Op-Ed: “Collaboration on planning, innovation the key to a more sustainable Ann Arbor”

I published an op-ed in the Michigan Daily online today, arguing for the need for greater collaborative planning and innovation to foster sustainability on campus and in the city and region. Here’s the full text:

If you’ve been away over the summer, you may have missed some exciting new developments here on campus!

Did you hear about the new protected bicycle lanes on campus? Oh, sorry, I got mixed up. That’s Michigan State. Here in Ann Arbor, the world-class separated bike lane on William Street mysteriously dead-ends at campus. 

What about the exciting new solarization initiative, to add solar panels to 90 locations around campus? Wrong again, that’s Arizona State University. With the exception of a few arrays built by DTE over a decade ago on North Campus, not a solar panel or wind turbine can be seen. Maybe we should ask ASU how they did it?

Have you looked into renting an apartment at the new 15-acre project on North Campus containing 2,500 student beds located over 104,000 square feet of shops, restaurants and services? Sorry, that’s the University of Southern California Village project, our North Campus features open fields and strip malls despite years of calls for a denser, more vibrant campus. Although some new dorms are helping, a concerted effort to produce even more housing near campus is needed to stem the ever-increasing number of students, faculty and staff forced to commute into Ann Arbor by car due to a lack of regional transit. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Longitudinal Employment and Household Dynamics dataset, the number of people employed in Ann Arbor who commute into the city has increased from 72,972 in 2002 to 90,651 in 2019, a 24% jump.

Finally, did you hear about the new rapid transit system running through campus? Oh, sorry, that’s the University of Maryland at College Park, which is preparing for construction of the Purple Line light rail line, which will tie their campus even more closely to regional buses and trains. At the University of Michigan, giant diesel buses lurch around spewing fumes, and there is minimal coordination with the city bus system. A concept for a “connector” to serve the city and campus was abandoned years ago.

What’s my point? The University of Michigan’s physical campus in Ann Arbor is outdated, and does not exemplify the sustainability goals we claim to have. Dropped into campus, an alumnus from the 1980s would feel right at home, except for a few shiny new buildings here and there, and the eye-popping rents advertised for off-campus housing. Of course, some things have changed, but our campus is far from boldly illustrating our sustainability ideals and spirit of innovation.

Given recent leadership changes at both the University and the City, Ann Arbor faces a unique opportunity to rethink the U-M campus and broader city through coordinated planning and implementation. With the selection of Santa Ono as the new University president, he and his team have an unprecedented opportunity to make some big changes to catapult our physical campus into the 21st Century. The election of a slate of progressive, pro-development City Council candidates during the August primary means he’ll find ready collaborators in city government. 

On Campus, the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality (PCCN) was a model for cross-campus collaboration and generated a report containing lists of many good ideas. At the City, A2Zero demonstrates robust support for carbon neutrality, but also leaves many unanswered questions about how and where the ideas will be implemented. What we need now is planning and implementation that bakes these principles into key plans and bolsters our capacity to act.

Both the University and City need new Master Plans, and they should be ideally prepared through a joint project, to serve as a concrete vision for implementation. The University Master Plan has not seen a major update since 1998, over 20 years ago. The PCCN described good ideas, like a campus connector and electric car charging, but not specifics about where and when they should be implemented that a plan could address. On the city side, the “Comprehensive Plan” is simply a giant stack of often-contradictory plans and studies. There’s no single map showing priority areas for new growth. Recently, City Council is interested in upzoning transit corridors, but nobody has done a study about where and how density can be best added. Luckily, the planning commission has started work this week to hire a consultant for a new comprehensive plan. It’s not rocket science — the urban planning methods to create growth scenarios are widely used by cities as diverse as Madison, Cleveland, and Salt Lake City.

Why a single plan? University-owned land is spread throughout the city, and our transportation, housing, electricity and other infrastructures are tightly integrated. Key University-owned parcels, such as along Plymouth Road, are opportunities for innovative mixed-use development that would serve both University and City goals. A unified plan would also allow both communities to consider their histories of racial and economic exclusion, from admissions to racial covenants and single-family zoning, and consider how future planning decisions could address injustice and foster greater inclusion. Good planning works at the scope of problems, not merely political boundaries. Writing plans collaboratively can help get all the key stakeholders on the same page and build consensus.

But a good plan is not enough. Although collaborative planning can lay the groundwork for implementation, it requires capacity for follow-through. Here the University can learn from the City, where staff leadership from a dynamic Office of Sustainability & Innovations and the Planning Services Department are a big reason so many exciting sustainability proposals have been approved recently, like work on electrification and solar power, parking reforms, changes to rules for accessory dwelling units and the transit-oriented development zoning district. The University’s planning function, operating with a small staff deeply embedded in Facilities & Operations, lacks the capacity and institutional mandate to lead.

Administrative changes are never a silver bullet, but revising their mission, bolstering staff and considering big shifts like moving the campus planning office to the Graham Sustainability Institute may be good places to start. Perhaps the University could follow the lead of many cities by creating a dedicated innovation office, with the mission of not only implementing plans but also testing exciting new ideas. Our University is home to world-renowned experts on topics like stormwater management, smart mobility, renewable energy, ecological design and many more. Tapping into them to convert our campus into a living laboratory would help us lead by example.

President-Elect Ono has called the university “the greatest public university in the world,” but we also have areas to improve. Envisioning a more sustainable campus that better addresses carbon neutrality, sustainability and housing affordability is chief among them. I, along with many others, stand ready to help. Let’s get to work.

Richard Goodspeed is an Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

Author: Rob Goodspeed