Dynamic cities - despite challenges - key to nation’s future

Lighting New York City could cost less
Lighting New York City could cost less James F. Quinn / Chicago Tribune

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Vibrant, dynamic cities hold mankind’s best hope for the future despite chronic problems with housing, transportation and crumbling services, some big names in public policy told a national gathering of land-use journalists.

“Cities have never had more intensity, more magnetism,” said Adrian Fenty, former mayor of Washington, D.C., on Friday at Harvard University. However, “nowhere have (economic) problems been seen more than at the city level.”

The forum’s participants pointed out _ sometimes in caustic tones _ how a lack of political will was risking America’s best hope for resuscitating its urban centers.

Fixing the nation’s eroding infrastructure _ roads, bridges, levees and ports _ would cost $2.2 trillion, said Ed Rendell, who was mayor of Philadelphia and governor of Pennsylvania. But money is as scarce as political will, he said.

“There is a level of political cowardice in America I’ve never seen,” said Rendell, who made waves discussing a “nation of wusses” when a National Football League game was canceled in December after a few inches of snow fell in Philadelphia. “Nobody cares (about infrastructure finance.) All we care about is planning for the next election.”

Bruce Babbitt, a former Arizona governor and former U.S. secretary of the Interior, called the nation’s efforts to establish high-speed rail “a complete and striking failure.” Like many bullet-train advocates, he believes they could help the United States catch up with surging competitors, but would require a special tax at a time when few are willing to pay more.

“We don’t have the political courage to define our priorities,” Babbitt said at the forum, a collaboration of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism.

Larry Summers, a former present of Harvard and former economic adviser to President Barack Obama, called the stimulus program Summers helped create “a political disaster” of sorts. The federal government pumped nearly $800 million into state and local governments, but governors and mayors bickered endlessly and much of the money simply moved forward projects already on the books, he said.

Promises of housing assistance proved to be stimulus’ biggest disappointment, Summers said. People facing foreclosure desperately needed the money, but it wouldn’t be fair to bail them out when many more owners who owe more than homes are worth continue making mortgage payments, he said.

Scores of spacious “McMansions” that sprung up over the past decade in countless suburbs across the United States could become rentals for several families each, predicted Arthur “Chris” Nelson, a University of Utah professor.

“My guess is we’re going to be converting hundreds of thousands, if not millions, by 2020,” he said Saturday, citing studies suggesting builders put up 5 million more homes than needed by 2010. He also predicted that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the federal government’s mortgage agencies, would disappear in the next three years, making financing markets more volatile.

Babbitt, Rendell and Petra Todorovich, director of America 2050, said dedicated funding sources _ most likely, special taxes _ seem to be the only hope for boosting intriguing projects like high-speed rail.

“It’s a political decision, not a technical decision,” Babbitt said.

The trouble, according to Rendell, is that “the American people have no confidence we’re going to spend it right.”

Rendell said approval processes must be streamlined. An acknowledged optimist, he said projects requiring several tedious years should be accomplished in a matter of months, without red tape.

“We can do it,” Rendell said. “We’re the country that did everything. But so much of what we do is based on the way it’s always been done.”

Some agencies have tapped into payments in lieu of taxes as an innovative revenue source from rather wealthy nonprofits like private universities. For example, Boston gets almost $16 million a year in voluntary payments and Bristol, R.I., relies on such money for nearly 5 percent of its budget.

“It’s not a trivial thing,” said Daphne Kenyon, a former U.S. treasury economist. But it’s hard to make such payments fair and transparent, she said.

Jen Crozier, director of IBM’s corporate citizenship, said her company has swung much of its philanthropy from nonprofits and schools to cities. The firm will send executive teams to 100 cities around the world to offer free, top-level advice on how technology can help a range of problems, from pothole repair to education and creating jobs.

“We are convinced that cities are where we can make an enormous impact,” Crozier said. “The wolf is at the door; that’s where the need is.”

Harvard economics professor Edward Glaeser said higher density, or more compact growth, can help cities draw on their greatest strength _ human capital. He also warned against blaming cities for producing poor people, saying, “Cities don’t create poverty _they attract it.

“The strength of metropolitan America is enormously powerful,” Glaeser said. “Cities offer enormous amounts of hope.”

(Stapley is a staff writer for the Modesto (Calif.) Bee.) MORE FROM MCCLATCHY China's bullet trains separate the rich from the poor Oil prices give Alaska $3.4 billion revenue surplus States vie for money from Florida's canceled high-speed rail project McClatchy's probe into roots of financial crisis, a Pulitzer finalist To ask a question about this story or any economic question, go to McClatchy's economy Q&A For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington