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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sustainable Cities

Is Camden sustainable? Is Kansas City? Is Detroit?

These 3 places are facing the exact same question and are answering it in very different ways.

Camden is facing a financial crisis because the fiscal house of cards has collapsed. Some are suggesting that the solution lies in municipal bankruptcy. It would be a way to get out from under very costly union contracts (seems to be a popular strategy for fiscal relief these days - see Wisconsin). Bankruptcy may be a way to get out from under a tangled mess of property tax liens that cripple the city's ability to redevelop properties or even build on vacant lots. It may be a way to renegotiate subsidy agreements that currently allow private sector development to avoid property tax and instead pay a fixed payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT). Mayor Redd has stated that bankruptcy is not a good option for Camden. The city has a terrible reputation, is woefully in the red, can't possibly have a good bond rating that is real, and has no prospects for future revenue except to raise property taxes on a population base where 36% of people are in poverty and/or to seek concessions from the Police and Fire Unions which has gone nowhere. Bankruptcy may in fact be the BEST answer given the alternatives on the table. A municipal mulligan, if you will.

Detroit has been losing population for decades. It's economic development has ceased in the hard industry sectors, and crime, abandonment, and other urban ills are omnipresent. Detroit has become the destination for progressive, local source, new community advocates - an amalgam of sustainable community developers. Urban agriculture enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, and other creative economy types have arrived in Detroit's vacuum and are establishing themselves to fill the space. It is an organic transformation in more ways than just what is served on the table. Whether it will translate into sustainable jobs for the existing residents of Detroit remains to be seen. The other crucial outcome is whether it can be infused into the local political agenda and supported over time.

Kansas City is at a cross-roads with its city election primary on Feb. 22 and general election in March. It is a nonpartisan race, so basically it is a primary and runoff of the top two candidates in each race. Some races are unopposed and the outcome is already done. There is a six-way race for Mayor (Rowland, Burke, James, Herman, Funkhouser, Klein in about that order). These races will determine how and whether Kansas City takes on a sustainable future or continues to wither. It would be a pity if KC had to take the Detroit route to sustainability - which is basically, die and be reborn in spite of yourself. It takes a long time for that to happen. But KC is in real danger of that scenario because progressives and advocates of localism are being stymied in favor of very tired, very old economic development strategies. The downtown hotel subsidy strategy is not viable but is dominating the conversation of economic revitalization. KC needs to catch up to the creative economy and get out in front of the green economy to seriously solidify its future.

The current mayor has identified a series of strategies including "Schools First," "New Tools," make KC the "safest big city in America" and fill the donuthole. These are all variations on the theme - bring people back to the city and to do that, make the city safe. There is not much of substance here. Other candidates are not much better, but JAMES and BURKE probably do the best job of articulating something that approaches useful.

Sustainable Cities - is a concept whose time has arrived and is desperately needed in Camden, Detroit, and Kansas City. An emphasis on developing local jobs for local people, sustainable energy and environmental justice, local agriculture and food sourcing, and attracting people to the city who will support a progressive agenda that includes social enterprises, local economy, green technology, and jobs for local residents. It's a fairly simple agenda but has not been articulated as an agenda in KC, though candidates have spoken to bits and pieces here and there. Incremental change is about all we can expect, but is not going to cause much of an impact. The good news for KC is that the city has quite a bit to work with - the Green Impact Zone, a few entrepreneurship programs and incubators, Stowers medical research center, and the Kaufman Foundation's emphasis on entrepreneurship (that also connects UMKC's entrepreneurship program in the Bloch School of Management). The city has a variety of urban agriculture interests, green urban development professionals, and lots of advocates. Yet much of this activity remains in silos in KC and the desperately needs some cross-cutting strategies.

Those cross-cutting approaches - and these are sustainability strategies, are coming and they are designed to cut across those silos in new ways to unleash the creative potential of the Kansas City and Camden's of the world. This will result in exponential economic development that far exceeds the influence that subsidized hotels and entertainment zones could ever have in these places. Not every city will be or should be a tourist destination. Save that for the really great cities (world-class), historic cities (Philly, Boston, Rome, Beijing), and new cities (Dubai). Cities can build tourist niches based on indigenous artifacts or events (Rio, New Orleans, Pasadena, Hollywood, Paloma, Washington DC, Seattle), or transit systems (Japan's hi-speed rail system, Curitiba, San Francisco), but most will fail at this strategy. Artificial tourism does not last - just ask the cities that built Festival Marketplaces from the Rouse company - Toledo anyone?

1 comment:

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