Posts Tagged ‘regionalism’

Interns’ Labors Leave a Stronger, More Sustainable Metro Detroit

August 22, 2011

Southgate was just one of the cites where interns made their mark...

Threescore and some days ago, our interns entered the ranks of the UniverCities Connection program. Now, as the days grow shorter, they’re bidding us adieu and headed back to school or, in Jordan Eizenga’s case, moving on to post-college life. The offices of the Suburbs Alliance will be a little emptier without them.

Don’t shed too many tears, though, for there’s much they’ve accomplished. Their regional climate and energy work this summer testifies to the power of tapping young minds from Michigan’s universities to take on the challenges of its cities.

...leaving them greener (hoop house, Highland Park)...

Stephanie assembled a strategy library that the cities of Ypsilanti, Southgate and Hazel Park will use to build individualized climate action plans. It includes more than two dozen entries on everything from A (anaerobic digesters) to W (wind power), detailing energy savings, ancillary benefits, funding and implementation mechanisms, and real-life examples for each strategy.

Jordan Eizenga tunneled through reams of municipal energy bills to assemble data on total energy consumption for the nine cities that have adopted the Millennial Mayors Congress Energy Protocol. Now, for the first time, this data gives them a yardstick to measure their progress towards the Protocol’s 25%-by-2015 energy use reduction goal.

Jordan Garfinkle used his energy expertise to write policy briefs describing how the cities can meet that target. Do they need to know the relative merits of community-based and corporate energy strategies, or learn what conservation strategies have been working for other Michigan cities? It’s all here.

Michael participated in what sometimes seemed like every aspect of Southgate city government. Whether digging up energy records, manning City offices, discussing regional initiatives, or directing traffic, Michael reveled in the “extreme glut of things that need to be done,” and did them with gusto.

...and more vibrant (Crossroads Festival, Ypsilanti, outside MSA office).

The interns’ work struck at “the real meat of environmentalism in local policy,” in Jordan E.’s words. These young people have made the region’s first collaborative effort to curb energy use possible. Putting their university training to work outside the ivory tower, they’ve done what cities couldn’t accomplish on their own. The Millennial Mayors Congress and Regional Energy Office will ensure their work doesn’t sit on a shelf, but reverberates far into the future, as cities establish mechanisms for meeting the Energy Protocol and pilot local climate plans.

Just as important, though, is how the summer’s work has sustained and strengthened the interns themselves. Don’t go yet; we’ll be checking in on them later this week!


What Makes an Authentic “Detroiter?” Intern Michael Stepniak Speaks

August 18, 2011

One unimpeachable Detroit foodstuff is, of course, the coney dog.

UniverCities Southgate energy intern Michael Stepniak grew up in northeast Detroit. Yet when we described him as a “native Detroiter” in a recent draft communication, Michael wasn’t having any of it. In a cogent e-mail written at two o’ clock in the morning, he explained why.

“I try to play that stuff down, actually,” Michael wrote, describing his claim to the city. “If you move here, you’ll find more than enough people trying to tell you how ‘Detroit’ they are, and I’m not about to be mistaken for that.” Instead, he’s working to establish a different sort of Detroit identity politics.

“I truly believe in regionalism, and one of the ways I try to foment that is by the things I say,” Michael explains. “I like it when a suburbanite says ‘I’m from Detroit.’ Damn right they are. In more ways than they are aware, for the most part.”

“‘Detroit’ will always be a divisive, loaded term until more people embrace it as their own. And that means, for me, not placing much stock in street cred. There is already too much of a divide between ‘the natives’ and the newcomers.”

As Michael points out, claims to an “authentic” Detroit heritage can be jealously guarded. Even suburbanites have been known to poke fun at their fellows for professing a Detroit identity, as the final rap battle in “8 Mile” indicates; cinephiles will recall Eminem’s climactic put-down of a rival who, despite his “gangsta” pose, is no more “from the 313” than Eminem himself. Individuals, organizations, and cities alike all wrestle with this subject.

