Next American City

Next American City recently invited applications to attend their first annual Next American Vanguard conference, next month in DC. I eagerly wrote up my essays and hoped for the chance to be one of the selected attendees. Unfortunately, I was not chosen. My submissions are below, for public consumption. We'll get 'em next year!

Tell us a bit more about the work you do and how you see yourself as an urban leader.

My job involves studying urban issues from an economic and policy standpoint. We analyze key public sector interventions and private sector developments, and shed light on important urban topics. For example, I have testified before City Council on why and how to encourage transit-oriented development in Philadelphia, calculated the extent to which the City utilizes minority- and women-owned firms, and authored reports describing the state of retail in urban Philadelphia. I also serve as an elder at my West Philadelphia church, am on the board of the non-profit where I used to work, and keep a blog called “Musings of an Urban Christian.”

I may not lead people like a general, president, or executive director does. But I have learned that it takes many leaders to make a city: private developers, elected officials, universities, policy advocates, non-profit institutions, neighborhood groups, foundations, corporations, and, yes, economic consultants. All have been my clients, so I am in a position to influence them, by providing information and affirmation, direction and insight.

Being a leader is less about the size of your army and more about the depth of your influence and the quality of your example. So count me among Philadelphia’s leaders.

What difference do you hope to make in your community in the next five years?

I envision a Philadelphia that reverses 50+ years of population decline, as a reformed tax structure, strategic land use decisions, and key infrastructure investments draw in residents and businesses. Our current budget woes provide a moment to right-size services, encourage conservation, and welcome newcomers who can help us grow. We need to make painful adjustments and enact unpopular measures, and my firm can help make the case.

I also envision a world where cities are embraced as key to sustainability. For the sake of our environment, geopolitics, and social psyches, we can no longer subsidize decentralization and squander scarce resources. Urban settings should not be relegated to the wretchedly poor, saintly pioneer, or glammed-up cosmopolitan. My blog advocates for city dwelling as good for your pocketbook, your soul, and your planet.

Finally, I envision a church like the one I attend can become: scruffy and unpolished but warm and devoted. The world finds us irrelevant even though we are now most relevant: venerated institutions fail us, human misery multiplies, and people seek authentic community. As an elder, I want us to be that multi-hued, multi-talented body that, though sinning and sinned against, can yet represent mercy, care, and deliverance.

What do you hope to take away from this conference?

As an economic consultant, church elder, and urban blogger, I’m only as good as who I know and what I know. So I welcome the opportunity to circulate among and learn from others who live in and care for cities like I do. I want to see how urban advocacy looks from different geographies, political persuasions, professions, and disciplines. And I want to add to my rolodex of experts that I can call on when I need information, advice, and connections.

But I also want to give. I want people to remember who I am, what I do, and where I’m coming from, so that I can be a resource, encouragement, and door-opener in the future. After all, if there’s anything we city-lovers know, it’s the power of agglomerations. So just as I want to tap into the exponential benefit of adding to my network, I want to be part of that exponential benefit for someone else’s network.

You will be given three minutes to make a short presentation. What would you use this time for?

Transit-oriented development is often perceived as a strategy for newer-infrastructure cities: think Denver, Phoenix, and Portland, aggressively spending billions of public funds on transit infrastructure, coordinating zoning and land use efforts, and courting private developers to site mixed-use complexes near stations.

But before there was New Urbanism, there was, well, Urbanism. TOD is as old as Philadelphia’s most historic neighborhoods. And after 50+ years of disinvestment, decay, and decentralization, Philadelphia is ready to embrace TOD again, to build on its existing infrastructure and accrue important benefits to its neighborhoods.

I’d like to tell the story of the rise and fall of TOD in Philadelphia, identify the key ingredients of successful TODs, and comment on the extent to which they exist in Philadelphia. I’d also like to profile some of what’s going on at the state, local, and neighborhood level to move TOD forward. Finally, I’d like to close by discussing the benefits of TOD, from more money in working families’ pockets and more livability for urban neighborhoods to more local control of locally generated tax revenues to more sustainable land use patterns and infrastructure investments for metropolitan regions.
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