June 24--Dallas became the focal point in the last week of two important conversations about the grand possibilities and hard realities of urban living. Those interested in the aspirational side converged at the New Cities Summit on Tuesday, while more than 230 of the nation's mayors gathered later in the week to discuss the challenges of running cities big and small.
The big question is whether participants from the two conferences heard each other's messages.
Big-city mayors really do need to listen to the dreamers and theorists, whose voices stimulate a different way of thinking about urban life and test assumptions about what makes cities thrive or decay. The theorists, likewise, could benefit from the hands-on experience that mayors and other local officials can offer -- not to throw cold water on big ideas, but to help shape them into realistic action plans.
From the theorists' view, transportation doesn't have to be about bigger highways that feed more and more cars onto already-congested city streets. Cars and bikes can coexist on the road if certain protections are put in place. More efficient space utilization can pack more urban dwellers into more affordable neighborhoods closer to their work places. Green space and bike paths aren't just about moving cities toward a smaller environmental footprint but also about improving residents' health and well-being.
There is, of course, a sobering reality behind the theorists' big ideas. Cities are run by democratically elected councils and mayors. Conflicting constituencies mean that politics comes into play whenever transformational plans are on the agenda. There also are budgeting realities: Constructing new bike paths or deconstructing major highways requires enormous financial investments.
A tax dollar spent here translates into a dollar not spent there. When the dreamers complain about a city's walkability or lack of bike paths, elected officials have to weigh those considerations against the expenditures needed to alleviate poverty, reduce crime or build more affordable housing. There's no such thing as a magic wand that makes all problems disappear or turns great ideas into tangible projects.
Leadership is what makes big things happen. People with aspirations for better neighborhood design and more livable urban spaces accomplish little if they're disengaged or simply complaining about the way things are. They should consider stepping up to serve on city councils, school boards and zoning commissions to get a sense of what it takes to make their dreams come true.
And elected leaders might benefit from attending more events like the New Cities Summit to realize that a lot of truly innovative, award-winning apps, designs and ideas are moving rapidly away from the conceptual stage and being put into practice in cities around the world.
Who will lead the way?
"People have a bad impression of government. And young people don't want to be part of big institutions. We owe it to ourselves to figure out some answers, because we can't afford to have increasing disaffection."
-- Shelley Metzenbaum, president of a nonpartisan group seeking to rebuild trust in government, speaking at the New Cities Summit
"It used to be that the federal government and states set the agenda, and the cities were the children, waiting for their allowance. We've flipped that construct on its head. There's been an inversion of power. Cities are now the leaders in the nation: experimenting, taking risks, making hard choices. We don't want to wait on Washington to solve our problems."
-- Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, delivering the inaugural address as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors
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