When Erik Tungate, city manager, began brainstorming placemaking ideas for the city of Oak Park, Mich., he wanted to prove that one could still make a big impact on a small budget. Growing up in the city of Plainwell, located in western Michigan, he worked as a summer seasonal employee during his college years helping the staff horticulturist. Within his position, Tungate would assist with curating the flower gardens and flower displays attached to the city’s many bridges and he stated, “It made all the difference for that community. Twenty years later I’m proving that to be the case here in Oak Park in the metro Detroit area.”
As a suburb of Detroit, Oak Park has a population of around 30,000 people. Tungate wanted to use sunflowers because they are a big and bold flower that would catch the community’s attention and make an impact. While he knew it would not be an expensive investment, he wanted something that would help people form a sense of place. The overall cost of the combined beautification and place-making project was only around $10,000.
For Tungate part of his job involves building an environment that positively influences longterm outcomes. He believes one will be more successful in focusing on the environment in bringing people to the town. For example, he realizes the fact that more people are moving to downtown areas and helping to contribute to a better quality of life overall. In recognizing this, he will then change the environment to attract more people, for example, by planting sunflowers.
It took approximately six months for Tungate to sell his vision to the council and begin work on the project. They planted sunflowers wherever they could find free space, even near the very busy freeway. The sunflowers must be re-planted each year and this year involves learning from the mistakes of last year. Such learning opportunities involve when and where to plant the flowers, how close they can be to the freeway and still grow as well as when to water the sunflowers. After only one year, it has now become a staple of the community.
Many of the seeds were incubated indoors first in local public school classrooms. The flowers were then planted by the students and volunteers from the community. Tungate’s goal is to create a higher quality of life for the residents and those considering living in Oak Park. The sunflowers help to create a sense of place and expose the uniqueness of the city, bringing out the very best of Oak Park.
An aesthetic bridge enhancement project is underway on the Coolidge Road overpass over I-696. Over 20,000 vehicles travel the freeway each day, so Tungate would like to put a focus on beautification of the bridge. He also plans on “putting our main east/west thoroughfare, 9 Mile Road, on a street diet and turning the space that will be vacated into a linear park and bike trail.”
New railings and a city logo on a bridge over the freeway are also part of Tungate’s agenda; this way those driving underneath on I-696 will see the city’s name and associate it with the sunflowers planted along the road. Another major improvement will be to the community pool, which had record attendance last year.
When asked what aspects of Oak Park other cities may wish to emulate, Tungate responded, “I most admire our progressive-minded residents and city council members. They are never quick to say no to projects that enhance or beautify the city. They also let me run the city and move projects along.”