The University of Michigan
School of Natural Resources and Environment
Master's Project Proposal Presentation, November 9, 1999. 

SNRE Faculty Contact: Sandra L. Arlinghaus (also Planning Commissioner, City of Ann Arbor) General home page Copies of material related to this proposal 

Sponsor/Client: Planning Department, City of Ann Arbor
Maps for proposal provided by the Planning Department

Related (essential) reading: article in the November issue of the Ann Arbor Observer on the Allen Creek issue

Allen's Creek Flood Plain and Flood Way: Opportunity or Disaster?
Allen's Creek is a tributary to the Huron River that rises on the south side of town, near Pioneer High School. It flows to the Huron past residential neighborhoods near the University of Michigan stadium as well as past residences, businesses, and industries in the downtown and nearby West Side areas. For much of its length, Allen's Creek is confined in an underground pipe.

As a City, Ann Arbor is reliant on (among other things) taxpayer dollars to keep the City going. The University contributes, of course, to opportunities of various sorts, but does not contribute directly to the tax base. Thus, the tax base that is drawn upon comes from an unusually small percentage of land within the city: Ann Arbor has unusually high property tax rates. Most of the land within the City is already developed. How, then, do we raise money to continue the standard of living to which we have become accustomed? One way is to do so through dollars from developers. With sky-rocketing property values, and little available land, developers turn an eye to creative uses of existing land within the City. Some proposals are sensitive to environmental costs; others are less so. Some see Allen's Creek flood plain and flood way as a source of substantial tracts of land that they believe could be successfully developed, sometimes citing arguments that promoting density in the downtown area (where there is substantial existing infrastructure) can reduce sprawl. For them, the flood plain and flood way offer opportunity: their arguments are often couched in terms that suggest opportunity for others as well (sprawl reduction through promoting density, affordable housing, or needed dollars for the city).

On the other side of the issue are environmental arguments. Should one ever build in the flood plain or flood way? These belong to the river and the river will take and use them whenever it needs to do so. To build in them is to offer eventual disaster to residences and businesses located in them. The Land Development Coordinator of the City estimates that there are already more than 500 structures in the Allen Creek flood plain or flood way. To build new structures may increase the threat to those already there. Because Allen's Creek is confined within a pipe in the more densely built up areas of town, there are already reports of spectacular events with manhole covers over Allen's Creek popping like corks during heavy rains. The extreme position here might see removal of all structure from the flood plain and flood way, conversion of them into parkland that could serve as a buffer between adjacent non-floodplain properties and an unearthed Allen's Creek allowed to follow its natural channel. If the economic issues dominate, they tend only to defer the inevitable long-range issues. In the total build-out scenario, after all the flood plains and flood ways are built upon, what next. Would there then be a city with (the inevitable) no more land to develop, no more income from developers, AND disaster waiting to come to hoards of its residents?

Viewed more broadly, this raging local controversy might be seen as a difference in reconciling the merits between long-range and short-range planning; it might also be seen as one involved in reconciling issues surrounding economic and environmental costs. At the center of all of it is a "belief" as to whether or not the worst-case (or even bad-case) environmental scenario can occur. This "belief" often centers on maps: what is a flood plain and do the maps represent the situation in a realistic fashion. Some say no: the evidence of experience is what should guide land use. Others say yes: the map is a scientific tool that is uniformly applied across the city and does not play neighborhood favorites. All of this of course plays out in a highly charged political arena in which what seems often to happen is a compromise from either viewpoint.

One natural research question that emerges is:

Factors that play into an answer to such a question might include (but are not limited to):
  • Spatial concerns
    • Spatial analysis in assessing risk--use of GIS
    • Map accuracy and creation/updating/enhancement of dynamic maps (GIS) from current data. There may well be gaps, resulting from jurisdictional differences, in existing GIS maps; the floodplain and floodway do not necessarily fall within political boundaries
    • Understanding the evidence of maps. Use of media to educate people that a map is a scientific tool that has merit in guiding policy and is not merely some pretty picture of an hypothetical forecast.
  • Resource concerns
    • Economic and land use issues and costs
      • To the average citizen
      • To affected citizens
      • To affected businesses
      • To the City
      • To the environment
    • Hydrological issues and costs
      • To the average citizen
      • To affected citizens
      • To affected businesses
      • To the City
      • To the environment
  • Policy concerns
    • Ordinance review--of City, State, or Federal concern?
    • Impact of planning on residents already there--a justice issue
  • Educational concerns
    • Getting people to understand the science of the issues.
    • Promoting geographic literacy. One way to do this is to use maps with great frequency and in imaginative and interesting ways and in a variety of settings.
    • Create a website and other materials to further the aims of 1 and 2 above (for example, create animated maps showing change in floodway/plain under different levels of flooding or impact on parcels).
  • Final product: "deliverable"
    • Spiral-bound document detailing all of the effort of the project split up into chapters according to an outline similar to the one above (but one made with student input).
    • Color maps produced on paper of size to be bound into the document in 1 above.
    • Poster-size maps of effort printed out on plotter.
    • Website including all printed materials, and more (such as animated maps showing change over time).
A variety of courses already present within SNRE could offer support for these goals. Final products would be presented to the Planning Department of the City of Ann Arbor in a formal presentation and on a website. If they find any of them useful, we would give them the materials they wish, including electronic GIS files and website files. They would be in the background offering input, as they felt inclined.