The Micro City Beautiful: Programming Drives Investment (Part 1)

The next three days will feature the work of Barett Steenrod, recent graduate from the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute and College of Landscape Architecture. This year I have had the opportunity to get to know Barett and have been quite impressed with his work, particularly his research into my hometown of Brainerd, MN. For anyone looking to hire a bright young planner who has some wordly experience to go with a quality education, you can check out Barett on his website or meet him on LinkedIn.

-Chuck Marohn

In the United States, there are 576 places that are not quite metropolitan regions and are not quite rural.  These are micropolitan regions, or as I will refer to them, micro cities.  Micro cities outnumber their larger metropolitan cousins, are home to around 30 million people, and face a unique challenge in the 21st century; namely, how to stay economically viable in a globalized world. 

As a recently graduated Masters student in, first, Landscape Architecture, and then secondly in Urban Planning, I was drawn to the challenge of trying to apply what I had learned in school to a micro city.  I did this because of the 30 million people I mentioned earlier; these folks want a first world experience where they live, but as far as the disciplines of urban planning or architecture go, the micro cities do not seem to warrant a lot of attention.  I wanted to do justice to the types of places where many of us live and work and apply some of my newfound design and planning knowledge to the benefit of small cities.  Through a fairly rigorous analysis process, I eventually funneled down to a particular micro city to work with, which happened to be Brainerd, Minnesota.  A week after Brainerd was in the bag as my project city, Providence demonstrated support for my project when Chuck Marohn (whom I did not know or seek out) was assigned to be a mentor to me in my final year of graduate school.  So as a result of these circumstances, I come to you today to share what I learned in my work with Brainerd.

Between now and when I type my last word as a guest blogger on the 24th, I will lay out a strategy for you to consider in your efforts to rejuvenate the small town or micro city you reside in.  The suggestions that I share with you are not based entirely on my own opinion, but will be based from four sources: examples of success from other small cities; best practices from my interviews with entrepreneurs, developers, and other allied professionals in the design and planning fields; best practices from the world of urban retail design; and recommendations from the entrepreneurship literature.  While my reading, research, and interviews were exhaustive within the confines of my efforts as a graduate student, they should not be considered 100% complete.  However, as I worked on this project in Brainerd, I felt that to give credibility to my efforts, I needed to propose solutions that were based on a metric of one type or another, which is why I placed such an emphasis on finding best practices to draw from. 

There are a number of best practices/principles that appeared to be most important, as I found them to show up with regularity in my research.  The identification of assets and conversion of liabilities into assets is very important.  Focusing on improving the quality of life for residents and visitors is important, as is growing the social network of a city.  Starting small with events or initiatives and growing them into larger affairs is also key.  Lastly, an investment of infrastructure is also considered important, and in some situations, critical for the success of some programs.  Since these best practices appear to be more universal in their importance, I will focus on what their application looks like within a revitalization strategy for Brainerd.

The position that I lay out before you today, and will expand upon and defend over the next two days is that revitalization of a micro city does not depend on big public works projects or fancy initiatives, but on how a community communicates to itself and to outsiders what is an appropriate use for its most important and least important pieces of land. 

In the meantime, I invite you to try and recall all the interesting and novel ways you have seen a parking lot or street used.  Seriously.  I want you to give this some thought.  Start a list and see how many uses you can come up with.  Your community’s quality of life and long-term economic health may depend on your ability to think creatively about what kinds of programs/events your city’s parking lots and streets can support.

I’ll help start you out on this list with a few easy ones…

  1. Farmer’s Market
  2. Antique/Muscle Car Show
  3. Street Fair
  4. Gus Macker Tournament
  5. Chalk Art Festival