The Value of Political Leadership

As we posted earlier,  planners, policy-makers, and business leaders from Fort Worth, Texas, recently toured Portland’s streetcar system looking for inspiration to effectively shape a similar project for their city. The situation in Fort Worth was rather unique in the world of urban [re]development: the necessary resources were at the ready (including a $25M grant from the FTA), public opinion was generally favorable, and the private sector was firmly behind the project; nevertheless, local politicians were dragging their heels.

After visiting Portland and seeing the positive impact the streetcar has had here, as transportation option certainly, but also as an economic development tool and purveyor of overall neighborhood “livability,” several of the skeptics arriving with the Fort Worth delegation left Portland with at least a leg over the fence, if not having jumped all the way to the other side.

This week, the Fort Worth city council voted to end the streetcar planning phase--in essence turning down the Federal grant and putting the kibosh on Fort Worth’s aspirations as a modern streetcar city.

It doesn’t take a planning analyst to see the writing on the wall as far as streetcars are concerned: a NYT's headline portends a “streetcar revival” is underway with at least 40 U.S. cities cooking up plans for streetcar development, revitalization, or expansion. And while debates rage on in these cities about the capacity of streetcars to revitalize languishing urban areas, one thing missing from these discussions, it seems, is the role of political leadership in bringing about major shifts to “business as usual” as far as urban development strategies like the streetcar are concerned.

Many of First Stop’s visitors tour the city in an attempt to experience firsthand the manifestations of a coherent planning strategy that includes a commitment to limiting sprawl through conscientious land use decision making and active development of transportation options. Less evident from the ground, however, is the commitment made by civic leaders since the late 1960s (with names like Blumenauer, AuCoin, Goldschmidt, Hatfield and McCall) who understood that city building of this nature takes generations, not months or even years. And perhaps more important than valuing the long-range vision for the city and region, these leaders understood that transparency in government results in a city built for and by its citizens, a city that works for its people.

Andy Cotugno, senior policy advisor at Metro and frequent First Stop Portland presenter, outlined the elements of Portland's people-friendly, place-based approach to planning during a panel discussion on the importance of regional partnerships at the Rail~Volution conference  in October, 2010:

  •     Look for and embark on “good” projects, those that are viable, potent, equitable
  •     Create relationships and build trust among all stakeholders, not just to get projects underway but as a consequence of working through projects together
  •     Get informed and stay informed: transparent government stands up to intense scrutiny from all sides
  •     Build political support for projects across a wide base and from the get-go
  •     Always learn from your mistakes--and apply the  lessons learned
  •     Persevere, and then keep going

Old-school, back-room politicking is unlikely to ever bring about the kind of development that makes for healthier, more livable cities. The lesson for Portland is clear: we must not take our history for granted. Political leadership committed over the long-term to sustainability through environmentally and socially conscious practices, a commitment to changing how urban leaders conduct “business as usual,” is the key to Portland’s success, and one our current citizenry and leadership would do well to bear in mind and continue aspiring to.

1 comment:

  1. 'public opinion was favorable, and the private sector was firmly behind the project...'
    Not sure those words are factual. I live in Ft. Worth and lots of people were concerned about the spending of this project at this time.