on Feb 05, 2021
Cities Have Been on the Front Lines of Biden’s “Cascading Crises.” Here’s What They Should Do Next.
Written by Candace Damon, Danny Fuchs, and Bret Collazzi
“This is a time of testing. We face an attack on democracy and on truth. A raging virus. Growing inequity. The sting of systemic racism. A climate in crisis. … We will be judged, you and I, for how we resolve the cascading crises of our era. Will we rise to the occasion?”
– Biden Inaugural Address (2021)
“Racist, sexist, and classist policies … have left us with stubborn inequalities in wealth, income, health, and education. … We are facing not only the risks posed by climate change, but also rising nationalism and intolerance on a national and global level, which threaten the social fabric of our city.”
– OneNYC 2050 (2019)
“The challenges that Houstonians face are increasing in size, frequency, and complexity—compounded by exponential population growth, an uncertain and changing climate, economic reliance on the energy sector, and inequitable outcomes in health, wealth, and access to services depending on one’s neighborhood.”
– Resilient Houston (2020)
In his Inaugural Address President Biden described the “cascading crises of our era;” he could have been reciting from any number of citywide plans of the last decade. Urban leaders across the U.S. have understood for at least that long that long-term policymaking must focus on economic and racial equity and recognized that climate change and structural racism are the chief existential threats to urban life.
To date, city leaders have used the tools at their disposal – land use controls, local regulations, capital spending – to move the needle on these issues. Minneapolis restricted single-family zoning to address a legacy of racist housing policy. Asheville, N.C. and St. Paul, MN are exploring reparations for Black residents. More than 470 U.S. mayors committed to uphold the Paris Agreement. Boston and New York passed major green building mandates to reduce emissions. Austin, Dallas, and San Francisco are finding new ways to pay for transit, other infrastructure, and equity initiatives locally.
Still, cities have been running uphill against national and global trends, stymied by a lack of federal dollars and an opposing federal agenda on issues ranging from housing to the environment to digital access. Now, as Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer told Bloomberg CityLab, cities have a “partner in the White House who thinks like a mayor.” That gives urban leaders at least four years to advance their plans and – by building a case for what federal actions will have the greatest impacts – to influence what the Biden-Harris Administration prioritizes.
Here are five steps cities can take to position their boldest plans for federal support:
1. Demonstrate how your city’s agenda aligns with the Biden-Harris mandate. Review existing plans to connect the dots between your work over the last several years and the goals of the new Administration. Support might be expected for housing plans that challenge restrictive zoning and expand homeownership for historically marginalized groups, climate projects that create green jobs and promote environmental justice, and a crosscutting focus on racial equity and economic empowerment. Taking a fresh look at existing citywide plans, and the progress made toward those plans’ goals, will allow cities to elevate priorities that tie to the new federal agenda while demonstrating that the city has the will, capacity, and expertise to grapple with and execute on bold thinking.
2. Prioritize projects, programs, and places that are poised for local and national impact. Federal support can be expected for local projects that are bold and visible, but just as important are those that are feasible, likely to accomplish their goals, and ready-to-go. To the extent possible, priority projects should address multiple crises – merging climate and equity goals for example, establish a clear path to implementation – with early approvals in place and an established administering entity, and demonstrate alignment between local and state leadership. With the “Build Back Better” recovery package still months from passage, there is a window for cities to lock in necessary support and to update priority projects and programs for broader and more equitable impact. For instance, as state departments of transportation consider reinvestment in the highway system, cities have the opportunity to push for entrance and exit configurations that reconsider the relationship of cities to their regions and, by pushing for depressed roadways or “lids,” to reknit historically Black and low- and moderate-income neighborhoods deliberately split from CBDs by the initial investment in the interstate system, create new developable land to support inclusive economic agendas, and site open space for civic gatherings. We have supported efforts in Portland, Seattle, Houston, and Hartford that could advance these agendas. Doubtless there are many similarly situated cites.
3. Identify your top 3-5 calls to action for the Administration. In 2015, New York City set a goal to lift 800,000 households out of poverty within 15 years; by 2019, the City had nearly achieved that goal, largely thanks to a $15 minimum wage law passed by the State Legislature at the City’s urging. Numerous federal actions – full funding for Section 8 vouchers, immigration reform, a national $15 minimum wage – could significantly advance cities’ equity and climate goals, especially in states where legislatures preempt progressive urban policy. Similarly, changes to federal rules – such as expedited project approvals or expanded local jurisdiction over telecom assets – could enable progress toward city goals at relatively minimal cost to the federal government. At least six of Biden’s cabinet nominees have led a city or a state, bringing with them an appreciation for how federal action (or inaction) can impact local efforts. Picking the battles with the greatest payoff – and building alliances with like-minded cities, advocates, and congressional leaders – could influence which priorities pick up steam in Washington.
4. Articulate a benefits case for each priority. . Cities should be prepared to demonstrate the economic, social, and environmental impacts of priority projects and programs, both to stand out among peer cities’ proposals and to generate buy-in locally as competing priorities emerge. How many jobs will each project create, of what quality, and for whom? How will the project contribute to the Administration’s stated goals? How could priority federal actions free up local dollars for other efforts? What is the federal government’s return on investment for each dollar contributed, and what local and private sector funding will be leveraged? Cities that develop a clear quantitative benefits case and hone a narrative aligned with the Administration’s agenda will have a leg up when applying for aid and a basis for consensus building at home. New York City’s Renewable Rikers plan – which would close the notorious Rikers Island jail complex, transform the island into a green economy hub, and redevelop polluting power plants into community-serving uses – has done this well: taken together, the plan demonstrates the ability to meet 10% of the city’s renewable energy goal and create 1,500 green-collar jobs, among other benefits, while private capital and public savings would fund more than 25% of project costs.
5. Get creative about marketing to generate excitement. As important as it will be to lobby Congressional representatives and Cabinet officials, cities should also play the outside game – leveraging social media, hometown influencers, and mayoral bullhorns to create buzz that makes their priorities stand out. City leaders can take a page from Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who in his effort to lure Silicon Valley companies to town has traded Tweets with Elon Musk and taken his pitch directly to tech influencers on the chat platform Clubhouse. Or Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, who embraced a public spat with comedian John Oliver (and renamed a sewage plant in his honor) to get his city on the map nationally. Beyond drawing attention, such public efforts help cities hone their message about why priority investments are essential, generate excitement among residents and other stakeholders, and build a brand that links their city to the aspirations driving the Administration’s agenda: a rebounded economy, racial equity, and a green energy future.
At a time when urban communities across the country need a jolt of energy and optimism, organizing around bold priorities can build momentum for local initiatives that will pay dividends regardless of cities’ ability to get everything they seek from the federal government. As cities frequently learn from major planning efforts – think the competitions for Choice Neighborhoods or Amazon’s HQ2 – just the act of planning can spark creativity, sharpen project visions, and build consensus around bold change that can then be effected with local funds that would have been otherwise unavailable.