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  • Writer's pictureDan Robinson

It's About Access - a Conversation with John Austin

Updated: Oct 4, 2023

“Water is magical. People want to see it, they want to be around it, they want to walk along it, they want to swim in it. They also just want to know that it's in good shape.”

-John Austin

That magic feeds the spirit. It also feeds the economy of the Great Lakes Basin. We need both kinds of magic because we are creatures of both spirit and flesh. To let that magic feed us, though, we have to get to it. We have to have access to water. And that concept of “access” is something I kept thinking about after my conversation with John Austin.

Jean Klock Park; Benton Harbor, MI - photo by Dan Robinson

Blue Economy

John Austin directs the Michigan Economic Center, which works to advance Michigan's economic transformation. Among his many other roles, Austin serves as a non-resident Senior Fellow at Brookings Metro, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and the Upjohn Institute. He also lectures on the economy at the University of Michigan and is a former president of the Michigan State Board of Education.

So, as you might imagine, a lot of Austin’s focus is on economics, in particular on the concept of the “Blue Economy.” He defined the Blue Economy as, “the various ways our natural waters and also water stewardship, water clean-up, water innovation, and smart water-based business and services contribute to real economic activity, jobs, businesses, for people… there's an economic value to the different ways water matters to the economy.”

The Great Lakes Basin has a legacy of depending on water for manufacturing and other heavy industries. Today, though, that economic dependency on water has expanded to include what economists call “non-use benefits.” That’s where the magic comes in.

“It's very hard to persuade people, particularly with a traditional mind of what matters to good job creation, economic development,” Austin said. “The golden goose that lays the bigger economic egg is this beautiful, pristine, natural environment that people want to be in, they want to enjoy, they want to live in. They want to look out their office window and see the water they want to walk along.”

Cleaning up and revitalizing waterfronts for the public to enjoy is happening all over the Great Lakes, from Duluth, MN to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Milwaukee, to Detroit, and beyond. The reviving of our access to the waters of the Great Lakes spurs tourism, of course, but it also attracts people to settle here, which provides a larger economic benefit, according to Austin.

For decades, communities in the Great Lakes Basin turned their backs on the industrial waterfronts on the Lake and the pollution found there. However, the 2017 report from the Michigan Economic Center that Austin directs, “Michigan Blue Economy,” said, “The magical place that is Michigan and the Great Lakes can turn and face the water, embrace our history, and reconnect water to our lives, and in so doing revitalize our communities and make them among the most attractive places in the world to live, work, and do business… It starts with cleaning and creating access to our lakes and riverfronts.”

It’s All About Access

One important part of spirituality that I don’t think we give a lot of attention to is the idea of “access.” For someone to grow spiritually, they need access to community, places, and resources that can feed their spirit. Ultimately, they need access to the Divine, to the opportunity to encounter the Divine in their life.

For many people living in the Great Lakes Basin, access to the waters of the Basin, to the big Lakes themselves, or to the smaller lakes and rivers that feed the Great Lakes, is a source of encountering the Divine. I know that’s true for me, and I’ve talked to many people for whom the experience of water connects them to the Divine and feeds their spirit, as well as their mind and body. But what happens when someone doesn’t have access to that water and that experience?

A Legacy of Racism

During our conversation, Austin talked about the Great Lakes' idyllic picture of “up north,” with a cabin on the water, in the rural parts of the Great Lakes Basin, that’s been passed down by family over generations. He told stories of encountering white people in the rural north who said disparaging, racist things about Blacks in the urban parts of Michigan. “So it is not safe,” John said. “And it's not comfortable. And (people of color are) not welcome in many places, particularly where this kind of water-rich lifestyle is enjoyed by working-class or white people.”

“The most segregated cities in the country are the industrial cities, large and small, of the industrial Midwest, around the Great Lakes,” Austin continued. “Think of Benton Harbor and St. Joe's split, white and black, poor and better off, by a river, on the lake. It's a huge legacy of the particular ways we develop culturally, socially, and economically, with enforced segregation in the northern cities of schools and housing, and a continual fleeing of the white and the wealth to the suburbs and the exurbs, and to the rural parts of Michigan, and the Great Lakes and other parts of the Midwest.”

At a Great Lakes Areas of Concern gathering in Muskegon, MI, someone from the EPA was talking with Austin about this very issue, “pressing me,” he said, “on, how do we make the blue economy connection to the waterfront work for everybody? And it is no military secret that the industrial damage done to parts of our communities like downriver Detroit are the most toxic and still unreclaimed areas. And the schools that have the greatest health risks are in neighborhoods of people of color and poor people. The environmental degradation remains."

“If we want to redevelop our waterfronts, you can easily do it as they've done in Toronto and other places where it's only the rich people that can afford a condo.” The more challenging and important question, Austin says, is “how do you redevelop your connection to the water in a way that works for all the residents of the east side of Detroit and that community?”

Still an Open Question

We discussed a lot of questions in this last part of the interview, and all the answers seemed to point to two ideas: commitment and following the lead of frontline communities.

“Can the Detroit riverfront,” Austin asked, “be one of the few meeting grounds where people of color still enjoy their family outings on Belle Isle or go fishing, as well as the new hipsters that are moving into downtown can go kayaking, and maybe meet each other? I think it's an open question of whether that riverfront redevelopment and others like it that have such promise - a formerly dangerous and degraded industrial waterfront - (can be made) into something that is enjoyed and used and feels comfortable for all sorts of people, including the people from the neighborhoods that are nearby.”

“It is very challenging, and we all have to work very purposefully to figure out how we do that.” Austin concluded by emphasizing how the work must emphasize that the communities that are in these areas “have ownership and drive the process.”

Access, commitment, and following the lead of people living the reality we are addressing… these are all elements that help make up a healthy spirituality for any community, especially for those of us living in the Great Lakes Basin.

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