I hadn’t previously had the opportunity to blog about it, but in late October I was able to attend the Urban Land Institute’s Fall Meeting in Los Angeles. Now that I’ve had some time to process the fire hose of sessions that I attended and people I met there, one event is still in my mind. The Daniel Rose Center for Public Leadership hosted a forum at the Los Angeles Central Library of mayors that have participated in its fellowship program for public officials in the last two years. The Rose Center is the primary unit of ULI that promotes sustainable land use practices among the public sector, especially for local governments.
The Los Angeles forum was the second time that I’ve been able to hear from big-city mayors at a ULI event. The first was a lecture in July in Washington, DC with Ed Lee, the mayor of San Francisco. At the time he spoke of the major planning initiatives he was shepherding along as a long-time municipal employee and recent ascendant to the mayor’s office, and more recently was elected to a full term.
This time around we heard from five mayors on the victories and challenges that are occurring in their respective cities in the Midwest, Northeast, and South (although we were in California, the West was not represented at this event because Oakland Mayor Jean Quan was scheduled but unable to attend the event). The panelists were Dave Bing of Detroit; Bob Buckhorn of Tampa; Karl Dean of Nashville; Sly James of Kansas City, Missouri; and Angel Taveras of Providence, Rhode Island.
In Nashville, Karl Dean focused his comments on two recent and relatively unique land use issues. A previously announced open space initiative for the city was kicked into high gear by severe flooding in 2010; part of the recovery effort focused on converting home sites destroyed by flood waters into permanent open space. In addition to improving community safety during future disasters, the open space initiative created a new amenity in the form of permanently preserved open space. Another focus was the Bell’s Bend property, a piece of open land west of downtown Nashville formed by a sharp bend in the Tennessee River. A developer proposed the conversion of the land into a new mixed-use community in the style of a “new downtown,” but Dean mentioned that it did not go forward in the interest of preventing sprawl and utilizing the extensive infrastructure that Nashville already has. As he put it, “we already have a downtown.”
Sylvester James of Kansas City (Missouri) focused his comments on regional cooperation. This has been particularly important–and challenging–for his region because it spans two states. The recent selection by Google of Kansas City, Kansas (across the river from Mayor James’ KC) as its pilot city for the Google Fiber network made cooperation more attractive. The existing industry cluster in animal science and nutrition as well as newer industries are both helped by this, because a region that works together can enhance its competitive advantage in a way that others won’t; working across municipal boundaries pools all of the region’s strengths from freight facilities to transportation infrastructure into one attractive package.
In spite of the seemingly non-stop rhetoric that municipal governments are hamstrung by a lack of funds, the five Rose Center fellows showed that plenty is still being accomplished in their cities. Perhaps the lesson is that if you want to know what a city is doing and doing well, you should ask its government leaders directly.
Photo of Mayor Dave Bing courtesy of Flickr user Dave Hogg. Photo of Mayor Angel Taveras courtesy of Flickr user Jeff Nickerson. Both are reposted here under Creative Commons licenses.