Local government’s economic development role: Placemaking and regions

posted on January 19, 2017 1:55pm

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By: Kurt Schindler, Michigan State University Extension

A key strategy for development in the new economy is to attract more people to live in an area. At the most basic level, the idea is to simply have population growth. More strategically would be targeting retirees (baby boomers), EB-5 Visa immigrants to the United States, and educated youth (millennials) as desired newcomers. 

In the new economy, we now see jobs and employers following talented people and talented people moving to quality places. This raises the issue of what are “quality places” and how does one make their own community a quality place? Part three of this series talked about that a little bit.

The most important thing about “quality place” is that each community has its own unique characteristics. Each community has its own set of assets and attributes that are genuine for that community. One should build on those unique assets to enhance and build place.

Generically, one can point to some characteristics of a place. At a regional level (multiple counties), they include attractive, high-quality cities, universities and colleges, first-class medical facilities, regional transit, transportation and highway access, and green/blue infrastructure.

Within a region, each community uses its assets to do its part in the region. No one local government area can be everything that is needed in a region. But they do have a role, contributing their assets as part of the whole for the region. 

One of very important findings about successful communities in the new economy is their work was done with a regional (multi-county) partnership. The new economy is regional. People, companies and talent do not move to towns; they move to regions. So, the effort needs to be focused locally but with an eye as to how it works and fits in the larger region. That means local governments, schools and the private sector must all work cooperatively together to market the region.

In Michigan, as a result of the research done by MSU, there are the Michigan Prosperity Regions put forth by Governor Snyder. 

The process, or effort, to build “quality place” is called placemaking. That is making place. To explain this it may be easiest to ask you to use your imagination. Think back to the last time you took a vacation or visited another city that you really liked. Now think back to what it is you liked about that place. Make a mental list of those things as you read this. 

Now, think about your community. What things on your mental list about the place you visited could be done in your community? Be sure things you list for your community build on the existing strengths and assets your community has. You do not want to try to make your community something it is not. That would look and feel fake and does not work. Actually, doing the things on your list to build strengths and assets in your community is called “placemaking”.

Placemaking is one means of attracting people and prosperity to your community. Placemaking done by many communities in a region is one means of attracting people and development to your region. 

The imagination example of placemaking, above, is a simplistic explanation. When working with a community, the discussion and making lists needs to be done in an open, inclusive way so many can participate. When done as part of a community, the process is more formal. It starts with knowing your economic region, or sub-region. This is so there is an understanding of what role the community fulfills in the region. For example, a very rural township may have the role to provide growing of local foods or green assets with forest or rivers. A city may be providing a downtown.  Another small town may have the cultural arts assets and other communities offering their parts. All together they become a region or sub-region that has a cross section of most the assets that are globally competitive and economically prosperous.

To do all this, one needs to know the assets and resources. So, start with making a list of those things. Then, build on those. Think about how it fits in with the region. That means collectively making a model or region-wide economic plan which connects to demand (regional, national, global). Working as a community group and coordinating with a county and region means talking to your partners often. These partners can be from neighboring communities, counties and regions. It also means partnerships that include each of the public, private, non-profit sectors. 

This regional approach also means one gives up some of the old models (see chart with Part 2) of doing business. Economic development is no longer a territory issue. Everyone wins with any one community’s gain. Everyone loses when time and resources are spent getting business to move from one place in the region to another place in the region. Be willing to rethink how local funds are spent, to invest elsewhere, or to help investment in another part of the region recognizing the whole region benefits.

In summary, economic development is now all about economic, social and environmental “placemaking”. It is one of the main economic strategies for local governments in Michigan and is necessary to catch up with many other states and countries in the western world. 

Finally, remember the shift to the new economy came to Michigan later than most places. That means we are behind in the process  of creating places where people want to live, work and play. In order for communities to succeed and revitalize, embracing these concepts sooner rather than later is imperative to their success.

There are many excellent resources on placemaking. The main one, written specifically for Michigan is Placemaking as an Economic Development Tool:  A Placemaking Guidebook. It is a free PDF download for anyone in Michigan.

Those in Michigan State University Extension that focus on land use provide various training programs on planning and zoning, which are available to be presented in your county. Contact your local land use educator for more information.

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