As part of this year's Strongest Town Contest, we've invited Strong Towns members and activists to provide guest commentary on each of the towns in our first round based on Strong Towns principles. While these commentators have not had the chance to visit each town themselves, they read the town's application to the contest, as well as conducted additional background research on the community.
Today, we've got two commentaries on the contest's next match-up: Morelia, Mexico vs. Mishawaka, IN. Visit this page to see each town's submission, then read on below to hear a Strong Towns member perspective on these communities. Contest voting closes at 12pm CT on Friday, March 9.
MORELIA, MICHOACÁN, MEXICO
Commentary by Tiffany Eng, a Strong Towns member from Oakland, California.
Land Use and Transportation
A Strong Town principle is that land not be squandered, and given that the city has been around since the 16th century, there’s not a lot of wasted space nowadays, especially the closer you get into the center of town, where a mix of uses seamlessly blend together.
The historic downtown is a harmonious blend of multiple architectural styles and includes cathedrals, plazas, museums, civic buildings and other low-rise buildings tightly packed along narrow streets, some of which appear to be mixed-use. The United Nations, recognized this area as an “outstanding example of urban planning which associates the ideas of the Spanish Renaissance with the Mesoamerican experience.” It’s urban legendary and its planning significance led to the designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For this reason alone, Morelia deserves advancing into the next round, at least!
Take one look at an aerial view of Morelia, and you can see the original street grids for yourself. It’s be pretty obvious you’re not flying over an American town, right? Perhaps most notable is the lack of large highways or elevated freeways circumnavigating or bisecting the city. Morelia was not designed around the automobiles or shopping malls, and it shows. In fact, you’d have to practically out of town to find the Walmart, Costco, Sam’s Club and Home Depot, which together likely make up a large share of the surface parking acreage in the entire city.
Thankfully, Morelia is still quite walkable, and given the shared transit ridership rates and mixed-use development patterns, it doesn’t seem like transportation is a major barrier to community prosperity. While the city does not yet have a public mass transit system, small buses and Combis (minivans), take passengers along designated routes throughout the city. There doesn’t appear to be much infrastructure to support cyclists, a topic residents are hopefully working on improving. Thankfully, the city is investing in re-building better sidewalks and pedestrian-only streets and Morelia residents reported they have managed to stop the building of more car-centric-infrastructure (for now at least).
I do worry about the development patterns on the edge of town. Neighborhoods seem increasingly fragmented and car-dependent, and the land use patterns appear to follow the traditional suburban growth trajectory.
Morelia residents have worked together to help build a more pedestrian-centered city, by blocking freeway, vehicular bridges, and other car-centric projects. In addition, each Sunday, people gather for Ciclovia Recreativa, a delightful event which closes down the main street for cars, and opens it up for people and their families, friends, bikes, skates and so forth. Take-back-the-streets events like these are important because they help residents begin to imagine a better way of designing our streets to meet the needs of everyone.
Thanks to the UNESCO designation, the monarch butterflies nearby, and other cultural festivals throughout the year, Morelia does have a growing tourism industry. And while the economy may be weak overall, it at least includes a diversity of sectors, including services, financial, real estate and tourism, followed by construction, manufacturing and primary sector activities.
According to the applicants, Morelia has incorporated a shop local campaign, with an emphasis on local hotels, restaurants, clothes/ technology stores, etc. I love “buy local” campaigns because they promote and strengthen small independent businesses and recycle dollars within the community. As a result, Morelia residents can help be a part of building a stronger local economy and leverage the city’s uniqueness as national and international tourist destination.
Commentary by Elias Crim, a Strong Towns member from Valparaiso, Indiana.
Land Use and Transportation
Mishawaka finds itself with a downtown somewhat depleted due to the success of the large (second largest in the state) retail area north of the city, including unincorporated areas. City Hall claims it has attempted to slow this sprawl over recent decades, especially through attention to developing its asset of a riverfront (and Riverwalk) formed by the St. Joseph River running through the downtown, along with other development.
For a town of just under 50,000, public transportation is not likely to consist of more than a bus service. Luckily, the presence of the University of Notre Dame about 15 minutes away means a stream of non-driving students visiting Mishawaka via bus and thus supporting the system's ability to offer a fair number of routes.
This factor is hard to gauge from a distance. One sign will be the public response to the call for volunteers later this month to help cleanup some of Mishawaka's 27 (!) public parks, specifically the ones deluged by the unusual recent floods in this region of Indiana. My guess is that new groups will need to be formed through which more civic activism can be generated.
The mayor's most recent published State of the City address (entitled "Standing Up for Mishawaka") in early 2017 seems to indicate some frustration with neighboring municipalities (South Bend, in particular) for attempting to "control our city's growth by arbitrarily creating utility boundaries" or by taking on additional food and beverage taxes to support the popular Potawatomi Zoo, just over the Mishawaka town line in South Bend. Moreover, the mayor has pushed back against suggestions that this region of patchwork municipalities might benefit from "unigov" reforms aimed at centralizing and sharing various key services across boundaries.
In early 2015, Mishawaka's mayor announced that for the first time in the city's history, it was debt-free, with no general obligation bond payments remaining.
The city is investing in the downtown riverwalk and its parks as part of a slow-but-steady strategy to encouraging residential development in that area. Similarly, it will be a beneficiary of funds from the three-county Indiana Regional Cities Initiative, with a $42 million grant focused on improving the quality of place in these communities.
Voting is now closed.