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Cities lead, but cannot go it alone

December 23, 2013

An extended conversation with NLC President Chris Coleman. Listen to an abbreviated podcast of this interview on NLC’s Sound Cloud account.

Coleman-Sea-CoC

As the end of the year approaches, top 100 lists, year-in-reviews and “person of the year” recognitions are beginning to make their rounds. What are the year’s biggest themes in politics, culture and entertainment? How about for cities? Despite some notable challenges in cities across the country, 2013 has been a year marked by a gradually improving economy, improving city fiscal conditions and a sense that people are “rediscovering” cities and all they have to offer.

I was pleased to recently have a conversation about these themes with NLC President Chris Coleman, mayor, St. Paul, Minnesota. His experience as a mayor during some of the country’s most challenging times provides a unique perspective on the state and future of American cities. Below is the discussion we had on December 13, 2013.

As we’ve recently highlighted in our 10 Critical Imperatives Facing Cities report, cities are facing challenges – many of which are nationwide issues. In your perspective, what should be the role of cities in tackling some of our country’s toughest challenges, such as access to higher education, immigration and aging infrastructure?

Cities don’t have the luxury of not tackling every issue, because every issue is going to affect their community. So whether or not they’re the primary lead on an issue such as higher education or even primary education, cities have to play a role. We have to get our kids ready for college, we have to make sure they’re successful in kindergarten through 12th grade and we have to understand the relationship between what’s happening in the classroom and what’s happening in the rest of the community. Whether you’re a mayor who has mayoral control over the school district or a mayor, such as me, who plays a significant role in the education process – that’s a critical issue evolving even more as an essential role of the city than it historically has been.

Cities don’t have the luxury of not tackling every issue, because every issue is going to affect their community.

But for instance, you can say veterans issues are a federal issue, but the veterans are living in our communities – and too often they are living on our streets. Fiscal stability – obviously we are primarily in charge of our own destiny, but many of our resources are dependent on state and federal resources that are beyond our direct control. Every community is going to have a little different set of priorities within these 10 critical imperatives we’ve described, and may have some things that were not necessarily  identified as a top 10 issue. And there are going to be issues that may be best served by the federal government or the state government or the county government – but regardless of the issue, cities have a stake and an important role to play in creating solutions.

In our work at NLC, we’ve witnessed the powerful role of the mayor to act as a convener or an agenda setter. In these roles, are mayors able to push forward these “national” or “state” issues at the local level?

The strongest power we have is to set the table. When you do that and bring the right people into the room, solutions can be found to our challenges. I liken how we approach education to how we approach emergency management, which is no one department has to do everything or no one person has to do everything but when you’re in a room and you have a situation within your community, you say, ‘Okay fire chief, can you bring resources to bear over here?’ You’ll ask your police obviously to have their deployment set and you also ask your parks department what role they can play. You ask your public works department, ‘I need 5 trucks to block off this intersection,’ – or whatever it is.

In education, I view what we’re doing as convening an emergency operation center for our children. So we have the Mayor’s Education Leadership Team (MELT) in St. Paul, which has the superintendent, county board members, school board members, city councilmembers, service providers and philanthropic partners to say, ‘Okay, what do we need to do, is this covered, who knows about this issue?’ When you bring people together and do it in a way to direct it toward finding solutions – you can find those solutions.

We’ve increasingly seen city leadership recognized on issues such as education and veteran homelessness in the media. But at the same time, we see stories about bankruptcy, urban poverty and violence dominating news headlines. In your experience as mayor and as an NLC officer, how are cities faring in the current political and economic environment?

I’ve been mayor for eight years, about to go into my third term. In a lot of ways I’ve presided over some of the worst times, certainly economically, over these last eight years, which have been very difficult for the country and for our cities. I’ve also been fortunate to be mayor at a time when people are really rediscovering cities and deciding you know what, ‘I don’t want to live in an isolated enclave somewhere, I want to live where there is access to transportation, I want to live where I can walk to a restaurant, I want to live where it’s a five-minute commute to work rather than a two-hour commute.’ The vibrancy that cities provide, all the options – what used to be considered annoying challenges are now exciting opportunities.

Even in the midst of one of our most troubled cities we see some real hope and opportunity.

