State of the Cities 2013: Infrastructure Connects the Dots

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This is the fifth post in a seven-part series on trends and themes in local leadership.

On February 4, 2013, Mayor Anthony Foxx left his constituency with a final message about the state of their city, Charlotte, N.C.. In a speech that was both reflective of the past and hopeful for the future, Mayor Foxx used his closing moments to drive home how infrastructure – and in particular a new streetcar – can enhance the quality of life for all the city’s residents:

Let me be clear: this streetcar, and resolving this capital budget, is more important than baseball and more important than football.  It is an opportunity to put this city on a path of living together with more opportunity, more economic vibrancy, more quality neighborhoods, more infill development, better schools, more people who want to live here and more businesses who choose to locate here.

This year’s State of the City Addresses showed that mayors across the country are using infrastructure opportunities in a fashion similar to Mayor Foxx. Their Addresses demonstrate that infrastructure can serve as more than just the physical foundation of cities, and rather become the critical catalyst that drives economic development, connects people and provides equal opportunities.  When envisioned comprehensively, mayors emphasized that infrastructure lies at a unique nexus between people and place; government and residents; and the present and future.  Regardless of the scale or scope of the projects in their cities, mayors’ speeches highlighted how thoughtful infrastructure investment provides an alternate trajectory for their cities.

Ramping up the Roads: Connecting People

Mayors and their public works departments always have and always will play an essential role in infrastructure repair and maintenance (Beaverton, Ore.’s Mayor Denny Doyle said it best when he said: “Beaverton cares about filling potholes—we care about the basics.”).  However, cities, including Beaverton, are moving well beyond the ‘basics’ to reimagine the streetscape in terms of accessibility, usability and enjoyment for all residents.  In his speech, Mayor Dwight Jones of Richmond, Va. spoke of plans for downtown Franklin Street to become a throughway that provides access for bicycles, pedestrians, Segways, as well as car traffic.  Additionally, Franklin Street will run through Main Street Station, a welcome center and multi-modal station that serves as the regional transportation hub.

Across the country in San Diego, Calif., Mayor Bob Filner highlighted the importance of creating neighborhoods that are “as safe, attractive and healthy as they can be.”  He gave the example of how a public- private partnership model for redevelopment, one that the city successfully used in the past, can be expanded to assist other neighborhoods throughout the city. As part of this effort, Mayor Filner stressed that transportation systems which enhance quality of life – such as pedestrian-friendly streets and dedicated bike baths – will be critical to meet the varied needs of residents.

In a similar vein, Mayor Lioneld Jordan of Fayetteville, Ark. stated that, “Our vision for convenient and sustainable transportation, however, is much more than traditional highways and includes alternative transportation as a keystone of our future.”  In his Address, he described the 100 shared lane markings for bicycle routes, as well as over 12,000 feet of sidewalks that were constructed all in the past year.  Similarly, in Beaverton, Mayor Doyle and his staff not only filled those potholes, they also planted nearly 450 trees and 1,200 native plants; upgraded over 170 bike path lights to LEDs; and resurfaced 55 streets last year, working to maintain the city’s infrastructure investments while strengthening their Mayor’s commitment to sustainability.

Working the Waterways: Connecting Neighborhoods

In parallel with the streetscape, mayors recognizing and investing in water infrastructure as an invaluable community asset, one that not only has economic and environmental implications, but also serves as a social thread woven throughout the community.   Mayor AC Wharton, of Memphis, Tenn., prioritized the city’s waterfront as a tool to reconnect neighborhoods and people in a city:

In consideration of our local assets, we can never overlook our prized riverfront.  The riverfront is home to our city’s ritual events and celebrations, and common ground for every citizen and every visitor. Because of this, I asked Jeff… to help me develop a balanced approach that attracts people to the riverfront while offering a menu of options to explore and enjoy.

Other mayors spoke more specifically about protecting their watersheds as a means to protect natural resources and enhance quality of life for residents.  For example, San Diego Mayor Filner spoke about a regional convening to address water scarcity in the Bay Delta, while Mayor Pete Lewis of Auburn, Wash. described a wetland expansion project on the local community college campus  that will increase wetland capacity, filter toxins in rainwater and improve water quality.

Richmond’s Mayor Jones aptly stated the role of water in a city’s future when he said, “We have plans drawn that will connect the river’s use to downtown and remove pedestrian barriers to ensure greater access.” He went on to describe the James River as “our precious gem,” a source of pride for the whole city.

Tying together Transit: Connecting Cities

In Somerville, Mass., Mayor Joseph Curtatone spoke of the green line (subway) extension as critical to driving public and private investment in a historically disinvested area of the city: “For years, we’ve invested heavily in West Somerville while the eastern part of our city soldiered on as a great but underfunded neighborhood. I am here tonight to declare quite unequivocally, it’s East Somerville’s turn.”  In Richmond, Va., Atlanta, Ga. and other cities, mayors similarly acknowledged the potential for transit to reduce poverty in particular neighborhoods of the city, connect people to jobs, and provide transportation alternatives that are accessible and affordable.

These mayors and others also recognized the important role of transit in making their city an effective regional player.  Mayor Lewis described how Auburn has emerged as a central transit hub for the region, with four regional transit lines (and numerous local ones) coming together in the city. He went on to describe the implications of this in terms of establishing the city as a regional hub for the education and healthcare sectors.  In Durham, N.C. Mayor Bill Bell congratulated residents for approving a half cent sales tax in Durham and Orange County that will be used to fund new bus and light rail services. With “providing efficient and friendly transit services” as one of five priority areas he spoke of, Mayor Bell not only emphasized the local benefits of connecting people to jobs, shops and healthcare services within the city, he also directly spoke to his partners outside city limits:

We must also remind our neighbors to the east that we are truly one interconnected region that is home to millions of people who cross back and forth across all three counties each and every day. Our transportation problems are regional problems and we must partner together on a regional basis to solve these issues.

Building Connected Cities

Whether mayors are focusing on improving their streetscapes, connecting their transportation services, or enhancing their waterways, the State of the City Addresses this year made it clear that infrastructure improvements and investments serve as an important tool whereby local governments are both responding to citizen’s immediate needs (e.g. filling potholes) and also working with local and regional partners to envision and implement an alternate future that prioritizes increased quality of life for all residents.  Despite scarce resources (and the possible removal of the municipal bond tax exemption), mayors recognize and are committed to infrastructure investments as a priority strategy to create a connected city.