Column: Ann Arbor’s Brand of Participation

City council homework in advance of budget planning session: What makes Ann Arbor a truly special community to live, work and play?

An Ann Arbor city council budget planning session is scheduled to take place on Monday, Dec. 9, starting sometime around 4 p.m.

CAnn Arbor Brand

Illustration by The Chronicle, based on bar chart in a preliminary draft report of a fall 2013 National Citizens Survey conducted among Ann Arbor residents.

Councilmembers have been asked to prepare for the session by thinking about Ann Arbor’s “brand.” Specifically, they’ve been asked to reflect on what “differentiates Ann Arbor from other communities in Michigan” and what “makes Ann Arbor a truly special community to live, work and play.”

Councilmembers will be asked to spend about five minutes each at the start of the session talking about how they see the Ann Arbor “brand.”

The facilitator for the session is Julia Novak of the Novak Consulting Group. In advance of last year’s session, she asked councilmembers to prepare by formulating thoughts that could be summarized as “What I Believe.

Last year’s homework assignment was, I think, easy compared to this year’s. And I do not envy councilmembers this chore. It sounds hard. I wouldn’t know where to begin. Anytime somebody starts talking about “brands” – especially a brand for a city – my first thought is: “Why, you sound like a charlatan standing there talking to me; why don’t you go off and make something useful, then come back and tell me all about that very useful thing you made instead of blathering on about brands.”

And so, because I am human, and every bit as lazy and ill-tempered as the rest of you, I will not get down to the business of completing the chore … before bitterly lamenting the nature of the chore itself (with all due respect to Julia Novak). I do hereby bitterly lament the branding chore. But I’ll take a shot.

That shot includes quoting a five-year-old interview.

But before delving into the dusty archives, I want to have a look at the preliminary results of a survey that was conducted recently among residents. I think it shows that our self-image as a community valuing public participation is not especially well-founded. So that’s not our brand. Not right now, anyway.

Survey Says: Self-Image Not Supported

First, I think it’s worth distinguishing between self-image and a solid brand. I think that many residents would name “community engagement” or “public participation” as part of Ann Arbor’s brand – a trait that distinguishes Ann Arbor from other cities. For example, Ann Arbor has enacted a “citizen participation” ordinance that requires developers of new projects to accommodate the desire of Ann Arbor residents to participate in local decision-making. According to that local law, developers are supposed to:

… pursue early and effective citizen participation in conjunction with their proposed developments, giving citizens an early opportunity to learn about, understand and comment upon proposals, and providing an opportunity for citizens to be involved in the development of their neighborhood and community;

Yet I would contend this self-image does not translate to an empirically-based brand. And that contention is supported, I think, by the results of a relatively scientific survey conducted in the fall of 2013. [.pdf of draft Ann Arbor National Citizens Survey report] [.pdf of responses, benchmarks, methodology and questionnaire]

The survey measured attending public meetings at just 15% of respondents, and watching a public meeting only somewhat higher, at 19%. The survey measured reading or watching local news at just 75%. But maybe those low numbers still stack up fine against other benchmark communities? Nope. Those light purple bars in the bar graph at the start of this column mean that the numbers are lower (in a statistically significant sense) than in benchmark communities.

Think about that for just a second. According to the result of that survey, 1 in 4 Ann Arbor residents “rarely” or “never” watches or reads local news.

I think at least some of the “community engagement” scores are not as weak as they appear in the draft report. For example, the summary report indicates that only 30% of the 778 Ann Arbor residents who responded to the survey reported talking to or visiting with neighbors more than once a month. But that looks like a simple matter of a failure to tally both categories of responses that fit the summary description “more than once a month.”

The specific “talks to neighbors” question included two categories that reflect ”more than once a month.” Specifically, 30% (N=230) of respondents answered the question about neighbor interactions with “two times a week or more” (dang, I just gave you a cup of sugar, get offa my porch!) and 28% (N=211) said they interacted 2-4 times a month. So that summary report probably should say 58%, not 30%. The last time this survey was done, in 2008, the summary stat for that item was 60%. So instead of dropping by half since the last survey, this stat was likely well within the 4-point margin of error. That’s why it’s labeled as a draft, I think.