So I think there are struggles no doubt – you see the fiscal condition of Detroit – but also if you go to Detroit you see the regrowth of the core of downtown. Even in the midst of one of our most troubled cities we see some real hope and opportunity. I think one of the real challenges we’re going to face though, is to make sure that hope and opportunity is for all. We have to make sure those opportunities are available and those pathways are open for all.

What steps can cities take to create those  opportunities to make their communities more vibrant?

What I think is interesting is that while cities are all different, there are some common threads that we can use to all learn from each other. We’ve started competing in a positive way to be the greenest city, or smartest city, or to be the most technically savvy, connected city. St. Paul was designated – our 55101 zip code – the center of the hipster universe. And I think that’s a good thing. So other cities are asking, ‘Why does St. Paul have the hippest zip code in the country – and why don’t we?’ Cities are competing for talent from across the globe – so how do we attract 20-somethings that are coming out of the best colleges and universities that have enormous sets of skills. How do we make sure we have a welcoming place for them?

I look at Denver, I look at Salt Lake City, I look at cities that are doing massive investments in transportation and think, we have got to move faster on this one because this is what people are looking for when making decisions on where to live. We still have some huge challenges but I think that the renewed energy and vitality of cities across the country is truly amazing and provides city leaders with great new opportunities to make their cities better.

As you look at the challenges and opportunities that face cities, in your year as NLC President, what are some of the things you would like to accomplish?

There are a few things.  First of all, just from the education piece – I came to the National League of Cities through the Institute for Youth, Education and Families – that’s how I did a real deep dive into the organization. They gave us technical assistance in building out an out-of-school time network we call “Sprockets” that provides continued learning opportunities for children during afterschool, weekends, and summer. Those are the technical skills and activities we can help cities develop at NLC. NLC is also working on a new partnership with the Department of Education to really look at some early learning and college readiness pathways for cities. That, I think, is really exciting. So I want to make sure we solidify NLC’s role in supporting cities in their education efforts.

Another important issue is resilient cities, given the already dramatic changes we’ve seen with severe weather events and the impacts of climate change. We saw all this in Northern Colorado, in Boulder and some of the other cities around Boulder that sustained some tremendous damage as a result of the heaviest rainfalls they’ve ever seen. If that was an isolated incident perhaps you’d say, ‘Well these things happen.’ But when you see these things happen time after time after time again – the Tornado in Joplin, Missouri that Mayor Melodee Colbert Kean faced in 2011, the effects of Hurricane Sandy – you can go across the country and see reports of these extreme weather circumstances happening if not every day, then every week.

I don’t think any of us recognized or realized how quickly the impacts of climate change were going to start affecting our cities.

So we’re going to have to figure out two things: first of all, how do we help our cities meet some emission reduction targets? The Obama Administration has been helpful in providing some energy efficient block grants and some other tools that we have used to green our buildings to reduce our energy consumption – those things we’re going to have to continue. But we’re also starting to understand that cities are going to have to figure out: ‘Do we have capacity in our sewer systems to handle what used to be 500 year floods that are now happening every 7-10 years? Do we have capacity to respond to gigantic straight line winds, tornadoes, or any number of things?

When I first came into office, the grave concern we were looking at was a pandemic. That is still a real possibility and we are set up to respond to that, but I don’t think any of us recognized or realized how quickly the impacts of climate change were going to start affecting our cities. We, as the National League of Cities really have to be a leader in that conversation, both on the reduction and the response side of it.

You recently testified on the importance of federal investment in transportation, touching on how you’ve benefited from being mayor of a city where all partners “rolled up their sleeves and got to work on building the infrastructure of a strong city and region.”  What type of support do cities and their partners need from the federal government to make their communities better?

First of all, city leaders have to understand what the real threats to their community are – and the real threats are not the next town over or upstate or downstate. The threats that we face in terms of the future vitality of U.S. cities are cities across the globe that are growing rapidly, where they are attracting talent from across the world. The overwhelming evidence is that people coming out of college or universities right now are saying, ‘I’m going to pick where I want to live first and then what am I going to do.

