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Being a mayor is a big job and you will be returning to that task in the blink of an eye.  What I want to talk to you about tonight is urban design, but not so much in visual, tangible and physical terms, but as part of the economic, social, environmental and spiritual dimensions of our individual and civic lives.

I believe that we live in an extraordinary time.  We are less than one thousand days from the 21st century, from the Third Millennium.  It is also a time when the world is undergoing a momentous change. For the first time in human history more people will live in urban areas than live in the countryside or villages.  It has been 10,000 years since the Neolithic revolution when we first settled down in one place.  In all that time the majority of the population of the planet has been tied to the farm.  We know from our own history what a significant milestone this shift represents.  It was back in 1920 when for the first time the United States the census reported that more of us lived in cities than on farms.

Now as we approach this arbitrary but extraordinary demarcation between the 20th and 21st centuries, a future in which the destiny of humanity will lie in our cities, how are we preparing economically, environmentally, socially, spiritually?  How can we think globally while acting locally? Beyond reacting to this year's budget or this quarter's tax revenue or the election coming up next year, what are the key urban challenges  of the 21st century?  What are the things that we ought to be focusing on that will make a strategic difference?  How will the momentous changes that we're exposed to 24 hours a day on all the myriad forms of communication, affect local communities and the folks who vote for mayors?

One hundred years ago, many Americans were asking themselves similar questions and they focused on another arbitrary date—the 400th anniversary of Columbus's landing in the Western Hemisphere.  In 1893—because the planning took them a year longer than they anticipated—one of the most extraordinary and under-appreciated events in American history took place in Chicago.  The Great Colombian Exposition transformed 1,200 acres of swamp (wetlands we would call them today) into the great "white city." It was a miracle of manipulation, a miracle of using ordinary lath and plaster to create a majestic European-influenced capital for the new world.

The Chicago Exposition opened at a time when America's industrial cities were dirty, filthy, unhealthy, overcrowded and extremely productive places.  Chicago had gone from a population of 20,000 to over one million in just 20 years.  No planning and no thought for infrastructure went into this colossal growth.  They just kept expanding the city because the factories were opening, jobs were available, and people were arriving from all over the world.  In 1893, the visionaries stepped back and took stock of this tremendous emerging economic power called America and they realized that this Little Brother to Europe and Asia and Africa was coming into its own.  It was time to make its cities worthy of its power, prosperity and increasing prestige.  They created a feat of magic on the lake front, this extraordinary instant city.  Somehow at a time when there were no superhighways and the population of the entire country was only 63 million people, 21.5 million people visited that exhibition from across the nation and around the world.

The inspiration for its design theme came from its chief architect, Daniel Burnham, whose motto was "Make no little plans."  Indeed there was nothing little about that radiant new city.  It was majestic, it was magnificent, it was extraordinary, and it was beautiful.  There were gardens, fountains and dazzling new architecture. After they experienced it, more than twenty million people streamed back to places like Minneapolis and Buffalo and Portland and Pasadena and they said, "We need to do that here, we need to create greatness in our cities." The fair launched what came to be called the "City Beautiful" movement which reshaped American cities all across the country. 

Daniel Burnham was called to Washington, DC.  The mall between the United States Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial is Daniel Burnham's great legacy to America.  Part of it was also swamp land.  Part of it was used for a railroad terminal.  Burnham relocated the railroad terminal to the great Union Station he designed next to the Capitol.  He laid down the site for what would ultimately become the Lincoln Memorial.  Burnham faced unbelievable political and economic opposition.  The most powerful Speaker of the House in history was dead set against his plans.  But through force of will and the prestige of the Chicago model, he managed to enlist the country and the President, persuading them that America needed to create a capital worthy of this great country.

We see that same legacy right here in Annapolis.  Last summer, my wife and I toured the Naval Academy, marveling at the magnificent architecture, wondering how this extraordinary constellation of buildings came to be built.  We encountered a Marine colonel who teaches American social history who told us the story of how the campus design was inspired by the 1893 Columbian Exposition.  That event sent ripples across history.   The architects and ideas of that fair fanned out to shape great cities across the land.

The Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland
The U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland.

Our country faced a different time fifty years ago.  America was not feeling its extraordinary power, but instead tremendous doubt.  We were mired in a world depression.  One-third of the American people were out of work.  Japan had invaded China and war was looming in Europe.  Yet out of the depth of that depression, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Robert Moses and the private bankers and industrialists of New York put on the 1939-40 New York World's Fair.  The theme was the "World of Tomorrow" and the theme center highlighted a vision of "Democracity."  Television made its commercial debut there.  An extraordinary moment in history.

General Motors spent $2.5 million to build a pavilion called "Futurama," which was the single most popular attraction at the fair. The Futurama Pavilion was visited by 10.5 million Americans.  The lines to enter stretched for blocks.  Once inside, visitors embarked on a ride that showcased America as it would look in the 1960s.  It was an extraordinarily different America from the crowded cities of depression-era America.  It was a landscape of garden cities, with suburban homes and superhighways connecting those homes to shopping centers with clover leaf interchanges on the landscape. At the conclusion of the tour of this imaginary landscape, you exited into a breathtaking full-scale replica city of the future with General Motors cars at the curb.  Every visitor was given a button that said: "I have seen the future."

It was a dream.  It was a dream that after World War Two people came home with a hunger to build.  And they built it.  They built homes for 100 million Americans.  They built a new America with more shopping malls than four-year colleges.  Americans built Futurama.  They built it because this exhibit had such extraordinary power, the magic of illusion.

These two seminal events shaped the landscape of the 20th Century.  Just before the turn of the century, the Colombian Exhibition gave us the power to imagine that we could transform the hurly-burly of our industrial cities and make them into something grand and fine and beautiful.  Then just before the mid-century—when it wasn't clear whether there would be a future, with fascism on the march and with our economic system broken, with no solution in sight—the New York World's Fair offered a glimmer of hope that became the suburban world that we've built over the last fifty years.

Now we've reached another watershed moment.  We are at the end of the 20th Century and Futurama has run out of gas.  We are at the end of the road.  We have come face to face with the extraordinary cost of futurama, the cost of auto dependence.  We all are familiar with environmental costs: smog, pollution, congestion and the sprawl that has covered prime agricultural land and damaged habitat, growing faster than our population. 

We are also beginning to understand the social costs of our auto-dependence.  The obvious physical isolation of inner city ghettoes, cut off from jobs in the suburbs.  There are also the social costs borne by working families.  Time in the car is not quality time with our kids.  These are times when parents are on the highway stuck listening to some paragon of virtue like Howard Stern on the radio, while their kids are stuck in suburban environments where television becomes their baby-sitter and they see 8,000 murders before they reach their 18th birthday.  And when you're elderly and you begin to lose your eyesight, that means no more driver's license, no more mobility. 

What we haven't really totaled up, however, are the economic costs.  In my region, in Southern California, we are going to devote over a trillion dollars in public and private spending to surface transportation over the next twenty years. Yet our latest metropolitan planning study says that after we have spent this trillion dollars, congestion will increase by 330% and we still will not meet federal air quality requirements.  One trillion dollars to make things worse.

But as we reach the end of the 20th century, I believe the most important cost we have to face up to is the toll on our spirit, the cost of the mind-numbing ugliness that we take now for granted.  We drive past these ugly decaying strips and we close our eyes to it.  That's the way we live, that's the American landscape.  People will drive 20 or 30 miles, as people do in Pasadena, past ugly awful dreck just to get out of their cars in our old historic downtown.  Forty thousand people on weekend nights drive there seeking some sense of community and belonging and history.  In the Institute resource book is a wonderful passage from Italo Calvino's book, "Invisible Cities." He talks about arriving in the city Trude.  "If in arriving in Trude I had not read the city's name written in big letters I would have thought I was landing at the same airport from which I had taken off.  The suburbs they drove me through were no different from the others, same little greenish and yellow houses.  Following the same signs, we swung around the same flower beds and the same squares.  The downtown streets displayed goods, packages, and signs that had not changed at all.  This was the first time I had come to Trude but I already knew the hotel where I happened to be lodged.  'Why come to Trude?' I asked myself, and I already wanted to leave.  'You can resume your flight whenever you like,' they told me, 'but you will arrive at another Trude, absolutely the same, detail by detail.  The world is covered by a sole Trude, which does not begin and does not end.  Only the name of the airport changes.'"

That is the world of McDonalds and Wal-Mart and Starbucks.  A world in which every thing will be antiseptically the same.  The uniqueness of our American landscape will have disappeared.  I think that is a terrible spiritual cost for us to pay in the 21st century.  So, we can continue on and do more of the same, we can spend a trillion dollars and make things worse.  We can turn to the Urban Land Institute and ask what flavor of the month the private sector wisdom is touting this time.  They gave us suburban malls.  There are now 3,000 dead and dying suburban malls.  They gave us festival market places.  These were wonderful for a while until people get tired of buying coffee mugs and T-shirts at the same stores everywhere.  Now they are pushing urban entertainment centers with 20 screen multiplexes and mini-amusement parks and shopping.  They promise that all these things will magically transform your downtown.  You will have jobs and prosperity.  It will last five or ten years and then there will be another panacea that will be foisted on the American public. 

An alternative is emerging to that synthetic future.  It has many names: livable communities, new urbanism, neotraditional design, or transit-oriented development.  People are asking: "Isn't it about time to recapture our landscape and communities and our cities for something authentic?  Something that is walkable, something that works, something that speaks to that hunger in us for real places where real people do real things.  A good place to raise kids.  Somewhere you might even stay to retire, where you could still attend the church where you raised your family."

What is missing from this longing is the kind of overarching vision that the Worlds Fairs presented,  a showcase for a livable future.  What would inspire us to make something that is lasting, our legacy to the 21st century?  Something people could look back at and see as the work of our generation.  This vision may not come from a World's Fair or a single visionary.  In fact, I believe that this overarching vision is emerging one community at a time and that you are the ones who are creating it.

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Old Pasadena, California
Photo courtesy of Innovative Internet Services, Pasadena, Calif.

Let me share some of our experiences in Pasadena.  In our city, the issue of growth had created about as big a mess as you can imagine.  Politics had degenerated into brain-dead gridlock and polarization.  On the City Council, it was difficult to get a motion seconded just to adopt the minutes.  The neighbors were at the throats of the business people, the poor people were at the throats of the affluent people, the developers were at the throats of the preservationists.  Politicians were perhaps the worst of all.  Our public hearings were the place where everyone shouted and no one listened.

I became so frustrated that I actually made a motion that we change the name of the Planning Commission to the Reacting Commission.  Because we weren't planning, we were reacting.  A developer would propose a project.  Let's say he wanted to build a 10 story building.  The neighbors would react, pointing out that there was only a one-story building there before.  They didn't care what the zoning was, they insisted the development be limited to just one-story.  Anything more would increase traffic or crime.  After an enormously long and bitter controversy, the developer would be lucky to get approval for a five-story building.  Then everybody would sue each other.  That was what we called planning.  We actually took some comfort in the delusion that since everyone went away equally mad, we must have done something right.  

Out of that toxic situation eventually came a lawsuit settlement which required us to rewrite our land use and transportation plan.  It required us not only to do that, but to put the results before the public for a vote.  It meant rezoning all 50,000 parcels of the city, rewriting all of our policies, and then asking the citizens if they approved.  Imagine trying to win voter approval for a plan that is more than 200 pages long.  One hundred years after Daniel Burnham said "make no little plans," it gets translated as no plan should be less than 200 pages. 

