Column: Candidates should think about urban planning
Planners and others interested in cities are watching the beginnings of the midterm and statewide election campaigns with great interest. My colleagues in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Wayne State University and I sat down recently to identify several issues that are particularly salient to us as urban planners that we think all candidates for state office should address.
Regional leadership: The Detroit metro area is highly fragmented and it’s been difficult to get initiatives off the ground that require regional support. The recent failure of the RTA millage is a good example of this, and this lack of regional leadership may have cost us a significant investment from Amazon. There has been some good progress over the years: the regional Metro Park system is over 80 years old, and in recent years voters have joined together at the regional level to support the Detroit Zoo and the arts. But more is needed, and county executives and local leaders should lend vocal support to regional initiatives. It should be clear by now we are far behind other areas of the country on how well we cooperate.
Infrastructure: All candidates running for state office should have a plan to fund and repair our ailing infrastructure. We’ve been underfunding in this area for a long time and we’re paying for it now. Our water systems are aging, our sewer systems can’t keep up with extreme weather events, and our roads and bridges are crumbling. When we spend money to fix our infrastructure, we need to make sure we are building it for a changing climate and ever-evolving technology.
Municipal finance reform: Michigan’s local governments are uniquely hamstrung when it comes to raising revenue. Squeezed on one side by an inability to capture taxable value from property taxes and on the other by a severe drop in state revenue sharing, many of our cities are balanced precariously on the edge of insolvency, and that is with the economy finally recovering well from the Great Recession. The sorry state of our municipal finance architecture has implications for quality of life in our cities. It also has implications for democracy in our state, as citizens in some of the hardest-hit cities have been temporarily disenfranchised as their elected officials have been replaced by appointed emergency managers. The way local governments are funded in Michigan is unsustainable and must be changed, and we would expect anyone running for state office to address this issue during their campaign.
State pre-emption/local control: Candidates for state office should carefully think through under what circumstances they want the state to take control of what have been traditionally been local government issues. Fracking, plastic bag bans, marijuana dispensary siting, and community benefits agreements are all issues that could be dealt with at the local level, but that the state has pre-empted or has considered pre-empting. Candidates should be able to explain what they think the balance should be, and which types of issues should be removed from local control and why.
Water: The Great Lakes are arguably our state’s greatest asset, and anyone running for state or local office should have a detailed stance on how best to protect them for future generations. This includes what to do with Line 5, whether and how to regulate agricultural runoff (the kind that caused the algae blooms in Lake Erie) and invasive species, and whether and how to mandate coastal planning and zoning.
Land use policy: Fifteen years after Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s Land Use Leadership Council last met, it is time to re-assess our land use policy and make sure we are using best planning and zoning practices to put Michigan on the path to a sustainable, equitable, and economically dynamic future. We would like to see candidates for governor, especially, address this issue.
Dr. Carolyn Loh is an associate professor in Wayne State University’s Urban Planning Department.