Mayors Say Innovation, Technology Are Essential to Improving City Life

City leaders attending this year's Urban Land Institute conference touted areas of their urban cores that are being transformed into creative hubs where startups and small businesses are moving in and sharing resources.

by Nancy Sarnoff, Houston Chronicle / May 14, 2015

(TNS) -- Mayors from three U.S. cities gathered in Houston Wednesday to discuss the challenges and opportunities around transportation, the sharing economy, gentrification and other issues facing growing urban areas across the country.

Innovation and technology, they all agreed, are keys to improving communication and city processes.

The city of Omaha, Neb., for example, implemented a software program that has allowed its planning department to take the permitting process almost entirely online. In a panel discussion at the Urban Land Institute's spring meeting underway this week at downtown's Hilton Americas-Houston, Mayor Jean Stothert said 61 percent of permits are now handled through the system, and the time it takes to complete a plan review has been cut by more than half.

The city has also redesigned its website to make it more user friendly and interactive where citizens can receive up-to-date information on everything from weather to public safety.

Technology and social media platforms are increasingly giving city leaders more opportunities to engage with constituents who typically do not get involved in public matters, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray added.

The ULI conference is one of two annual meetings held by the national nonprofit research and education organization focused on development and land use. This is the first time in more than two decades that a national ULI conference has been held in Houston.

In a kickoff address, Richard Kinder, the philanthropist and co-founder, chairman and retiring CEO of Kinder Morgan, told attendees that Houston may be a thriving global energy capital, but it will continue to attract the most talented people only if it gives them additional reasons to want to live here.

"You're not going to attract those people in the future if all you have is a rundown city and you (only) give them good paychecks," Kinder said.

The mayors all touted areas of their urban cores that are being transformed into creative hubs where startups and small businesses are moving in and sharing resources.

In Seattle, investment is moving into an older part of the city called Pioneer Square.

"People are choosing this neighborhood with old buildings that they can do pretty creative things with," Murray said. "And it's a neighborhood they can live in."

As Seattle grows and real estate becomes more expensive, the city has been looking at ways to build more affordable housing.

That discussion, he said, includes topics like rent control to easing development restrictions.

"It will become a terrible thing if people who work in our hotels and work in our schools go home at night out of the center of the city," Murray said.

In Omaha, residents cite transportation as a major concern. The city is looking at implementing a bus rapid transit system and an urban circulator for downtown.

Ride-sharing systems like Uber and bicycle programs are also changing the way the way people get around.

Omaha has a B-cycle program, but it's still small with 150 bikes scattered throughout 31 stations.

Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto stressed the importance of partnerships between the public and private companies or nonprofit agencies.

His city has partnered with Carnegie Mellon University to allow students to develop technologies and tools that can be used by city employees and residents to provide information and improve communication more efficiently.

©2015 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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