Building Urban Publics

The Our Michigan Ave website is a timely space for deliberation as hundreds of millions of dollars of development projects are underway in Greater Lansing. Our connections to planners, developers, government officials, and community organizations positioned the Our Michigan Ave site to be a rich space for public deliberation.

Students in my Global Studies in the Arts and Humanities “Power, Culture, and Identity in the Global City” course identified more than 100 ways to improve major urban projects in Greater Lansing and crafted dozens of principles that should shape the future direction of Greater Lansing.

This project situates Greater Lansing within the challenges of a post-industrial economy in an era of globalization. There is a perception that Greater Lansing has been left behind in the move toward creative cities. Over the course of more than five years, I’ve worked with students to identify the profound cultural differences in how various groups in Greater Lansing define the value of a good community, imagine the future, and express collective political voice. We have produced a website that connects the kind of creative class initiatives–authentic sense of place, dense and diverse zoning, green transportation and energy policies–to Greater Lansing’s distinctive experience. We found that profound cultural differences, lack of trust, economic challenges and political differences have resulted in very few creative class initiatives being implemented over the past decade.

Because of our cultural and technical work, my students and I created an opportunity to produce the kind of rhetorical resource vital for a community to successfully adapt to a new economic reality. To fulfill this opportunity, I managed a series of projects to create the Our Michigan Ave website. This new media space supports community conversations, initiatives, and visions for regional cooperation.

Every organization and corporation cares about its relationships with audiences, stakeholders and users. We can build these relationships better only by working across and integrating five important steps: 1) powerful theories of power, culture and identity; 2) sophisticated methods of user research; 3) topical disciplinary knowledge; 4) technical skills for making things; and 5) the ability to circulate things, collect feedback from audience engagement, and iterate across all these steps to reflexively inform theories of power, culture and identity. I’ve worked with students, colleagues, and community stakeholders to craft spaces for community participation in the urban design process to integrate all five of these steps.

This blog post is broken into the following sections:

  • Humanities Tools to Understand and Represent Community
  • Contemporary Urban Design Methods
  • Civic Software Development
  • Greater Lansing Community Stakeholders
  • MSU Infrastructure + Expertise
  • Theories of Agency, Deliberation, and Democracy

The role of the humanities in driving the design process of urban life has taken on increasing importance by developing a common vision across values, representing interest groups, mediating technical knowledge, and mediating the ethical frameworks vital to good city life.

True to the spirit of collaboration across networks of expertise, this blog post aims at making connections so that humanities methods for understanding community can connect with urban planning visions for postindustrial cities.

The broader mission of the Our Michigan Ave website is

  • An awareness of ideas and case studies that have worked in other cities for a broader future vision
  • Silo-breaking: connecting ideas across experts in transportation, zoning, environmental impact, economic development, urban design
  • An opportunity to connect individuals with shared interests into a group
  • A space for a political voice to improve regional decision making

Humanities Tools to Understand and Represent Community

I’ve looked for ways that photographers and film makers represent how communities are transformed by larger economic forces, to give students models that they can use to craft visual representations of Greater Lansing. Cultural methods developed by the following artists were integrated into the Global Studies in the Arts and Humanities “Power, Culture, and Identity in the Global City” course:

LaToya Ruby Frazier has spent decades refining her sensibility to represent the policies that defined the racial divisions in the industrial community of Braddock, Pennsylvania. Her work was profiled in an essay in the New Yorker and a TED talk:

Camilo Vergara is a photographer who has worked for decades to document the lived experience of residents of Detroit, Chicago, Gary, Newark, and Harlem: “For more than four decades I have devoted myself to photographing and documenting the poorest and most segregated communities in urban America. I feel that a people’s past, including their accomplishments, aspirations and failures, are reflected less in the faces of those who live in these neighborhoods than in the material, built environment in which they move and modify over time. Photography for me is a tool for continuously asking questions, for understanding the spirit of a place, and, as I have discovered over time, for loving and appreciating cities. My focus is on established East Coast cities such as New York, Newark and Camden; rust belt cities of the Midwest such as Detroit and Chicago; and Los Angeles and Richmond, California. I have photographed urban America systematically, frequently returning to re-photograph these cities over time. Along the way I became a historically conscious documentarian, an archivist of decline, a photographer of walls, buildings, and city blocks. Bricks, signs, trees, and sidewalks have spoken to me the most truthfully and eloquently about urban reality.”

Frederick Wiseman has spent decades crafting a methodology for portraying social institutions. Asked how his films serve as a window on American culture, Wiseman replies, “My films are subjective, impressionistic accounts of some aspect of American culture…My movies are more novelistic than journalistic or ideological in their approach. I always try to reflect the complexity and ambiguity of the place that is the subject of the film, rather than have ideological blinders on and try to present a particular political or social point of view. I’ve never found any ideology that adequately explains the complex events I’ve come across while making these films. It would be phony for me to offer solutions or explanations when I haven’t found any I believe in. I instead try to supply the audience with enough material to help them make up their own minds by placing them in the events and asking them to think through their own relationship to what they’re seeing and hearing.”

Grace Lee Boggs was one of the nation’s oldest human rights activists, who waged a war of inspiration for civil rights, labor, feminism, the environment and other causes for seven decades with an unflagging faith that revolutionary justice was just around the corner, died on Monday at her home in Detroit. She was 100. Born to Chinese immigrants, Ms. Boggs was an author and philosopher who planted gardens on vacant lots, founded community organizations and political movements, marched against racism, lectured widely on human rights and wrote books on her evolving vision of a revolution in America.

Dawoud Bey is a photographer and educator whose portraits of people, many from marginalized communities, compel viewers to consider the reality of the subjects’ own social presence and histories. Through his expansive approach to photography—which includes deep engagement with his subjects and museum-based projects—Bey is making institutional spaces more accessible to the communities in which they are situated. Bey embarked on what would become an ongoing series of portraits of high school students. He made his artistic practice more public and accessible, involving the students in shaping their own representations and working in a semi-public studio. The resultant large-scale, multiple-image works are powerful expressions of the youthful subjects’ respective individualities, still in the throes of being formed and negotiated. Bey expanded on this project in Class Pictures (2002–2006), a body of work produced in collaboration with young people and institutions throughout the United States. In addition to playing a role in the construction of their psychologically rich portraits, the students provided written texts about themselves to accompany Bey’s photographs of them, creating another layer of evocative self-definition. The exhibitions, public programming, and educational outreach Bey conceived as components of Class Pictures turned the museum into a vehicle for creating a closer relationship between institutions, youth, and the communities they inhabit.

Contemporary Urban Design Methods

I wanted students to couple a cultural understanding of a community with a toolkit of sophisticated urban design concepts that enhance a communities sustainability, creativity, environmental qualities, and economic innovation.

I incorporated a number of important urbanists.

Majora Carter wove personal family experience, a history of public policy decision making, and building a capacity for community voices into the most compelling TED talk I’ve encountered. She  is a visionary voice in city planning who views urban renewal through an environmental lens. The South Bronx native draws a direct connection between ecological, economic and social degradation. Hence her motto: “Green the ghetto!” With her inspired ideas and fierce persistence, Carter managed to bring the South Bronx its first open-waterfront park in 60 years, Hunts Point Riverside Park. Then she scored $1.25 million in federal funds for a greenway along the South Bronx waterfront, bringing the neighborhood open space, pedestrian and bike paths, and space for mixed-use economic development:

Jan Gehl has worked for decades in Copenhagen to develop an iterative, community-led design process that has transformed Copenhagen from a car-clogged city to a dense, creative, vibrant city whose public spaces contribute to economic development:

