Channel your inner Moses

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Since the recession, academics, urban planners, and policymakers alike are diverting their attention away from the national government in light of the political gridlock in Washington. Instead, the focus has shifted to cities and local governments, where increasingly, municipalities are launching innovative practices that would seem impossible to pass through the national legislature.

Last Friday, May 30, 2014 as part of the Princeton University Reunions Weekend, I attended a Princeton Alumni-Faculty Forum on Cities of the Future, where Guy Nordenson, a professor of structural engineering, moderated a panel of four Princeton University alumni to discuss where cities are headed. In a tightly packed room at the School of Architecture, each of the four speakers (listed below) shared variables needed to craft the formula for desirable cities.

Jim Stockard ’64, Curator, The Loeb Fellowship, Harvard Graduate School of Design
Graham A. Richard ’69, CEO, Advanced Energy Economy
John Hatch ’84, Principal, Clarke Caton Hintz; Partner, HHG Development
Clifford J. Levy ’89, Senior Editor, The New York Times

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Stockard, a resident of Cambridge, MA, spoke about how changes in demographics could impact housing demand and consumption. Citing a 2013 statistic that only twenty percent of all households consisted of married couples with children, Stockard urged cities to adapt to the needs of smaller households and retiring baby boomers. Also, because urban planning is often mired in bureaucracy and paperwork, Stockard encouraged civic leaders to be nimble. To that end, Stockard suggested abolishing city and county boundaries, arguing that those boundaries diminish mayoral power while serving no administrative purpose.

Richard, former mayor of Fort Wayne and an Indiana state legislator, acknowledged how difficult a mayor’s job is, a sentiment echoed throughout Buzz Bissinger’s book, Prayer for the City. Richard’s expertise is in economic development: He called for the use of more innovative financing, such as issuing municipal bonds. In addition to public-private partnerships, Richard also advocated for intergovernmental cooperation via local-state-federal partnerships. Noting young people’s preference to live in more active and connected communities that are marked by walkability, bikeability, and the availability of public transportation, Richard insisted “the amount of new tech startups per capita is going to be the most important factor for cities in terms of attracting and retaining young talent.”

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Hatch is a practicing architect who has resided in Trenton for the past two decades. He relentlessly criticized America’s tendency to subsidize suburban sprawl. Later in the discussion when the conversation turned to Benjamin Barber’s 2013 book If Mayors Rule the World, the moderator noted that many notable mayors, such as Robert Moses (read: The Power Broker by Robert Caro, another Princetonian), Ed Wendell, and Michael Bloomberg, use power and sheer will to get things done. “So how should upcoming mayors channel their inner Moses?” Nordenson posed that question to the Panel. “Undo what Moses did,” said Hatch, referring to Mose’s preference of automobiles over human beings.

Finally, Levy, a Pulitzer Award-winning New York Times investigative reporter who now heads NYT Now, centered his talk on citizen engagement. He spoke on why it is crucial for government leaders, urban planners, and engineers to listen. His job as a journalist is to give the public a voice, but he cannot do it alone. Planners need to “bring the public along” and be responsive to the residents’ needs and wants. This “humanization” of cities can be advanced via pedestrianization and building more affordable housing, says Levy, who shared with the audience that he walks seven miles from his Park Slope home to Manhattan as a part of his commute.

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When asked to give a silver bullet for livable and economically competitive cities, each panelist shared their secret ingredient:

Jim Stockard: High-speed rail
Graham A. Richard: High-speed fiber optic internet, become a Google Fiber City
John Hatch: Undo highways
Clifford J. Levy: Declare decent housing as a human right

Five years ago, phrases like “the sharing economy,” “big data,” “urban science,” and “city analytics” were barely entering into the public consciousness. Today, cities are hosting hackathons, hiring data scientists, and implementing edgy policies everywhere from San Francisco’s Zero Waste Goal to NYC’s Vision Zero. To further advance the explosion of citynomics, former mayor Mike Bloomberg recently started a global consultancy to facilitate the sharing of ideas and resources among city leaders. It is not hard to imagine that our cities will become increasing data and technology driven. But how do we transform insights into real policies?

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While all panelists agreed on what needs to be done, putting their thoughts into practice means having fearless civic leaders who can translate what academics and activists say into reality. There is no doubt that Al Gore was right when he predicted the return of regionalism and metropolitanism a decade ago. However, even adding bike lanes, which seems like common sense to many of us, can be an object of backlashes. It is understandable when the backlash comes from Atlanta, a car-dominated city, but what about the whole Citi Bike controversy in New York City?

I have many environmentally friendly and socially aware friends from New York City who are vehemently opposed to Citi Bikes. Some say funds should instead be given to the public transit system. Some harbor a negative perception toward bicyclists. Some despise the commercial look of Citi Bikes. Some cite how the bike share does not address economic inequality. While all are legitimate criticisms, my opinion is that it is better to experiment than not. Although planners should understand and cater to the needs of different stakeholders to the extent they can, there is no silver bullet. Nonetheless, reiteration, adaptation, and eventually culture shift, can allow innovative programs to succeed and persist. Having a charismatic and forceful leader helps too.

About a month ago, my company hosted a brown bag by Jim Manzi, whose firm helps companies implement thousands of RCTs (randomized control trials) on a yearly basis. Why doesn’t the public sector have the same culture of experimentation as the business or the scientific community? Is the government self-perpetuating the myth that its incompetent and backward-looking? I tend to agree with Manzi. The government should implement more evidence-based practices and make decisions based on a wide variety of tools available today, including, but not limited to big data. The government should not be afraid of experimentation and failure. It should, as many successful entrepreneurs tell us, embrace failure.

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