Friday, December 23, 2005


Ann Arbor

I’m sitting here in the new Northwest terminal of the Detroit Metro Airport anxiously waiting for my jet plane to arrive and hurl me back the great state of Maine, and all of the comforts of my favorite places and spaces. Boston! New York! Portland! Oh east coast, how I have missed thee. Well, given this transitional moment, I think that it might be an appropriate time to reflect on the last four months.

Though leaving for Boston for the Midwest was low on the priority list, I was more than excited to finally dive head first into pursuing a masters degree in urban planning. Moreover, I assumed that the University of Michigan would be a good fit, and that Ann Arbor would be a good place to live. I am happy to say that both of these assumptions have held true. However, I have not had blinders on, and I would like to make a few definitive statements regarding Ann Arbor, the state of Michigan, and my planning education thus far.

The City of Ann Arbor is a great place to live. However, I will start by saying it feels much more like a town, rather than a city. In fact, the City of Portland, Maine with half the population feels a lot bigger. But from a planning perspective, Ann Arbor is walkable, compact, has some great traditional neighborhoods, and has three vital downtowns. Yes, three. Two of these serve the University and one of them the greater Ann Arbor region. There are plenty of delicious restaurants which serve any type of food you could want, and there is a healthy mix of chains and independent stores/restaurants. However, I will say that the bars in Ann Arbor leave a lot to be desired. Either they cater to the plethora of undergraduate students, or they are just plain lame. Moreover, dive bars don’t even exist here. Perhaps the east coast just holds the bar as a great third place in higher esteem. Here in Ann Arbor, coffee shops reign supreme. I have found one good place, called Goodnight Gracie’s, which is an urbane and intimate jazz club on the bottom level, and a larger funkier bar/ live music venue on the second level. This is the only place in Ann Arbor where I feel as though I am in a city. Too bad I only discovered this place recently. I shall patronize it more in the coming months for sure.

Perhaps one of the great strengths in Ann Arbor is the park system. The City decided a while ago to create a green ring around the City, and for the most part it has been very successful. Moreover, the park system is well connected, mostly following the Huron River which snakes around the north side of town. It is nice to see a City that embraces such a natural feature as an asset. I have thoroughly enjoyed exploring these places by foot and by bike. If there is one thing that Ann Arborites like, it is their parks. This was made abundantly clear at the public downtown visioning sessions that have been lead by New Urbanism stalwarts, Calthorpe and Associates.

As for the urban planning program, I have been very happy with it. The professors that I have had thus far have been challenging, passionate, and very engaging. I consider this a blessing because I know that at many graduate schools the professors merely teach so that they can research. New urbanism is definitely not the focus of the program here at Michigan, but it has plenty of support through various professors. Students on the other hand do not seem to know much about its central tenets. I have done my best to begin this dialogue and help educate my classmates about what new urbanism means, and why it is important. As always, this is an uphill battle.

Most recently, I have decided to pursue a dual degree in urban design, as well as a certificate in progressive real estate development. I have no intention of ever getting involved in real estate, but to learn the language of the developer is a very important skill. Moreover, to learn from NU specialist Chris Leinberger is an opportunity that one should not pass down. I think that this should make me a more complete planner, and allow me to achieve my dream job of being an urban designer within a multidisciplinary firm. Yes, things are good here, and I am staying uber busy. I miss Boston and the rest of the east coast, but 2-3 years in the mid-west will only strengthen my love for my home, as well as provide me with invaluable knowledge about life outside of New England. Happy Holidays ya’ll.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Urban Year!
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