All Politics Are Local

We are still a few months away from the first votes being cast and many voters are already sick and tired of presidential politics.
Whether it’s fatigue with the latest “Trumpism” or exhaustion with the Clinton’s history, Americans seem restless, more than a little anxious and increasingly wary that solutions are going to come from Washington.
The latest Rasmussen Poll says 63 percent of Americans think the country is moving in the wrong direction; a whopping 35 percent more than the 28 percent of Americans who like what’s happening.
The President’s approval rating is in negative territory and voters seem to prefer root canal to Congress.
But all across America, citizens seem happier with their local government. With the notable exception of Rahm Emanuel in Chicago, Mayors across the USA seem to be thriving. We are in a golden age for cities, with new investments being made in the arts, housing, infrastructure and placemaking.
Jobs are being created, technology hubs are incubating new businesses and entrepreneurial ecosystems are being put together—sometimes in unlikely places.
Baby boomers and millennials are seeking compact, walkable and vibrant communities. Even suburbia is beginning to add urban amenities to attract talent and investment.
I see it in South Florida, where Miami is exploding with energy and smaller towns such as Delray Beach are attracting record investments and interesting entrepreneurs seeking small town charm with big city amenities that include culture and an incredible food scene.
Austin—long a bastion of cool– is riding its music scene, the South by Southwest Festival and the University of Texas to great heights—literally– with investments that include The Independent, a 58-story “jenga” style condominium that is said to be the tallest residential building west of the Mississippi River.
Story after story is being written about Detroit’s renaissance, the marvelous investment by Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert in the downtown and the wonderful resilience of Detroit entrepreneurs who are breathing new life into abandoned buildings and neighborhoods.
Oklahoma City, a bastion of conservatism, has invested in its downtown and has become a magnet for businesses and an example of how quality of life can improve as a result of local leadership and strategic government spending.
All across the USA, Mayors are not bogged down by partisanship and city governments are free of Washington’s pathologies (special interest money, endless politics, a byzantine legislative process) and therefore can innovate and gasp…actually get things done and move a community forward.
Imagine that.
I think most Americans do; which is why there is so much anger and discontent from sea to shining sea.
Americans are doers, problem solvers, leaders. It’s in our DNA as a nation. But Washington no longer reflects that American ethos. And it hasn’t for a long time.
The best leaders in our nation are sadly not running for president, but many are running for local office or seeking to solve the world’s problems through entrepreneurial efforts. In the best case scenario, those who aspire to build their cities can work with entrepreneurs to grow their local economies and solve some of America’s challenges. We are seeing that in Ithaca, NY where a young mayor Svante Myrick has created innovative job programs and has linked environmentalism to urbanism and vice versa.
Perhaps we can get our country moving again by focusing less on the bombastic, cynical and nasty nature of our national politics and more on the practical, solution-oriented and potential of local leadership.

