“My Friends, How Things Have Changed"

Excerpted from Keynote Address at the Alliance for Innovation Transforming Local Government Annual Conference, “Creating Sustainable Futures: Global Issues/Local Solutions” in Greenville, South Carolina, June 4, 2008: Neal Pierce, Columnist.

ARTICLE | Jan 21, 2010

By Neal Pierce, Columnist.

I’m delighted to be with you because the basic theme of the Alliance for Innovation -- seeking out and

encouraging the kind of imaginative improvements that smart basic local governments can make -- has been a passion of mine for some time. Looking for innovations, fresh ideas and approaches, not in some centralized location but out there around America where the experimentation and risk-taking really occur. Indeed, city innovations have been a focus of my weekly newspaper column; I like to boast the fi rst-ever nationally distributed column on local and state breakthroughs, which I began in 1975 and still syndicate through The Washington Post. But it’s exciting for me to see a dawning age in which American cities will have the incentive and capacity to open their eyes to the big, sometimes better world out there. And how refreshing! I can assure you -- Thirtyfive years ago, when I started covering cities intensively, the grand assumption was that cities and towns might occasionally -- now and then -- check what others were doing. But not much -- American cities were in retreat then, just trying to hold onto their people and economies, as cheap energy, inexpensive real estate and lack of land use controls drove development further and further out to the peripheries.

Certainly scarcely any American cities then felt they needed to look far field for good ideas. And none worried about being out-planned and out-competed, or economically threatened, by faraway places and events. The few of us who visited Europe or Asia or elsewhere and came back with tales of vibrant city and town centers, or rural green spaces preserved, or smarter governance models, were too easily dismissed as irrelevant or -- dare I confess it -- elitist.

My friends, how things have changed. Like rude intruders in the night, the energy crisis and the climate crisis have come banging hard on our doors, undercutting our complacency, suggesting urgency of intense economic and lifestyle imperatives. A huge part of where the specific climate changing steps need to occur is in individual cities, towns and counties.

That means we have to attack sprawl head-on, to start creating radically more compact communities. To make a real difference, we have to make a sharp switch to more walkable, transit-served developments. Shops and offi ces filling in vacant lots or sites of failing shopping centers rather than devouring still more farmlands or forests. Building sustainably laid-out developments, the less scattered locations from which, research shows, people typically drive 20 to 40 percent less than on the suburban edge.

But we should not be overwhelmed by all this, because for America’s cities and towns, high cost energy will have some real pluses. Indeed, the shift matches what my real estate expert and author friend Chris Leinberger calls “Walkable Urbanism” -- places with the mix of destinations people want, from shops and parks and schools to pubs and entertainment, all accessible on foot, either from one’s home, or these days by a simple transit ride. Of course walkable urbanism is hardly anything new; it’s the way towns and cities were organized from the first urban settlements some 5,500 years ago into the 20th century. Though for a half century or more it was overshadowed by flight instead of concentration in the cities, by what Leinberger terms “drivable sub-urbanism.” And what a market smash it proved -- off ering Americans a sense of freedom, mobility, privacy, one’s own piece of turf and a yard for the kids to play. Plus plenty of jobs and profi ts, from autos to oil to real estate to fast food. Two generations of Americans knew practically nothing else.Given the way we’ve consumed land, a spread out, drivable sub-urbanism won’t disappear any time soon.

Though as gasoline rises and rises in price, and remember the whole model is based on heavy petroleum use, then it will likely lose signifi cantly in market share. This of course is the stage for the exciting opportunities of truly innovative cities, large and small.

Places that can make themselves really attractive places on all counts -- to work, to play, and often toughest of all, to find good schools. For example, we’ve seen quite an effort with parks.

For decades, as America rushed to the suburbs, parks tended to molder. But there’s been a dramatic reversal in recent years, registered from Portland to St. Louis, Chattanooga to Boston, New York to Seattle. And these are truly innovative -- not your ordinary old green acre with some benches. First they exploit great natural assets like Chattanooga’s once-lost Tennessee River shoreline.

Second they tap huge amounts of private capital -- for example Chicago’s incredibly popular Millennium Park -- $475 million worth of greenery, sculpture, fountain, grass and plantings and concert facility on the lakefront, which like other imaginative new parks has sent nearby property values -- and property taxes -- soaring upward.

Third, parks are big art magnets like the new sculpture park in Seattle. And fourth, scattered out through neighborhoods -- Denver and Seattle and New York are all doing this, for example -- they’re being multiplied to reach within a few blocks of every resident, truly enhancing the city’s attractiveness. The smart cities continue the work by humanizing and greening horrid asphalt playgrounds, and turning vacant lots into community gardens, a boon to low-income populations.

As the United States’ population balloons by 120 million or so more people by mid century, as gas prices make far-ranging family auto and air tours less feasible, as we start looking for less carbon-generating fun, the green element in the quality of life of our cities -- large and small -- will become increasingly critical. But exploiting the public greenery requires imagination, true innovation to gain true and full value. On that count, consider the Atlanta Beltline project -- a 22-mile loop of historic railroad right-of-way around the city’s downtown and midtown sections. Based on an idea originally proposed by a graduate student at Georgia Tech, this neglected land will become a connected system of parks, trails, and transit through more than 45 neighborhoods.

The project will increase Atlanta’s greenspace by 1,200 acres, a “green infrastructure” treasure for an historically park-poor city. By connecting greenspaces with new transit, plus some $1 billion worth of housing and commercial redevelopment it’s so far stimulated, the Beltline (in the words of Peter Harnik of the Trust for Public Land), truly “raises the bar for cities across the country, to rethink the role of parks in urban revitalization and growth.”

So for you urban innovators, that leaves just a few questions. How to finance expansions? How to bring lagging systems up to par? And beyond that, how does a city create truly eff ective transit-oriented  development -- carefully planned clusters of development around and near transit stops? Because it’s one thing to have statistical density-- just piling lots of development into a limited area. It’s quite another to build value, to aim imaginatively for more than the sum of the parts, a walkable urbanism that becomes the norm and redeems us from a half century of ill-advised urban flight.

No intelligent corporation would plan a major initiative without that pervasive, check-everything, integrative approach. So collectively, public-private, we need to do the same now for growth in America.

And I’m convinced -- We absolutely must use that kind of intelligence and teamwork if we’re to have any real hope of energy savings, reduced CO2 emissions. Innovating, creating, renewing communities that not only are delights to live in, but compete well in this global century.

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