We knew the traditional public hearing process wouldn't work, couldn't work.  We decided instead to try and bring our community together to find a new sense of vision.  We didn't invite people to participate in revising the land use and transportation elements of our comprehensive general plan.  Instead, we asked our citizens to imagine a greater city.  Using every means our energy, creativity and intensity could muster, we appealed to them to become involved in thinking about the future of their community. 

More than 3,000 citizens participated directly and thousands of others were involved through their business organizations, their neighborhood groups, and their church groups.  At the end of that process, we were astonished that the plan was unanimously adopted by the Planning Commission and the City Council and that the citizens voted overwhelmingly to approve the new general plan.

We came up with seven general principles.  Those principles were the actual language on the ballot that citizens voted on.  One of the seven principles was:  "Pasadena will be a city where people can circulate without cars."  Remember, we are a city in Southern California, a place notorious for our supposed romance with cars.  This principle didn't mean that Pasadena should ban cars.  Cars will continue to be the primary means of transportation in our city.  But the plan seeks to provide alternatives for those who are too young to drive, or too poor to drive, or too old to drive, or who are disabled.  Everyone ought to have a safe affordable alternative, whether it's a bike, or walking, or public transportation.  So you aren't forced to use a 3,000 pound hunk of metal to fetch a one pound loaf of bread.  So we don't have to fight a war in the Persian Gulf to get the gas to be able to travel to the corner. 

One of the other principles that marks a significant break with our recent past was the Seventh Principle.  Planners have this notion that after you complete the plan, you're done.  The Seventh Principle of our general plan is: "Community participation will be a permanent part of achieving a greater city."  This institutionalized this process of reaching out to our citizens.  We live in a democracy folks.  The Seventh Principle embodies the reality that you are never finished.  Eternal vigilance is the price of urban planning.  Citizens have to be part of the process.  Whether they are in the private sector or public sector, whether they call themselves citizen or voter or taxpayer, each is part of this community and their continuing participation is critical.

That brings us back to the job of mayors, the job of leadership.  A wonderful cartoon ran in the New Yorker a while back.  A son and dad are walking through a park and they see a statue of a group of men and women dressed in business suits.  The father leans down and explains to his son, "Son, there are no great men anymore, just great committees."

Many of us grew up with an ideal of leadership based on Teddy Roosevelt leading the charge up San Juan Hill.  But we know that heroic image of a solo leader doesn't work anymore.  People will respond, "Why should we follow that white guy?" People don't follow because someone has a big horse or a grand title.  They only follow if you collaborate with them. If you consult with them.  If you persuade them.  If you inspire them. Leadership today is as hard as herding cats.  But while the form of leadership has changed, the need for leadership has not.  Leadership is just as essential in overcoming our problems as we reach into the 21st century as it was at the middle of the 20th century, or the beginning of the 20th century.

For elected officials, for politicians, the challenge is not to always provide the right answer.  The challenge is to ask the right question, to frame the issue for the public. Because people are intelligent.  They will come up with good answers if you ask them the right question.  If you ask them silly questions like "Do you want great service or low taxes?" they will answer "Yes to both!"  But if you ask them, "How should we balance those goals?" — that's a more complex question.  That's the form of the question they deserve to be confronted with.  They need to be challenged to roll up their sleeves and participate in shaping the answer.

I think that for too long we have looked at government as a vending machine, liberals and conservatives alike.  That image goes back to the New Deal.  As a taxpayer, you put your money in and get services out of the government vending machine.  Now when you go to a vending machine for coffee, or soft drinks or candy, you never quite know how it works.  It's sort of complicated and fragile, a big opaque box with a lot of wires and gears in it.  What happens if you put in your money and you don't get your coffee?  That's right.  You shake it.  You slap it with the palm of your hand.  Maybe you kick it.  Does that remind you a little bit about how we react to government nowadays?  Taxpayers put their money in and they are dissatisfied with the output.  They are not getting the what they think they deserve.  The conservative complain that they pay too much.  The liberals complain they don't get enough services.  But everyone agrees that we don't get our money's worth.

