Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Final section of the White Paper!
6.2 Compact Transportation-Oriented Infill Project

6.2 Compact Transportation-Oriented Infill Project

One of the most exciting potential infill projects in Washtenaw County is the location at which the former Michigan Central Railroad1 and the Ann Arbor Railroad cross. In a post-automotive age, this would be the single most important crossroads of the region west of Detroit and east of Jackson: the place where the east-west rail line from Detroit to Chicago meets the north-south line from Toledo to Traverse City.
This cross-over is also key to sustainable, transit-oriented development in Washtenaw County, because of the potential of each of the two rail lines as corridors for sustainable development. For transit to be a practical and meaningful alternative to driving, it's essential to be able to transfer quickly and conveniently from one transit line to another. In countries where passenger rail is healthy, such as Europe and Japan, stations are placed at the junctions between lines to facilitate transfers. Just as importantly, healthy passenger rail systems give rise to lucrative retail, office, and lodging venues in and around such rail transfer points.
Considering both the importance of having a transfer point at this junction, and the business potential of transit oriented development, the crossing of the Michigan Central and Ann Arbor railways is probably the single most valuable location for TOD in Washtenaw County. It also has potential as a "green" development, because of adjacent empty land that could be used as either park or urban farmland.
Let's take a look at the details. An aerial photo (next page) is overlaid with proposed areas of development.

  • The north-south Ann Arbor Railroad2 (AA, red line) enters the area from the southwest after having passed immediately west of downtown Ann Arbor, following the Allen Creek valley. Along most of its route it is elevated on an embankment (except for the Summit Street crossing, which is at grade). The line swings eastward in a broad curve, passing over Main Street and the Michigan Central line. From there, it crosses the Huron River just upstream from Barton Dam on a single-track viaduct, arriving at the north shore of the river going in an easterly direction. Just beyond the east edge of the map, the line swings northward, paralleling Plymouth Road for a while as it aims for Whitmore Lake, Howell, and points north. On the north bank of the river, the track belongs to the State of Michigan3, and is leased to Great Lakes Central Railroad4, a Federated Capital Corporation subsidiary5. From the bridge south to Toledo, the line still belongs to the original Ann Arbor Railroad Shortly before crossing Main Street, there is an embankment which formerly carried a steep track down to the Michigan Central line for exchange purposes. That track has long since been torn up, and the combination of the track angles and grade separations makes it impractical for trains to change from the MC to the AA line.
  • The former Michigan Central line (MC, orange line) enters the map area near the southeast corner and curves north as it follows the Huron River valley. The original Michigan Central Ann Arbor station, currently a restaurant, is just off the map on the right. The Amtrak station is a small building south of the track, under the shadow of the Broadway Street bridge. Despite its humble size, this station is the busiest in Michigan, and second only to Chicago Union Station in passenger activity along Amtrak's Wolverine Corridor: 144,542 in 20086.
  • The current composition of this section is a mix of mostly single-story sales and office buildings, automotive repair facilities, and two-story frame residences. The City of Ann Arbor has its utility vehicle yard south of Summit, between Main and the AA line. The shape of the area is challenging because existing residences have a distinct midwestern charm, and it would be insensitive to destroy them. The remaining space currently consists of four disparate areas:
    • North (brown): the core rail crossing area, with small offices and automotive shops;
    • Southwest (blue): the city maintenance yard7;
    • South central (pink): small commercial buildings with parking facilities;East (green): potential open space "“ south of the MC line, owned by Amtrak and occupied by the current small, one-story station building and adjacent parking lots; north of the line, owned by Detroit Energy, and possibly contaminated.

There are several ways this area could be developed, but the general idea is to focus intensive commercial and hospitality facilities as close as possible to the actual crossing of the tracks. The reason for this is simple: to make it as easy as possible for passengers wanting to transfer from one train to another to walk. As they walk and wait for their train, they should be surrounded by inviting and relaxing opportunities to browse for books, gifts, a cup of latte, a snack, or a meal. For those with a longer layover, comfortable hotel accomodations should be within easy walking distance. Office and living space should be almost as close, and all should be designed to be as energy-efficient and self-sufficient as possible. With relatively little open space, and located within the City of Ann Arbor, there would be no need for the development to provide its own water or dispose of its own waste; however, the available open space could be used for urban farming as well as recreation.

