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Coming up with a master plan for Flint's future

The city of Flint is developing its first master plan in a half century.

The challenge is charting a future course for a city that some critics have said doesn’t have a future.

First things first.   Cities don’t just change.

They follow a plan.  The master plan outlines where to build homes.  Where to encourage retail stores to open.  Where to let businesses build factories. 

The last time Flint city leaders drew up a master plan it was 1960.   The plan had two basic assumptions.   1)  the auto industry would stay strong.  2) The city’s population would continue to grow.

Both assumptions didn’t pan out.

It’s now Meagan Hunter’s job to start drafting a new master plan for Flint.  She’s the city’s chief planning officer.    Hunter says there is little in the 1960 master plan that remains relevant.

“It really is hard to build upon because the premise that that plan was built on is completely irrelevant today.   The city has shrunk substantially since that time," says Hunter.

Hunter sees stabilizing Flint neighborhoods as a key in the new master plan.  She envisions walkable neighborhoods and transitioning other blighted parts of the city into parks or other less dense development. 

But can Flint come up with a master plan that avoids making mistakes about the future?

"They can’t make sure of that…because every single master plan ever done is wrong.”  says Margaret Dewar,  she’s a professor of urban planning at the University of Michigan,  "It is a guide for the next few years.   It…. can be a uniting force toward working towards common goals that can make the place better for living and that alone has value.” 

But as Flint has seen in the past, coming up with those common goals might be easy, however the difficulty remains in deciding what direction to take. 

When it comes to choosing that direction, Flint leaders are looking even further into the city’s past.  

Flint Mayor Dayne Walling is gently thumbing through the pages of an old paperback book.    It’s a copy of Flint’s 1920 master plan.   Walling says there’s a lot to learn from the nearly century old approach to urban planning.

“You had some of the best urban American planning being done.   Some of the best urban park systems were laid out at that time," says Walling, "Yes we have to update those ideas for today’s cultures…today’s consumers and demands.  But there’s a lot to learn from the concepts that were put forward at that time for how to make urban environments beautiful.”  

The 1920 master plan’s idea of walkable neighborhoods and mixed use zoning is similar to what city planner Meagan Hunter wants to do in Flint’s new master plan. 

Hunter’s draft plan will have a lot to do with the how the city may eventually change.  

But she says it isn’t about her putting her stamp on the city of Flint’s future. .  

"I think it’s all of our stamp," says Hunter,  "We’re collectively working together to change the city of Flint….if we look at it as one person, we’re going to fail.   It has to be a group effort.   I can help craft the vision. But it’s going to be up to all of us to implement it.” 

City leaders plan to take the next two years to craft a new master plan, hold public hearings and, after the plan is approved, start revamping Flint’s zoning rules.    But it’s when that process is over that the hard work will really begin.  

It may take a generation before the result of Flint’s new master can be seen.   And by then everyone agrees it will be time for Flint to start drawing up a new master plan. 

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.