During most of the twentieth century, Michigan was one of the most successful industrial powerhouses on the planet.
And it is not surprising that this industrial perspective has deeply shaped the mindset of this community.
But we’ve moved away from an era when the economy was marked by qualities like long-term trust, union wages, repetitive physical labor.
The successful industrial mindset has also left its stamp on the built environment. People lived in subdivisions of single family homes, worked in factories or office parks, and shopped in malls, all connected by high capacity roads.
Over the past 30 years, growing gap between cities well positioned to take advantage of global/information/experience economy. A different mindset, emphasis on education, flexible networks of experts, constant adaptation. Requires a different built environment. More density, diversity, public spaces, active green spaces, vibrant public life, flexible transportation.
50 years ago, Lansing’s industrial energy and East Lansing’s Michigan State University could thrive independently.
That is no longer the case. Michigan was the only state in the last census to lose population, and the people that are leaving are younger and more highly educated. A declining pool of workers also means a declining tax base.
Today, Greater Lansing can only thrive when Lansing and East Lansing are connected. Growing, adaptable businesses need a large pool of many kinds of experts produced by universities; the same pool of workers can support the kind of vibrant social scene and retail spaces that attract and retain students. Portland, Oregon, Austin, Texas, and Columbus Ohio are examples of cities that have benefited economically and culturally from a stronger integration between universities and the communities they are a part of.
The transformation of Greater Lansing from an industrial powerhouse to a city that thrives in a creative economy won’t happen automatically and can’t be imposed on the community in a top-down, heavy handed way.
As a rhetorician, I focus on the kinds of conversations and deliberations a community needs to make sense of the future.
Two questions are at the core of my work:
How do community members want to learn about the future of Greater Lansing?
What kind of voice do community members want to have about the future of Greater Lansing?
There are many ways of answering these questions. I’ve chose to create the Our Michigan Ave website to support community thinking about the future of the built environment, the major urban developments that are reshaping our community, like Skyview, Abbot and Grand River, the Red Cedar proposal. This is especially timely—the economic struggles of 2008 are in the past and the community is gradually implementing ambitious new spaces.
We’ve put together a complicated set of resources to begin to answer these questions. I’ve worked with students in a Global Studies in the Arts and Humanities course to think carefully about the kinds of spaces that support vibrant, democratic citizenship. We identified the values important in successful contemporary cities. Then we drew on architects, urban planners, designers, political philosophers, and specialists from other disciplines to understand what kind of design elements improve public life.
We have the foundation, especially a sense of values and good ideas from other communities, to think more deeply about the design of new urban developments.
I’m working with a group of current students in a Digital Rhetoric course. We’ve also worked to understand what the Greater Lansing community values. We are now conducting user research, including structured interviews, fieldwork, and intercepts that can be used to collect data about how people here make sense of their lives. We’re are beginning to use design thinking activities to analyze this data and brainstorm new possibilities for the Our Michigan Ave website. We will prototype and test new functions over the next three weeks.
This summer, and extending into next year, I’ll do some planning and software development to implement the functions that we’ve identified that best serve the needs of the community.
I’d like your help.
We’d like to work with you to better understand how community stakeholders want to learn about Greater Lansing. We want to create a tool that your organizations find valuable. In doing that, we aim at creating a space where the community will have a meaningful voice in shaping the projects that will determine whether this community drifts into the future, or takes advantage of the assets we have in order to thrive.