There is an earlier American ethic, that didn't focus on government as service provider.  On the frontier, you needed a barn to survive the winter.  That was in the days before you could go to "Barns R Us" to get a barn.  A single family couldn't build a barn by themselves.  So they turned to the community.  Communities organized themselves to provide what was beyond the capacity of an individual or single family on their own.  At a barn raising, not everybody had the same job.  Those with experience did the skilled carpentry.  Those with youth and strength hoisted the walls and worked high on the roof.  Older kids took care of younger kids.  Someone said the prayer at the beginning.  The Supreme Court wouldn't let you do that now, but there was a spiritual part of building something in the community.  At the end of the process the barn was something everyone could take pride in. That barn was a symbol of what a community could achieve together.  People kick vending machines, but they don't kick things that they helped build.

Times have changed, but we still have similar needs.  Individuals and families can do more for themselves, they don't need to rely as much on government or their community.  But there are still some things for which a community is needed.  We need to rediscover the model of the barn raising to create a vision of what the future of the any given community is going to be in the 21st century. 

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Boulder, Colorado's community-based planning ensures all citizens have a say:  in this case, for safe bike pathways in the downtown area.
Photo by S. Buntin.

Finding that vision is absolutely critical, because with emerging global economy, we all live and work in an extraordinarily interconnected place.  In the new economy, location is irrelevant for a lot of businesses.  What do new entrepreneurial cutting-edge businesses need nearby?  Just a copy store and a bagel shop.  They can locate anywhere.  They can operate from a home office  in Santa Fe, they can open up on the second floor above the stores in your old downtown, they can open up in an office park out in the boondocks.  All they need is proximity to a few basic services and they're in business. They are not tied to your town.  They can go anywhere they want.

Where will they go?  They will go where smart people want to be.  Place does matter, because if new businesses can go anywhere, why not go to places that are compelling, that have a high quality of life, that are the crossroads of commerce, that have great universities?  Places where there is energy and excitement and entrepreneurial vision.  They are drawn to real places.  They will seek places that have a strong civic culture, that have workforces of bright and intelligent people who are ready to roll up their sleeves and work, and from all classes of people, because all classes of people are going to be needed to make an economy that works for all of us.

Back when I was a high school student, I went to a school board meeting during our community's emotional crisis over the busing issue.  It was a long and contentious meeting.  After the crowds left, there was still one more item on the agenda.  There was a request to accept a matching federal grant to tear up little patches of asphalt at four or five schools and replace them with green playgrounds.  I will never forget this.  This was the most important lesson I got in government during my high school years and it wasn't in civics class.  When the issue came up, the men on the school board, all fiscal conservatives, they were skeptical about accepting federal funds.  "These matching grants always ends up costing us money,"  they complained.  "What's the matter with asphalt anyway?  It's cheaper to maintain, doesn't cost a lot of money.  Who's going to mow all of this new grass?  The federal government is not going to help us when we have to balance the budget.  Let's send them a message.  Let's send this money back to Washington, tell them we don't want their money."

That sounded compelling.  I thought that was the end of that.  Then LuVerne LaMotte spoke.  She had been in the League of Women Voters and the PTA and been elected to the school board.  She pointed to their lack of vision, their shortsightedness.  "You know," she concluded quietly, "I think beauty is worth a certain amount of investment."  The rest of the school board looked at her sheepishly and approved the matching grant.  They took the federal money and they planted the grass playgrounds.  Every time I go by Hamilton Elementary I think of LuVerne Lamotte for standing up late one night and saying "I think beauty is worth a certain amount of investment."  At the micro scale, that is what leadership is about. 

If communities are going to be worth caring about in the 21st century, we can't be satisfied with asphalt.  We can't be satisfied looking like every other Trude.  We can't be satisfied being the same as everybody else.  If we want to attract the bright people, the new companies, the people who care about a place, the people who are willing to hire a person coming off of welfare and take a risk in a community — if we want those kind of people, we are going to need something to offer them.  Beauty and a good place to raise kids are the kinds of things that are going to be very critical.  They are going to be just as important as our tax rate.

