The Atlantic magazine put together a comprehensive, multi-day summit on the “Future of the City” in Washington, D.C. Bringing together leading policy makers, businesses, non-profits and business associations, the forum featured speeches from key Obama administration officials, including Valerie Jarrett, Senior Presidential Advisor, Shaun Donovan, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Julius Genachowski, Chairman, Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The forum also offered a panel with big city mayors and sessions on broadband policy, smart grid energy technologies, urban transportation infrastructure, green cities, and infrastructure funding. Richard Florida, author of “Who’s Your City?” and the “Great Reset,” made remarks at the end.
Valerie Jarrett, Senior Presidential Advisor and Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement, Executive Office of the President
Jarrett said she was partial to cities having worked for three mayors, including Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago. From Mayor Daley, Jarrett said she learned how important cities are to economic growth. “We need to keep cities healthy because this is where the jobs are.”
Over the past twenty years, there’s been a revolution in thinking about cities. Instead of being seen as a drain on surrounding areas, they are now viewed as hubs of opportunity. Within cities, it’s now also understood that government can’t step in to solve all the problems facing cities, but “must work in partnership with the private sector. Government is not the only solution.”
Jarrett made an interesting argument: “politics isn’t partisan at the local level. People have the same objective,” which is the resolution of inter-connected urban problems (transportation, housing, environmental quality, etc). She said one of the her key objectives is to create a “holistic approach” to urban policy making so local citizens get comprehensive solutions. To create this holistic approach at the federal level, President Obama created the White House Office of Urban Affairs, which pulls together all relevant government agencies. Jarrett said there’s a new “cadre of officials that get this. It’s about learning lessons from the local level and collaborating at the federal level.” She wants the federal government to also scale up the best practice approaches created at the local level. “The federal government should be a partner — a junior partner, but impetus for change needs to come from the ground.”
Opportunities and Challenges Facing Cities
Julian Castro, Mayor, San Antonio, Texas and Mick Cornett, Mayor, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, discussed some of the opportunities and challenges facing cities outlined. Cornett said jobs come to cities when they are able to create the best environment and attract the best people. He said Oklahoma city was ranked as one of the most entrepreneurial cities in the U.S. based on company start-ups, and said the local economy is diversifying into aerospace, biomedicine, and governance (in addition to the core energy sector). Castro added cities can improve their quality of life by providing a menu of options. In San Antonio, the Riverwalk and new greenways help create those options. Also critical to livability are mixed-use, mixed-income urban redevelopment projects.
In Oklahoma, Cornett, “a conservative Republican,” has successfully used a “one penny on the dollar” tax to build critical urban infrastructure. He noted that the tax wasn’t new but was phased in as another one penny tax ended. The tax has been used to invest in “education infrastructure” and bring inner-city schools back. “We’ve rebuilt all 75 inner-city schools but the level of education offered by these schools is still disappointing.” The tax has also been used to build a new central park, convention center,and jogging / bike paths. He said the tax has been critical to creating “infrastructural vitality.”
One area of “failure” in both cities has been the high obesity rates. Cornett said Oklahoma City didn’t talk about its weight problem until he launched a campaign, “This City is Going on a Diet,” which called for the entire city to lose one million pounds. So far, 580,000 pounds have been lost, including Mayor Cornett’s own 50 pounds. City residents can go on the diet campaign Web site and log how much weight they’ve lost. Cornett said “city culture was centered around the car,” so to fight obesity, he’s also led a program that has redesigned 180-acres of streets, added 50 miles of jogging / bike paths, 450 miles of new sidewalks, and a 70-acre new park. “There are also new gyms in schools and we’ve taken the junk food out.” Oklahoma City also plans to invest in a new downtown street car system so we “start the cultural shift that’s necessary.”
Castro argued that San Antonio lacks a fitness culture. “We need to inculcate a fitness culture.” The city recently won a $15 million grant from the federal government to launch its “Let’s Move” campaign, which aims to get people more active on a daily basis. “This could mean just 1,000 steps a day.” Castro concurred with Cornett and said “we’ve got to address what people eat; it’s not just about exercise.” He added that city governments “can’t be paternalistic.” Cornett agreed, arguing that First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to change how people eat, if successful, “will have more impact than her husband’s health care reform.”
Both mayors highlighted the need to fight traffic congestion and invest in downtowns that can serve as attractions — San Antonio’s Riverwalk is seen as a model in this regard. Cornett said: “You can’t have suburbs of nowhere. There must be a downtown that can draw people.” To incentive urban core reinvestment, San Antonio reduced development fees, which takes “tens of thousands of dollars off the price of development.” To spur urban investment, Oklahoma City has created a “competitive marketplace” between the suburbs and downtown, but “right now the suburbs are still winning.” Both mayors also highlighted their green city programs, which aim to ramp up use of wind and solar power, and expand access to multi-modal transportation.
This is part one in a three-part series on the Atlantic magazine’s Future of the City forum. Read part two, “Building Information and Energy Technologies into Cities,” and part three, “The Effect of Place on Energy Use and Climate Change.”
Image credit: San Antonio Riverwalk, Photobucket