Last week, mayors made the case to federal officials that barriers preventing local and national governments from collaborating to develop cities must come down.
At the well-attended—and sometimes contentious—closing plenary session of the National Mayors Summit on City Design at the Chicago Hilton, mayors facing aging infrastructure, soaring foreclosure rates, and an increasing need for smart cities demanded the end of silos and proprietary actions and the increase of national support.
“Mayors face significant challenges,” said Manny Diaz, former mayor of Miami, Florida. The past president of the U.S. Council of Mayors likened the need for national coordination to develop infrastructure to the creation of a design and development “Marshall Plan.”
Throughout the morning, however, the city leaders expressed frustration with red tape and party politics in the nation’s capital. Federal officials attending included Derrick Douglas, special assistant to President Barack Obama for urban affairs, and Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Washington-based officers pushed back gently, telling the need to create showcase success stories in federally funded design and development programs.
“Mayors can make sure they are successful,” Landesman said.
Cities must adjust to smaller budgets and use them carefully, said Roy W. Kienitz, under secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation. “Small is okay. Small can make a big difference. Small is all we can afford,” he said. Kienitz added that municipal leaders must ask, “What can I do that’s maximally impactful with $20 million? There’s a lot.”
Diaz objected: “I can’t accept a statement that says, ‘Better get used to getting small-funded projects.’ We can’t go to our constituents and say, ‘Get used to small things’… All of us have very, very difficult budgets. Things have to get done. The problem in Washington is that it’s easy to say, ‘The time isn’t right.’ ”
“Mayors could never get away with the nonsense that goes on in Washington,” said Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and second vice president of the U.S. Council of Mayors.
Nutter implored federal officials to take action and work with mayors to improve cities by building forward-looking infrastructure and creating economic incentives that build the tax base. “Our metro areas cannot make it without a strong partnership with Washington,” Nutter said. “You don’t have to be [Chicago city planner Daniel] Burnham to know what to do.”
“Unleash us from red tape and paperwork,” he added. “You’ll be surprised at what we can do.”
As various city leaders presented suggestions from breakout groups, they emphasized the need to break down silos. Mayors said they wanted to streamline processes, eliminating nightmare stories of taking 13 years to build a rail system.
“Set a bigger table,” said Toni Griffin, president, Urban Design and Planning for the American City, and adjunct associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. “Bring in all partners—federal, city agencies, nonprofit, and philanthropy.”
Changes are being made at the federal level, but not quickly enough for the mayors. “The Obama administration has gone miles in changing this, but there are many more miles to go,” said ULI member Chris Leinberger. The author and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution emphasized that 90 percent of the gross domestic product stems from urban areas.
Obama’s efforts are “the beginning of something that cannot ever end. We must understand it’s an urban nation. There’s a new filter over every decision—does this make urban areas more livable?” asked Joseph P. Riley, Jr., mayor of Charleston, South Carolina.
Rethinking zoning and types of development is key. “There is pent-up demand for walkable urban development,” Leinberger said. Demographic shifts are driving the move away from sizable single-family suburban homes in drivable developments to walkable neighborhoods as baby boomers age, the number of single-person households booms, and the traditional family changes.
This shift is an opportunity for cities to generate more revenue in less acreage. A high rise developed on valuable downtown land will pay off the infrastructure investment much more quickly than a sprawling single-family home development.
He suggested that federal credit enhancement programs could encourage infrastructure investments.
Leinberger reminded the audience that the railroads of yesteryear were built through funding from real estate developers—a funding source to be considered as America looks to update and upgrade its infrastructure.
Mayors would like to see a national vision for transportation and infrastructure in our country, said Marilyn Taylor, dean of University of Pennsylvania School of Design. Ideally, there would be a capital plan with measurable milestones and clear standards.
The federal government needs to direct funding for transportation “to the cities and not the states,” ULI member Taylor said, receiving applause from the dozens of mayors in the Grand Ballroom.
There is a strong request to level with the American people about the true costs of transportation—providing them with information that allows them to make informed choices that will help shift thinking on using public transport and supporting funding to help enhance the transportation system, Taylor added.