Posted tagged ‘local government’

Resources for Planning and Leadership

June 17, 2010

A couple of outstanding resources have been published recently.  First, “The Ideal Workplace: How to Boost Productivity, Commitment, & Job Satisfaction” from Harvard Business Review OnPoint collects articles and stories from the past 20 years of HBR that should help you and your office circle the wagons as you re-emerge from the downward economic cycle.  Get it here.

Second is a special report from the Financial Times, “The Future of Cities: Regeneration.”  The venerable newspaper offers insights into urban planning and design and pulls no punches.  Topics range from vision to finance and fine arts to transit investment.  Discussions touch on Cairo, London, and New York. 

The first author gives both Charleston and Charlotte food for thought for disparate reasons, stating, “The best cities coexist with their history without destroying or obsessively preserving it (“Building on the Past Gives Hope for Future,” Edwin Heathcote, 19 May 2010).

One of the most architecturally striking cities in the world, Chicago is also stuffed with the kind of solid, everyday structures that allow change and adaptation and this keeps it open to innovation and change in a way other cities envy.  Detroit boasts similar architectural quality, (yet) the centre of Detroit is a tragedy on an awesome scale.  Detroit demonstrates the strange absence of any semblance of universal rules.  Cities are paradoxically robust and delicate, their complex systems infinitely adaptable yet also capable of stalling once prices are high enough.

An expert interviewed for the article “Funding and Social Capital Are Key Factors” (Rod Newing, ibid) “recommends the North Carolina model, where the state government reviews all issues (of municipal derivatives) and is conservative about the amount of debt that can be issued.

A third article will surely challenge practicing and aspiring leaders. “Wanted: A Strong Mayor with Vision to See off Rival Centers” (Rod Newing, ibid) asserts, “The mayor and local city government cannot work in isolation. The city vision cannot be restricted to its historical political boundary, but must encompass surrounding areas and the whole region.

While much of this special report cites a need for and encourages city planning, Newing closes his second article with sobering conclusions from Ged Drugan from Manchester Business School’s executive education center:

The megatrend driving regeneration of cities is our lifestyles, which will dictate both the physical fabric and the way we live within cities.  Lifestyles will drive evolution and regeneration of cities, rather than local government planning.

Find these articles on the Financial Times’ website.

Happy planning!


Pedestrians Valued on SC’s Most Iconic Drive

May 4, 2010

If you were a business owner, how much would you pay so that your patrons could safely reach your front door?  The answer, in Myrtle Beach at least, is $3,000. 

Sunday’s Charlotte Observer reports that hoteliers along Ocean Boulevard approached the City of Myrtle Beach in search of pedestrian improvements.  The City agreed to split the cost of mid-block pedestrian crossings with them 50/50. 

A mid-block crossing in North Charleston, located where no stop sign or signal exists to pause through-traffic

The improvements are part of a larger effort to make Ocean Boulevard safer and more accessible for everyone.  Bicycle lanes will replace two automobile lanes and a left-turn lane will be introduced. Mid-block crossings are needed for pedestrians because signalized intersections are currently too few and far between.

Myrtle Beach is perhaps fortunate that it could afford to reduce the number of automobile lanes on Ocean Boulevard. City-commissioned studies, according to staff, reported that pedestrians could not safely cross four lanes of traffic on this street even in a crosswalk. Many communities do not have the luxury of spare automobile travel lanes.  The answer to their challenge is good urban design and appropriate engineering, not to throw in the towel.  State law dictates that motorists stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk. A rebuttal that crosswalks should not be provided because too many motorists fail to yield the right of way is akin to arguing for abolishment of speed limits on account of motorists typically driving 5 mph above the posted limit or of turn signal requirements because too few signalize their intentions.

The Myrtle Beach business community and city government concluded their changes are appropriate because Ocean Boulevard is a destination. Getting travelers safely and conveniently to this place is more important than getting motorists through it. Evidence that good urban design is good for business. Good urban design is good for South Carolina.

Do South Carolinians Dislike Cities?

May 2, 2010

Two articles about two South Carolina cities appeared in the Greenville News and The State (Columbia) within a couple days of each other. The State article reports a 28-storey building proposed in downtown Columbia in the vicinity of USC’s Innovista campus. If built, it would be the second tallest building in South Carolina. The article suggests the project could breathe life into the “struggling” research campus.

Meanwhile, the Greenville News calls its minor league baseball stadium in the city’s West End transformative for the Upstate. Fluor Field’s occupants are, of course, the former Capital City Bombers. The article discusses the impact the stadium has had revitalizing the West End and does not question the City government’s investment to attract the stadium.

Some do question government’s place in investing in city centers. The short answer is Detroit. Given that city’s current condition and reputation, how can southeastern Michigan, let alone the city proper, compete to attract private investment, employers, and talent?

In a recent visit to Columbia, I asked aloud, “Why do people dislike Columbia?” My wife’s response: “South Carolinians don’t like cities.” If this is the case, has Greenville successfully overcome it? Most South Carolinians express dislike for Columbia. The most frequent complaints I hear are heat and concrete.