And so whether you’re a city of 50,000 or a city of a couple million, you have to figure out what are you going to do to make your community attractive to folks who have a lot of options. Even before I was mayor, I looked at Austin, Texas and their success. They had a lot of pieces that we had in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. But they also had a thriving cultural scene – there was a “there” there. Look at Nashville right now – Nashville is going gangbusters.

It’s not because they don’t have challenges. Mayor Dean and Councilmember Steine in Nashville are doing incredible work on the education front and they’ve been a model for a lot of the stuff we’re doing. But they have a city that is becoming a huge draw for people across the country, if not the globe. So my advice to cities is to identify the three or four things they’re going to do and do them well to position themselves in  a 21st century economy, then look to others to support that.

The problem is that too many people in Washington see cities as here with an open hand saying give us money, without a true understanding that as our cities go, so goes our country.

The reason I was testifying on the New Starts program, the reason why that was so important was because I’ve seen firsthand the impact of an investment in transportation in the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis – we’re six months out before the Central Corridor light rail line carries its first fare-paying passenger, and yet we’ve already seen $1.2 billion worth of investment. We have 7,500 units of housing underway or in planning along that line. We’ve seen businesses along University Avenue, where the line runs, that have been there for years, now reinvesting in their businesses and cleaning them up and preparing for the influx of customers.

So an area that has been subject to disinvestment since the freeway went through in the mid-60s is now the epicenter of investment in the Twin Cities. And so if you have the partnership with the federal government to support some of those things, then our cities will be vibrant. The problem is that too many people in Washington see cities as here with an open hand saying give us money, without a true understanding that as our cities go so goes our country. And if they understood that then they would be more willing to invest in our communities.

It seems vital to have a feedback loop to the policymakers in Washington because the leaders in our cities understand their communities best – they understand the threats, the challenges, and the opportunities. As you mentioned, we have seen how previous infrastructure projects have led to disinvestment– but you’re doing it differently. Your city is getting community input and the federal government is supporting that process.

A couple things happened in the construction of the Central Corridor, what is now called the Green Line. We were able to change the dynamic from D.C. saying here is how you’re going to build your line, to DC saying what do you need to make the line successful? That was a fundamental shift. The community fought for three additional stops that would serve the most transit dependent members along the line. It wasn’t until former Transportation Secretary LaHood and the Obama Administration said, oh this doesn’t make sense – it makes sense from a Washington perspective – but I understand now how it doesn’t make sense from a St Paul perspective so let’s make a change there.

The value of this investment isn’t just how quickly you can move people through an area – it’s how you can get people to invest in an area. That’s the critical piece.

The New Starts criteria that says were not going to just look at pure numbers and how fast you can move people from point A to point B, we’re going to ask how does this help green development, how does this help create economic opportunities, how does this help serve poor and disenfranchised communities. We still need a line that moves people from point A to point B and do it in an efficient time frame, but when you understand the value of this investment isn’t just how quickly you can move people through an area – it’s how you can get people to invest in an area. That’s the critical piece.

Bruce Katz has notably argued that we will increasingly see cities leading what he calls a “metropolitan revolution.” What are your thoughts on the future of cities? And what do you envision NLC’s role in helping to create that vision?

Bruce Katz and the folks at the Brookings Institution have done an amazing job of capturing in some ways and spearheading in others the kind of new look at cities – understanding that more than 75 percent of our nation’s economic output is coming out of cities, 80 percent of people are living in cities. That these global centers are not going through the federal government, but past the federal government to do direct city to city exchange.

It is a revolution and it’s a revolution mainly because it seems like we are going back to century old city states where the cities were the power. I don’t think that’s a great model in the sense that I hope Washington, D.C. will continue to make themselves relevant – but if they’re not going to make themselves relevant then cities aren’t going to stop moving forward.

This is one of the most interesting times in decades if not centuries for cities. What is happening here and understanding why cities existed in the first place, and why they matter, is really coming to the forefront as federal governments are becoming more and more stagnated. The creativity that occurs because three people are sitting at a coffee shop exchanging ideas, and how we exchange ideas with technology – there’s such an amazing revolution in terms of how people are reacting and exchanging ideas and creating things at a speed that we haven’t seen before. It’s an exciting time for cities. And I think NLC will be in the thick of it.

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