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Michigan Needs a Plan

New Jersey, developing countries show power of strategizing for success

May 14, 2008 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  New Jersey’s Jersey City light rail line accelerated that city’s rebirth, and it started with a clear regional plan.
Second of Three Parts

As Michigan’s terrific economic crisis worsens, it is becoming crystal clear that the state badly needs a statewide plan that is widely embraced by citizens and officials alike and points all of us to a brighter future. Until we have such a plan, we simply do not have the appropriate framework to lift us out of our current, severe doldrums.

We find ourselves in such a bad spot because of one simple reason: The world has changed. Success is no longer based on permanent, place-based things like our superb resource base—things like our abundant minerals or cheap, water-based transportation—which helped Michigan become an economic giant many decades ago.

What works in today’s global economy are things that are much more mobile and less fixed—an area’s charisma, its knowledge base, its services, its quality of life. Yet, establishing those attractive qualities is very difficult when we continue to hamstring ourselves with an antiquated, fragmented planning process that mostly ignores the big picture. Our communities must start coming together to strategize about our shared future, rather than competing for development projects by offering the biggest tax cuts.

I say all of this with great respect for our fore-bearers; those visionaries, after all, put together a strategy that worked exceptionally well for our state for a very long time. But we must see that they could not have foreseen all the nuances and realities that our new world is bringing us today. We must see that it is time for a change—and for a new plan to make that change happen.

New Jersey’s Genius
Perhaps we could learn from the State of New Jersey. I worked at Rutgers University there for 18 years in a host of land use-related roles, and I can tell you that the state has an impressive track record for looking ahead and planning for the future at a very broad level.

Recently, for example, New Jersey released the final draft of its Highlands Regional Master Plan. The Highlands plan would create the state’s third comprehensive planning area—the Highlands, which includes much of the northern part of the state.

New Jersey started along this track more than two decades ago, when it adopted its visionary Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan for the southern part of the state. A few years later, it established a statewide plan, the State Development and Redevelopment Plan, and the State Planning Commission. So the Highlands Plan is just the latest chapter in the state’s strategic process of “place making.”

What is so exciting about this history is that it shows the state is redefining itself, rather than allowing itself to be defined by forces that are not under its control. This is exactly the point that Michiganders must see: We cannot allow ourselves to be further flattened by forces beyond our control.

Together, New Jersey’s Highlands and Pinelands plans will place almost half of the state under comprehensive plans. Coupled with the State Development plan, there is now a strategy in place for 100 percent of the state’s land.

The State plan handled concerns about flexibility in accommodating both growth and local preferences via “the cross-acceptance” process: Every community in the state was involved in the process and could express its local visions. Despite the state’s emphasis on home rule (something Michiganders are quite familiar with), the presence of an active developer community, and a very healthy real estate market, the state was still able to plan for its future.

The reason is simple: In New Jersey, people realized that “to fail to plan is to plan to fail.” It really was that simple, and the plight Michigan is facing right now is an example of how badly things can go when there is no real plan in place.

Eleven Good Reasons
As one who was intimately involved in New Jersey’s planning process and assessments of it, I am convinced that all states that want to succeed must at least consider a statewide development plan—and whether or not the plan should have real teeth or merely gums.

New Jersey’s State plan has only gums: It provided guidelines for communities based on a cross-acceptance process that almost everyone bought into. The Highlands and Pinelands plans, however, have real teeth because of the natural resource and environmental amenities under their purview.

Plans with teeth do not guarantee success, of course, but the process itself at least creates a success mindset, something that is hard to detect in Michigan today. In fact, one of the most rewarding opportunities of my career was being involved in New Jersey’s state planning. Looking at development, land use, and quality of life from a statewide perspective is a mind-changing phenomenon; it leaves people asking more questions and thinking more broadly.

Why? Because, while you’re in the middle of the planning process, it suddenly dawns on you that so much more is possible when your thinking is not constrained to just a city or a township.