On Being That Guy

During his unsuccessful campaign this year to win election to city council representing Ward 2, Kirk Westphal pled with voters to participate in local elections [emphasis added in bold]:

As an urban planner, I know council can and must do better. But to do this, I need you to vote. A friend of mine recently told me: “Kirk, I hate to admit this but I haven’t been voting in local elections. Everything is going great so I feel like I’d just mess things up.” This is not to judge. I’ve been that guy in places I’ve lived before. And Ann Arbor’s been doing well for the past 10 years, despite very low voter turnout. I’m telling you tonight, it’s no longer okay to sit-out local elections.

Dude, I have been that guy in Ann Arbor. But I’d go a step further. Before 2005, I wasn’t just sitting things out – I was actively and aggressively not paying attention to local civic life, because I felt I had way more important matters to think about. But around 2005 I more or less accidentally launched a teeter totter interview series. I had no real expectation that anyone would accept an invitation to ride a teeter totter in the middle of winter. But Rene Greff, co-owner of Arbor Brewing Company, wrecked what could have been just a funny joke – by accepting.

From there I felt I needed to get myself up to speed on local affairs so I would at least be marginally conversant in a range of topics – so I could hold up my end of the teeter totter. And frankly, I looked more to local blogs like ArborUpdate and Ann Arbor Is Overrated than I did to the local newspaper. That’s a bit ironic, because I wound up here in Ann Arbor only because I’m married to someone who was offered a job with the local newspaper.

But I also looked to guests who were sitting on the other end of the teeter totter for some insight – insight into this place where I’d accidentally landed.

What I Heard About Branding on the Totter

The precise formulation of the city council’s homework chore includes this question [emphasis added]:

What differentiates Ann Arbor from other communities in Michigan?

That formulation reminded me immediately of a teeter totter interview I did up in Hunt Park back in 2008 – because the guest on that occasion was making the point that Ann Arbor is not competing with other communities in Michigan, so much as the rest of the world. Here’s what John Floyd had to say:

So what does it take for us to attract, and retain, people who could go anywhere to start a business? The university brings a lot of people through – they come, they get their ticket punched, and they go on to the next opportunity. Whether that is because of career advancement, or I’ve got these three options: This one, I don’t have to deal with February …  San Diego. Any of the S-cities, really. Salt Lake, San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco, or even Seattle doesn’t really have February. They have a little more rain.

They don’t have February the way we have February. I have a buddy who is a venture capitalist in town, Lindsay Aspegren at North Coast, and he has pointed out to me, you guys are crazy if you think that you’re competing with Ohio or Indiana. You are competing with Asia. You’re competing with Tokyo and Shanghai and Singapore and Bangalore – that’s who you’re competing with. Not just Chicago or Minneapolis. So that really is who we have to compete with.

Who is going to come to Michigan? Who is going to help us reinvent this economy? Why would somebody want to stay here? People have heard this argument a lot on their front porches – we don’t have mountains, we’re not on the ocean, the river is not navigable, we don’t have a great venture capital industry. We have a nascent one, and Mr. [Michael] Finney [of SPARK] and other people are working manfully to make that greater. But the fact is there is probably more venture capital in Minneapolis. And their winters are sunny, not cloudy. Even though they’re further north – the snow comes down in November and doesn’t melt until April.

My late wife used to complain, we should be in Minneapolis because there is real winter, and it doesn’t freeze and thaw, and it’s not so depressingly cloudy all winter long. So how are you going to compete with that? And my suggestion is that we are not going to compete with them by going head on. We’re not going to out-urbanize any of those places. We have to find some other things they don’t have, for us to be a place that attracts people. [A small-town feel, big-city vitality] is also our chief economic weapon. But that really has escaped people’s thinking, because they don’t think about it much.

Discussion Prompt

Even if you disagree with Floyd’s conclusion about the (un)desirability of increased urbanization, I think it’s probably fair to grant his basic point – which I’ll paraphrase this way: It doesn’t matter much if Ann Arbor is merely a more attractive place to be than Bad Axe.

But what does it take to attract and retain folks who really do have other options? And how can we make this place more humane and fulfilling for those who don’t have other options, but perhaps just find themselves stuck here?

I’d suggest that part of the answer is grounding Ann Arbor’s brand of “public participation” in actual fact. That would mean more residents attending a public meeting or at least watching one. It would mean more people reading or watching local news.