Jeanne Gang

I’ve worked to draw on similar ideas from Chicago. I’ve talked with Gia Biagi who develops methods for community design and I’m using Studio Gang’s methodology for activating urban spaces in my GSAH 230 Power, Culture, and Identity in the Global City Course. Studio Gang has developed a number of community project, especially the Memphis Riverfront Concept community histories project and the dorm at the University of Chicago Campus North Residential Commons designed to support informal interactions for both students and Hyde Park community members. Studio Gang is central to the US Pavilion Biennale Architettura 2018 in Venice; Dimensions of Citizenship:

Many urban design ideas were presented in 2018 at Detroit’s Public X Design conference.

Civic Software Development

The network of community connections and critical mass of urban improvement ideas form the foundation of the Our Michigan Ave website. Student in my Advanced Web Authoring class will improve their coding skills by conducting user interviews, developing users stories, implementing test-driven development, and crafting interactive features to meet community member needs.  My students’ work has been informed by several important methods for civic software development, including Experimental Modes of Civic Engagement in Civic Tech,  Understanding Civil Society Portals and the Art Loop Experience project. There is a rich set of specialized expertise, shared values and vision, but also a distinctive skill set, space, technology, network of people, and institutional formed to support a sophisticated technical software development capacity using Ruby on Rails. Ruby on Rails has a fairly extensive learning curve. Each element has its own syntax, its own tools, its own software environment and its own support community. Here is a list of some relevant skills that I’ve gained: Ruby object-oriented programming language; HTML, CSS and Javascript; Unix operating system of files, permissions, commands, tools; Capistrano to deploy a rails site to a live server; versioning systems for maintainability, security, collaboration; SQL database management; user authorization, configuration, testing; agile processes to connect user needs through iterative development. I’ve assembled a large number of MSU resources to create a rich software development capacity. 

Greater Lansing Community Stakeholders

I’ve drawn on these community design methods to create a network of community stakeholders in Greater Lansing and I’ve worked to build a technical infrastructure to support iterative web development. Over the next semester, we will refine a space for community members of Greater Lansing to do the hard work of moving from an industrial urban form to the kind of spaces needed for a city to successfully meet the challenges of globalization. Here are some of the community partners I’ve worked with, including short descriptions of their missions.

Lansing Econmic Area Partnership

The Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP) is a coalition of area leaders committed to building a prosperous and vibrant region where businesses can thrive. To do this, we help entrepreneurs start new businesses, help existing businesses grow, and attract new businesses to the region.

Michigan Department of Transportation

The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) is responsible for Michigan’s 9,669-mile state highway system, comprised of all M, I, and US routes. MDOT also administers other state and federal transportation programs for aviation, intercity passenger services, rail freight, local public transit services, the Transportation Economic Development Fund (TEDF), and others.

Tricounty Regional Planning Commission

The Tri-County Regional Planning Commission is a public planning agency established in 1956, serving Clinton, Eaton, and Ingham counties in Mid-Michigan. Tri-County makes our region a more prosperous community by planning for a strong economy, reliable transportation, and sustainable infrastructure and natural resources. We are dedicated leaders and innovators, connecting local organizations and governments to funding, technical assistance, data resources, and opportunities to discuss trends and challenges affecting the Greater Lansing area.

East Lansing Info

East Lansing Info, known as ELi, is a non-profit citizen-run local news cooperative of the people, by the people, and for the people of East Lansing, Michigan. We are recognized as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit by the IRS, so financial donations are tax-deductible. ELi provides free, local, non-partisan, accurate news and information about East Lansing, including reports on our local public schools, clubs, businesses, economic and governmental activities, arts events, and so forth.

Lansing Creative Placemaking Summit

Perhaps best defined by Artscape, Toronto, “Creative Placemaking is an evolving field of practice that intentionally leverages the power of the arts, culture and creativity to serve a community’s interest while driving a broader agenda for change, growth and transformation in a way that also builds character and quality of place.”

