Old Hands Seek to Shape New Futures for Cities

June 8, 2009

Old hands. New books.

Bill Hudnut and Neal Peirce are indeed "old hands" in the municipal affairs world. Each has contributed a new book that looks to the future of cities.

Other themes also run through both books: a concern with the too often overlooked spatial and land use consequences of major social and economic changes, a strong and urgent focus on energy and environmental challenges, an appreciation of the ever-more relevant global context of local concerns, and the need for effective leadership to help shape the evolving new world.

Hudnut - a four-term mayor of Indianapolis, NLC past president, senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute, speaker and book author, among other accomplishments - takes a long, deep look at "Changing Metropolitan America," mainly through the lens of land use. 

The main point of his book  is, due to a changed and still changing metropolitan form, responsible land use today requires a new paradigm for planning and development. Business as usual is not a sustainable option.

"What's done is done," Hudnut said in his book, but it cannot, ought not continue to be done. "There is a better way." It will take on "many guises" and will involve some fundamental shifts - from energy consumption to conservation, from sprawl to more compact development, from taxing to market-oriented methods for financing infrastructure, from local to regional actions, and "from a culture of 'me' to a culture of 'we.'" These are large and, shall we say, problematic changes.

The postwar "American Dream" of a single family house with a nice lawn and a two-car garage is no longer the only vision for the good life. Today, said Hudnut, "there are many different versions of the American Dream," and it is the task of leadership to incorporate and enable them into a complex new shape for metropolitan areas.

Hudnut drives these perspectives through 10 chapters and 200 pages. Chapter topics include governance, transportation, infrastructure, climate and energy, housing, retail re-development, green building and leadership. Each chapter aims at fresh insights or new options. Just to pick one example, he suggests that electing the membership of metropolitan planning organizations from participating jurisdictions would significantly enhance the leadership potential of these now too often hidden organizations. He also recommends that land use be added to metropolitan planning organizations' transportation planning.  

The book by Peirce along with Curtis Johnson and Farley Peters, "Century of the City: No Time to Lose," is framed on a "call for leadership" for a rapidly changing and increasingly urban world. The authors are long-time collaborators in the Citistates Group (www.citistates.com). They have written the report from the Global Urban Summit, a set of deliberations convened by the Rockefeller Foundation in July 2007. 

Peirce's syndicated column, which covers the state, local and regional "beat" and which he initiated in 1975, appears regularly in Nation's Cities Weekly. He was a founder and then a contributing editor of the National Journal magazine. His many publications include the influential "Citistates" (1993), which helped stimulate "regionalism" awareness. 

Three chapters of "Century of the City" focus on U.S. cities. One explores the rather daunting and debatable possibility, developed by the Regional Plan Association's "America 2050" project, of a national growth strategy based on concepts of "mega-regions." Another looks at the framework for revising federal transportation policy, a useful background for the current legislative debate in Washington, D.C. And a third is based on the Brookings Institution's policy recommendations regarding U.S. metropolitan areas, the final version of which appeared as a MetroPolicy report in June 2008.

Five chapters explore major issues for city regions in the "developing world," including climate change and political/social inclusion. Of special interest for U.S. city folks are innovations and re-thinking of issues that are relevant to their cities. For example, the bold citywide bus system of Curitiba, Brazil, has replaced plans for seven elevated highways.
The authors conclude with a call for a "global urban commons" through which ideas, program innovations, and research can be shared among elected officials, citizens and professionals in cities around the world.  

Details: "Century of the City" is available at no cost by sending an e-mail to rockefeller@forbesamg.com with the book title in the subject line.

"Changing Metropolitan America" can be purchased at www.uli.org/bookstore.

Bill Barnes is the director for emerging issues at NLC. Comments about his column, which will appear regularly in Nation's Cities Weekly, and ideas about "emerging issue" topics can be sent to him at barnes@nlc.org.

Previous columns are listed on the Emerging Issues webpage.