2011 represents a milestone of sorts. As someone involved in urban renovation and having the opportunity to review the progress of city governance, this year stands out as a significant bicentennial and centennial anniversary.
In 1811, the New York City Council adopted its now famous “street grid” in which future development north of Houston Street and up to 155th Street was projected based upon short north-south blocks and long east-west blocks. This street grid was based upon models used throughout Western Europe and adapted for the anticipation of long-range explosive growth in New York City. It created a system of orderly growth that facilitated one of the most dense, dynamic and consistently reinvented cities in the United States. By the end of the 19th century, the NYC street grid had become the land-use standard for many expanding US cities in order to accommodate the rapid progression of their industrial and manufacturing economies.
In 1911, the Progressive Movement was launched in California with the election of new Progressive-Era candidates and a philosophy of governmental reform. The Progressive Era brought us the introduction of civil service, professional city departments, and the City Manager system of government. It led to the elimination of the monopolistic control of the “patronage system” of city government and control of the California political system by the major railroad companies.
In 2011, we can look back on these two critical milestones and see what opportunities they present for us today in Downtown San Diego and throughout our emerging “mature” urban centers.
First, consider the street grid. As places such as NYC, Chicago, Boston, San Diego, San Francisco, LA continue to grow vertically, the public spaces dedicated to vehicles (streets) are becoming increasingly valuable. In any given City, between 30 – 40 % of the urban land mass is dedicated to publicly-owned streets. Streets and sidewalks are public spaces – sidewalks are dedicated to pedestrians as streets are to vehicles. When our urban-centers become more desirable and have greater demands placed upon them, the inevitable need for more public spaces will require expansion into the streets. Examples of innovative transformations of public space can be found in New York City along Broadway, in Greely Square, in Herald Square and in San Diego’s Little Italy. These cities have embraced excellent re-use opportunities for growing residential populations in their older inner-city communities. The NYC 1811 street grid provides a template for the incorporation of huge public spaces between sidewalks. Main streets and thoroughfares are now great new venues for public outdoor seating, farmers’ markets, street fairs and other activities that cannot be replicated in many of the suburban neighborhood street layouts.
The 1911 anniversary of the introduction of the Progressive Movement is a little more problematic, yet presents a great opportunity. After five generations of civil service and the radical growth of local government public-employee pension programs over the past 20 years, city governments have reached their financial tipping points. Current levels of public employees on City and County payrolls, based upon current and future pension obligations, are clearly unsustainable. The pension system assumed that the tax base would expand into the foreseeable future and the conditions since 2008 have demonstrated that this is hardly the case. The tax base is flat, and will remain so, by historic standards, for the next decade or so.
The 100-year anniversary of the Progressive-system form of local government is a great time to review whether or not this system is still functional or even applicable to our future needs. I would maintain that it is not.
City leaders must determine what a City should do and what it should not do in the future. Providing for public safety, transportation/water and sewer/energy infrastructure, setting rules for growth and development – are clearly the functions and roles of local government. However trash pickup, park maintenance, tree-trimming, street light repair, street paving, library operations and maintenance of other public assets, could be done by locally-contracted non-profit corporations or outside service providers.
Few people care about who delivers a service as long as it is done cost effectively, with scheduled frequency, and without increasing the financial burdens on the local population.
So with these anniversaries, we are at the crossroads of options. How do we effectively use the public spaces that our street grids provide us? And, how do we manage our local government through partnerships with non-profit corporations and others to provide the highest standard of urban living for our citizens?
This is the time to debate and resolve these issues. Good models can provide our answers, and we should be thankful to those who had the foresight and courage to take action 200 years ago and 100 years ago. Future generations in 2111 will look back and see how we contributed to the development of our nation’s cities. Let’s not disappoint them.