Bringing It Home

Even communities far away can face familiar challenges and offer replicable solutions.

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I think most community leaders can find things in the City Accelerator that seem familiar. They can see themselves in the work of participating cities because the challenges – and often the solutions being explored through the initiative – look a lot like home. Finding creative ways to deal with challenges are common quests almost universal in scope. As for me, I can't help but look at the problems, projects and programs of other cities through a personal lens of (sometimes) painful experience. After four decades as a city planner -- plus forays into politics as a public works administrator, city councilman and mayor -- I often feel compelled to offer my personal reflections. So naturally, I’m going to bring some of the issues in the current infrastructure cohort of City Accelerator into focus a little closer to home.

My city of Chattanooga is a mid-size community on the Tennessee River located almost equidistant between Atlanta, Nashville, Knoxville and Birmingham. In the South, we tend to keep tabs on our neighbors and that adds a bit more to what I have to say. Furthermore, I've always been a news junkie when it comes to whatever trends, trials and tribulations are affecting cities everywhere. With that being said, let's look at the communities of City Accelerator's infrastructure cohort and how they are addressing their respective financing issues.

St Paul is dealing with something that is almost ubiquitous in modern-day infrastructure: how to meet federal water quality standards, particularly as related to stormwater runoff. My own city, Chattanooga, is under a federal consent order that involves a multi-year $250 million investment, and my Southern "sister cities" (Atlanta, Nashville, Knoxville and Birmingham) have similar commitments that total hundreds of millions more.

I have a vivid memory of sitting with a group of mayors just a few years ago across a table from Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Justice officials as we tried to describe the tremendous financial difficulties facing urban areas as we wrestle with water quality. We told them “we need a partner, not a prosecutor," but it seemed our arguments largely fell on deaf ears.

St Paul’s "shared and stacked" approach to make stormwater projects serve multiple purposes is not totally unique, but the fact that the city was successful in getting the EPA to offer support in planning one of its major projects did get my attention. It was not long ago that the EPA discouraged green infrastructure solutions in favor of conventional "grey" projects involving pipes and concrete. Early successes by leading cities like Philadelphia helped to change that attitude.  Now, St Paul is taking things to the next level. The city’s West Side Flats Greenway concept will be the focus of a future column.

Pittsburgh has always been a community of great personal interest to me because it has so many characteristics in common with Chattanooga. Both were cities of smoke and hot metal during the heyday of heavy industry, and both suffered in more recent decades from pollution and the decline of those historic major employers. Chattanooga and Pittsburgh are also river cities -- a fact which contributes to a number of special difficulties and limitations. In its pitch to City Accelerator, Pittsburgh is described as a city that is "topographically challenged" (meaning hilly), with a special need to maintain "pedestrian facilities" (meaning stairs). And yes, that describes my city as well. Finally, Pittsburgh and Chattanooga are among a very few cities in the U.S. (and even the world) with incline railways (or funiculars) as part of their public transportation systems. 

But I must admit that Pittsburgh's responsibility for hundreds of sets of stairs (712 at last count) is something that is truly without parallel in my experience. It's not just a question of rebuilding, repairing or maintaining stairways, but how to do so while keeping the physical limitations of handicapped citizens and the fiscal limitations of the total community in mind. It is an interesting situation that will have greater applicability in the future as other communities promote non-motorized means of transportation like walking and bicycling. I've been researching Pittsburgh's stairways and will be addressing this subject in greater detail in the future.

Inland cities may not empathize with a problem like rebuilding San Francisco's seawall, yet any community with a river or other body of water can easily understand the need to stabilize a shoreline. Downtown Chattanooga is bisected by the Tennessee River and we have spent millions of dollars in recent years to build and rebuild the hard edge of reinforced concrete that keeps the river from washing away many of our quality-of-life assets. 

Anyone who has stood along the beautiful shoreline of the San Francisco Bay and considered the relentless power of the Pacific Ocean against the seawall can certainly sense the urgency involved in making sure that all that has been gained over the years is not suddenly lost by a catastrophic failure of this most basic piece of infrastructure. It is also easy to grasp the cost and complexity involved. How San Francisco handles this infrastructure issue will directly impact communities trying to deal with smaller, but no less challenging and similar problems.

Washington, D.C.'s
focus on public-private partnerships (P3s) caused me to think back to 1977 and the advent of the Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG). There was a time when mixing public and private funds was considered risky at best and illegal at worst, but in most cases it simply wasn't done. That began to change when the Department of Housing and Urban Development initiated an innovative program designed to bring private resources to bear on difficult and deteriorated urban environments. 

After decades of federally funded "urban renewal," it became apparent that government resources were insufficient for the task. Private investment was attracted and leveraged by a smaller match of federal funds subject to assurances. Chattanooga successfully secured one of the earliest and largest UDAGs at that time ($10 million) in a public/private project that was complex even by today's standards. For every dollar of federal assistance, we leveraged almost $10 in private funds. That single project set in motion the revitalization of a major part of our downtown. Accordingly, I am a believer in the power of P3s. Now, that innovative financial arrangement is being dramatically expanded to help rebuild the nation's infrastructure – and Washington, D.C., is on the leading edge. 

The point of all this is that it might be easy to look at City Accelerator and think that it is a visionary but limited effort that only applies to the select communities that are participating in the program. Those individual communities might seem very different or far away, but the reality is that the problems they face actually hit much closer to home.

As has been said many times -- the greatest strength that applies to all progressive communities is that they shamelessly steal ideas from one another. I readily confess to stealing ideas from my Southern sister cities and from other cities across the country. There are no patents, trademarks or other limitations on our innovation. We are all in this together and City Accelerator is one significant medium through which we communicate, challenge and drive each other forward.

Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.