I maintain that Columbia’s a nice city. Its downtown has experienced significant public and private investment, not unlike Greenville. Shandon and Cleveland Park are both beautiful neighborhoods. Are not Harbison Road and Haywood Road virtually indistinguishable? The actual difference in temperature, of course, is small; it’s not as if Greenville is in the mountains like Asheville. The cost of living in both is quite low, especially in comparison to nearby Asheville, Atlanta, Charleston, and Charlotte.

I offer two notable differences: urban design and shade. Greenville has managed to weave its notable improvements into a single path. One can walk from the Bi-Lo Center, under Main Street’s canopy of mature trees shading sidewalk cafes, through Reedy River Park, past the Peace Center, and on to Fluor Field.

Columbia has most of these components: bricked Main Street, Gervais Street dining, Congaree greenway, the Koger Center, the new Colonial Life Arena. The connection missing is physical and literal. The typical visitor to one of Columbia’s destinations rarely experiences the others.  A critical aspect is the width of Assembly and Huger streets.  The less fleet among us walking Gervais cannot cross Assembly in one traffic light cycle.

And secondly, shade? Such a seemingly minor aspect! But shade is at a premium in cities. It mitigates both, the heat and the concrete.
The idea of urban heat island effect is real. A city is measurably hotter than its surroundings due to the increased presence of concrete and asphalt surfaces reflecting sunlight. 

Shaded area, then, is valuable, preceptibly and tangibly valuable. Main Street Greenville’s restaurants earn more profits thanks to pleasurable location and sidewalk dining; not to mention, this translates to higher tax revenues for the City.  Trees reinforce a mere perception of livability. Greenville even has trees planted in the median of I-385, the most important entryway to its downtown.

Shade cannot be introduced to a city overnight, of course. Greenville planted its Main Street trees in the 1970s. Columbia’s younger trees have yet to reap the same benefits.

Oddly, street trees are very difficult to introduce. Some local government engineering departments forbid them in public rights-of-way altogether. State regulators allow very few species and even then places hurdles in front of them. Most new road projects in South Carolina seem to require wide swaths of concrete and asphalt and even wider rights-of-way, in which mature trees are cleared as if they were extraneous to the city. Assembly and Huger might be easier and safer to cross than most new or widened roads across the state.

As South Carolina expands its transportation network and builds its cities and towns, its governments are actively replicating what South Carolinians do not like about Columbia and discarding what they do about Greenville. And doing so at the expense of municipal bottom lines.

Should Local Government Be Profitable?

April 8, 2010

At the SCAPA conference in Greer two weeks ago (3/26/10), the last speaker of a warm, sunny Friday was the most thought provoking. Beaufort City Manager Scott Dadson applies his finance background to his role as the City’s chief executive officer. Dadson equates taxpayers to investors and users of public services as customers.

Alas, Dadson has not posted the presentation he gave to South Carolina’s city and regional planners, as promised, yet the Beaufort City Manager’s web page offers plenty of resources. Here are my takeaways.

In Dadson’s “Getting Our Heads out of the Sand” (That’s right, Dadson wrote, presented, and delivered a document to the Beaufort Chamber of Commerce titled “Getting Our Heads out of the Sand!”), Dadson defines profit, in local government terms, as desired results, which furthermore equate to the net present value of a decision and the cost of the future.

Dadson quotes author Ken Miller (We Don’t Make Widgets: Overcoming the Myths That Keep Government from Radically Improving, Governing Books, 2006), “To say we’re not here to make a profit is akin to saying we’re not here to achieve results… When we are not focused on results, we get bogged down in how we do things (policies, procedures, and process) and forget why we are doing them in the first place.”

Dadson applies this thinking to capital budgeting, a responsibility common to both, business and local government. He points out that local government councils rarely consider the increase or decrease in cash flow due to a capital project; rather, a decision to implement is based strictly on initial cost. Operating costs and changes in revenue (due to altered property values or new permit fees, for instance) are neglected; and what are the costs (in unrealized revenue) of forgoing the improvement altogether?

In his presentation to SCAPA, Dadson highlighted the cost burden of the cul-de-sac to taxpayers. Cul-de-sacs are typically constructed by the private sector, so local government incurs no capital cost. The design, however, requires public service vehicles to double back on each service call (trash pick-up, school bussing, etc.), thus raising costs to taxpayers for labor, fuel, and vehicle maintenance.

In “Getting Our Heads out of the Sand,” Dadson raises the example of firehouses. Clearly, increased fire protection has tangible and intangible benefits to taxpayers; however, local government must consider the costs of staffing and equipping each firehouse in addition to initial capital costs incurred for construction, even if these costs are nil, as in the recent environment of “”pay to play” residential growth (i.e., developer-funded infrastructure to serve proposed land development).

If local government were to function more like a business, customers (residents, merchants) would demand effective service delivery, investors (taxpayers) would demand return on investment (taxes paid), and the board (city council) would make the most profitable decisions (yielding optimal results) based on informed professional leadership of the CEO (city manager), recognizing that the most profitable (efficient, beneficial) course of action is only sometimes the cheapest up front and occasionally to refuse or reduce service. The sum of decisions that account for the cost of the future will profit the taxpayer, the resident, and the merchant in the form of better public services and/or lower taxes (the desired outcomes) over time.