Think Intangibly

When my doctor husband first mentioned the trendy phrase “evidence-based medicine,” I asked, “What was it before – guess-based medicine?” It’s popular in this age of Big Data (information from everywhere about everyone) to call almost anything evidence-based, which sounds pretty scientific. Scientific is good, isn’t it?

We are so used to reading charts and statistics that we think all subjects can be quantified. It’s science! Will your child be successful in school? Test scores will tell you, right? Can you find true love? Match.com and e-Harmony have a formula. Should government provide mass transit to people who either don’t own cars or prefer to use them sparingly? Let’s crunch the numbers and see.

In the old Ann Arbor News, I always enjoyed how the football writers would evaluate wins and losses and then add up the “intangibles” in predicting the outcome of Michigan football games. Intangibles were things such as the coach’s dislike for the other coach, the need to win on home field, and decades of historical factoids. If you’re trying to get a bunch of teenagers to win a football game or if you’re trying to figure out public policy, those intangibles can be very important.

Last week I visited a friend who is taking some courses at MIT on Public Sector Dispute Resolution. I attended class with her and had the good fortune to meet one of the gurus in this area. Lawrence Susskind applies consensus-building techniques to issues such as urban planning and international water disputes. His blog contains a fascinating discussion of Participatory Action Research (PAR) as a counterpoint to the usual “scientific” statistical methods. Simply put, he advises social scientists to get down and dirty with specific community projects rather than relying solely on numbers and surveys that lead to incorrect generalizations about social change.

Charts and statistics are just a jumping-off point. They can’t necessarily predict future activity and they certainly can’t measure community benefit. My favorite example is the non-motorized path the city built on the north side of Washtenaw Avenue. During the public meetings about it, numerous residents came out to complain that there was no evidence that anyone would use it. Of course there was no evidence – there was no sidewalk! Now that it exists, hundreds of people walk and bike there and more people are willing to take the bus because the stops on that side of the road are accessible. The intangible is that the city made a statement in favor of non-motorized transportation, regardless of “evidence.”

In the coming weeks we will hear a lot of blather from the “we hate everything” group that now has been formed to oppose the proposed AAATA millage in May. The millage will support more efficient bus routes and less waiting time for bus riders, but expect the naysayers to drag out all kinds of statistics showing each penny each resident pays for each hubcap on each tire on each bus. Here are some of the intangibles:  1) As a relatively wealthy community, we owe it to those who aren’t so wealthy to provide reliable transportation; 2) It’s not all about “me” –you might not take the bus but someone else you depend on probably does; and 3) Improved transit provides incentives for employment and for retail opportunities.

Whether it’s the transportation millage, a new building, or crosswalk improvements, be wary of those who rely solely on statistics. It takes social conscience to figure some of these things out. Read up on all the facts and figures, but then feel the love.

Time to Get On Board

We are conditioned to think and obsess about the unemployment rate, but when economists look at revitalizing urban areas, they now talk about prosperity rather than unemployment. Michigan doesn’t do too well in either unemployment or per capita income, but if we start focusing more on smaller, regional improvements, it looks like we have the raw materials to succeed.

In a presentation last week to the Ann Arbor-Ypsi Chamber of Commerce, economist Lou Glazer outlined what it takes to make Ann Arbor a destination for new businesses and, most importantly, young professionals who will run and staff those businesses. The old idea that a high-tech company can “do business anywhere” is no longer true. Knowledge-industry companies – those in high-tech, healthcare, media, entertainment – want to be where the new college graduates are, and that turns out to be in the center of big cities.

Seventy-five percent of recent college graduates choose to live in big cities. The most popular are New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles, in that order. Ann Arbor should be in the running, but one problem, according to Glazer, is that the University of Michigan sucks up a lot of the talent pool. Young professionals have to want to stay here, and if they do stay here, the businesses will follow. Chicago has a mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who has promised that Chicago will be the city of choice for Big 10 graduates. Will Ann Arbor’s next mayor throw down the gantlet?

Quality of place matters to these adorable millennials. Music, art, design, cool food and shops are all big draws. But what do they love most? Get ready for it, because it’s a surprise – transit. At the Chamber of Commerce program, a panel of young business owners talked about what attracts them. They want walkable communities. They don’t want to own cars. They want to be able to live in funky Ypsilanti (which Glazer describes as Ann Arbor’s Brooklyn), hop on a train to Ann Arbor, hop back on to go to Depot Town, then take a ride to the DIA.1lrt0625

Brendan Cavendar, a young UM graduate who is one of the brokers working on the sale of the city’s old YMCA lot, says availability of Zipcars, short-term car rentals, and the go!Pass, free bus rides for downtown employees, has been crucial in attracting businesses to downtown.