The plan offered here is anchored by a high-rise building in the core area, straddling both rail lines and Main Street. Building over the rails and street provided a covered (but well ventilated) space for passengers transfering between trains and from automobiles or buses to trains. It also makes more efficient use of the limited space. Since the rail lines are on separate levels, passengers would transfer between them using escalators and elevators. A bus terminal for local and regional service, also under cover, would be located nearby, probably on the same level as Main Street and the MC rail line. Above the transportation levels would be retail space, and above that, office, hotel and possibly residential space as well.

In the south central areas along Depot Street and Main Street, compact residential development consisting of apartments or townhouses could be built. An existing three-story office structure recently completed at 201 Depot Street would fit nicely into this area.

The property highlighted in blue, currently the city utility yard, could also be developed as compact residential or mixed-use space. A related alternative is to use the space as an arts and creativity center. (This idea was proposed at a Calthorpe town meeting sponsored by the Downtown Development Authority.) The purpose of such a center is to encourage artistic creativity as an essential part of Michigan's economic development. Evidence shows that where creative arts flourish, engineering and technological creativity thrives in conjunction. A creativity center would include affordable living space, studio facilities, galleries, and performance spaces, as well eating and entertainment venues.

The green areas on the map are actually "brown": either parking lots, small buildings, or potentially contaminated land. Their location near the river makes them ideal for recreation and urban farming, once they are remediated.

An interesting opportunity exists because of the proposed Ann Arbor Greenway, which runs roughly along the AA line in the Allen Creek flood plain. Much of the land proposed for this development is in the proposed Greenway area, so they might be perceived as mutually exclusive. However, the two plans can not only coexist, but thrive together. New development of this type can create green space to be enjoyed by residents and passers-by alike. Since the land is a flood plain, buildings should be elevated above 200-year flood levels, leaving space below to weave paths and shade-loving shrubbery around a resurrected Allen Creek, which is now largely buried in an underground culvert. This is an excellent place to exercise creative landscape architecture, with a result which could greatly enhance the area. The core building itself would be situated over the mouth of Allen Creek, where it flows into the Huron River. The challenge of creating a space at the base of the building that not only accomodates the creek, but celebrates it, would result in architecture worthy of great distinction.

In Conclusion

New York Times writer Nicolai Ouroussoff, in a recently published article8 discusses the condition of America's cities. He concludes with this observation: "A half-century ago American engineering was the envy of the rest of the world. Cities like New York, Los Angeles and New Orleans were considered models for a brilliant new future. Europe, with its suffocating traditions and historical baggage, was dismissed as a decadent, aging culture. It is no small paradox that many people in the world now see us in similar terms."

Washtenaw County does not need to suffocate in its traditions, weighed down with the historical baggage of an automobile-obsessed culture. But unless we wake up now and begin to transform ourselves, we may well discover that we are trapped in an energy-lean world with few resources to effect our transition to a desirable, sustainable, low-energy lifestyle.

-- Wake up, Washtenaw! --

End Notes

1 The Michigan Central Railroad, originally incorporated in 1846, is now owned and operated by several different companies. The portion that runs through Washtenaw County is currently owned by (Norfolk Southern Railway) and is used by Amtrak for its "Wolverine Service" trains running between Detroit and Chicago.

2 Ann Arbor Railroad: http://www.annarbor-railroad.com/

3 The State of Michigan refers to this rail line as the Ann Arbor and Northwest Michigan System

4 Great Lakes Central Railroad: http://www.glcrailroad.com/

5 Federated Capital Corporation: http://www.federatedcapital.com/

6 Boardings and deboardings at Ann Arbor's Amtrak station according to the Michigan Department of Transportation.

7 City of Ann Arbor Street Maintenance Services has sold this property.

8 Nicoloai Ouroussoff, "Reinventing America's Cities: The Time Is Now". The New York Times, March 25, 2009.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

White Paper part 6.1: Corridor Infill

6. Possible Development: Infill

Two general types of development can be encouraged in parts of Washtenaw County that are already built up: compact and corridor. We'll discuss two specific possibilities here.