Each of one of you as leaders has the opportunity to ask the right questions, to speak up, to speak out, to raise the vision, to be the guardians of the vision.  You can win those small victories and celebrate those small victories.  And turn those small victories into examples of the big vision.

I want to close with another inspiration to me growing up.  President John Kennedy stood at Rice University in 1962.  He made a pledge that we would put a man on the moon by the end of that decade.  When he promised that, he didn't know how we would accomplish that goal or what it would cost or how many people be needed to work on it.  But he made the pledge as part of a bigger vision.  He said:  "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do all the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because only that endeavor will serve to organize and to measure the best of our energies and our skills."

In each community, the mayor has the bully pulpit.  You have the opportunity to say, "We choose to do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."  Because those are the endeavors that measure and organize the best of our skills and energies.  Can this work in a democracy?  I believe it always has.  Just as the root word for civilization goes back to the Latin word for city, the word "politics" traces back to the word "polis" in the Greek language.  We all know the Acropolis that has lasted more than two thousand years.  It's an extraordinary symbol not only of beauty  but also the birth place of democracy.  Politics is drawn from that same root word. The "polis" was the sacred place, the market place, the cross roads, the square, the piazza, the town center of Greek life.  That's where people rub shoulders and exchange goods and ideas.  It was an alive and vital place where people from all backgrounds and walks of life merged, exchanged, felt a sense of community. That was the arena of politics — in its original sense, politics was simply the concerns of the people. 

Does anyone know the word that the Greeks used for someone who didn't care about public life, who was uninterested in what went on around them?  Look up the word "idiot."  To the ancient Greeks, the city was the place where you made your home, where you raised your children, where you made your living.  Anyone who didn't care about politics —- anyone who was totally consumed with their own private life — had to be an idiot.

So when a young person reached the age of citizenship in Athens, it wasn't a symbol of license or freedom.  It was a rite of passage to the duties of citizenship and they were called to take an oath of responsibility. 

I first read that oath as I was preparing to take my oath as Mayor of Pasadena, the day after the riots ended in Los Angeles.  You could literally still smell the smoke in the air.  The pastor of the Friendship Baptist Church, the place where Martin Luther King, Jr. had preached when he came to Pasadena, sent me the oath that young Athenians used to recite on becoming citizens.  His note read: "I want to congratulate you on this very fine achievement in becoming Mayor of this very fine city.  As I know you, it seems good for me to share this with you.  'You will ever strive for the ideals and sacred things of the city, both alone and with many.  You will unceasingly seek to quicken the sense of public duty.  You will revere and obey the city's laws and you will transmit this city not less but greater, better, and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.'"

That is our job.  It is our job in the next few days to raise some questions about what will make our cities greater, better, and more beautiful.  Our real job is to go back home to our communities and make it happen.  To do that we have to be intense, combative.  There will be frustrations, but we will have to commit ourselves to be consensus builders and initiators, motivators and persuaders.  We will have to build coalitions.  We will have to be problem-solvers.  Whether we are first among equals or the person where the buck stops, we will have to make things happen to build a sense of community.  Above all we will have to be visionaries, we will have to provide a visible example of the vision in our communities.  That is our job, not just as mayors but as citizens, whether we are architects, planners, or academics, or whatever our role in life, whatever our mission.  It is our job is to make our cities greater, better, and more beautiful.  So as we get ready, I invite you to join in taking the oath given to the Athenians.  If you would all stand and raise your right hand, I will administer it:

We will ever strive for the ideals and sacred things of the city, both alone and with many.  We will unceasingly seek to quicken the sense of public duty.  We will revere and obey the city's laws.  We will transmit this city not only not less, but greater, better, and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.

  

Rick Cole has been city manager of Azusa, California for five years. As Mayor of Pasadena, he was a leader in that city's "smart growth" renaissance. Mr. Cole is also a member of Terrain.org's editorial board.
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