But it might also mean just more people talking amongst themselves about matters of local interest – without an overt overlay of politics. You don’t have to build a teeter totter to do it. And to its credit, an “Ann Arbor brand” conversation is at least not overtly about politics.

So I’d like to encourage readers to participate in a conversation on Ann Arbor’s brand – but not necessarily by writing a comment online. Turn to an actual human being who’s within arm’s reach and ask that person: What, if anything is Ann Arbor’s brand? If that person turns out to be me, I promise not to call you a charlatan.

Update on Dec. 9, 2013 at 1:35 p.m.: The city of Ann Arbor has released the final reports from the National Citizens Survey:

  • Dashboard Summary of Findings (PDF): A summary of resident ratings across the eight facets and three pillars of a livable community.
  • Trends over Time (PDF): This report compares the 2013 ratings for the City of Ann Arbor to its previous survey results.
  • Community Livability Report (PDF): This report captures what makes a community livable, attractive and a place where people want to be.
  • Technical Appendices (PDF): Complete survey responses, benchmark comparisons, detailed survey methods and survey materials.
  • Open-ended Responses (PDF): Verbatim responses to the open-ended question, “What should be City leaders’ top three priorities to maximize the quality of life in Ann Arbor?”

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  1. By Steve Bean
    December 8, 2013 at 9:21 pm | permalink

    “But what does it take to attract and retain folks who really do have other options? And how can we make this place more humane and fulfilling for those who don’t have other options, but perhaps just find themselves stuck here?”

    Third possibility (of how many?): what can we do to make life better for those people who live here by choice? (or, heck, why not all 100,000+ of them?)

    As for the “brand” question, it implies selling, which in turn has broader implications, including perhaps the interpretation that if our community is for sale, what’s really going on at public meetings that would be worth our time unless it was to object to the premise?

    “Specifically, they’ve been asked to reflect on what ‘differentiates Ann Arbor from other communities in Michigan” and what “makes Ann Arbor a truly special community to live, work and play.’”

    This mis-frames the followup. Selling is a whole separate matter from living, working, and playing, but then try telling that to a marketer. Those of us (maybe it’s just me?) with absolutely no interest in selling community hasn’t slowed the marketers a bit, nor will it stop them from continuing to try to convince us we’re somehow wrong.

    Coincidentally, for the past several years what I’ve been talking to people about—both in person and online—is ending the global use of money and the concept of exchange, thereby obviating any value that might be gained from discussing “brand” matters (not to mention marketing and a whole lot of other dysfunctional confusion). Good thing you wrote about it now before it’s too late.

  2. December 8, 2013 at 9:57 pm | permalink

    The only “brand” Ann Arbor needed for me was that it wasn’t the suburbs where I grew up. I had pretty bad health problems as a kid and we had to come to UM from time to time. My mom does not remember this but I have a clear memory of being at a stop sign (I would guess South U and State?) and seeing hordes of people crossing. One of them had a bright blue sweater and bright blue hair. I said, “I’m going to live here one day.”

    You see, that is because there were people out and about. There weren’t any strip malls in the downtown area. There were all sorts of people of different sizes and colors and shapes and whatever else. Then I moved here and found out that most of the people are really pretty cool. There are (like anywhere) the overrated braggarts who really need to go away but at least we know their names.

    This place takes you as you are and finds a place for you. I don’t need a brand to keep me here.

  3. December 8, 2013 at 10:33 pm | permalink

    I’ve heard a lot of pushback against the corporate/consumer world that the word “brand” is often associate with. I get that. I find it useful to substitute “reputation” for “brand.”

    Here’s why the brand/reputation question has been a useful thinking exercise for me.

    As I brainstormed themes for Ann Arbor’s brand, one was “world-class culture and amenities with small-city charm.” Another was “inclusive for people of all backgrounds–including economic.”

    Seeing both of those on paper made me realize the tension between them. If we have these world-class amenities, lots of affluent people will want to live here to enjoy them. That will make it hard to be inclusive of working and middle-class folk, especially if we want to keep the small city charm.

    A second point. Dave wrote, “this self-image does not translate to an empirically-based brand.” You can look at brand in terms of the current brand reality and the aspirational brand. Put another way, it is both important to ask, “what do people say we are?” and “who do we want people to say we are?”

    For me, the inclusive community is aspirational, not current reality. I think it erodes the process to limit the discussion to only the “brands” that can currently be empirically supported.

  4. December 9, 2013 at 12:50 pm | permalink

    Is anyone else worried that only 20% of respondents have stockpiled supplies for an emergency? Didn’t everyone read the CDC’s zombie preparedness manual?

  5. December 9, 2013 at 1:55 pm | permalink

    The article has been updated to include links at the bottom to the final versions of various components of the survey reports. The issue with the 30% stat for talking to neighbors appears to have been finalized in favor of 30%. I still skept that this is accurate. I’ll follow up with NCS on that. Also the open ends look like they were at least in some cases not coded accurately. While they aren’t supposed to correct grammar or spelling from the handwritten responses, in some cases I think there are clear coding errors that don’t accurately reflect the word the respondent wrote. For example:

    If these ass holes who run over & try to run over pedestrians were protected & imprisoned, maybe thump would be better & safer. The uses walks all need red lights. People run the Huron is one regularly but a seems a little safer.

    I think this was likely “prosecuted” not “protected” “things” not “thump” and “cross walks” not “uses walks”. As far as identifying the general topic of concern and counting up percentages of people who wrote about a topic, this level of accuracy might be adequate. However, I would wish for cleaner coding than this (assuming that I’m right about this and other instances of suspected miscoding).

  6. By John Floyd
    December 9, 2013 at 3:33 pm | permalink

    Did I actually say “…that really has escaped people’s thinking, because they don’t think about it much.” I feel like Casey Stengel having a bad day.

  7. December 9, 2013 at 5:43 pm | permalink

    I, for one, am glad that the leaders of our city are having this discussion. I hope that everyone in town is, as well. Mr. Warpehoski phrases it very well: this discussion is about what we want folks to say we’re about. It is exactly that which creates romantic attachment to a place where one lives. It isn’t about one specific thing, as much as folks might make it out to seem — it is the whole milieu of culture, feel, friendliness, amenities, ease of use, and so much more that creates the deep in the gut feeling folks have about Ann Arbor.

    It isn’t out of hand for us to have a place to live that can work for all of us, but to get there, exercises just like this are needed — to set some visioning for a direction for our city to strive toward. I’m looking forward to listening to these statements and reading as much response as possible. I’m one of those young millennial folks that reports keep talking about and I love this city.

    I feel blessed I found a job here and have been able to live in Washtenaw County since 1998. I’ve thought about leaving before, but there’s always been something that kept me here — and that something is connection to this area and all that is I’m aspirational — I look at this place, feel a sense of connection, and feel a sense of history, but also see a future respectful of that but that looks toward the future as a road that we can make work for us as a community.

    Perhaps this comment is a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, and perhaps without point but for an attempt to support Mr. Warpehoski’s notion that we look a bit wider than simply empirical data.

  8. December 9, 2013 at 6:54 pm | permalink

    Re (7) Not at all mumbo-jumbo. It’s called the sense of connection to the place we live. This sense of community is what I consider important to nurture. It is a big part of what creates a “resilient community”.

  9. By Steve Bean
    December 9, 2013 at 7:55 pm | permalink

    “…this discussion is about what we want folks to say we’re about.”

    This brings to mind the word “perceptions”, which ties back to my comment about selling.

    Looking to people outside the community for improvement, security, wealth, productivity, validation, and such is a precarious thing. It overlooks our own power and the value of our ourselves and our neighbors and distracts us from strengthening those aspects that we actually have some control over. It’s a form of arguing with reality (which are arguments that we always lose). The historical awareness of the stress that arises from desires is long.

    Improving our community will either attract people or it won’t. Having a goal of attracting them is a suboptimal approach.

  10. By John Floyd
    December 9, 2013 at 11:34 pm | permalink

    @9 If the goal is to improve quality of life for we who live here, I think that Steve makes a good point. However, over the last several years, The Council Party and its allies have had as their agenda the end of Ann Arbor as a pleasant mid-west college town, and its change into an economic and population center to rival Detroit in size and in economic importance to Michigan. Hence, the need for tall apartments and the destruction of historic neighborhoods, expanding the local airport, vastly expanded mass transit (for commuters) & mass transit taxes (notice that your property tax bill lists “Mass Transit” tax instead of “AATA”), the proposed UM campus Connector, relocating the train station to UM Hospital, and the use of Tax Increment Financing Districts (e.g. DDA, the LDFA which funds Ann Arbor Spark, etc) to promote growth that doesn’t benefit the city’s general fund or its residents. This is also the source of the drive to fund Public Art (go back and look at the justifications made for this: most of them revolve around the theme of “Sending a message” to outsiders that the Council Party thought would help achieve their end.

    My emphasis of the Small Town Feel/Big City Vitality theme was an attempt to suggest that the most viable way to achieve this end was to play to our strengths as a community, rather than to employ the Council Party’s destroy what’s there and working, in order to build a different city in the same geography (the “William Westmoreland” strategy: destroy the community that exists in order to “save” it). I personally think that Detroit is where Michigan will be re-invented, not Ann Arbor. However, as long as the Council Party establishment is determined to promote mega-growth here, outside Detroit, let’s do it in a way that makes the most sense – not the ways they are choosing.

    To Steve’s point, Council’s approach has been to sell a vision of an expanded Ann Arbor to others, not to ask what will make our town better. Even if one supports a mega-growth agenda, Steve’s approach is more viable over time.

  11. By John Q.
    December 10, 2013 at 3:11 pm | permalink

    “The Council Party and its allies have had as their agenda the end of Ann Arbor as a pleasant mid-west college town, and its change into an economic and population center to rival Detroit in size and in economic importance to Michigan.”

    John – I’m assuming this is your attempt at over-the-top rhetoric. It’s not even close to reality and if you believe it is, one would have to assume that you’ve never actually travelled outside the city limits of Ann Arbor. I get that some people don’t like the changes downtown. I don’t like all of them myself. But I can’t take seriously people who believe in either the agenda or the potential outcome. Ann Arbor is never going to be the next Detroit. Rest easy, it’s likely that Ann Arbor won’t even be the next Grand Rapids.

  12. By John Floyd
    December 10, 2013 at 5:49 pm | permalink

    John Q,

    I agree that council’s desired outcome is not in line with reality (this has been an implicit point of mine). My explicit point is that this unreality has not stopped council from doing long-term damage to our community in pursuit of this unrealistic (and to me, undesirable as well, for various reasons) goal. Perhaps I have not been effective in communicating my position, but it seems to me that in many ways you and I are not far apart in our assessment of things. We seem to differ mostly in our reading of council’s actions (and those of its ancillaries), and in our reading of the conduct of many recent elections.

    Indeed, recent excursions into Detroit have only re-inforced my impression that Detroit is where genuine innovation is happening in Michigan, and that it is the place in Michigan to which the most determined “Strivers” are heading. That the new pockets of vitality in Detroit are more-or-less the result of spontaneous, grass-roots initiative, rather than government policy, gives them an aura of reality and viability far beyond anything resulting from the one-note-song of 5th & Huron’s Oracles of Density.

    If council’s attempts at branding, for example, AREN’T about wanting out-sized population growth, then I can’t imagine what they ARE about (Boredom? The need to hear themselves talk?) My imagination may be two sizes too small – pray, enlighten me! Ditto the mass transit theme, ditto the doubling of our sewer capacity, ditto the rejection of German Town, ditto encroachment on The Old 4th Ward and The Old West Side, ditto the DDA’s contempt for resident input in the William St. planning process (“We’re the Downtown DEVELOPMENT Authority, so no parks”), ditto the campaigns of, e.g., Carsten Hohnke (successful) and Kirk Westphal (unsuccessful), ditto the mayor’s narrow-viewpoint board appointees, etc., etc. There is more than one way to look at anything. It’s possible that I am a paranoid conspiracy theorist, but these look to me like expressions of the desire to wildly expand our population, whether or not that goal is realistic (did you see an A2D2 “Public input” event at which “Status quo” was an option?). What do you see here?

    It is more pleasant to be taken seriously than not, but my experience is that saying what I see is usually the best use of my energies. After all, if I’m right, the community will benefit from hearing about it; if I’m wrong, how better to learn of my error than to read others’ reactions to my thoughts? Thank you for your reactions, JQ. I’ll reflect upon them.