Thursday, April 29th, 2010

Top Down or Bottom Up Leadership? Both!

There’s a lot of debate about whether strong leadership from the top or powerful grass roots initiatives from the bottom are what are needed to move our cities forward. I happen to think there are examples on both sides. Clearly, a strong leader with a vision and a range of skills needed to get things done can really be a catalyst for transformation. On the other hand, much neighborhood revitalization has come from bottoms up activities of people who more or less acted independently of the government or civic leadership.

But while either model can succeed, the best situation by far is to be able to combine strong grass roots with strong top level leadership. When it works, it’s magic. And too often when one element is missing, it vitiates the good work of the other.

Consider the large and high quality change in transportation and public space design that’s happened in New York. New York came out of nowhere to basically displace Portland as the poster child for transportation innovation in America. Who gets the credit? Well, you have to give big credit to Mayor Bloomberg and DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. That’s a powerful combo that has a vision of what they want to accomplish and the ability to get it done.

But I don’t think it is any accident that New York is also home to Streetsblog/Streetfilms, America’s premier livable streets advocacy organization. So you’ve got to give Aaron Naparstek and Clarence Eckerson some credit for this too, along with other activist groups and leaders. (The Street* empire is funded by a hedge fund millionaire, but in New York, that’s still grass roots!). They played a huge role in educating the public, building public demand, and keeping the pressure on the city for better. On another front, it was also a grass roots initiative, combined with active city buy-in, that led to the creation of the stupendous High Line.

Now, these two sides don’t always agree. Streetsblog and Streetfilms are about strident activism for better street and public space design in New York. They are not afraid to get in the face of city agencies when they feel it is necessary. Similarly, the city deals in a constrained world, not a utopia, and has to make compromises and balance other objectives at times. The two don’t always see eye to eye. But that’s a healthy tension. There’s a difference between a robust, engaged grass roots and obstructionism, partisanship, or other types of destructive behaviors. As a consultant, I have always believed that the best results come from a strong consulting team, with real insight and their own point of view, working for a strong, demanding, talented client. It can make for some tense moments at times, but that’s when the best business value is often delivered, and really, really ambitious things get pulled off. I think NYC’s leadership recognizes this, which is one reason why Sadik-Khan praised the Street* crew in a recent speech.

The advocacy community has been instrumental in getting us where we are today. There’s absolutely no question that groups like Transportation Alternatives, folks like Clarence at Streetsblog and Streetfilms, all those kinds of people worked hard at the hard business of change, day in, day out. That’s the hard work. And that really set the table for people having a different view and having a different conversation.

Contrast NYC with Chicago, arguably America’s greatest top-down success story. With rare exceptions like Millennium Park, New York is far better than Chicago in terms of innovation and quality of design in streets and public space. Chicago has strong leadership, but no effective, independent grass roots or bottoms up advocacy – certainly none that is willing to stick its neck out and challenge the city. As good as Mayor Daley might be, he can’t have all the ideas himself. As a result, quality has suffered – the city’s streetscape designs are epically banal, for example – and Chicago has basically embraced the role of fast follower, such as by hiring the same firm that designed the High Line to create a local copy called the Bloomingdale Trail.

And many cities alas don’t have a strong, good leader. Getting one seems to be a crap shoot. That’s why if you have to dispense with one or the other, you’re probably better off having strong grass roots change. In a large city, your odds of having motivated citizens who’ll get out and make something happen are a lot higher than that you’ll elect the next Mayor Daley. And when hopefully good leadership does come along, they’ll have something in place to work with.

Topics: Strategic Planning, Urban Culture
Cities: Chicago, New York

12 Responses to “Top Down or Bottom Up Leadership? Both!”

  1. Wise Acre says:

    That’s what she said …

  2. Great piece. I do think one of the questions we have to ask for Midwest cities outside of Chicago is: what gets the ball rolling, who makes change happen first? Can a ‘top-down’ approach to change create positive grassroots efforts? I can’t see this happening. However, a ‘bottom-up’ approach can create the need for change at top. We ought to focus on ‘bottom-up’ approaches first and foremost, and the strong leadership will follow.

