Pure Genius

Restoring Honor

Posting in Cities

Honor, Mich. was a small town that had so much going for it. But along the way, it got off track. Now, residents are trying to reclaim their beloved town by restoring a sense of "place."

When you’re a soldier, there are only two things to talk about: life in the military, and the life that came before it. So after showing off one’s battle scars, the question inevitably comes: “Where are you from?”

Most soldiers are excited to answer.

That was the case for Shantel Sellers, a 41-year-old Army veteran. For a time, anyway. Each time she came back to her hometown of Honor, Mich., a small village of 300 tucked along the Platte River in the state’s northwest corner, there was less and less to be proud of. Sure, Honor is still home to the Cherry Bowl, one of the few remaining drive-in movie theaters in the country. And residents still celebrate the annual Coho Salmon Festival, complete with a parade, lawn tractor races and a beer tent.

But the rest of Honor appears largely forgotten. Many of the old shops are closed. Vacant buildings are falling apart. The river remains inaccessible to most residents, much of it hemmed in by private property that once was home to a thriving lumber mill. “It’s so gradual,” Sellers, 41, says. “You don’t know how to stop it or why it’s happening.”

The only true hive of activity in the area comes from U.S. 31, the state highway that funnels thousands of cars through Honor on the way to the nearby Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Those people have had little reason to stop in town and open their wallets.

SOLDIERING ON

As she witnessed Honor’s decline, Sellers visited other towns and when she found one particularly pleasant, she grabbed copies of local papers, fliers, and festival calendars, searching for some hint to their success. What she found was a deliberate and sustained effort to create a sense of “place”— public spaces that engage and attract visitors and residents alike.

Why then, she wondered, couldn’t it happen in Honor?

Communities across the country are asking similar questions. As government officials and residents alike grapple with the fallout from the economic recession -- plus years of myopic planning that resulted in the sprawling, Big-Boxed and strip-malled cities and towns that dominate the American landscape -- many are seeking a way out. Some way to make the outlook a little less bleak. Some way to make their lives a bit better. One way to do that: look at what's in front of you, and figure out how to improve and expand upon it. And, with luck, lower how much it costs to run things.

Such efforts are typically called “placemaking.” In the simplest terms, the word describes the process of making places better, whether in a town, college campus or office park. Those who use the spaces lead the effort and, in many cases, small-scale improvements are implemented quickly, with the goal of building momentum and greater community support.

The product of placemaking can be seen in projects as diverse as one that closed parts of New York City's Times Square to car traffic to another that turned vacant Chicago storefronts into pop-up art galleries. It can be as simple as placing a few benches and shade trees in a forgotten street corner, or an ice cream stand and fountain in a sprawling city park.

The idea of placemaking isn't new. Fred Kent, the head of the New York-based Project for Public Spaces who was groomed by renowned urbanist William H. Whyte, has been promoting the idea for decades. But those involved in the effort, including Kent—whose fingerprints are on projects as varied as an IRS call center in Ogden, Utah, and the traffic reorganization in Times Square—say it’s gained particular momentum in recent years.

“We’re going back to a market and local kind of culture,” he says.

FROM THE BOTTOM UP

Part of that phenomenon can be attributed to a measure of desperation in long-declining cities and towns. In places like Michigan, where a manufacturing recession took root four years before the global financial crisis in 2008, there’s ample evidence that automobile-centered prosperity and development was ephemeral and imprudent. Experimenting with new, creative strategies that solve problems -- not create new ones -- has become a matter of survival.

A decline in vacation travel after the market crashed didn't help, either. A 2000 Marist poll found that 66 percent of Americans planned to take a vacation; by last year, the number stood at 44 percent. When you're stuck at home, you're more likely to rediscover your own backyard.

Additionally, a growing body of data suggests that happiness at home has a powerful correlation to economic vitality. A 2008-2010 study by the Knight Foundation and Gallup indicates that social offerings, aesthetics and inclusiveness -- not civic engagement -- are the most important factors in determining whether residents feel attached to their communities.

Katherine Loflin, a social worker by training, was picked to oversee the Knight study because of her background in civic engagement. The concept has long guided efforts to enhance local quality of life, but when Loflin and her colleagues looked at the data, they realized that the level of citizen involvement in a town or city's affairs had very little to do with their happiness. Smaller details—things like easy access to parks and restaurants, nice landscaping on the streets, inclusiveness—decidedly trumped active engagement in public life. It came as a great surprise.

"Placemaking is not a touchy feely, warm fuzzy thing," Loflin said. "We are continuing to see, over and over, an empirical relationship between people’s attachment to cities and economic development. We have to be careful not to discount how important this is.”

Such findings turn traditional government-centered, technocratic planning and development on its head. The people, it seems, know what's best for their neighborhood.

“Qualitatively you get a much better result when you have the community engaged,” says Larry Mawby, a winemaker and Village Council president of Sutton’s Bay, Mich., a tourist town on the Grand Traverse Bay that has aggressively embraced placemaking. “Usually the process is top down. Government comes up with a plan and sells it to other people. The worst thing that you can do is have the elected officials achieve consensus among themselves about what the future of the community should be.”

