A Big City Mayor Makes a Splash!

Eugenie Birch's picture
Big city mayors (and even some smaller city leaders) are making a big splash! LA's Antonio Villaraigosa is dealing with crime; Chicago's Richard Daley is turning that dusty city green; Philadelphia's John Street has agreed to an important re-thinking of seven miles of highly developable waterfront; Miami's Manny Diaz is working closely with Donna Shalala, President, University of Miami, to harness anchor-institution strength to downtown development. And Michael Bloomberg became a winner when he took on New York City's school system. But of equal note is his soon-to-be announced PlaNYC, a strategic vision for 2030.

The 1989 charter revision mandated every mayor to produce a strategic plan. Since that time, two other mayors have come and gone, leaving behind no strategic plan, but that is another story. Bloomberg is doing it right--- although his timing is questionable since he has about 1,000+ days left in his administration. Nonetheless, the effort is commendable and, if handled with wisdom and savvy can leave an important legacy.

Bloomberg is previewing the plan via his impressive Office of Strategic Planning Staff, Rit Aggarwala, head, Rachel Weinberger, borrowed from Penn to work on transportation and others. At first view, the plan is extraordinarily exciting. For the first time in thirty years, mayoral leadership is producing a city-wide vision whose appropriately-chosen themes are entirely on target, message is clear and solutions broad, leaving ample room for local impact once the strategic direction is set, as will happen with this document.

Crafted with input from 20 city agencies and a blue ribbon Advisory Board on Sustainability, PlaNYC focuses on three key issues: accommodating population growth (OpeNYC), fixing aging infrastructure (MaintaiNYC), and addressing environmental issues (GreeNYC. The message is simple, supported by few (take note planners) but potent data and expressed in clear, albeit not very beautiful but dramatic graphics (see www.nyc.gov/planyc2030).

So what is the message? Here it is: The city's population may grow by another million and its jobs rise by 3/4 of a million. Housing is too expensive. (Even today about a 1/3 of renters [65% of all households] pay more than 50% of their income in rent). Movement of people and goods is inefficient, costly and deteriorated (congestion costs $5 billion in lost time, 60% of the subway stations are not in good repair, 3,000 lane-miles of roads need repaving). Sewerage and energy systems are stressed and polluting. (A tenth of an inch of hard rain releases untreated sewage into the waterways to the tune of an annual two billion gallon overflow The city's old 25 power plans use 50% more fossil fuels than new ones-soot levels are 27% higher than national requirements and asthma hospitalizations twice the national average). Residents' access to open space is limited (of the city's 188 neighborhoods, 100 have inadequate playgrounds-more than a ten minute walk).

After all this bad news, PlaNYC offers hope in articulating few goals, attaching numerical targets for some key elements. For example, like London's revised London Plan, it calls for a 30% reduction in global warming emissions, it also envisions 265,000 new housing units, putting the transit and road systems in a state of good repair, cleaning up 1,700 acres of brownfields, adding enough parks to ensure every resident's access with a ten-minute walk and so on.

The key question is what next? With only a couple of years left as mayor, Bloomberg will need to do a few things. He will have to begin to institutionalize the goals in city business-hold his agencies accountable in a myriad of ways to the targets, direct budget expenditures to their implementation. And as planning ad development decisions make their way through the city's highly participatory public processes, he will have to find a way to achieve conformity with the goals. These few demands will require building support based on consensus. Only in this fashion, will this plan have the longevity it needs. And only in this way will this big city mayor's splash have lasting impact.
Eugenie L. Birch is chair and professor of the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania.



Michael Lewyn's picture

Not good enough

According to Prof. Birch, NYC's population will rise by a million, but Bloomberg only envisions 265,000 housing units. It sounds to me that far from being a visionary, Bloomberg is a day late and a dollar short on this issue.

Talk about

day late and a dollar short, let me remind you that Mayor Jerry Sanders of San Diego can't even afford to pay his own cops or firefighters. Because of the pension scandal, which has put San Diego into a $2+ billion hole, all city employees (including the ENTIRE planning department) are leaving in droves to municipalities with healthier fiscal outlooks, such as San Francisco and Los Angeles.

New York City has it easy compared to San Diego, when it comes to mayoral competance, skill, and fortitude.

Transit in "a state of good repair"-- is that enough?

I'm dismayed to hear commendations for mayors of large cities when transit falls somewhere near the bottom of their lists of priorities and their goals for it are merely raising it to "a state of good repair".

What about creating a world-class transit system that runs on time, provides frequent and dependable service, and increases the mode shares of transit, walking and biking, by at least 5% per year so that SOV auto use declines? What about meeting a target to have several transportation modes available in every single neighborhood, including sidewalks, bike lanes, buses and bus lanes with safe shelters, train stations, and good roads?

While Mayor Daley has initiated several respectable green initiatives, he ironically has ignored transit—one of the greenest things he could be promoting. The current state of the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) buses and trains is pitiful, showing years of neglect. Lines are being shut down, there are 45 minute headways between trains on the weekends, and it can take 50 minutes to go less than six miles on the Elevated train. If these cities really want to be green and sustainable, they should reward the 29+ % of their residents that get around without a car and the subsequent benefits their mode of choice provides to the city and the environment, with much, much better transit systems.

At least Mayor Bloomberg rides transit (or did in the year after he was elected). A recent Chicago Tribune story exposed the low percentage of top transit officials and CTA board members that actually use the CTA.


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