#Motivation Monday Quotes for Urbanists

“People make cities, and it is to them, not buildings that we must fit our plans.” – Jane Jacobs
“Growth is inevitable and desirable, but destruction of community character is not. The question is not whether your part of the world is going to change. The question is how.” – Edward T. McMahon
“I have affection for a great city. I feel safe in the neighborhood of man, and enjoy the sweet security of the streets.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“What is the city but the people? “- William Shakespeare
“He who tells the truth must have one foot in the stirrup.” – Old Armenian proverb
“A leader is someone who cares enough to tell the people not merely what they want to hear, but what they need to know.” – Reubin Askew
“Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” – Yogi Berra
“How is a village a village? By including young & old, white & black, rich & poor, churches & shops.” – Anonymous.
“How many of you here think housing should be more affordable? (almost all hands rise) OK, now how many of those own your own home?’ (most of the same hands stay up) OK. How many of you want the value of your own home to go down? (lots of blank looks, and hands creeping down) You see the problem?” – Anonymous
“NIMBY reactionaries don’t stop change in the long run. They simply help to insure that it happens in the worst possible way.” – David Brain
“The second shortest code in the world: Diverse, walkable and compact.”—Peter Calthorpe
“Anyplace worth its salt has a ‘parking problem’- James Castle
“Increasingly, we live in a world where cities compete for people, and businesses follow. This trend has largely been ignored by many cities, which are still focused on business climate and tax incentives. But I think the big question businesses will ask in the years to come is going to be ‘Can I hire talented people in this city?’ Cities need to be able to answer ‘yes’ to succeed.” -Carol Coletta
“Parking is a narcotic and ought to be a controlled substance. It is addictive, and one can never have enough.” –Victor Dover
“The problem with planning is that it has been overtaken by mathematical models… traffic, density, impact assessment, public costs etc. discarding common sense and empirical observation.”—Andres Duany
“I’ve always described Density in terms of dollars: The more you have of it, the more you can buy with it — referring to amenities, of course (cultural, entertainment, dining, etc.). When I get asked what’s the single most important thing that can be added to a city to help revitalize it (they are always waiting for the latest retail or entertainment thing…), I always say housing. “ Seth Harry
“If buildings are beautiful, higher density compounds that beauty. Conversely, if buildings are ugly, then higher density compounds that ugliness.” – Vince Graham
“What kills a city are people who want only low taxes, only want a good deal and only want cities to be about . . . pipes, pavement and policing. “ Glenn Murray
“You can measure the health of a city by the vitality and energy of its streets and public spaces.” – Holly Whyte.
“The opposite to bad development is good development, not no development.” – Padriac Steinschneider.
“If you are an elected official lacking in courage and leadership, and you face even a peep of opposition to a project, fall back on perfectionism to find a flaws so that you can shoot down the project. Perfectionism leads to paralysis.” Dom Nozzi

Civic Pride Moves Mountains

A few years ago, the documentary “My Tale of Two Cities” was released.

The film focused on the revival of Pittsburgh, which hit the skids in a serious way when the steel industry collapsed.

At its heart, the documentary is a love story that chronicles the passion that so many people have for the “Steel City.” But it was also a reminder that emotion plays a huge role in economic development. If people are excited about their community, you can feel it in the air; and that vibe attracts others who want to be a part of things.

Dreams can be contagious, but they only take root if you care enough about your community to dream about it.

If you love a place, your heart soars when it succeeds and it aches when it falls on hard times.

As bad as things got in Pittsburgh, conditions were even worse in Detroit. But a group of passionate people are working wonders to bring that great American city back from the brink just as Pittsburgh has reinvented itself around medicine, education and robotics.

The “Made in Detroit” movement, the amazing efforts of Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert to revive the downtown and the work of artists and entrepreneurs to breathe new life into derelict buildings is nothing short of an act of love.

And of faith.

People love Detroit too much to let it go. So it will come back, maybe not the same as it was, but strong nonetheless.

Yes, emotion plays a huge role in economic development and community building.

Leaders who “get it” try to encourage that love because they know when passion is applied mountains can be moved. When you love something you commit to it, whether it’s a business, a business district, a community garden, a cause, a street, a cultural center or a neighborhood.

We have seen it happen in Delray Beach and in Boca Raton.

I remember when entire sections of Delray were open air drug markets. I remember when you could bowl down Atlantic Avenue at 5 p.m. and not hit anything. Then it changed—it changed the moment people committed to taking back their neighborhoods and rebuilding their downtown. To be sure, physical change can take years, but when the emotional switch is flipped, the energy of a city changes. You’re building…you’re working together…you’re making things happen. It’s electric. And it’s essential.

In Boca, I remember the old mall, the one on US 1 back before they built Mizner Park. It was depressing. It seemed like the all the growth and investment were sprawling west to places beyond 441. But today, east Boca is alive.

The most valuable assets cities have can’t be measured and that’s leadership, love and a sense of community.

If you have those you will see rapid progress, you will be able to handle adversity and you will seize opportunity. If you’re lacking, you’re doomed.

If you can’t find leaders who can build community and inspire people to fall in love, you’re going to struggle and you are going to drift. Sorry, that’s the law. There’s no skirting it.

But, if you do find those special leaders then look out, because now anything and everything possible.

Once a group of people starts believing and dreaming and converting others to their cause, social movements take root and transformational change is not only possible it’s inevitable.

It often starts with a monomaniac on a mission; someone so passionate that you can’t help but buy into their vision.

In Delray, there was Nancy Hurd who believed in helping the poorest, most at-risk children in our community. From that kernel grew the Achievement Center.