Several huge transit initiatives are bubbling in Ann Arbor and what happens in the next couple of years could decide whether Rahm Emanuel gets all the college grads or whether Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti get to share some of them. First is the AAATA “Moving You Forward” 5-year transit improvement plan. The AAATA will likely go to the voters for a millage increase to allow better bus service in this region. Hopefully they will not be stymied by the very parochial Ann Arbor City Council. Councilmembers Jane Lumm, Sally Petersen, Sumi Kailasapathy, Steve Kunselman, and Mike Anglin have already needlessly delayed the appointment of Ypsilanti Township representatives to the AAATA board. They are, in a short-sighted way, afraid that Ann Arbor residents will be subsidizing riders from Ypsi and Ypsi Township. But even though township residents don’t currently pay an AAATA millage, the township does buy into bus service, so these residents are paying their way.

Councilmembers perseverating about fixing potholes could also deny us the opportunity for state-of-the-art train service. They finally capitulated and allowed a city match for federal money to study the best place for a new Amtrak train station, but whether they will actually listen to the results of that study remains to be seen.

Finally, The Connector, a collaborative study about high-capacity transit through Ann Arbor, has just finished more public workshops to help determine routes and select the modes of transit that will best suit this population. Again, city councilmembers have been less than enthusiastic and Kunselman even gave as one of his reasons for wanting to cap Downtown Development Authority funding that the DDA might want to spend money on trains. Of course the DDA should cooperate with The Connector. It is a shame, though, that some of the councilmembers value their reputations as obstacles to progress.

The War on Art

The pumpkins are just about to get smashed and dumped into the recycling bins with the leaves, so we can now all start thinking about Thanksgiving and those Puritans. They left quite a legacy, particularly here in Ann Arbor, where the city council discussions have been about decency, bad words, and protection of women. These moral considerations forced the council to vote twice on the same nomination of the same person. They must have forgotten that the Puritans were against wasting time.

Puritans were also quite disturbed by graven images and so, it seems, are some of the councilmembers. Under the guise of fiscal responsibility, they have declared a war on art.

In 2007, the city council unanimously passed the Percent for Art Ordinance, a piece of legislation that the Commission on Art in Public Places (now called the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission or AAPAC) began developing around the turn of the century. Although I always like to point out how innovative our city is, this was not an innovation but had been successfully implemented in many cities, including Philadelphia, which started it all in 1959. New York, Toronto, Chicago, and Chapel Hill all have percent-for-art programs. Chapel Hill, a college town half our size, even has a Public and Cultural Arts Office.IMAG1228

Renovation of City Hall benefited from the art program when a completely uninteresting façade was replaced with an educational and functional stormwater installation and fountain designed by world-renowned artist Herbert Dreiseitl. It includes usable outdoor space and decorative plantings that change with every season.

The Puritans have spread a lot of misinformation about Percent for Art, so here is how it really works:  Whenever there is a capital improvement project, such as a bridge, water main, or street repaving, that project always has a 10% contingency fund to cover unexpected expenses. The Percent for Art is 1% of that contingency fund. It is not an extra amount added to a project, so it doesn’t make the project any more expensive. Each project is capped at $250,000 and none of the art funds come from the city’s General Fund, the money used to pay police and firefighters.

We don’t have a Percent for Art ordinance anymore. Misinformation works. First, 3rd Ward Councilmember Stephen Kunselman started talking about how the ordinance was illegal. He kept talking, even though he lacked support from anyone who was actually schooled in law. Then some misinformed people started to criticize the Dreiseitl sculpture, mistakenly saying that it was taking money away from police and fire services, and xenophobically saying that Dreiseitl was not from Michigan or even from America.

The fact that some people don’t “like” the Dreiseitl art or any of the other public art is beside the point. Public art is not there to lull people SUB-CZECH-articleInlineinto serenity with gentle colors and Norman Rockwell images of kids in barber chairs. It is meant to make you think and react, whether you “like” it or not. This concept might be best expressed by Czech sculptor David Cerny, whose installation in the Vltava River points towards the Prague Castle.

Art is part of culture and culture is what makes a city unique. If Ann Arbor had a cadre of gazillionnaires, the way Grand Rapids does, we could count on private funding for large, outdoor art installations. We do have the University of Michigan, and more collaboration between the U and the city could produce some contributions to public art, but that has not yet been a priority for either institution.

Politics is hard and you have to choose your battles. Art is not very popular when times are tough, so the council chose to throw art under the bus, which took the form of a ballot proposal that would fund art with a millage – coming out of citizens’ pockets – rather than a percent of capital projects. The council did not consult the arts community before proposing this millage and there was little time to mount a campaign in support. It doesn’t take much to mount a campaign against spending your money, so, not too surprisingly, recession-strapped voters last year voted against taxing themselves for art.

This vote gave the council an easy, but not necessarily correct, way to say that “the people” don’t want money spent on art. This past summer they got rid of Percent for Art completely, and replaced it with an ordinance that says, essentially, that art might happen in an appropriate project if someone adds it into the project cost and then gets tied to some railroad track until the council says the art is worth it. The possibility of art being included in any new city project is slim.

Councilmember Jane Lumm, from Ward 2, has declared herself to be against public art in any circumstance. She and 1st Ward Councilmember Sumi Kailasapathy proposed gutting what was left of the public art fund, but their proposal was defeated. AAPAC still has about $800,000 from the old Percent for Art to spend on art projects, and they are giving thanks for that.