6.1 Corridor Infill Project

Description of the area: Drive due west from Times Square in the heart of downtown Detroit. You're at the eastern origin of US 12, Michigan Avenue. If wanderlust moved you to drive all the way to the western terminus of US 12, you would find yourself in the port of Aberdeen, Washington, near the Pacific coast. But less than an hour from the start of your trek, you would enter Washtenaw County, just north of the Willow Run airport and manufacturing complex, built during World War Two to produce thousands of B-17 bombers, currently owned by financially ailing General Motors. Local residents insist this was where the original "Rosie the Riveter" worked, and if you continue just a little farther in Ypsilanti Township, you'll see on either side of Michigan Avenue plenty of gritty areas where aging Rosies hang out, largely forgotten by their country.
East Michigan Avenue in Ypsilanti Township is a problem area, with substandard housing,1 prostitution,2 "blight and safety issues, as well as Fire Department issues".3 In April of 2001, the Township Board was presented with a draft "Ecorse Road and East Michigan Avenue Corridor Plan"4 to address such issues; it was carefully researched and proposed following New Urbanism5 principles, and had great potential. However, after brief consideration by the Township Board, it was rejected because opposition was voiced by a handful of vocal business owners who believed the plan might be detrimental to their businesses.6 The current problems just mentioned demonstrate that nothing significant has been done since 2001 to address the underlying problems.
Because of the careful work and sound principles that went in to the corridor plan, it is an excellent basis for sustainable, transit-oriented corridor infill development. In the intervening years, the urgency of the energy situation has become more apparent, so a number of details need to be added to the plan. We will focus here only on Michigan Avenue, though similar plans for Ecorse Road are certainly appropriate.
Summary of the 2001 Plan
Here are the goals and strategies proposed in the 2001 plan; I have taken the liberty of rearranging the order of the strategies, but have left the original wording7 unchanged.
Michigan Avenue Goals:

  • Establish an active, strong economic center for the community as well as the region at the same time portraying a comfortable, positive image for Ypsilanti Township.
  • Provide safe and efficient circulation for multiple modes of transportation along the corridor that: preserves the level of service of the roadway; provides convenient access to business and neighborhoods; unifies the corridors and surrounding community; and promotes the quality image of the Township


  • Plan for public investment that will complement and support private investments along the corridor which support the character and design goals
  • Reduce reliance on the automobile by creating a pedestrian and transit oriented, mixed-use environment
  • Coordinate with the local transit authority to improve the condition and function of bus stops and expand the route area to better serve residents, shoppers and employees and enhance access to core locations
  • Create a pedestrian-oriented environment for all sites that is compatible with the character of the area and the nature of the uses
  • Expand the residential in a manner consistent with traditional neighborhoods where appropriate in the form of high quality townhouse style units
  • Develop specific special conditional use, or "performance standards", for intense uses to ensure they are properly located and designed
  • Incorporate open spaces and plazas into site design
  • Design commercial sites in a manner that creates a pedestrian friendly, traffic calming environment
  • Orient buildings and entrances to businesses towards the road with parking in the rear
  • Require pathways along all site frontages that are a reasonable width based on available right-of-way, the size of the lot and surrounding conditions
  • Design sites to accommodate pedestrian movement; Promote a convenient and comfortable pedestrian environment by providing connections to neighborhoods and safe places for walking
  • Institute traffic calming techniques to reduce speeds along the corridors
  • Develop specific access management standards that regulate the number of driveways per site, driveway spacing from other driveways and driveway spacing from adjacent intersections
  • Establish specific and effective landscaping requirements that creates a tree-lined streetscape; screens and softens views of the site; and enhances internal open space and parking areas
  • Install decorative street lighting and street furniture
  • Establish architectural design standards that relate to the type, scale and intensity of proposed uses and the desired quality and appearance of the business districts E. Michigan and Ecorse Road Corridor Plan
  • Create consistent building lines and setbacks that relate to the size of the proposed lot and type and scale of the building and use
  • Be cognizant of the rear facades of buildings in order to present a quality, welcoming appearance to businesses for visitors and to ensure pleasing views from abutting properties
  • Encourage placement of utilities underground
  • Develop parking lot design standards

Additional Recommendations
The goals and strategies recommended in 2001 are entirely consistent with Wake Up Washtenaw's vision. A number of additional strategies will make this plan more sustainable, and fit it into "smarter" overall growth strategies for the 21st century.