  3. Dave says:

    In the case of Chicago or any other top-down city, there doesn’t even need to be strong grassroots organization on the order of Streetfilms. There just needs to be enough participation by citizens so that the city government thinks harder about each new policy and proposal. Top down approaches are scary when the city knows nobody will ever raise a fuss.

  4. Greg, thanks for the comments. I haven’t studied the matter fully, but would suggest that generally it is a grass roots effort that starts the ball rolling.

    There are examples of top-down transformation though. I think of the Indianapolis suburb of Carmel, where transformation was led by a strong mayor.

  5. Alon Levy says:

    The JSK/Streetsblog crowd is neither purely top-down nor purely bottom-up. What it is is a grassroots movement backing autocratic leadership. It’s analogous to the Tea Party movement, a bottom-up movement focusing on electing hyper-partisan Republicans into office. While such movements may have the energy and enthusiasm of genuine bottom-up movements, they lack the feedback and democratic decision-making, and are ultimately more personality-based than ideological.

    In contrast, truly bottom-up movements include the anti-war movement, the pro-immigration movement, and the paleo-libertarian (i.e. Ron Paul) movement. All three are dominated by an internally consistent political philosophy. They have their political leaders, but usually distance themselves from mainstream horserace politics and instead focus on making all politicians more accountable to their concerns (it’s diminished since 2009 for the libertarians, though).

  6. Alon Levy says:

    I should mention that despite my negative take on mixed movements, they’re still distinct from top-down movements, which employ astroturf. For modern examples: Bloomberg’s “Let’s reform XYZ” slogans are entirely astroturf, as they do not exist as a movement apart from his support. This is typical of modern reformist politics, or of urban renewal. Various corporate movements are similar – global warming denialism, tobacco, approval for controversial urban developments (but the corporate-backed good roads movement is mixed, due to its rural populist element). Such movements’ authoritarianism almost invariably ensures that any good intentions they have fail to work. However, they’re not necessarily more pernicious than certain bottom-up movements, such as the Minutemen or the KKK. The dependence of top-down organization on conventional politics makes it less likely to support ideas viewed as radical.

  7. cdc guy says:

    Alon, just wait. NYC’s newly-announced deputy mayor for operations (former Indianapolis mayor Steve Goldsmith) can be both radical (early advocate of municipal-activity privatization) and top-down. It will be interesting to see how the NYC municipal unions work with him.

  8. nico says:

    Great article however the Bloomingdale trail has been a topic of conversation going back at least 20 years well before the High Line. The jump to action however remains to be seen.

  9. Alon Levy says:

    Privatization isn’t really a radical idea nowadays. It requires fighting a lot of bureaucracy, but it’s completely mainstream in political conversation.

    Sweeping managerial changes (or for that matter sweeping changes that are popular with the elite, such as see military desegregation) can be done top-down very easily. It’s changes in attitudes that can’t.

  10. Katie Bohri says:

    As a person who was saddled with the task of creating community gardens from within the walls of city hall, I can attest to the difficulty of achieving success without the top-down effort meeting in the middle with the bottom-up effort. After weeks of cold-calling and painstaking networking, I honestly wished I were working from the bottom-up instead. I know now that that idea was naive, but still – I needed a point-person on the other side of the fence to coordinate with me to get things done at the rate which the community expected. Maintaining trust from the community is a difficult thing when they’re not aware of how slowly the wheels of bureaucracy turn; and they certainly weren’t going to sit patiently because of something some chick in city hall told them over the telephone.

    What advocacy groups should work toward is not just demanding things, but educating those people in city government in what is best for the community while at the same time working with communities to be patient with city government. Both sides can work it. As you explained, there are some marvelous examples of this synergy that can be learned from.

    So many people think that there is a cut-and-dry guidebook for these efforts – even if it exists, tragically few government employees or advocacy groups know of it.

  11. Katie, thanks for sharing.

  12. I agree. Both are necessary but not always present. On a smaller scale we have been fortunate (well, as James Brown says, the harder you work, the luckier you get) to have both in the small post-industrial New England city of Pittsfield where we have used the arts to help turn the city around after GE left. It began with an innovative grassroots group called the Storefront Artist Project, who so impressed the not-yet Mayor that he made cultural development a key element of his vision.

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