How Three Cities Are Addressing Resilience, Equity, and Revitalization

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U.S. mayors are working diligently to help solve the pressing issues of revitalization, equity, and resilience facing the country’s cities.

“Once upon a time, equity was a self-evident truth in this country,” Mayor Ethan Berkowitz of Anchorage explained. “We want to make sure that each and every member in the community is included in the economic outcome and is a valuable participant in the process.”

Berkowitz; Mayor Rosalynn Bliss of Grand Rapids, Michigan; and Mayor Sam Liccardo of San Jose, California, spoke at a forum presented by the Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use. A program of the National League of Cities in partnership with ULI, the Rose Center seeks to foster creative, efficient, practical, and sustainable land use policies by providing public officials with access to information and other resources. Since the Rose Center was established nine years ago, mayors and other public officials from 32 cities have participated in the center’s Fellows program, said ULI’s Global Chief Executive Officer Patrick L. Phillips.

Debates about social equity and neighborhood gentrification often take on a zero-sum characterization, he continued, focusing on winners and losers instead of the shared common ground. “As industry leaders, it is up to us to help find solutions and models that can be used to trigger investment in cities and help achieve better outcomes for a broader cross-section of our population,” Phillips said.

While gentrification is a complex issue, it does not have to be a “haves versus have-nots” one. Through best practices and the expertise of members, organizations such as ULI are aiming to demonstrate that building for inclusivity means building for success.

In Washington, D.C., Phillips said, the Rose Center is working with District Mayor Muriel Bowser and her team to ensure that the redevelopment of a former hospital site in a gentrifying area of the city will provide strong benefits for existing residents of the adjacent neighborhood.

“The city has already built two public facilities on the site, and several buildings are being renovated for mixed-income housing and commercial uses,” Phillips added. “A major sports arena is in the works. It’s a phenomenal investment in an area of the city that is rich in community character and historic significance. The key is making sure that those who are living alongside this new development benefit as much as those who move to it.”

Mayors Berkowitz, Bliss, and Liccardo echoed Phillips’s theme, agreeing that in today’s partisan world, citizens are looking to local officials to help solve their problems.

“We’re living in a time when there is highly divisive political rhetoric,” said Berkowitz. “We don’t have the luxury of fighting with each other like they do in Washington, D.C. We need to produce results. One of the responsibilities as mayor is to be positive and supportive of the inclusion of all residents.”

Anchorage is the biggest city in America’s biggest state, where more than 100 languages spoken are spoken. “We contend with issues related to the classic definition of resilience as being able to deal with acute shocks and acute stresses,” he continued. “Mayors are in a hurry to get things done. In Anchorage, we seek to reach out to all and get them prepared for shocks and opportunities.”

During a discussion moderated by Michael E. Grass, executive editor of Route Fifty, a digital news publication from Atlantic Media’s Government Executive Media Group, the mayors noted the challenges they face.

Grand Rapids is a city of roughly 200,000 with a hot housing market and a diverse economy. “We are a city built on the furniture industry with a vibrant downtown and 32 unique neighborhoods,” said Bliss. “Our city is also a tale of two cities with tremendous growth and excitement, but significant racial disparities,” she added. “We have 17 census tracks with double-digit unemployment, and these are our neighborhoods that are the most racially and ethnically diverse. In order to be a prosperous city, everyone needs to be a part of our success. We’re currently working on a number of initiatives focused on racial equity, and each one is critical to having a significant impact on addressing systemic racism and eliminating racial disparities.”

On the West Coast, the nation’s tenth-largest city is surrounded by wealthy counties with wealthy, successful companies like Intel, Google, and Facebook, said San Jose Mayor Liccardo. “That success has left some of our residents behind,” he said. “We are proud of our great history of innovation, but we are challenged by growth and opportunities and difficulties of growth all around us.”

San Jose is unique in that its growth has been guided by individuals who were not born in the United States. “Immigrants are the secret sauce of our success,” he added. “Some 40 percent of our adult population is foreign born. We welcome immigrants and we’re proud of them. More than half of startups were started by foreign-born individuals.”

Like other American cities, San Jose is challenged by equity issues in a big way, he said. “We’re investing $1 billion over the next 20 years in affordable housing and it’s not going to be enough,” Liccardo added. “We know that the suburbs get richer while big cities have to address the more needy residents. But companies are looking to return to the big cities, and that’s a good thing.”

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