What's In A City

You know there's a dire need for education when you sponsor a workshop to devise an action plan for revitalizing central cities, invite 250 new economy leaders, and the conversation devolves to the point where someone actually says "What do we mean by urban?"

But that's exactly what happened yesterday at an event sponsored by Michigan Future, Inc, a nonprofit group working to set the Great Lakes State on a prosperous course for the 21st century.

Brains are the key commodity in the Information Age, according to a growing number of economists, corporate leaders, and social researchers. And to compete for the brains, the experts say, states and regions must provide vibrant cities with a rich entertainment scene, a clean environment, nonstop diversity, reasonable personal and municipal costs, walkable neighborhoods and transit, a high quality of life, and at least the perception of job opportunities. An edgy, creative, entrepreneurial, optimistic attitude doesn't hurt.

The increasingly urgent dilemma for Michigan is that these kind of places barely exist within the state's borders. Sure there is a band of optimists who argue that the state and region does offer these types of amenities, and that we just need to market them. To some extent, there's truth in that thinking. There are pockets in Detroit, places in Ann Arbor, and districts in Grand Rapids with an aspiring urban character and lifestyle. Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Buffalo have their spots too.

But there are disturbingly few places in Michigan and across the greater Great Lakes region where people who know and long for that urban vibe can taste anything like North Beach in San Francisco, the boroughs of NYC, or Den Den Town, the tech center of Osaka, Japan. The region, at this point, just doesn't offer an urban experience of that scale, and the research says that reality threatens to stifle competitiveness.

What's more, as yesterday's meeting revealed, people seem to be struggling simply to define how a real city even looks, feels, and functions. And if that's how far Michigan needs to back up to move forward on a modern development strategy, the state's turnaround is a frighteningly long way off.

"We need a better sense of what it is we're talking about," Brian Boyle, a founding partner in the Detroit-based communications firm Issue Media Group, urged the group at yesterday's gathering. "I'm not convinced people [in Michigan] understand what it's like to live in places like Portland, OR or Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood. There's a reason why young people are moving to these places. And there's a reason why people are paying $2,000 a month to live in a closet in New York City. We need to understand why that is, what these places look like, and how we do it."