Detroit identities contested in popular culture. (

Yet Michael isn’t the only one urging us to rethink what “Detroit” means. In a recent MetroTimes column, longtime political commentator Jack Lessenberry urged readers to “[r]ecognize Detroit for what it really is — not the artificial city limits, but the real city, which is the counties of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb.” Even that definition, of course, might leave Washtenaw County feeling a little excluded. Its membership in the region was a topic of some debate earlier this year, after Conan Smith, Chairman of the County Board of Commissioners (and, as fate would have it, Michigan Suburbs Alliance Executive Director) received a spot on the “Fab 5” panel of Detroit politicos, formerly the “Big 4.”

Whatever the particulars, however, we can hope that a new metropolitan identity is in the works. For one thing, more suburbanites are venturing south of 8 Mile, and more longtime Detroiters are leaving the city. These shifts could unsettle some long-cherished identities and foster a new appetite for regional collaboration. As we’ve always believed, that’s something that would reward city and suburbs alike.

UniverCities Blogger Unmasked; Green Regionalism Makes His Commute Possible

August 16, 2011

The very first post to this blog made a cryptic reference to one Joel Batterman, “UniverCities Connection Communications Fellow.” After that, he disappeared from this blog’s pages, never to be seen again…until now.

En route to work. Item attached to glasses is rear-view mirror.

You see, I’m Joel. As communications fellow, I’ve been the voice of the UniverCities blog for more than two months now. I also study transportation at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, so I hope you’ll allow me to describe my commute from home to office this summer.

Sounds thrilling, right? In fact, getting to and from work is often a joy for me. It also illustrates one of the biggest themes of this blog: going green through regional cooperation.

I commute mostly by bicycle, and occasionally by bus. The distance from my home in Ann Arbor to the western branch office of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance in Ypsilanti is just over nine miles on the Huron River Greenway Border-to-Border Trail. For me, that works out to about forty-five minutes each way.

Border-to-Border Trail in Ann Arbor's Gallup Park, along Huron River.

This is twice as long as it would take me to drive, but going by bike offers me lots of advantages, beyond the simple satisfaction of knowing I’m not contributing to climate change. I invariably arrive at work feeling more energized. I get in all the exercise I need. And of course, I don’t spend a penny on gas or parking. As metro Detroit cities are finding with their energy efficiency initiatives, sustainability and economy can go hand in hand.

There are some benefits, of course, that are harder to quantify. Traveling slower allows me to better experience the places I pass through. I’m more attentive to the changes in the air after the rain, the pace of the Huron River I travel beside, and the activity of the people fishing in Gallup Park. Few sights brighten my day more than Amtrak’s Chicago-Detroit Wolverine rushing by me, or the living poetry of a blue heron winging above the water.

Amtrak's Wolverine crosses the Huron en route to Detroit.

It took regional thinking to make this trail happen. Despite its name, the Border-to-Border trail actually crosses a lot of borders. The section I travel cuts across four different jurisdictions: the Cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, plus Ann Arbor Township and Superior Township. Not all of it is on public land, either. Portions run through the property of the University of Michigan, Washtenaw Community College, and Eastern Michigan University, as well as St. Joseph Mercy Hospital. Some, like the trail through Ann Arbor’s Gallup Park, existed decades before the vision of a cross-county connection. Bringing all the relevant entities together to link older segments and carve out new paths required years of legwork by the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission.

The task didn’t faze people like the Commission’s Bob Tetens, who knew the trail would add up to something greater than the sum of its parts. It can be hard to advocate for regional connections in places where they’ve long been absent. Yet as Tetens likes to say, according to Concentrate magazine, “you don’t build a bridge for the amount of people who swim across the river. You build a bridge for the amount of people who will use it.” And people do use the Border-to-Border Trail: to get to work, recreate and enjoy some time away from the rush of motorized civilization.

Pedaling towards Ypsilanti.

To draw a larger regional analogy, greater Detroit is a region that could use a lot more bridges, bridges that traverse both physical distance and social divides. Too often, we give up and accept these gaps as inevitable, but they aren’t our destiny. We can overcome them, as the County did. Cementing bonds among people is often more challenging than laying down a strip of asphalt. But join together we must, if we’re to pull our region out of the dead end of disunity and set ourselves on the path towards a future that works.

What Makes the Greatest Place? Interns Describe Their Ideal City

July 15, 2011

What do young people want their region to look like? What do they seek in a place? These are important questions as the state of Michigan struggles to keep college graduates in the state. The Suburbs Alliance has been gathering perspectives from Millennials across metro Detroit through the Millennial Mayors Congress’s regional visioning initiative (see some of the early results here). It seemed logical to ask our interns some of these same questions.