Lansing Department of Neighborhoods and Civic Engagement

Neighborhoods are the heartbeat of our city. Mayor Schor’s first executive order was to make neighborhoods a top priority by creating a Department of Neighborhoods and Citizen Engagement (DNCE). This new Department places neighborhoods front and center in the administration. He appointed Director Andi Crawford to lead the DNCE and the Executive Order was unanimously passed by City Council. Director Crawford and her team are in the community working directly with citizens. The DNCE’s role in the city is to support neighborhoods by convening community dialogues, delivering capacity building trainings, and connecting civic organizations to resources.  The DNCE also facilitates the creation of organizations and helps them build capacity so that they can advocate for the changes and developments they wish to see in their neighborhoods.

Arts Council of Greater Lansing 

The Arts Council of Greater Lansing exists to support, strengthen and promote arts, culture and creativity in the Capital Region. Transforming communities and lives through the power of creative expression.

East Lansing Neighborhoods

East Lansing is home to 25 close-knit neighborhoods. A charming mix of historic and modern neighborhoods are nestled among tree-lined streets, pocket parks, exceptional schools and public amenities. The City of East Lansing actively supports neighborhood associations through the East Lansing Neighborhood Partnerships Initiative. The program provides opportunities to help enhance a neighborhood’s character and quality of life through active community engagement. The goal is to support citizenship, foster two-way communication and build community by taking a new approach to neighborhood support and outreach.

Allen Neighborhood Center

Allen Neighborhood Center is a place-based organization that serves as a hub for neighborhood revitalization and for activities that promote the health and well-being of Lansing’s Eastside community and other stakeholders.

East Lansing Technology Innovation Center

Entrepreneurs fuel our passion. We proudly provide our members with collaborative workspace, programmatic support, and vital resources that grow their technology-based startups and early-stage companies. Today, we continue to be home to technology startup companies, offering them support and space to grow their ideas. Our members have direct access to resources within the MSU Innovation Center, as well as Michigan State University’s campus. Our focus: your success. We connect our members with a vast network of area professionals, community resources, and venture capitalists. We offer the space to explore your ideas, take creative risks, and grow your network.

Lansing Makers Network

The Lansing Makers Network exists to bring diverse people, experiences, and ideas together in a safe environment; to meld technology, art, and culture in new and exciting ways; to share skills, tools, and inspiration; and to marvel at what we make together.

MSU Infrastructure + Expertise

The culture of MSU is shaped by its size, its research focus, and its history as the pioneer land-grant university. This scale allows for many specialized kinds of expertise. Here is a list of some of the wide range of programs I’ve worked with:

Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures

Provides the first year writing experience for most MSU students. We also have a successful major in Professional Writing and share the Experience Architecture major with Art, Art History and Design preparing excellent communicators in the culturally, technologically, and economically dynamic environments of the early 21st Century. Our researchers are national leaders in digital writing, cultural rhetoric, literacy studies, composition, and professional writing. Our faculty lead research groups such as the Writing, Information and Digital Experience (WIDE) Research Center, the Digital Publishing Lab, and Matrix, the Center for Humane Arts, Letters, and Social Sciences Online.

Experience Architecture

Students studying Experience Architecture are forward-thinkers and are interested in gaining advanced skills in architecting or designing experiences for people in digital and physical environments. The Experience Architecture program gives students exposure to aspects of maneuvering and creating web sites or apps such as designing, coding, writing and digital rhetoric. Due to this ‘well-rounded’ nature of the major, XA students are prepared for careers in user experience, interaction design, usability, information architecture, design research, content management, project management, and application development.

