire Westside. As a result of our effort to reach the entire community, we achieved more than an 80 resident turnout. The groups provided a face for the information and residents were able to ask questions about the meeting and the proposed corridor changes in a way that pertained to them.
Methods of instigating communication and bringing residents together can include affordable family events and youth-based projects such as creating public art, performing community service, or creating excitement in local schools with a garden program.
The 2008 Westside Summer Fest drew an incredibly diverse crowd of 5,000 people. This day of family and friends truly celebrated community and diversity, and according to the Lansing State Journal, helped move the neighborhood beyond its negative reputation from the past—a community-driven improvement in itself! The Westside neighborhood also engaged young people by asking them to create an update Westside mural.
The ideas behind successful revitalization efforts, as I have seen so far from my internship and life experiences, is to increase communication and interaction between members of the community, and to remember that every single citizen counts in moving an idea forward—not just those that read the newspaper everyday.
As Lansing moves further into the process of place-making to attract new residents and industries to the area, concerns will arise about the negative impact that revitalization efforts can sometimes have on neighborhood diversity.
“Gentrification” is used to describe the arrival of wealthier people into an existing urban neighborhood. Often times, this is followed by increased rents and property values that can make the neighborhood unaffordable for lower-income residents.
It is important to remember that 50 percent of city residents in the United States moved between 1995 and 2000, suggesting that city neighborhoods see turnover in their population quite often. The reasons for this turnover often vary and may have nothing to do with gentrification and many individuals’ distaste for it.
However, there are methods and practices that citizens can engage in to keep a neighborhood from erasing living space for lower-income residents.
Policy Link, which is a research and advocacy group, suggests that cities need to regulate the private housing market to prevent low-income residents from being displaced. Many feel that devaluation of property by the government would be going too far. Thankfully, there are other much more creative options available, including tools such as nonprofit development companies and limited-equity affordable housing co-ops.
Nonprofit development companies can purchase houses while property values are still low. The Westside of Lansing is fortunate to have this type of involvement in the form of the Greater Lansing Housing Coalition (GLHC). By utilizing both public and private funds, the GLHC has purchased, renovated and sold existing homes to income-eligible neighbors who are looking to purchase their first home. The positive implications of ownership include better upkeep of the home and a greater involvement with neighbors and the community.
The only issue in solely encouraging homeownership is that once the property is turned over, it is not guaranteed that it will be sold below its appraised worth to another lower-income family. The GLHC is a catalyst in creating new development with the intention of renting the units out to very low, low and moderate-income families.
Another option is a limited-equity affordable housing co-operative, in which the individual household owns a share of the co-operative housing corporation. By owning a share, the household has the right to lease a unit and acquires co-op voting rights. Upon moving, the share owner may sell his or her share for either a restricted price, or the income of the possible purchaser, depending on rules that the co-op members create.
Similarly, limited-equity condominiums offer households the chance of owning a unit while a condo association owns the rest of the building. The advantage of having this type of affordable housing development is that households reap owner benefits that come with having a mortgage, including tax benefits. Because the condo association owns the building, there are restrictions on selling prices for units if residents choose to move.
The Westside doesn't technically have a limited-equity co-operative, but many neighbors meet to discuss Westside issues. They also share a community garden. Though this isn't a formal limited-equity co-operative, it draws from components of this option.
Residents of all incomes should view diversity among income levels in a neighborhood as a positive. A diversity of income levels in a neighborhood erases the negative effects associated with concentrated poverty, and improves the tax base, allowing for increased government services. It also promotes better understanding across income levels.
In some instances, current residents may feel angered or threatened by a change in the character or culture of their neighborhood. But carefully managed, increasing cultural diversity can intensify the charm that attracted new residents to the area in the first place.
With only a year and half until I graduate from college, I constantly hear the buzz between friends and classmates discussing their plans to move to New York City, Los Angeles and especially Chicago. What is interesting to note is that they are not moving to these great cities solely in search of a better job market.
They’re moving to these cities because they have a city design that suits the lifestyle they wish to lead. My generation is putting off having kids, parking their cars with a sense of permanence, and searching for a great nightlife to enjoy after work.
Planners realize this, and so do companies engaged in the knowledge economy that are looking to offer careers to some of the nation’s brightest.
Revitalization in the form of place-making—or creating a sense of place—is imperative for Detroit and Lansing if the state wishes to rebound from the loss of manufacturing jobs that built our once great cities. With the idea of manufacturing having a greater presence in our history books rather than our urban communities, it is important for Michigan to look at ways to attract the creative class and the younger generation that bring knowledge economy jobs, including but not limited to biotechnology, health services, etc.
Place-making is happening right now in Lansing. Anyone that has been keeping up with the progress of Lansing’s new master plan may have heard the term “road diet” used in regard to the Saginaw/Oakland corridor.
A road diet is urban planning jargon that means reducing the lanes of an existing road that are operating under capacity. This creates space that can be retrofitted to create a comfortable place for pedestrians, bicyclists and community activities. A road diet is a tool used in place-making.
Project for Public Spaces described the situation like this: “If you plan for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places.” The car-centric planning of the past 60 years has used our streets merely to connect our communities. Transportation planners passed up the opportunity to use road design as a method of creating places people want to be and shaping our communities for the better.
The Westside neighborhood of Lansing is trying to cut down the number of lanes on the Saginaw/Oakland corridor to remake the thoroughfare that rips through the center of the neighborhood, turning it instead into the heart of the community. Streetscape enhancements might include planting of trees, investing in planters and trash receptacles, installing small street lamps and allowing for on-street parking.
A successful road diet includes making space for bike lanes and widening sidewalks. Multi-modal traffic supports variation in activities that can be done along the road. It supports the transportation needs of all income levels and encourages a healthy lifestyle because people have the option of walking to destinations.
Interestingly, studies have also shown that, in most cases, reducing one-way streets down a lane has not inhibited the flow of traffic.
So place-making creates an area for the current surrounding community to enjoy. And it also supports the recent trend of migration to urban areas across the country.
With strong, cohesive community action and research into options available that make infrastructure improvements less expensive, advocating for place-making tools like road diets are certain to work toward better satisfying current residents, attracting the new working class and bringing new jobs.