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Small Michigan Cities and Villages Can Lead the Way in the 21st Century 

By Colleen Layton


Charming streets like this can draw people to your downtown—place making is an integral part of the Center for 21st Century Communities (21c3).

Take a moment to think about a small community that you have visited in the past or perhaps the one in which you reside. What images and words come to mind? Welcoming, charming, safe, socially connected, a simpler time, peaceful? These might be some of your thoughts, but others might say, “struggling, disconnected, and out-of touch.” These paradoxical descriptions often co-exist in small communities, and illustrate some of the challenges they face in the 21st century.

The world is changing fundamentally, and technology is driving new economic realities that are challenging small communities to stay viable in today’s very different world. Small communities, especially rural ones, have been hit hard in the last decade; some of the barriers they face often seem insurmountable. For example, retaining economic viability in the face of globalization; retaining a cultural identity and character in a changing world; and developing long-term sustainability are just a few of the challenges that small communities face. But they also have advantages over their much larger siblings—they have the ability to adapt to change more easily, with fewer layers of bureacracy. Opportunities abound for local officials to engage their citizens in informal dialogues on the future of their community. How often have you heard, “there is no better time for opportunity than during a crisis?”


The health of smaller communities is dependent on the vitality and strength of our larger core cities. Thinking regionally is a critical component of economic development. With economies measured at the regional level, not at the state or local levels, it is important to think of your community as part of a greater whole. Highlight your community’s uniqueness, but also reach out and initiate new regional partnerships that will allow you to better leverage your assets. Understand the importance of interrelationships between urban and rural communities. There are numerous examples of clusters of communities around the state working together to spur economic activity by creating places where people want to be. Some range from the very simple to more in-depth, intricate collaboration that can take years to realize. A great example of the former is Artmap, an online interactive map that guides tourists to art galleries, art studios, and performance arts studios in communities throughout the Upper Peninsula. Examples of the latter include the Iron Ore Heritage Trail, an ultimately 48-mile recreational trail, which will connect visitors to historic landmarks, museums, mines, and historic downtowns. Another example is the Grand Vision, a highly collaborative investment among local leaders, citizens, and business owners to create a viable, sustainable future for the northwestern region of the lower peninsula of our state.


For the past several years, the League has been working tirelessly on several initiatives, both at the legislative and educational levels, to put our communities at the forefront of Michigan’s economic turnaround. Through our Center for 21st Century Communities (21c3), we focus on eight key assets (see side bar) that are critical to a community or region and that will create the kinds of places in which people want to live. These assets are easily scaleable to any size community or region. With 70 percent of Michigan’s cities and villages 5,000 or less in population, small communities play a very important role in Michigan’s overall economic health.


No matter the size of your community, it is important to be open to new ways of doing things. But it will take a new kind of leadership, one that challenges conventional thinking and facilitates a process to create a broader vision, like never before. You are no longer just competing with a neighboring community, but with other states and even places around the world. Whether you are an agricultural, tourist, or small urban community, it is important to think about how you want to be defined. There are myriad examples of small communities that have become synonomous with a particular festival or unique product. Think Lexington, and the music of Bach plays in your ear; think Cedar Springs and the warm image of Red Flannel is conjured up; think Mesick and the image of morel mushrooms sprout up—and the list could go on.

Don’t be afraid to be bold, visionary leaders. Engage your citizens and stakeholders in conversations about the future of the community. Use social networking tools to solicit feedback because that is where the discussions are taking place. Don’t be defenders of the status quo. Many communities have focused on creating sustainable futures by preserving and celebrating their past. Others have redefined their future by rethinking and reimagining themselves. However you reposition your community for 21st century challenges, there has never been a better time to do so.

What is the Michigan Municipal Leagues's Center for 21st Century Communities (21c3) Program?


Small communities can embrace cultural economic development and entrepreneurship, two assets in the Center for 21st Century Communities (21c3).

The League identified eight essential assets that make communities vibrant places in the 21st century. Research continues to show that “place-making” matters more than ever, as an increasingly mobile workforce seeks out neighborhoods before finding jobs and opening up businesses. Our purpose is to help local officials identify, develop, and implement strategies that will grow and strengthen Michigan’s communities in the coming decades.

Physical Design & Walkability

Whether your community is big or small, it is important to create a physical fabric that promotes social connections where people can live, work, shop, and play.

Green Initiatives

“Thinking green” is a critical asset of any viable community. It impacts natural resources, quality of life, and the financial bottom line.

Cultural Economic Development (CED)

Arts and culture should be a part of any long-term economic development strategy for sustainability. CED plays a big role in developing and preserving a community’s identity and uniqueness.


In the new economy, we need to focus on growing jobs in our communities by ones and twos for long-term sustainability.


Our global economy is fueled by the talent and ingenuity of people from around the world. Welcoming those from different backgrounds and disciplines can result in a whole new level of innovation.

Messaging & Technology

Technology allows people to connect and collaborate like never before. Communities have a powerful opportunity to connect and engage with their citizenry and beyond.


People are choosing where they want to live, play and work in communities that embrace all modes of transportation—walking, biking and public transit.


Our educational institutions are key to growing a knowledge-based state. Leveraging these institutional resources is critical.


Colleen Layton is director of policy development for the League. She may be reached at 734-669-6320 or



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