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Certainly, We Should Save Michigan. But How?

By Sarah Szurpicki

More than 300 posters were submitted to Let’s Save Michigan’s poster contest; over 20,000 people voted. The level of passion, participation, and creativity Michiganders displayed is exactly what it's going to take to rebuild our cities as attractive communities with a high quality of living.

For a long time, Michigan has favored policies that support the growth of new suburban communities, farther and farther out from the urban core. Look, I grew up in a suburb—I get why so many people like them. But not everyone wants to live in a suburb—and by failing to provide a really top-notch urban option, Michigan is missing out on most of those people.

Here’s why that is bad news (as if consistent population decline wasn’t bad enough): young, college-educated individuals are choosing cities over suburbs hands-down. Which is why they continue to leave our state in droves (one of our most valuable exports right now: college degrees, thanks to our world-class universities). You are seriously stuck in 1950 if you think having a highly educated population is a luxury rather than a necessity. Automation, streamlining, and globalization have changed the way we work; for most people, a college degree is crucial to achieve any financial stability. No longer can a family achieve the middle-class dream on the income you can earn with just a high school diploma.

If you accept that Michigan will only climb out of this economic tailspin by developing a more educated, entrepreneurial, and talented citizenry, there are two basic goals to achieve: 1) ensure that every child in Michigan is prepared for and has access to college; and 2) retain/import/entice college degree holders and other entrepreneurs to live here.

So, let’s leave aside goal #1 for now. Way smarter people than me are working on that, and God bless them.

Getting to goal #2, where I have some expertise as both a fairly recent college graduate and a convener for the past four years of young leaders from around the Rust Belt (The Review, March/April 2009) where this problem is rampant—ample research shows that when leaving college (if they’re not forced to move back in with their parents in our frightening new economy), young people are choosing where they want to live before they choose a job. And they are picking communities where they don’t need to own a car, where they have abundant social and cultural opportunities, where they can frequent a farmers market, ride a bike or take a train to work, and where there are lots of people of various backgrounds for them to meet, i.e., they are choosing to live in cities.

I did the same thing. After graduating, I moved to Washington, D.C., and then to New York. When I moved back to Michigan over four years ago, the idea of owning a car—not to mention the expense—was a total shock. I felt like my day was now only 23 hours, since when I relied on transit, I could do other things as I got around.

Let’s Save Michigan’s Goals

Let’s Save Michigan (LSM) is working to advocate for the kinds of policies that will reverse the hollowing out of our cities. Michigan needs to provide better urban options, and LSM is on the job. Let’s Save Michigan started in the fall of 2009 as an organization built on the idea that we need to reach people in a new way to convey the importance of livable communities to Michigan’s future. Our goal was to communicate to average citizens about the policies and personal actions necessary to create a more prosperous Michigan— comprised of communities that attract, retain, and foster the talented work force that will make our state competitive again.

I believe that Michigan’s citizens intuitively understand the importance of this mission. Who, for instance, doesn’t have a granddaughter, nephew, sister, or son in Chicago? Or New York or LA, for that matter? We all get that those people want the “urban experience,” and we also get how vital it is to keep more of those people in Michigan.

We also know that city mayors and managers understand these challenges—they fight every day to provide services to a diminishing tax base. And we’re not just talking about Detroit, Lansing, and Flint, here. Smaller downtowns around the state, like Port Huron, Saline, Sault Ste. Marie, and Royal Oak are in a similar boat. Even in agricultural communities, leaders understand that protecting farmland means preventing continued outward sprawl.

So if it’s not the citizens, and it’s not local elected officials who are behind the times—guess who is?

That’s right: many of our political leaders in Lansing fail to acknowledge the reality that incentivizing new development means we’ve left little in the coffers to support the older cities and villages. Since maintaining what you have is more efficient than building new (especially when it comes to infrastructure), this means that our own “growth” into new suburbs was actually creating a perpetual cycle of depleting the state’s resources.

There are a number of ways we need to attack these very complex problems. But what is most important is that we attack them together. It will be harder and harder for the Michigan Legislature to ignore Michigan’s citizens if we speak with a unified voice about the immense value that cities provide to our state, and the kinds of policies that will support healthy cities. Policies that support arts and culture, transportation options, density, authenticity and history, communal space that is inviting and safe. These aren’t accidents: they are the result of specific policies that our state can enact and support—or ignore.

That’s where LSM comes in. We work to share the good news about our cities, to provide information that can help residents advocate for them, and to lift up citizens’ voices about the kind of state they want Michigan to be. We do this through a dynamic social media presence and special events across the state that demonstrate what Michigan could be. In just under two years, we developed an email database of over 20,000, a social media presence approaching 10,000, and have been featured in nearly every major news outlet in
the state.

A Transportation System for the 21st Century

For instance, we know that Governor Snyder is crafting a new vision for infrastructure and transportation investments in Michigan. And it is about time—we’re still operating a transportation system that was designed in the 1950s—and the only thing that hasn’t
required modification since the 50s is—oh wait, nothing.

LSM wants to engage its audience around the state to inform the governor’s vision. Because we think we know what you’ll say: we need a transportation system that sets new and greater goals to help us achieve future prosperity. You want a system that prioritizes people and communities, not just moving products. A system that creates options for people with different needs; a system that gives people access to the education, health care, and jobs they need.

We need a 21st century transportation system designed to meet our 21st century challenges.

On transportation and a host of other issues, if we work together, we can save Michigan.

Be the Change...

Michigan needs a new vision for its transportation system, one that meets the 21st century needs of our 21st century communities, and that supports Michigan’s transition to a new economy. But what should that vision look like? What elements must it contain?

tweetingIn anticipation of Governor Snyder’s Special Message on Transportation and Infrastructure in October, the League and Let’s Save Michigan hosted Michigan’s Transportation Vision: A Twitter Talk ( on September 13. Five transportation experts participated in the event—Robert Puentes of the Brookings Institution; Dan Gilmartin, Executive Director & CEO of the League; Rich Studley, President & CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce; Chris Kolb, Executive Director of the Michigan Environmental Council; and Rory Neuner, Project Coordinator for Transportation for Michigan. Also attending were State Rep. Doug Geiss (D-Taylor), and State Rep. Rick Olson (R-Saline). People and organizations across the state participated in the event on Twitter via computer and smartphone. Discussion centered on a variety of transit-related topics, such as making sure public transit actually connects people to their jobs, and how safety and efficiency must be cornerstones to any successful transportation system. Read more about Michigan’s Transportation Vision: A Twitter Talk on Twitter @letsavemich and @mmleague and the hashtag #mitransvision For more about Let’s Save Michigan go to

Contact Sarah Szurpicki of Let’s Save Michigan at 313-920-2143 or



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