A state planning process has many additional benefits:

  1. First, it is essentially an asset-assessment process, which is required anyway if a state is to get to where it wants to go. It allows us to ask, "What is missing?”
  2. Second, it gets communities thinking about what is possible and what is in the best interest of the state. Communities do a good job in thinking about themselves, but when they spend a little time thinking about their region or state, new ideas for helping everyone surface.
  3. Third, it allows a state to turn the aspirations and dreams of individual communities into directions for overall state progress.
  4. Fourth, by forming a plan that has strategies for environmental, natural resources, water protection, and development, the course of the state's future is charted, hopefully for good.
  5. Fifth, state planning facilitates understanding the options for industrial and resource clustering.
  6. Sixth, it helps developers, who often have to deal with inconsistent local planning and zoning rules, by establishing a predictable, expedient process that serves their interests while helping communities position themselves well in their regions and state.
  7. Seventh, a statewide conservation plan allows conservation organizations to be more strategic in their work. They tend to ask better questions.
  8. Eighth, it puts the state on the same page as lower levels of government. In working toward progress, there is nothing as exciting as knowing that you have a team.
  9. Ninth, it makes the state accountable for progress. No longer can we blame all the independent local units of government for a lack of action.
  10. Tenth, for agriculture, the discussion can move to the next level—What do we need to do to help the industry become successful? For the farm community, there is better certainty about their situation.
  11. Eleventh, for state and local economic development agencies, state planning facilitates more targeted development strategies.

No Longer on Autopilot
In case you’re wondering whether New Jersey went this route because it could afford to do so (it is our richest or second-richest state in per capita income), think twice.

New Jersey had every reason not to plan: The economy was booming. Developers were making a fortune. Farmers were doing very, very well.

In reality, a state enduring a severe economic downturn and a resulting abatement of sprawl is the one in most need of a plan. First, it is easier for planning to occur when communities are not under development pressure. Second, planning for success is better motivated when the goal is not about creating utopia, but is about improving the state’s economy.

In short, a state that knows where it is going and is not leaving the future to happenstance is undoubtedly better off. The state may still very well fail, but at least it has a plan and, as a result, a better way to figure out what is and is not working.

One of today’s realities is that success in no longer on autopilot. We must plan for success. If we believe that proper land-based strategies are critical to prosperity, then it makes little sense not to have a statewide land policy.

I can understand that we as a state were not well motivated to have a statewide plan when things were going good. However, Michigan’s current poor economy, which I predict will be around for a while, requires a more strategic effort. Even though we find it hard to plan in a good economy, we must at least learn to plan ourselves out of a bad economy.

For example, we must learn to attract good growth rather than continue our age-old practice of merely trying to deter bad growth. The latter is at least fruitless now, anyway, unless we begin to see some economic growth soon.

I am anxious and eager to see this great state move to the next level. Part of this is due to my familiarity with parts of the world that found themselves in the same place as we are today. Following the Structural Adjustment Program of the World Bank, the world changed for the many emerging countries struggling to succeed.

Rather than challenge the old paradigm and embrace a new philosophy, many of these countries languished for years, looking to old solutions, designed for old problems, to fix new ones. They latched on to the wrong things that failed over and over again, putting their poor citizens through a cycle of pain that lasted for way too long.

Finally, today, many of these nations are actually beginning to succeed, while others continue to languish. In my opinion, the difference is that the successful countries are the ones who developed a plan that was tied to a vision that was driven by a dream. The ones that continue to fail simply did not do that.

It is my deep hope that Michigan will learn soon about the importance of planning, and then act promptly on that knowledge.


Soji Adelaja, Ph.D.Dr. Soji Adelaja is the John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor in Land Policy and the director of the Land Policy Institute at Michigan State University. He also directs the Michigan Higher Education Land Policy Consortium, a partnership among Michigan State, University of Michigan, Wayne State, and Grand Valley State University scholars interested in metropolitan studies. He came to MSU from Rutgers University, where he served as executive dean of agriculture and natural resources, dean of Cook College, and chair of the Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics. The opinions expressed are Dr. Adelaja’s and do not reflect the opinions of the Land Policy Institute or Michigan State University.

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