Michigan Land Use Institute

Thriving Communities / News & Views / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / Facing Up to Traverse Region’s Perfect Storm

Facing Up to Traverse Region’s Perfect Storm

This fall, citizens can make plans to boost prosperity, quality of life, environment

August 3, 2007 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  A wide-open, community-based regional planning project will give people living in the five counties around Grand Traverse Bay an unprecedented opportunity to choose how their region grows for decades to come.

I first saw northern Michigan through the portside window of a twin-engine turboprop flying from Detroit to Pellston. It was late September, 1989. Two miles below, the trees formed a leafy blanket ablaze in color that spread all the way to the shore of Lake Michigan, broken only by veins of two-lane highways, mirrored lakes, and little openings where towns peeked through.

I was a national correspondent with The New York Times on assignment to visit the University of Michigan’s Biological Research Station. By then I’d visited every state in the Union and seen how people live in many of America’s most beautiful places, from Cape Ann, Mass., to Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin, to Alaska’s Prince William Sound.

But I’d never been to a place that touched me quite like the coastal counties of northern Lower Michigan.

Lake Michigan, as blue and big as an ocean, was a revelation. So were the gentle sweep of the land, the farm fields, rounded hills, and thick forests. There were no Wal-Marts, no malls, no sprawl. I recall stopping at three, maybe four traffic lights in my first see-the-place tour along two-lane roads, which I had almost to myself.

A year later I spent two weeks on Crystal Lake, in Benzie County, and a year after that bought a little house in northern Manistee County. In 1993, I settled out there permanently, joining the wave of migrants sweeping across northern Michigan. I was attracted by the land, the water, the pretty towns, the sense of opportunity, and the region’s innate human graciousness.

Over the next few weeks a series of articles by the Michigan Land Use Institute documents how those attractive qualities now face a cascade of new challenges: Rising land, energy, and housing costs; static family incomes; growing traffic congestion; and political polemics. One way to describe what’s wrong is with official numbers: Unemployment is increasing. Housing costs and homelessness are rising; so are traffic deaths and family violence.

Then there are the easy-to-see, daily reminders: A Traverse City beach shuts down because of wastewater overflows. A business closes, then another and another. A For Sale sign goes up on a house full of young kids down the street and then a family leaves. A great neighborhood school closes because there aren’t enough children to attend. And, all the while, we sit in lengthening lines of cars waiting for the light to change.

The Institute's special series, Here We Grow: Five Counties, One Future, also points us toward a remarkably promising way to reverse these troubling trends: A citizen-led, two-year regional land use and transportation planning project that is coming to the region this fall. It’s likely the best chance we will have in our lifetime to decide, as a region, what this place looks and feels like for generations to come.

Designing a Better Future
Along with many local and regional leaders, the Institute believes that northwest Michigan’s biggest challenges are really design problems. We are growing outward, repeating an environmentally insensitive, energy-wasting, resource-consuming, time-crunching, inordinately expensive development pattern fit for the 20th century, not the 21st. Our habit of building almost anything almost anywhere is not only ugly, it’s slowly ruining our good life here.

The community-wide project’s approach to reversing that slide is unlike anything Michigan has seen. Decisions won’t come from Lansing or Washington or the county or township governments. Rather, this $1.3 million, federally funded planning project asks people to decide by coming together regularly in community forums in five counties.

Those who show up will work with a team of nationally recognized experts led by Portland-based planner John Fregonese and Salt Lake City-based businessman and lawyer Robert Grow. Mr. Fregonese and Mr. Grow have helped improve places like Portland, Salt Lake City, and Knoxville using the formula they will use here.

Under Mr. Fregonese’s guidance, neighbors will put their ideas about what they like and don’t like about our community on the table. The team will help people get beyond their ideological differences, develop trust, and make suggestions about where to put the schools, houses, businesses, churches, roads, rails, parks, and other civic equipment that form a community.

Mr. Fregonese will take those various scenarios, feed them into computer programs, and produce pictures that show people what their ideas would look like. Moreover, he’ll be able to show the consequences in jobs, municipal costs, family budgets, air and water quality, and other measures of economic and environmental performance.

