Where can we expect real urban change in the way cities and regions manage themselves? So far, in this recession, we’ve seen the emergence of “tactical urbanism”, a kind of low-cost, grass-roots redevelopment of small urban spaces borne out of a lack of money and more formal urban plans. That’s not to put down the good this has created, but where and how can we expect to see cities, many if not most now stopped dead in their tracks in real revitalization, begin to move forward ahead again? Where will we see new management approaches that make better use of the money, enjoy widespread public support, and get large projects done?
This obviously isn’t happening yet, at least in a widespread way, but I offer here a framework for looking for this change, a kind of “triocular” of three lens or factors to spot where the conditions are ripe for change. I’ll describe those here, and then speculate on which regions and cities are most likely to change first and how long it will take for this change to become more widespread.
These three factors are: 1) the need for infrastructure; 2) high pension and other forms of debt, and; 3) local equity issues. When all two or three of these are strongly present, cities will need to find a different way of doing things, and necessity will be the mother of invention. Here’s why these three factors are important:
1. Infrastructure Needs
Infrastructure is the one thing most people can’t find a public substitute for. If the public pool closes, people can walk for exercise or join a private club. If a critical stoplight backs up every morning, they have to get up earlier, and try that as a quality of life to try the patience of voters!
Infrastructure issues become more critical the faster a region is growing. Traffic in Buffalo just isn’t the same as it is in Silicon Valley. And new infrastructure dwarfs salary expense. A typical municipal employee costs $90,000 a year all-in. A typical freeway interchange costs $25 to $150 million. With state and federal financing getting scarcer, cities are going to have to find a new way to pay for this.
A second aspect to infrastructure is a city or region’s credibility in developing it. Here in Washington State, legislators want to pass an omnibus transportation bill that will straighten freeways and pay for new ferries, but problems with current projects have undermined public confidence in government’s ability to manage these. This last year the newspaper has been filled with headlines about a new ferry that lists, bridge pontoons for a new floating bridge that leaks (eek!), and a tunnel boring machine stuck under Seattle. In the Bay Area, a replacement for the Bay Bridge originally estimated to cost $750 million came in at more than $6 billion. We need new ways to manage not just the construction but make the strategic decisions about how best to meet our needs and then structure the contract. Expect to see more independent, “blue ribbon”, need-specific commissions appointed to do this.
2. Pension Debt
These infrastructure problems would be a lot easier to solve if governments had the debt capacity, but they don’t. Stockton’s bankruptcy came from a combination of high spending on redevelopment projects, including a new waterfront promenade, an arena, and a new marina, and overly generous compensation for employees. The recession didn’t so much cause the bankruptcy as tip over a teetering set of dominoes. California redevelopment debt meant to go for capital projects was used to pay part of the salaries of mayors. Now, thanks to money problems at the state level, that form of financing is cut off, even as cities find their other forms of credit maxed out.
Debt alone won’t cause cities to change. We may get a set of “walking dead” cities like Detroit and Stockton that emerge from bankruptcy but never move forward because they have no prospects and deep management problems. But in dynamic places where industry is growing, the combination of infrastructure needs and debt limits will likely lead to new financing. San Diego has a history of troubled government, but with all of its prospects for bio tech growth, and world class institutions like UC San Diego and Scripps, can you imagine a place like this not finding a solution?
3. Equity Issues
These, too, are coming to the fore where the tech growth is the greatest. When everyone is poor, as in Appalachia, there are no perceived differences. When, as in San Francisco or Silicon Valley, this means losing the lease on your apartment, people come out to city council meetings.
The challenge here is that local governments cannot do much about differences in income, and yet they need to provide public services in a way that seems fair to all. The Google bus controversy, for example, is about more than just white buses using the curb in the morning. Those sleek, tall tour buses provide a clean, quiet, free, WiFi-enabled way for tech workers to commute long distances. All this while local service workers commute across town paying full fares for buses that frequently run late and sometimes have homeless people shouting in the back. Try building public consensus with that kind of split!
A Recipe for Change
Where are we most likely to see innovative change? Where these three factors come together. Probably not in Portland, Denver or Dallas, which have built out comprehensive light rail networks that give them the capacity for growth. The Bay Area is almost a certainty, as are Phoenix and Atlanta, which choke on growth, especially now that Millennials want to live and work in urban centers. Other possibilities include New York and Chicago, but politics and entrenched bureaucracies in those places may keep them from moving forward. (Can you say “Chris Christie”?) Other possibilities include the smaller cities—the Boulders, Austins, Madisons and Burlingtons of the world—but because of their scale, they can probably make their urban systems work along traditional lines, with a healthy helping of bicycling thrown in. Not on the list? Cities with few or no prospects for growth, such as Cleveland and St. Louis, where the infrastructure may be getting old but there is plenty of capacity and the commute times are relatively short.
The pace of change is another story. It took 30 to 40 years to make urban living fashionable again, and it will probably take 20 to 30 years to cook up new recipes for urban management. That assumes that some city is out there right now grappling with a problem is heading towards a new solution, that it will take several years to put the solution in place, and another three to five years after that to get noticed. Then another ten to 20 years after that for widespread copying. Thirty years ago we did see the electronic chip manufacturers in Silicon Valley come together, when their employees were late for work, to get a new transportation plan, the South Bay Master Plan, financed and under construction in a matter of just several short years. Maybe lightning will strike twice.
Rod Stevens is a management consultant on Bainbridge Island, WA. He can be contacted at email@example.com.