  • Use Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) to encourage new development in the Michigan Avenue corridor and halt greenfield suburban development in Ypsilanti Township.
    The southern end of Ypsilanti Township is zoned for extremely low-density, upscale development. It was equipped with water and sewer lines in the 1970s, but south of Textile Road there are still many acres of farms and woodland. Rather than bulldoze fields and trees, development dollars can be applied to resolving the problems of the Michigan Avenue corridor.
  • Grow the transit system on Michigan Avenue. Although the local transit agency provides nominal service to the area, it is inadequate to building reliable patronage. Michigan Avenue is served only between Spencer and Harris, about one-third of the length of the corridor in Ypsilanti Township. AATA Route 10, the line that runs on Michigan Avenue, is scheduled only once every hour, in a west-bound direction. There is no east-bound service, so passengers coming from Ann Arbor and downtown Ypsilanti must ride a circuitous route that takes twice as long to reach Michigan Avenue (29 minutes) as in the other direction. There is no service on Sunday, though there are numerous churches along the route (but not on Michigan Avenue).
  • Identify open areas in the Michigan Avenue corridor to designate as urban gardens. As oil prices make it more expensive to transport fruit and vegetables from out of state, this land will provide fresh, local produce at reasonable prices. Coordinate with Transition-Ypsilanti8 to identify locations and appropriate technologies for urban gardening.

The first two strategies require some expansion, so we'll discuss TDR and transit growth next.
Transfer of Development Rights (TDR)
TDR combines local government and business interests to protect open land (such as farm and forest) and encourage denser development in areas where that is desirable. The local government designates sending areas (typically farm and forest) and receiving areas (generally inner core or other places where development is encouraged).

  • The local jurisdiction (Ypsilanti Township) identifies sending and receiving areas.
  • The jurisdiction then allocates "development credits" within the sending area.
  • Owners of land in the sending areas sell their development credits to developers, speculators, or the community in return for payment and/or a tax abatement. Free market forces determine the value of the development credits. Once the credits are sold, a permanent conservation easement is placed on the land.
  • Developers who purchase these credits are then allowed to build within the receiving zone in ways that are more profitable for them. This is usually at a higher density or with taller buildings, using such measures as Floor to Area Ratio (FAR) and feet of height.9

Growing Transit on Each Michigan Avenue
A frequent dilemma in transit-oriented development is whether to build the transit first to encourage development, or develop first to provide riders for transit. A good solution in this case is to grow transit step-by-step while development is encouraged in other ways.
Step 1: Lay the financial groundwork. As part of any improvement of East Michigan Avenue, a funding foundation must be in place. A number of possibilities exist, such as a Special Assessment District for public financing, a Business Association for private financing, a Community Development Corporation for channeling public and private funds and seeking grants (including Brownfield Redevelopment grants). As this is being written, Washtenaw County is considering10 a county-wide plan to fund transit, but local funding for Michigan Avenue would always be helpful to ensure adequate service.
Step 2: Increase service quality and frequency. Service in one direction over a small part of the corridor is clearly inadequate. A bus route that serves Michigan Avenue exclusively, from downtown Ypsilanti to the county line or the Willow Run industrial complex is more straight-forward and easy for users to understand. Service should initially be increased to once every half-hour, to put it on a par with service in the Ann Arbor area. Even that is not adequate for transit-oriented development, so as development begins to happen in the corridor frequency should be increased.
Step 3: Re-engineer Michigan Avenue. In concert with efforts to develop a human-scale environment in the corridor as suggested in the 2001 plan, Michigan Avenue needs to be re-built from a five-lane highway having speed limits of 45 and 50 MPH, with multiple driveways and alleyways debouching into it. Part of this re-engineering should involve dedicated transit lanes. Initially these would be used by buses, perhaps in a "rapid bus" (BRT) configuration.
Step 4: Add a fixed-guideway transit system. Eventually a fixed-guideway system such as light rail could be added. Fixed-guideway systems are ideal as magnets for development, because they encourage investment of high-density residential and commercial real estate. Light rail on Michigan Avenue from Detroit through Ypsilanti is identified as option LRT 5 in the 2006 SEMCOG/Parsons study11. Because of its initial cost, it is not being considered as the first step in the Detroit-Ann Arbor transportation corridor, but as federal and private funding becomes available it may well be started. Having dedicated transit lanes already in place would significantly lower the cost, and hence raise the likelihood, of developing such a system. Having East Michigan Avenue in Ypsilanti be part of a light rail corridor from Detroit to Ann Arbor would be a significant boost to the local economy, and would greatly add to the value of real estate. It would make East Michigan Avenue especially attractive to businesses considering a location in the proposed Aerotropolis Corridor.12
Overview of the East Michigan Avenue Corridor

The aerial view shows the northeast section of Ypsilanti Township around the East Michigan Avenue corridor. A rough, preliminary indication of suggested new features is overlaid. The intention is to stimulate further discussion and investigation; no GIS, title, or land survey has been performed.The main features shown are:

  • Land to consider for redevelopment;
  • Land currently not developed to consider for designation as parks or urban farms;
  • One primary transit station (large circle at Harris Road);
  • Several secondary transit stations (smaller circles);
  • Wiard Road extension over the railway, as recommended in the 2001 plan.