Global Studies in the Arts and Humanities

is a program offering an undergraduate major and minor, as well as a graduate certificate, in Michigan State University’s College of Arts and Letters. It is a faculty-driven collaborative committed to achieving a broad, rich, and inclusive engagement with global issues and to fruitfully exploring and expanding cooperative interdisciplinary teaching and research opportunities within and beyond the College of Arts and Letters. Global Studies in the Arts and Humanities makes an important intervention into conceptualizations of ‘the global’ – conceptualizations that often focus solely on economic and political conditions. Recognizing the complexities of cultural interaction and exchange, GSAH foregrounds the role of the Arts and Humanities in recognizing and understanding how global conditions and concerns affect our experiential and intellectual existence.

CAL Technology Office

collaborates with faculty in the College of Arts and Letters  to provide support for technology and innovation projects and initiatives with a focus on teaching, learning and research.

The Hub

The Hub is not a resource center, not a technology incubator, not an internal grants agency, and not (precisely) a center for teaching and learning. We are set up to be a design group working in partnership with our colleagues in programs, departments, and colleges. In this way, the Hub was imagined as a change agent.

Center for Community and Economic Development

The Center for Community and Economic Development is committed to creating, applying, and disseminating valued knowledge through responsive engagement, strategic partnerships, and collaborative learning. We are dedicated to empowering communities to create sustainable prosperity and an equitable economy.

 Digital Scholarship Lab

a partnership between the Michigan State University Libraries and the College of Arts & Letters, the Digital Scholarship Lab is an 8,000-square-foot space in the Main Library, featuring a 360-degree immersive visualization room that accommodates up to 20 students along with a Virtual Reality room for experimentation with VR headsets. The lab includes dedicated lab space and informal gathering areas to facilitate cross-disciplinary collaboration. Students in every major may use the advanced and graphics-intensive computing software and interactive visualization for research projects and scholarly exploration.

MSU Broad Art Lab

The MSU Broad Art Lab pilot project welcomes the MSU and greater Lansing community to experiment with us as we break outside the confines of the museum walls. Offering unprecedented access to our growing collection of nearly 8,000 objects, this laboratory houses exhibitions, workshops, events, and social gatherings designed for individual and collective interactions with art and culture.

A testing ground by design, the Art Lab is a space where looking, learning, and socializing become tools for the community to generate innovative responses to the shared needs of our time. Through an ongoing series of open calls, the Art Lab offers an experimental platform to propose ideas, events, and collaborations that are inspired by our collective interests.

Film Studies

Our curriculum engages students in the history, theory, and production of world cinema. Classes examine the moving image globally across a range of industrial and artisanal contexts, and encourage students to understand cinema as an art, business, and technology. Learning the craft of filmmaking as well as criticism, students develop the creative and critical skills necessary today in all areas of media art.

Theories of Agency, Deliberation, Equity, Representation and Democracy

Humanities disciplines have developed sophisticated frameworks for thinking about the communication infrastructures which support public life in a postindustrial economic order. The Our Michigan Ave project is an opportunity to translate sophisticated humanities frameworks into usable knowledge that meets the needs of community residents, stakeholders, and government officials. A long tradition of humanities research about place, community, and deliberation has informed my perspective.

Recent scholarship along these lines  include Meg McLagan and Yates McKee’s Sensible Politics, Bruno Latour’s Making Things Public. Recent syllabi informing this theme include Alan Liu’s critical infrastructure studies and Jentery Sayers syllabus “Before You Make a Thing. A map of the intellectual work in this area has been assembled in the Department of Rhetoric and Writing graduate student Jessica Gibbons’ Theory Toolbox.

There are many examples of design thinking activities used within classrooms in 90 minutes. These valuable exercises provide students with an methodology for design that takes the social worlds of those impacted by design into account.

This project is an example of design thinking in ten years. Only by assembling a network of intellectual frameworks, the full range of citizens in a community, and a sophisticated technical infrastructure is it possible to create an iterative design thinking methodology which will allow us to both refine our theories of agency deliberation and rationality and craft the kind of collective public capacity for voices in the process of design that John Dewey envisioned.

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