By Emily Pickren
From the Seattle Kung Fu club and dancing dragons to the color guard and the rousing rendition of the national anthem, the opening general session of the Congress of Cities kicked off with enthusiasm and energy that filled the room and inspired the crowd.
NLC First Vice President Mayor Chris Coleman urged the crowd to take advantage of this valuable opportunity to learn from each other to be able to better lead in a rapidly changing world, and above all, have fun.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation and former mayor of Charlotte, N.C. Anthony Foxx told the crowd that he jettisoned his TED-style turtleneck, but he still gave a great talk on the future of transportation. “The future is within our reach, but to get there we have to rethink our system from the bottom up," he said.
By 2042, America’s population will add more than 90 million people. “Should we just get used to the traffic? Used to getting slower? Should we outfit our cars with beds and coffeemakers?” Foxx asked the crowd. That got some laughs along with a collective groan as people envisioned this unwanted future. To ensure this vision doesn’t become a reality, he emphasized the need for faster, better and smarter forms of transportation that help local economies grow.
Secretary Foxx called for a national strategy on the future of transportation that incorporates all of the ways people move, one that is not based on city or political boundaries but on regional and economic needs. It’s not just about fixing roads either, although that’s important, but about planning for alternative forms of transportation.
He ended by reminding local leaders in the crowd, who probably didn’t need reminding, that infrastructure investment is not a partisan issue. Rather, it’s an opportunity for both sides of the aisle in Congress to prove they can work together and get something done for the good of the nation.
Making smart infrastructure investments is not the be-all end-all though; cities have to make investments in people – both existing and potential residents. This was the message from Carol Coletta of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Talent is a big part of what makes communities successful. For example, the number of college graduates in a community explains 58 percent of a city’s economic success. The power of placemaking, Coletta told the crowd – lies in the ability of city governments and city leaders to reclaim the ‘public’ in public space and use it to create opportunity and economic mobility for all residents.
The overall takeaway for city leaders is to be open to innovation and change or be left behind. This openness translates to using change and innovation for the good of the community by actively fostering the exchange of ideas and making smart investments in infrastructure, technology and people.