Within a year, the region’s residents will be able to make a regional decision, a consensus recommendation if you will, for how to guide future growth and transportation in the five counties around Grand Traverse Bay. And that recommendation will serve as the template by which government officials, civic leaders, business executives, and citizens guide their own townships, villages, counties, and school boards in deciding what goes where.

The Real Deal
This process, which is formally known as scenario planning, is very real. It changed how Salt Lake City views itself and transformed the Wasatch Front into one of the new centers of economic and environmental progress in the Rocky Mountain West. It did the same thing for Knoxville, which is turning 700 acres of underutilized industrial land along the Tennessee River into a new community of homes, businesses, schools, and parks linked by a beautiful new river walk.

In those cities and others—Chattanooga, Portland, Chicago—people rejected the old model of growth because it wasn’t working. Instead of building roads, malls, big boxes, and subdivisions spreading ever outward, these communities looked inward, toward each other. They built new rail and bus lines, put homes and offices closer together and within walking distance of public transit. They also kept schools in neighborhoods, turned vacant land into parks, and cleaned up their air and water.

These cities facilitated more housing that working people could afford, generated new growth and wealth even as they made their neighborhoods and open spaces and shorelines cleaner, safer, and more beautiful, and made themselves into magnets for young people—which is exactly what our region and, indeed, the entire state, needs to do.

Northwest Michigan, of course, is very different from Chicago or Knoxville. It is already clean, safe, and beautiful. But the way we are growing is harming all of that, and more.

It does not have to be this way. We can change the way we grow to fit our region’s temperament, values, ideologies, and needs. That’s what we did in the 20th century, when land and energy were cheap, the population was small, and family incomes and government wealth were rising. Our spread-out communities, connected by lightly trafficked roads, reflected those market realities.

This is the 21st century, though, and markets have flipped. Energy is expensive. Land is costly. Personal incomes are static. Governments are broke. Population is increasing fast. Our responsibility to our families, our neighbors, and ourselves is to respond with intelligent ways to remake our community to fit these new market trends.

Like many of the nearly 30,000 new people who came here in the 1990s, I’m still pursuing my inalienable right to happiness in an incomparable region. The privilege of living here, for me, is bound up in this region’s natural beauty, pure air, clear lakes, and wild streams.

But my life, like those of everybody I know here, also is centered around the economic opportunities available in the Traverse region. It is one of Michigan’s strongest metropolitan economies, fortified by an ethic of small business entrepreneurialism unmatched anywhere else in the state.

It’s Up to…You
After 17 years, I’m still so impressed with this place. I’ve spent more time than usual at the beach this summer. I watch the sun set over Leelanau County’s hills from Traverse City’s west bay. I finish long runs in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, established by an act of Congress in 1970, with a swim in Platte Bay. I hike up Old Baldy with my daughter—a walk that includes a joyous romp down the sandy face of Benzie County’s tallest dune and a swim in Lake Michigan.

But the only reason I can do these things is that people decided to make them possible.

Lake Michigan’s water is clean because, in the 1970s, the federal and state governments enacted laws that significantly reduced pollution, and people demanded and the courts required that they be enforced.

Traverse City has a dynamic downtown because of years of intelligent thinking by a community that decided to turn parking lots it built in the 1960s and 1970s into new homes and commercial buildings.

Old Baldy sits on the western boundary of nearly 10 square miles of coastal forest and dunes that are now permanently protected because citizens, the state, a regional land conservancy, and a foundation decided to raise $23 million earlier this decade to preserve it.

These are the sorts of big decisions that northwest Michigan residents can make at the start of this century, as the Grand Traverse Area Land Use and Transportation Study gets underway. With them, we can protect our region’s distinctive beauty, develop a sustainable economy, and continue to enjoy the quality of life that this magnificent place promises.

Keith Schneider, a writer, is editor and director of program development at the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org Read his blog at http://www.modeshift.org/. For more information on how the Grand Traverse Area Land Use and Transportation Study came to be, and how it will work, click here.

Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org