There was Frances Bourque, who thought an old broken down old school in a very strategic location could become a cultural beacon and community gathering space. She was right and we have Old School Square as a result when some of the powers that be at the time wanted to level the school and build something else.

There was Rick Overman, who came from Orlando and envisioned a police department that would be devoted to building neighborhoods and making our city safe for investment and a better quality of life. Within a year or two, he changed the culture of the department, enlisted over 1,000 (yes that’s correct) volunteers and not only transformed the department but the city itself.

We had Libby Wesley, who launched the Roots Cultural Festival, because she wanted to showcase the talents of children in the northwest and southwest neighborhoods and there was Norman Radin, who believed a derelict section north of Atlantic Avenue could be a cool place named Pineapple Grove. People thought Norman was nuts—Pineapple Grove was marred by vacant lots and vagrants.

The highlight of the street was a tire store and an old McCrory’s department store. But Norman believed and before long so did others.

Spencer Pompey sought to integrate the public beach in Delray and drew national attention to his efforts. Mr. Pompey and his wife Ruth were dedicated to civil rights and deeply influenced a generation of leaders.

Vera Farrington wanted to preserve the history of the African American community and started a museum in the former home of a legendary black educator named Solomon Spady.

The list goes on…and Boca has had its share of visionaries too.

According to the Palm Beach County History Museum: “Tom Crocker worked with Boca Raton’s Community Development Agency to replace the failed Boca Raton Mall with a 28.7-acre mixed-use project, Mizner Park, completed in phases throughout the 1990s. Today the center includes 272 homes, a public promenade and park, stores and restaurants, 262,000 square feet of office space, a movie theater, the Count de Hoernle Amphitheater, the Centre for the Arts, and the Boca Raton Museum of Art.”

Prior to the creation of Mizner Park, there were 73 housing units downtown and office rents were the lowest in Palm Beach County.

With voter approval, the City of Boca Raton spent $50 million in infrastructure improvements and $68 million in bond financing to make the project feasible.

It wasn’t easy…controversies resulted in new state laws, a restructuring of the city’s government, higher local taxes, lawsuits, and heavy city debt.

But Mizner Park fulfilled its promise as a stimulant for downtown redevelopment. By 2002, there were 689 housing units downtown and 900 more under construction, and office rents were the highest in South Florida. The resulting 14-fold increase in assessed property values from 1990 to 2002 improved the city’s tax base, although the timing initially proved to be poor economically.

After property values rose again in 2005 Mizner Park started paying for itself. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recognized Mizner Park for removing a blighted property while creating a dynamic meeting place for the community.

Not bad. Sometimes progress takes a while. Sometimes a vision has to struggle before it takes root.

When a community embraces ideas, appreciates passion, works together on a common vision and understands that there is a difference between investment and spending—you begin to see change.

You begin to see value created before your eyes and that momentum builds additional momentum and encourages others to try and create things.

The best leaders I have observed are those who are creators and builders—people who embrace change, but also protect and promote values and traditions.

It’s not enough to sit on a dais and judge. We need elected officials who seek to understand and build their communities. We need leaders who understand they have a responsibility to create jobs and opportunity and to position their cities for the future.

It’s not enough to sit on your couch and criticize or complain on social media. We need citizens to organize around positive change. We need citizens who vote, write letters to the editor, blog, join, give, mentor and volunteer.

And most of all, we need citizens to fall in love.

When they fall head over heels— we’ve seen it and experienced it—change becomes easier to digest. It also becomes easier to shape too.

Passion, positivity and vision attract investment—the best kind too.

When investors show up to fund a community’s vision you can actually celebrate your success. Imagine that, feeling good about progress because it advances the dreams, goals and aspirations of citizens.

I see exhaustion in both Delray and Boca—long meetings, campaigns that are negative and development projects met with derision and dread.

Perhaps, it is because we are lacking a unifying vision and so we find ourselves reactive—liking some things, hating others; fixating on numbers—too tall, too dense but neglecting important things like design, affordability and uses that create a sustainable community.

The end result is always division; not consensus, excitement, pride or unity. We set up a system that has winners and losers and whether we win or lose we are exhausted by the fight. And there’s always a fight.

Debates and disagreements are inevitable. Cities are messy places. But I believe—when you are in service to a citizen driven vision—that those disagreements become fewer and your debates more focused.

Just a thought…but it all comes down to leadership and love of community.