The village government in Sutton’s Bay organized a number of public meetings to generate ideas on improving the community, and established a committee to ensure that those comments were incorporated by the designers and planners hired to do the work. It represented a paradigm shift—taking the power from the self-proclaimed experts and professional community and handing it to the people who will actually live with the results.

The approach also steers discussion away from highly-politicized, one-agenda issues—environmentalism, taxation— that typically dominate public debate. Such topics are often spring organically from community decisions about making great places, but rarely is it the sole aim.

With such a broad, community-generated plan in place, Sutton’s Bay was able to coordinate quality-of-life improvements with infrastructure projects—installation of a stormwater drain, for instance— to lower costs. When possible, they also favored the simple over the complex. To make the town more pedestrian friendly, residents passed on an expensive traffic circle in favor of flexible, low-tech solutions like movable planters and slightly raised grades in pedestrian-heavy areas.

Such a “lighter, quicker, cheaper” approach—as coined by Eric Reynolds, a UK-based “urban regeneration” expert, and promoted by Kent and PPS—is often the best way to create a sense of place, proponents say. Small, incremental improvement, they argue, is often more effective at convincing residents that more engaging public spaces are not only desirable, but achievable.

“These cheap, easy to implement ideas, that are almost always resident led,” says Loflin. "They can be very small things that can really be a huge difference."

RESTORING HONOR

Such was Sellers’s approach to, in her words, restoring Honor. After she and her husband, Anthony, sold their Florida-based business several years ago, the couple moved to Shantel’s hometown. She soon fell in with a crowd of like-minded neighbors who decided to do something about the its dwindling fortunes. They established the Honor Area Restoration Project, held town meetings (attended by roughly half the population), articulated a vision based on the discussions, and applied for grants to pay for the improvements. The first order of business was to build a sidewalk on a state highway that bisects the town to connect Honor’s downtown with a shopping plaza. A local teenager built a covered bridge for his Eagle Scout project. The Honor Garden Club will plant flowers in spring.

“We see people using it daily,” Sellers says. “You see the guy in her motorized wheelchair, the mom pushing a stroller, who used to be on the shoulder of US 31. It used to be a ditch that you had to walk around and avoid getting hit.”

Honor’s residents have resisted the urge to try to do everything at once, with all the planning, cost and frustration that typically entails. Sure, Sellers says, they would love to build sidewalks on twenty blocks. But one block is enough to prove the possibilities. As a next step, the town purchased land on the main drag that formerly housed an auto shop. It will become public parking.

Given its short existence, measuring the economic impact of a sidewalk and parking lot is hard to gauge. But, to purists like Kent, focusing on hard numbers is beside the point. It’s the qualitative data, the so-called smile quotient, that matters most. And that people feel empowered to improve their own communities.

“We have a pirate democracy,” Sellers says. “Everyone has an equal say.”

To the southeast, in metro Detroit, the placemaking movement is in full bloom. It began in earnest with the 2004 redevelopment of the city’s Campus Martius Park, which had been largely dismantled decades earlier to accommodate car traffic. The park energized the surrounding neighborhood, which prompted a reported $2 billion in private investment from firms like Compuware and Quicken Loans.

Responding to a shortage of young, educated residents, the types who are believed stabilize and energize neighborhoods, the city has a stated goal of attracting 15,000 of them to Detroit by 2015. To do that, Detroit is drawing on studies from Knight and elsewhere suggesting that young, educated people choose where to live first, then look for a job.  The city hopes to lure them by creating public spaces worth moving for. It is all part of a piece—there are also subsidies to purchase or rent housing in targeted neighborhoods, arts-centered developments, and beautification efforts aimed at streets throughout the city.

As Kent repeatedly points out, placemaking need not be done on such on an ambitious scale. After a successful battle to keep a Bass Pro retail shop from opening on the waterfront in Buffalo, N.Y., local activist Mark Goldman decided to place outdoor chairs on the proposed site. (His brother is a board member at Kent’s Project for Public Spaces.) The people soon came, and so, too, did a snack bar. Zumba and yoga classes followed.

“It’s ironic,” Goldman told the Buffalo News in July. “The major economic-development success story in our community this year involves $3,000 worth of Adirondack chairs.”

For Shantel Sellers, turning her hometown around started with a $5,000 grant, a sidewalk, and an informal chat with a few neighborhood friends.

“We just sat down one day over a cup of coffee and said, ‘What can we do about Honor?’” she said.

Her answer was simple: “Anything we set our minds to.”

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Matthew Malone

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Matthew Malone is the editor-at-large of Aspen Magazine. Formerly, he was a staff reporter at Conde Nast Portfolio. He has written for The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Smartmoney.com, Fortune.com and Forbes.com. He holds degrees from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. He is based in Connecticut. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure