An Ann Arbor city council budget planning session is scheduled to take place on Monday, Dec. 9, starting sometime around 4 p.m.
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.
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?”
The Chronicle could not survive without regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of public bodies like the Ann Arbor city council. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!