Detroit's Cadillac Square is a unique place in the metro region.

True to Richard Florida’s theories, our interns are looking to live in vibrant urban centers. Stephanie cited attractions like the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Ann Arbor library system as big draws. Jordan Eizenga loves the number of concerts in Detroit, though he says “I sometimes suspect they’re just part of a plot to bankrupt me.” Clearly, big-city culture is a draw, whether it’s high, low or in between.

At the same time, interns suggested that the measure of a community wouldn’t necessarily be found by reviewing museum listings or events calendars. “Urban vibrancy could be less tangible than a row of boutiques, upscale dining, or luxury loft living,” said native Detroiter Michael, and more tied to the “struggles and ambitions” of residents. Similarly, Jordan E. said what excites him most are “people trying to improve the place they live in.”

Economic opportunity is undeniably important. “If I can’t work somewhere, I can’t live there,” Jordan E. conceded. Yet interns also emphasized the need to sustain the private sector with needed public services. Michael noted that the region’s economy was long overdue for “accessible, punctual, and frequent” public transportation.

Programs like former Governor Granholm’s Cool Cities Initiative aimed to boost Michigan cities’ lure for Millennials through creating places that appeal to young professionals. This strategy is undeniably important, as the interns’ responses attest. But it can’t be implemented independently from concerted structural reform. For example, walkable communities with a lively street scene are hard to muster when public transit is, in Michael’s words, “flat-out horrible.” We need big changes on a metropolitan level, like establishing a regional transit authority that removes the underlying barriers to people-scaled places. If we’re serious about building a finer region, we need to be in it for the long haul.

In Highland Park, A Region Raises a Hoop House

July 6, 2011

A barn-raising in the heart of Detroit? That’s certainly what it felt like as activists from across the region gathered in Highland Park on Sunday, June 26, to construct a 2000-square-foot hoop house from plastic sheeting and metal tubes. This solar-powered greenhouse can grow food year-round—even in Michigan winters. Armed with the right equipment, it doesn’t take more than a day to construct one. As UniverCities Energy Data Intern Jordan Eizenga and other Suburbs Alliance staff found, it does take a number of willing hands.

Jordan Eizenga is framed by the house's metal structure.

Jordan (not to be confused with Energy Policy Intern Jordan G.) found lending his hands easy enough. He moved to Ferndale this summer to be near the Suburbs Alliance main office, and biked the few short miles along Woodward Avenue from Ferndale to help build the house. The site was behind the Green Economy Leadership Training (GELT) house near Woodward and McNichols. A branch of a national youth network organizing for solutions to global climate change, GELT seeks to give young people a holistic understanding of the transition to a sustainable, community-scaled economy through neighborhood projects like the hoop house.

Things heat up in the hoop house's interior.

By late morning, most of the metal hoops that formed the hoop house’s structure were already in place, and the lot was a hive of activity. Builders included master hoop-house mechanic Jeff McCabe, co-founder of Ann Arbor’s SELMA Café, Margaret Lewis, publisher of the Highland Park-based Legacy News, and scores of others from the block, the neighborhood and the greater region. Now that’s metropolitan cooperation in action! While at rest, the group traded farming tips and enjoyed impromptu rapping from the youngest attendees.

The plastic sheeting has been hauled into place.

“Billow it!” As the sun sank lower, the team gathered on either side of the curving metal frame to push and pull the plastic walls of the house into place, sending ripples through the giant sheets to carry them over the top. Slowly, under the careful hands of Jordan and two dozen others, the double sheets slid down to meet the wooden frame near the ground. What had been empty space open to the elements at dawn became a warmer interior where plants will grow come winter.

Collective celebration with the help of a timpani.

There’s much more to be done before the hoop house produces its first crops. For Jordan and the other six Suburbs Alliance staff on hand, though, the day was an inspiring confirmation that people from all over the area can come together to build a healthier, greener and tastier future. Working cooperatively, the group built in one day what a single person couldn’t have constructed alone. Metro Detroit needs to bring that lesson to a regional scale: we’re stronger together.