Click image to see full-size version


1 The Ann Arbor News, Thursday October 09, 2008, "Laswuit alleges unsafe conditions at Ypsilanti Township mobile home park" by Khalil Hachem. (Online at http://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/index.ssf/2008/10/laswuit_alleges_unsafe_conditi.html)

2 The Ann Arbor News, Sunday October 19, 2008, "Ypsilanti Township steps up prostitution crackdown" by Tom Gantert. (Online at http://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/index.ssf/2008/10/ypsilanti_township_steps_up_pr.html)
3 Wm. Douglas Winters, Township Attorney. Charter Township of Ypsilanti, Minutes of the June 3, 2008 Regular Meeting. (Online at http://www.twp.ypsilanti.mi.us/documents/serve.php/1756/June_3rd_2008.pdf)
4 Charter Township of Ypsilanti. "Ecorse Road and East Michigan Avenue Corridor Plan," online at http://www.twp.ypsilanti.mi.us/corridor/
6 Personal communications, Joseph Lawson and David Nicholson, January and February, 2009.
7 "Preliminary recommendations", online at http://www.twp.ypsilanti.mi.us/corridor/ (click on Preliminary Recommendations)
9 Transfer of Development Rights (TDR): National Association of Realtors "Field Guide to Transfer of Development Rights (TDRs)" (http://www.realtor.org/library/library/fg804) and 1000 Friends of Minnesota "Fact Sheet #5" (http://www.1000fom.org/lctools5.htm) and
10 "Countywide transit plan envisioned in Washtenaw." Posted by John Mulcahy, The Ann Arbor News, March 25, 2008 09:45AM. On line at http://blog.mlive.com/annarbornews/2008/03/countywide_transit_plan_envisi.html
11 "Ann Arbor-Downtown Detroit Alternatives Analysis / Draft Environmental Impact Statement Transit Study. Detailed Definition of Alternatives." Prepared by Parsons Corporation for Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, June 2006. Online at http://www.semcog.org/WorkArea/linkit.aspx?LinkIdentifier=id&ItemID=5567
12 Detroit Region Aerotropolis: http://www.detroitregionaerotropolis.com/

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Drowning in a Sea of Red Tape

Today I attended a meeting of the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study (WATS). I'd been wondering why more progress wasn't being made toward green transportation options. Why is "business as usual" so prevalent when the signs of global warming and peak oil are so clear?

I discovered what you may already know. It's not so much lack of will or intelligence. There are lots of people who are smart and want to do the best for our communities. But they're drowning in a sea of red tape. The weight of bureaucracy has effectively crushed them.

Let me explain. WATS is a mid-level transportation authority - not really a "study". I learned that every transportation project, from paving a gravel road in the countryside to building a rapid transit system, is required to go through a long chain of approvals. The local jurisdiction (in my area, Ypsilanti Township) puts in a request to the Washtenaw County Road Commission. That request is sifted along with requests from all the other townships and prioritized. Does it fit in to the long-range plan? Is there a potential source of money for it? There are about ten possible sources of money, all of which require an application and approval, all of which are under funded by at least 50% compared with the requests submitted.

Requests from all township are then prioritized and taken to the WATS Technical Committee to get a ballpark on the possible cost. The Technical Committee is made up of engineers and planners from all the townships, cities, and villages, plus the two major universities, the County Road Commission, and the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. There, our township requests meet up with similar requests from the cities and villages that have their own road department, like Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and so forth. The WATS Technical Committee then hands over all the requests to WATS staff (there are five professionals on staff), who organize them, prioritize them, and take them to the WATS Policy Committee, the group I attended today.

The Policy Committee is made up of representatives of all the same jurisdictions as the Technical Committee, but rather than being engineers and planners, they are elected board members or representatives of boards. This Committee is like a mini-legislature, with power to approve or disapprove of any requests and plans brought to it. It seldom disapproves, however, because by the time plans reach this group, they're pretty well balanced and thought out. But if any jurisdiction felt it was being discriminated against in some way, it would be able to object here and possibly raise enough support to rearrange the plans or block projects. There were about a dozen motions voted on this morning, and every one passed unanimously.

