Why Cities Need to Lead With Urgency

November 23, 2019 - (10 min read)

Joe Buscaino, councilmember, Los Angeles, currently serves as the president of the National League of Cities.

The thing that makes me most proud today is that 45 years ago as my mother was bringing me home from the hospital after giving birth, Los Angeles’ legendary Mayor Tom Bradley was taking the helm as president of National League of Cities!

Tom Bradley served from 1973 to 1993, an era in which Los Angeles was transformed from a collection of suburban neighborhoods to what Mayor Bradley liked to call a ”world-class city,” a place with a striking new skyline and a vibrant downtown. In the Tom Bradley years, Los Angeles surpassed Chicago to become the nation’s second largest city. Before he was Mayor, Tom Bradley was a Councilmember in Los Angeles, and before he was a Councilmember, he was an LAPD police officer.

To be up here following in the footsteps of a legendary LA figure is the honor of my lifetime.

I ran for City Council while I was an LAPD police officer, just like Tom Bradley did, because I saw problems in my community that weren’t being solved quickly enough. I represent waterfront communities that lost several industries over the last few decades – and my communities were lacking economic redevelopment. A loss of economic development created less community engagement, fewer community amenities, and fewer things to celebrate. My focus was to bring investment and vibrancy back to our communities.

I know many of you have a similar story.

We hold our offices because we care deeply about the safety of our communities, opportunities in our communities, and quality of life in our communities. But we also know that democracy is slow and that all of us face challenges in creating positive change.

This is why the foundation of my platform as the new president of National League of Cities focuses on leading with a sense of great urgency.

I spent the first 15 years of my career on the front line of public safety as a Los Angeles Police Officer – where I learned the need for urgent response.

And, while I saw the City respond to public safety emergencies with incredible urgency and coordination, I grew frustrated watching the pace at which we respond to other problems in the City. We could get a police car or ambulance on-scene in under 5 minutes, but getting a broken sidewalk fixed took over 70 years. Now I am on the frontline of every issue in my community.

And I lead with that sense of urgency – because the challenges we face in cities, towns and villages can’t wait. As your president, I will lead this organization the same way.

And there are three areas where urgent local leadership is needed now more than ever.

It starts with the most basic human need – shelter. My staff and I often say that it’s all homelessness, all the time. It’s something I am focused on nearly every waking hour in my home district – the children who go home to an RV after school. The LGBTQ teenagers who are sleeping on a friend’s couch because they were kicked out of their home. The mothers and fathers raising their families in the backseat of a car. The people struggling with mental illness or suffering from addiction. The seniors who are sleeping on the streets instead of aging in place.

This year’s homeless count told us that there are nearly 4,000 veterans living on LA streets. There are more than 15,000 homeless students in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The number of individuals who are experiencing homelessness is at a crisis level. And I don’t have to be the one to tell you that it’s not just in Los Angeles. It’s in small towns and big cities. It’s in rural areas and buzzing urban centers. It’s in coastal communities, and in the heartland. Homelessness looks a little different everywhere – but it’s a crisis we have no choice, but to solve.

It’s a crisis where we must: Lead. With. Urgency.

In my district, I’ve done that by building 500 permanent supportive housing units and expediting the buildout of 1,000 new public housing units. Last week I opened the first of three temporary emergency shelters which will soon total 300 beds. And we are building a homeless storage facility in addition to the mobile restrooms and mobile showers we have made available to those living on our streets.

But still, it’s not enough. 

While Los Angeles has planned for and financed over 7,000 units of permanent supportive housing I’m very afraid that we are not building them fast enough. This is why I am petitioning our Governor to declare a State of Emergency on homelessness, so that we can bypass some of the regulatory steps that slow down the building process in a time where we must build much faster.

Just as Police officers and firefighters are authorized to exceed the speed limit and run red lights when responding to emergencies, we need to give the same authority to other public servants responding to homelessness. For my 15th district of Los Angeles, these solutions and actions have made a difference. And there’s more that I’m working on every day.

But, they might be a little different for Seattle or Cincinnati or St. Louis – and that’s okay. It’s why every one of us has to lead with urgency on this issue in our own unique way. In a way that meets the crisis where it exists.

As your president, I would like to work together to create A “best practices” playbook to help you address homelessness, with a menu of options for you to choose what will work best in your community. We will learn from each other. We will support each other. And we will make progress together.

