Let's Build Something Together: An Aspirational Infrastructure Tour of 5 Cities

Financing public improvements isn't easy -- but nothing is more important for cities to prosper.

Infrastructure is the silent necessity of civilized urban society. Rarely do we give it any consideration unless it disrupts our lives or requires repair, but nothing is more important for cities to prosper than strong and resilient infrastructure. There was a time when the financing of infrastructure was relatively simple and straightforward. When public improvements were needed, taxes would be raised and the improvements would begin. Things were simple back then. Things are not so simple now.
As we embark on Cohort III of the City Accelerator, five cities will serve as living laboratories of how communities can undertake significant infrastructure improvements in today's challenging financial climate.  
I first visited Providence in 2007 as a participant of the Mayor's Institute on City Design, the brainchild of iconic Charleston Mayor Joe Riley. Providence was already a product of excellent downtown and waterfront redevelopment. It was tempting to conclude that such a community had “arrived” as a great place to live and could serve as a model for others. The city center was jewel-like and the effect was magical – particularly at night. It was easy to overlook the fact that the combined sewers – many dating back to the founding of the city – presented a nagging bill that must be paid. 

Fifty years ago, Pittsburgh served for a time as the object of scorn for urban critics. As an unrivaled success story during the age of heavy industry, perhaps no city fell harder when the economic tides turned – Detroit being the possible exception. My city, Chattanooga, often benchmarked ourselves against Pittsburgh as leaders worked to rise from the ashes of Industrial Era urban decline. Pittsburgh boasts early achievements with projects such as Three Rivers Park, which has inspired improvements of other cities’ downtown waterfronts. But the city is topographically challenged with rivers cutting through downtown and steep hills that make development difficult. As part of its City Accelerator project, Pittsburgh plans to reconstruct the numerous stairways that serve the walking public. It is certainly a unique infrastructure problem, but an excellent subject that requires an innovative financial solution.
San Francisco
San Francisco is one of those cities that is so easy on the eye it’s tempting to overlook its problems. Yet I can recall sitting in the San Francisco airport on one of my first visits and feeling the Earth shake. Even casual visitors are most certainly aware of the city's history with earthquake damage, destruction and fire – not to mention the “big one” that looms somewhere in the future. Beyond the threat of earthquakes, perhaps more immediate concerns are the rising tides and unpredictably intense storms of climate change. San Francisco is a city that must set new standards for resiliency in infrastructure and employ innovative ways to pay for it.  
St. Paul
Back in the 1970s, Minneapolis dazzled us with its skybridges and futuristic focus. St. Paul – the other half of the twin cities – was more blue-collar with a reputation for grit. The city benefited greatly from the tenure of Mayor George Latimer, known for his big personality and innovative ideas. As a profile in the Star-Tribune notes, “Many of St. Paul’s recent successes – Lowertown redevelopment, energy regeneration, the Mississippi, even light-rail transit on University Avenue – trace their roots to the Latimer years, from 1976 to 1990.” Now St. Paul is employing innovative "shared stack" green infrastructure solutions to address the legacy of brownfields remaining from its industrial past and to resolve inherent stormwater issues. The city has made great progress in mapping out a plan, but must figure out how to fund it.
Washington, D.C.

And then there is Washington, D.C. Some of us might remember when the area surrounding our most important government buildings in our nation’s capital was a dirty, dingy and dangerous wasteland. It was a national disgrace. While it’s now an example of urban renaissance – something to visit and proudly show the world – the white marble structures and statues still overshadow some of the most perplexing infrastructure issues in the country. There are few cities with such a mix of rich and poor citizens along with political issues that arise from being a special district. Nothing is simple about infrastructure in the District of Columbia. The city has basic infrastructure issues from schools to street lights that must be met and, fortunately, the will and inherent skill to take on the problem of finance.
The specifics of each community are spelled out in their individual presentations, built using ESRI's Story Maps platform, and posted on the City Accelerator. I encourage you to invest a few minutes to grasp the details of their proposals.  
The greatest challenge is how to finance all that needs to be done in a way that will not harm citizens already struggling with poverty. The City Accelerator recognizes the complexity of today's financial environment and is betting that somewhere among that complexity lies new and innovative solutions. Fortunately, we have creative cities with courageous leadership willing to take on the challenge. The best sort of problem is one that absolutely must be solved. This is one of those problems.

•         Pittsburgh, PA
•         Providence, RI
•         San Francisco, CA
•         St. Paul, MN 
•         Washington, D.C.
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.