Once the WATS Policy Committee approves a plan, it then goes to SEMCOG, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, to make sure it fits in with the regional long-range plan. Plans approved by SEMCOG that require state funding (most of them do) go to the Michigan Department of Transportation for approval, and if they get the nod, they go to the US Department of Transportation for Federal funding approval. If it gets funded, it goes back through the chain and ends up on the desk of a Road Department or Commission official (overworked and understaffed) who will send it out for bids if it's over $1000 - and what project isn't?

So that's seven (7) layers that deal with each project or plan. Is this necessary? Well, probably it is. Look what American Insurance Group (AIG) did with Federal bailout money that was handed over for unsupervised use. Bonuses to executives who had ruined the company! I can see why many sharp eyes are needed to make sure taxpayer money doesn't end up in the wrong pockets.

It may be necessary, but the Law of Unintended Consequences kicks in here. The people in charge of transportation planning - the professionals - have to be so intimately aware of the bureaucratic maze, including twenty looming deadlines for applications, that long-term planning is undertaken with only half their attention. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 is a good example. All the planning agencies at today's WATS meeting mentioned that they were forced to drop all other activity to meet deadlines for stimulus fund applications. Stimulus money can't be used to administer the stimulus money, which makes sense in one way, but ends up totally overworking and stressing out a host of public servants, who are understaffed because of budget shortfalls and layoffs but are not allowed to (re-)hire anyone to help out.

So there we are: our shrinking tax dollars safeguarded by a host of public watchdogs who have no time to think carefully and creatively about the future. No wonder long-term plans end up being "business as usual" and more of the same. The mechanism of good government requires them to pump really hard to get through this year's work, like bicycling on a 100-k tour in low gear.

It's like having two equally important "road maps" to deal with: the actual roads, and the bureaucratic roads. Obviously, the professionals can't spend more than half their time navigating the roads and transit systems of the county; at least half their time has to be spent in the maze of government departments, boards, commissions, committees, funds, deadlines, forms, laws, rules, and executive orders. Drowning in a sea of red tape.

That's where citizens' groups like Wake Up Washtenaw come in. It's our role to make sure the vision doesn't die in committee. Hold on to it!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Changing Gears

Today (March 5, 2009) there was a great conference at the U of Michigan, "Changing Gears: The Future of Low Carbon Manufacturing in the Midwest," hosted jointly by The Climate Group and the Royal Danish Embassy to the United States.

A number of environmentally active companies were represented on panel discussions, some well known, others more obscure. Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, and Danish Minister of Climate and Energy Connie Hedegaard, came to speak and sign a Memorandum of Understanding to cooperate on "green" energy development.

Don't worry - this won't be a report. There is a press release and quite a few journalists were present. As a good blog should, this will just give my impressions.

I should say first that I registered myself as an Ypsilanti Township Planning Commissioner, rather than as a member of Wake Up Washtenaw, but I reacted as both. Ypsi Township ("Y-Town" as we're now calling ourselves) is very powerfully impacted by the decline of the auto industry, since our two largest property owners are General Motors and Ford. So it is very much in our interest to know what the future of Michigan manufacturing holds in store. But sustainable development and Wake Up Washtenaw are central to my interests, so that's what most of my reaction stems from.

So, why Denmark?

Denmark is a key player in the green energy field for historical reasons. In the 1970s, they suffered disproportionately from the oil crises. Ninety-seven percent of their energy needs at the time were being met by imported oil.They were forced to reduce demand, develop efficient equipment, and turn to renewable sources. (OK, they also drilled for oil offshore and struck it rich in the North Sea a few years later.) They taxed energy heavily, and even prohibited running private cars on Sundays for a while. But their taxes and incentives pushed the entire economy into "green" mode. In the last 35 years, they have:

  • Kept national energy consumption at 1970s levels;
  • Expanded their export economy by a factor of three;
  • Achieved 2.2% unemployment;
  • And maintained one of the highest standards of living in the world (Ninth on The Economist's Quality-of-life Index for 2005, where the United States ranked thirteenth).

The Danes attribute their success to "green industry", including such diverse products as high-efficiency pumps, enzymes for biomass energy, and wind turbines (the well-known Vestas brand).

What was missing?

A critical aspects of anything is what's missing from it, so I want to start by noting some things that weren't there.