It’s a life or death issue – we must lead with urgency.

Issue number two – the federal-local partnership.

It’s something we’re always focused on at the National League of Cities – advocating at the federal level for our communities on issues like infrastructure funding, CDBG, housing, and disaster recovery…if it happens in a city, town or village, we’re telling Congress AND the administration to work with us to address it.

But 2020 is different. It’s a presidential election year and that means our country is going to feel even more divided than it does today.

We already see it flooding our TV screens and social media feeds – the narrative of division is everywhere.

That’s where we come in. We must keep presidential candidates focused on the issues that matter most to us a local leaders. We must demand that they work with us to build sustainable infrastructure, to create a skilled workforce, to end housing instability and homelessness, to reduce gun violence and promote public safety. We know the biggest challenges facing American communities. We lead with urgency day in and day out to solve them.

Now, we have to do everything we can to ensure federal leaders – and especially the next president of the United States – is focused on solving them with us. That’s why we created a bi-partisan 2020 Presidential Election Task Force of local officials.

You heard in our opening session from my own mayor and friend, Eric Garcetti, who is co-chairing along with Mayor Francis Suarez of Miami. I look forward to working with them and the entire task force to advance the Leading Together platform in 2020.

2020 is a big year, but we can’t get distracted by rhetoric. We don’t have time for that. The federal-local partnership has never been more critical. Let’s strengthen it – and lead with urgency, together.

Issue number three – our local economies and the people who power them.

For too many Americans, the high-tech, global economy is a source of anxiety. Millions of workers fear factory closures and displacement from automation. These technological changes can understandably be seen as a threat to workers and communities.

There is no community in our country that has escaped the pressures of globalization and emerging technologies. Already, 4 million manufacturing jobs have been automated in the last 20 years. There are 3.5 million truck drivers in the United States, and their driving jobs will soon be automated, too.

My community is home to thousands of longshore men and women who work the docks, moving 40% of all the imports that come into the United States at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Their jobs are threatened as more terminals automate, which is why in my city I’m working to create a Blue Ribbon commission to study and report on the effects of automation at America’s largest port complex, and beyond.

The fact is: Technology should be used to create jobs, not kill them.

We stand at a threshold of opportunity to breathe new life into cities, towns, and villages that have been weathering the storm of globalization and economic decline. An opportunity to invest in our workforce and build partnerships with the private sector. In order to meet these challenges and create opportunities for people in our communities, we must ensure that the innovation economy is fueled by the American worker, inventor, entrepreneur, and local leader all looking toward the same future.

Many of our peers are leading the way.

Whether it’s in Pittsburgh, where Mayor Bill Peduto is transforming the former “Steel City” into a thriving healthcare and technology hub. Or in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where Mayor Andy Berke is leveraging the city’s 10-gigabit network into a true city of THE future with an innovation-driven economy.

All across the country, local leaders are stepping up and choosing to invest in innovation instead of getting stuck in the past.

And it can happen in so many other places if we work together and lead with urgency.

Throughout 2020, we are going to challenge you to commit to your community’s future by embracing policies, practices, and programs that ensure your community not only survives, but thrives in the new economy. NLC is already supporting over 100 cities that have embraced innovation and entrepreneurship through specific local commitments.

We have worked with our partners at the Schmidt Futures Foundation and Kauffman Foundation to move this effort ahead. I look forward to working with you to increase that number dramatically and expand the scope of this work.

And I’m proud to announce today that NLC will partner with the Ford Foundation on a new pilot initiative to help communities navigate shifts in the economy by developing innovative policies and partnerships that ensure workers experience more opportunity, security — and dignity. You can learn more at nlc.org/futureofwork

We, as local leaders, can transform our communities through innovation.

But we must lead with urgency.

In 2020, I will lead with urgency on the issue of homelessness. I will lead with urgency as we strengthen the federal-local partnership. And I will lead with urgency and support your efforts to build innovation-driven economies. I am very proud to lead an organization that is inclusive, that represents all Americans! The National League of Cities brings us together and leads together!

At the end of my year as president, I want each of you to be able to say that you have been empowered to build a brighter future for the people you represent.

And this year, we’re going to lead with urgency. 

Joe_Buscaino_official.jpgAbout the Author: Joe Buscaino, councilmember, Los Angeles, currently serves as the president of the National League of Cities. Follow him on Twitter at @joebuscaino.