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Resilient Cities in a Transforming State: A Snapshot of Local Action in Michigan

The state of Michigan is the centerpiece of a new study, “Resilient Cities in a Transforming State: A Snapshot of Local Action in Michigan.” The study is the third in a series of National League of Cities (NLC) reports on resilience that focus on individual and institutional responses to job and real property losses in cities during the past decade. In Michigan, local stakeholders are working in the face of transformations in employment and housing as well as the demographic consequences of outmigration.

In partnership with the Michigan Municipal League and the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, NLC convened 30 federal, state, and local organizations in Lansing, Michigan, for a one-day Leadership Forum on Neighborhoods and Local Economies. These officials were in the midst of a process to define place-making and enumerate livability principles to suit their own needs and to create a framework that can support economic growth and prosperity statewide. The findings and perspectives from this forum make up the bulk of this report.

NLC’s research in this field is derived from its participation in the Building Resilient Regions Network (BRR) organized by the University of California at Berkeley and funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Major Themes

Over the course of the research on resilient cities, NLC winnowed its focus down to three indispensable principles that together are the foundation of resilience at the local level:

  • Establishing an inclusive and creative process of community engagement to assess problems, identify solutions, and implement a unified response;
  • Identifying credible, dynamic, and aggressive leadership on the part of local and regional elected or appointed officials and matching the capacity of the government departments or agencies to that leadership; and
  • Creating partnerships across city departments, across political boundaries, and among the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.

Community Inclusion and Engagement

Although information gathered through traditional city public comment periods tends to be narrow in scope and generally fails to capture the full spectrum of issues and concerns, informal processes, such as the city of Midland’s Meeting in a Box, are attempts to reach residents directly and engage them in a more meaningful way. Mobile communications technology and the adoption of crowdsourcing techniques are at the heart of the GRand Ideas interactive webpage in the city of Grand Rapids.

Leadership and Local Capacity

Having a compelling vision and the skills to articulate and implement that vision are two aspects of leadership. Leadership entails risks because it requires the sharing or transferring of authority and the targeting of resources. The city of Jordan sought to create a culture of trust to enable its elected leaders and staff to jointly engage in the kind of creative problem solving needed to achieve efficiencies when government is otherwise stretched beyond capacity. The result was an invigorated process to identify and control vacant real properties, leading to recommendations on 657 vacant properties in 2 months.


Every city in the NLC research pool offered an example of scuttled partnerships. Successful partnerships, such as those undertaken by the Front Porch Renaissance Group in Bay City, were designed to enhance educational opportunities for youth, nurture and grow local businesses, and preserve the unique character of some historic structures. In this example, the partners established a significant level of trust, and the community was committed to the plans proposed and the results achieved.


NLC’s findings in Michigan show that even under the most difficult of circumstances, city and county leaders are using the full force of their elected office, taking creative steps to reach out to a range community stakeholders, and testing cross-jurisdictional partnerships to ensure the delivery of services. Moreover, agencies of the state government are positively engaged in the place-making agenda, which is creating opportunities for more thoughtful and coordinated local action. The lessons learned in Michigan will serve as models for other communities struggling with similar challenges.

Read the full report here.

James Brooks is the program director for community development and infrastructure at NLC’s Center for Research and Innovation. He can be reached at