  • General Motors and Chrysler weren't represented. (Ford was.)
  • If public transportation was mentioned at all, it must have been when I was in the Men's room.
  • The term "vehicle" was specifically thrown out window by one panelist in favor of the word "car", because "that's what people drive".
  • Hydrogen fuel cells were mentioned only twice, though I believe they're been written off because of their low energy density compared with lithium-ion batteries.
  • Standards bodies were not mentioned; instead, the need for standardizing batteries and other components was discussed as a choice between government-legislated technology standards and ... well, non-standard products, I guess. International standards bodies like ISO, SAE, and IEEE are the obvious groups to bring standards to electric vehicle technology, not governments.
  • Realism about Michigan's manufacturing acumen was in short supply. Manufacturing was touted by a number of speakers as one of Michigan's true strengths, yet Michigan has been surpassed in quality standards by the Japanese, in agility by China, and in the number of engineers coming out of universities by both India and China.

What stood out?

First and foremost, the willingness of US companies and governments to look beyond our borders for answers. Rejecting anything "Not Invented Here" is one of the most harmful traits of Americans in the last few decades. Of course, Denmark has only 5.5 million people compared with Michigan's 9.5 million, and lots of Americans look to Denmark as a country of (near-)ancestral origin, so the Danes are perhaps seen as less of a threat. As Governor Granholm said, one of the many similarities between Michigan and Denmark is that we're both run by Scandinavians - Granholm's ancestors were from Sweden. Still, it's a very positive step. We need to be informed about successful practices from around the world, and add our own Michigan spin if need be.

An emphasis on making what we already make well, but in a "green" way, and on replacing things we don't make so much anymore with "green" products. The auto industry is the most obvious referent, but interestingly, the appliance industry is big in Michigan (especially in the west), and has served as a model. Whirlpool, the largest maker of home appliances around the world (or so they say) is headquartered in Benton Harbor. Ten years ago they set goals to reduce their corporate carbon footprint, including not only administration and manufacturing, but also the lifetime carbon ecology of their products. They've done this very well. Currently, they're demonstrating a clothes drier that senses the load on the electrical grid, and can turn off the 5,500 watt heating element if the grid is experiencing heavy demand. (Next step: how to put in place economic incentives for consumers to use such a drier.)

"Taking off into the wind" - the need to use the current economic downturn as an opportunity to restructure, and get away from "business as usual". (At the same time, the emphasis on doing what we already do, only better, is really "business as usual".)

Quote of the day, by one of the Danish non-governmental participants, from Winston Churchill: "You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they're tried everything else."

Three energetic women. There were men with energy at the conference, but the three people who stood out for their sharp intelligence, enthusiasm, and positive energy were Ann Marie Sastry, Connie Hedegaard, and Jennifer Granholm.

  • Ann Marie Sastry is Professor of Mechanical, Biomedical and Materials Science and Engineering, and Director of the Energy Systems Engineering Program (which she founded in 2007) at University of Michigan. She's also founder and CEO of the research spin-off company Sakti3 . She has directed students in developing new, more efficient lithium-ion battery technologies, and founded Sakti3 along with some of her colleagues in order to "start doing it". The list of her activities and honors is awe-inspiring, and she speaks with incisive clarity. We're lucky to have her in Michigan.
  • Connie Hedegaard is the Danish Minister of Climate and Environment. She speaks with a wonderful combination of precision and enthusiasm - a rare combination - and she has command of an impressive array of facts. Her enthusiasm and energy are contagious.
  • Jennifer Granholm, of course, is Governor of Michigan. I'd never heard her speak in person before. Although her style is quite different from Obama's, she has the same ability to make her audience believe that our desired future is within our grasp, if we'll only put our backs into it. She's mainly on the right track (well, the right road, since she's a great automobile booster). She pushes for diversification of industry, energy efficiency, and green jobs. "It's all about jobs!" Unfortunately, that often comes down to short-term solutions which are, incidentally, good for the environment. I'd prefer to hear her say, "It's all for our children and grandchildren." But her energy and enthusiasm are more than contagious. They're compelling. I'm reminded of how pumped up I felt the first time I saw the grand finale of the original Star Wars movie, with John Williams' triumphal march. Made me want to get out there and conquer a few worlds.

Finally, thank you to the sponsors, The Climate Group and The Royal Danish Embassy for an informative, inspiring, FREE conference!