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5 Things Ann Arbor Could Do To Attract Young Professionals (But Isn't)

Pittsburgh's 40 foot rubber duck.
Pittsburgh's 40 foot rubber duck. - photo via flickr user Christopher Rice
We all know the reasons for living in Ann Arbor by rote. The city has long been branded as artsy, intellectual, active, prosperous and, above all else, progressive. That should be a major benefit to the community in the midst of a nationwide scramble to attract the coming-of-age Millennials as they begin to put down roots. With the number of studies, reports and informal lists of what will attract the largest generation in U.S. history to various places reaching manic levels, the implication in clear: wherever Millennials choose to call home today will be the nation's greatest cities tomorrow.  
 
The competition to attract young professionals is fierce. While today's Ann Arbor debates crosswalk policies and conference centers and downtown hotels, and relies on our long-established reputation, cities around the country are coming up with innovative ways to brand themselves as progressive places young professionals want to relocate to now with unique amenities and concepts.
 
Adult Playgrounds
Yes, children are our future, blah, blah, blah. But with more than 90 playgrounds for kids, the recreational needs of local little ones seem fairly well addressed. Plus if current demographic trends are any indication, there are going to be a lot less of those tots to take advantage of the candy-colored climbing structures that dot local parks.. 
 
In New York City, active adults are now getting a chance to play as well, with playgrounds outfitted with grown-up monkey bars, obstacle courses and more. According to the New York Times, the concept originated in China and Europe, and city officials cite adult playgrounds as not only healthier than indoor gyms, but also cheaper to build than children's playgrounds. 
 
With an already active community and 157 existing parks, the adult playground concept almost seems custom-made for Ann Arbor. 
 
 
An Evolving Aesthetic
No one would dare suggest Ann Arbor is not an artistic or aesthetically pleasing city (we wouldn't! We couldn't!). If you're into 1920s stock housing we got 'em in spades (beer-cup strewn lawns included). But artsy and attractive are increasingly baseline requirements for  young professionals on the hunt for a hometown, rather than proof of a city with a progressive attitude toward the arts. That status is now reserved for cities with the gall to take the arts more seriously by taking themselves less so. 
 
Montreal, for example, is making winter more whimsical this year with 70 new, colorful streetlights in the shape of cartoon speech bubbles. Pittsburgh famously hosted a 40-foot-tall rubber duck in the Allegheny River this fall, and Providence has partnered with a local non-profit to turn municipal trash cans into unique pieces of art.
 
Invariably, community engagement has been the vehicle for quirky aesthetics to make their way into these cities. With contests like the Seattle Design Festival's Design Jam, challenging residents to become public design innovators is simply a matter of gamification. For inspiration, Ann Arbor only has to look as far as Old Town Lansing's Scrapfest.
 
Ultimately, the goal is create a constant sense of discovery in your community, rather than letting the same old, same old groove be the only song your city sings.
 
Public Fruit Park
In a mashup of community gardening and a public park, L.A. recently unveiled it's first public fruit park, which is exactly what it sounds like: a public orchard from which anyone can snag a piece of fruit. It may be the first of its kind in California, but not in the world. Prague's Petrín Hill has apple and pear trees available to the public as well. This seems like a no-brainer for Ann Arbor, with its love of green spaces and strong local food movement. How about springing for a few dozen apple trees instead of another out-of-the-box playground set?
 
Reserving space and resources for completed artistic works is one way to support the arts; providing space and resources for artists to live, work and develop is an entirely different endeavor. The non-profit ArtSpace is dedicated to developing mixed-use facilities across the nation that provide affordable living spaces for artist, as well as community space of arts programming. 
 
In Santa Cruz's Tannery Lofts, for example, ArtSpace helped the city overcome the challenges of skyrocketing housing costs with 100 units of affordable live/work space for artists and their families, a Digital Media and Creative Arts Center, and a forthcoming performing arts center to the Tannery Campus.
 
With developments in more than 30 communities, one of ArtSpace's upcoming projects is on the way to Dearborn. Maybe Ann Arbor can get on the list.
 
City-or Downtown-wide Wireless
Free access to wi-fi is an expectation of Millennials when they enter any festival, conference, bar, restaurant or cafe; it's only reasonable to assume that expectation will soon expand to cities. Tons of municipalities already offer broadband access around the nation. Wouldn't it be great to exercise in an adult-themed park, pick a few Michigan apples from our public orchard then tweet about from your picnic blanket? With public access to wireless internet, Ann Arbor could even prove itself as innovative and hip as - ahem - Ypsi
 
The thing about being progressive is it's not a status that can be neglected. Hash Bash might have turned some heads in the 70s, but it's pretty hard to generate buzz about anything that has carved its 42nd notch on the community bedpost. Ann Arbor, indeed, is wonderful for all of the reasons everyone who already lives here knows it to be. But that doesn't mean we should consider our identity mission accomplished. Taste and trends are constantly evolving and so should we. To appeal to the next generation of professionals maybe our community should be investing and creating next generation aesthetics, demonstrating that we are a city that is interested in not just the past, but also the future. Even old houses get new coats of paint from time to time.

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, the development news editor for Concentrate and Capital Gains, and a regular contributor to Metromode.

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