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Here We Grow: Five Counties, One Future

How we got here, and where we’re going

July 11, 2007 | By Carolyn Kelly
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Grand Traverse County citizens were locked in a battle over a bridge and a bypass through the Boardman River valley for 17 years. But the epic tug of war between road-building enthusiasts and Smart Growth advocates eventually yanked the region into the 21st century after state and federal environmental agencies rejected the embattled proposal and U.S. Senator Carl Levin secured $3.3 million in federal funds to help the region design a better solution to its burgeoning traffic problems.

The public struck down the proposed bridge and bypass because it would have greatly harmed the wild nature of the Boardman River valley. But, just as importantly, the bypass would have failed to ease traffic congestion because it would have only accelerated the sprawling suburban growth that requires a working automobile for every adult: more strip malls, subdivisions, fast food joints, big parking lots, and all the rest—all fueling even more traffic.

The land use and transportation study that emerged from the rubble of lawsuits, broken bridges, and fierce animosity can cut to the root of our traffic congestion: the kind of neighborhoods, towns, and cities we build, and the transportation networks they require.

Pick Your Favorite Scene
At the heart of the study lies scenario planning—a cutting-edge, computerized tool that paints a vivid and accurate picture of what a region will look like decades later if current trends in population growth, housing patterns, and road building persist. Just as importantly, it also shows what that region could looklike if citizens and officials decide to change their zoning ordinances or redirect their transportation investments.

It’s a huge improvement over the transportation planning of the last half of the 20th century, which assumed sprawl was inevitable and built the roads that facilitated and accelerated it.

But scenario planning is more than someone’s graphics-based fantasy. It is, in fact, intensely data driven, using statistics from demographic trends, air pollution levels, zoning patterns, and much more to spit out precise projects about how long we’ll commute, how much land and water we’ll use, and much more if we don’t change our ways. Tweak a few of those trends or patterns and these powerful computer models show how much time, land, money, scenery, and other things we could save.

The accuracy and complexity of scenario planning is matched by the vivid images it produces: A bird’s eye view of the region shows how much farmland will be left 20 years from now under current zoning laws and growth trends; a street level view shows how a neo-traditional neighborhood with narrow lots and wide sidewalks would feel. A map of the region’s rail corridors bears an uncanny resemblance to a spine; a streetscape rendering shows how adding a rapid bus lane can subtract cars and relieve gridlock.

Scenario planning does not dictate what people should do—it only shows what will happen if they keep doing what they’re doing, and what will happen if they try something new. It gives people the information they need to chart a future course for their community.

Risking ‘Business as Usual’
We already know what happens with post-World War II, 20th-century land use and transportation planning. Those hailing from southeast Michigan, for example, have personally experienced the gridlock and segregation of home, work, school, shopping, and people that the region’s severe case of sprawl causes.

If residents around Grand Traverse Bay make decisions without accurate data, ignore the two-way connection between land use and transportation, and make fragmented decisions instead of working together as members of a region, the area will eventually look a lot like southeast Michigan, only with hills. Those who want a different result must make sure officials use a different planning strategy, and then translate that plan into zoning ordinances.

Now Is the Time
Over the next two years, citizens from every walk of life will have a chance to co-design the region’s future. Those who speak up at a public meeting, debate where to put the 365,000 people who will live there by 2040, and respond to surveys about what they want—and what they don’t want—will set the course.

The quality of the plan will reflect the quality of its people—their dedication to northwest Lower Michigan’s future, their thoughtful contribution to the study, and their steadfastness about turning a best-case scenario into the policies that will make it happen.

The Land Use and Transportation Study Group, in association with TC-Talus, recruited a world-class team of planners, engineers, economists, organizers, and marketers to lead a "visioning process" the likes of which Michigan has never seen before. Team members include: Mead and Hunt Inc., Fregonese Associates, the Economic Development Research Group, Robert Grow, Kimley-Horn and Associates, ATD Northwest, and Knorr Marketing.

Currently, the team is making plans for a "meet the community" opportunity with many of the key players, sometime late this summer. Actual visioning sessions, complete with scenario planning, will begin later in the fall.

Key to the success of this ambitious, five-county, communitywide undertaking is the strongest possible citizen participation. Those who want to become more involved in the Institute’s efforts to assure a fair, open, creative, and successful process should email jim@mlui.org. To learn more about getting involved in the formal LUTS process, contact Matt Skeels at 231-922-4573. Or visit www.landuseandtransportation.org.

Michigan Land Use Institute

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