What It Takes to Be a 21st Century City

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“Local governments are competing to be the most progressive, the most innovative, to lure the most Millennials, and to be at the forefront of the new American 21st century city.”

Gabe Klein discusses the sharing economy at NLC’s 2015 Congress of Cities in Nashville, Tennesse. (Jason Dixson)

This is an excerpt from City of the Future: Technology & Mobility, and the first in our “Viewpoints on the Future” blog series.

Gabe Klein has worked his entire career in the transportation business, switching between the private and public sectors. He headed both Chicago and Washington, D.C.’s Transportation Departments, and prior to that worked for several private sector companies, including Zipcar.

He now works as a Special Venture Partner at a venture capital firm that funds next generation mobility companies, and advises a cadre of startups. His unique experiences in different sectors have led him to see the immense value in both public and private contributions to urban development — but even more so in cross-sector partnership.

Klein has seen a change in the way cities think about land use, public space and transportation, and also in the way they partner with businesses and NGOs to improve the quality of life of their residents.

“Local governments are competing to be the most progressive, the most innovative, to lure the most Millennials, and to be at the forefront of the new American 21st century city,” says Klein.

Public-private partnerships (P3s) have been most successful overseas, but they are starting to be implemented in the United States as well. For example, the city of Chicago has successfully implemented several P3s to improve its transportation network. Beginning in 2003, the city coordinated a partnership called the Chicago Regional Environmental and Transportation Efficiency (CREATE) program. This arrangement between the U.S. Department of Transportation, the City of Chicago Department of Transportation, the Illinois Department of Transportation, Metra, Amtrak and six private freight railroads aims to address necessary infrastructure improvements, increase Chicago’s freight and passenger rail capacity, and ease congestion throughout the region’s transportation network.

The city of Chicago also leased its parking garage and meter systems out to private partners, and in doing so was able to pay off some of the debt acquired in building Chicago’s famous Millennium Park. Because they are becoming more politically palatable, U.S. cities will begin working with the private sector to jointly fund their transportation projects. There will be an uptick in the application of P3 arrangements for toll roads, parking structures, and other major infrastructure assets that fall outside the traditional purview of city management.

Cities have begun pushing the envelope more, not only in terms of transportation planning but also implementation. The levers of government are being used more effectively in partnerships with the private sector. Together, the two entities are leveraging each other’s strengths.

These partnerships have helped with financing, as cities can now utilize not only federal money but both private and philanthropic dollars. The time is past due to rebuild existing infrastructure, and we all realize that it must be rebuilt in a much more resilient way.

The price tag is mind numbing, but it is critical to the vibrancy of our cities. Today’s modern mayors get the connection between land use, transportation, housing and employment. Long range plans are more coordinated, but harder to implement given the outdated and shabby state of many of our cities’ infrastructure.

Cities will need to rely on outside partners and embrace innovation if they want to remain at the cutting edge. Mr. Klein notes that “there is a great deal of innovation coming out of the private sector and government has started embracing it and applying it in ways that meets civic needs and goals.”

He imagines a scenario in which city governments could provide the framework for the changes they want to see, ensuring service equity, job creation, and safety, and letting the private sector fulfill the service role.

For more thoughts from Klein, follow him on twitter: @gabe_klein.

Nicole DuPuis bio photoAbout the Author: Nicole DuPuis is the Senior Associate for Infrastructure in NLC’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research. Follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicolemdupuis.