Mindfully Shaping Communities through Participation, Education, Information, and the Effective Use of Technology

One of the reasons I love Michigan is because its citizens feel compelled to foster a human connection that flourishes in myriad ways, such as the work undertaken by the Land Information Access Association (LIAA). Conceived in 1993 with the intent to shape more purposeful communities, LIAA is not your typical nonprofit in that its broad framework builds stronger communities through a unique combination of education, information, and technology. The underlying theme of their work is to maximize the use of Michigan land for social, historical, and communal purposes.

Led by the dynamic and collaborative executive director, Harry Burkholder, LIAA’s impact in the community continues to expand due to its creative and forward-thinking staff. Burkholder is a graduate of Western Michigan University with a degree in political science and a master’s degree in regional and urban planning from Michigan State University.

“I’ve always been interested to see how cities and people function. As a kid, I had pictures of both the Detroit Pistons and miscellaneous cityscapes. It’s the intersection of the two that I am passionate about — to see how it all fits together.”

There are three primary legs to the LIAA stool — website development, urban planning, and media production. Additionally, the organization is either directly involved or supporting a number of other agencies to bring about the same results.

Their work in website development puts land information right at users’ fingertips through interactive sites that are built and sustained through ongoing conversations with community members.

For effective urban planning, LIAA collaborates with local governments and organizations in the surrounding areas to create programs and innovative policies to ensure that future land use planning incorporates input from the community. LIAA’s 20-plus years in this work has contributed to their expertise in community outreach, environmental research and planning, landscape architecture and design, multijurisdictional planning, parks, recreation and trail planning, community resilience, and public health.

The third component of LIAA, media production, started about ten years ago when a public media channel approached the organization and asked if they would be interested in taking it over. “We’re an organization built around civic engagement, so we determined it would be a great platform to increase community engagement,” says Burkholder.

The UpNorth Media Center is the only public- and government-access television station and online streaming source for Northwest Lower Michigan. As stated on LIAA’s website, its central goal in media production is to teach people how to use media as a fulcrum for celebrating community and local culture, for exchanging community educational information.

In addition to the three main objectives of the organization, LIAA is involved in another noteworthy and long-running project, the restoration of the Historic Barns Park at the Grand Traverse Commons. In partnership with Garfield Township and the Traverse City Recreation Authority, the agencies are working to preserve and repurpose three barns on the grounds of the former Traverse City State Psychiatric Hospital, the area’s largest employer between 1885 and 1988.

Voters in the region chose to put the parklands into public ownership and supported the restoration of the barns. The goal is to make the barns — which are 10,000 square feet each — into self-sustaining buildings through the funds they generate. Despite the ongoing financial challenge, the plan is tracking well with the help of the Botanic Garden at Historic Barns Park; SEEDS, a nonprofit research, design, and educational institution; TC Community Garden; and the Grand Traverse Community Foundation.

In all of this work, the question Burkholder hopes to answer is, “Have we changed perceptions and attitudes; have we enlightened the officials? There is a term we use at LIAA, which is, ‘actions of no regrets.’ For example, whether you believe in climate change or not, we can pursue good change regardless, through creative forward thinking. We strive to be in the front of things so we can develop best practices and pass on that knowledge to surrounding agencies who can use that information to strengthen and facilitate mindful community.”

Land Information Access Association 324 Munson Avenue, Traverse City MI 49686 l (231) 929-3696 l Liaa.org