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How City Leaders Are Taking on Their Most Difficult Challenges

Weathering climate change, revitalizing cities with an equity lens, using police cameras to deter crime, and reconciling the difference between poverty in rural and urban communities were a few of the topics discussed at The New York Times Cities for Tomorrow conference last week, held in New Orleans.

Mayors and civic leaders from across the country convened to dissect and deconstruct many of the intractable issues in their communities and shared insights about what they’ve learned. These are a few of the highlights from the panels.

REBUILDING WITH RESILIENCE: THE NEW NORMAL

How can cities like Houston, New Orleans, and San Juan protect their residents when faced with increasingly severe climate change and its resulting destructive hurricanes and rising sea levels? In a session about rebuilding, the mayors of all three cities concurred that key to their survival would be the ability to pull the levers of state and federal government agencies to infuse their city coffers with funding that the cities themselves helped raise.

LaToya Cantrell, mayor of New Orleans: “New Orleans needs a little bit more of what she generates so she can take care of herself, of her families,” Cantrell said, referring to the tiny fraction of funds the city was able to keep from tourism dollars, even though it attracted more than 18 million visitors last year. “Those dollars need to be reinvested in the city to survive.”

Edward M. Emmett, county judge, Harris County, Texas: “The State of Texas has a rainy day fund with $12 billion. They did not tap that fund immediately after Hurricane Harvey. If Harvey wasn’t considered a rainy day with 50 inches of rain, I don’t know what the hell is.” 

Carmen Yulín Cruz, mayor of San Juan: “The upper level of government that doesn’t provide direct services is taking the lower level government’s ability to make income. We provide services, they take the money.”

Other insights on how to stay resilient:

  • “We can’t just use fossil fuels — we need to look for alternatives, for permanent solutions to recurring problems,” Cruz said. “I’m on a crusade to make people love solar power. I want every home we build to completely function off the grid.”
  • “Hurricane Katrina was definitely a horrible opportunity to do something better,” Cantrell said. “We have to be prepared to live with water. It’s also forcing us to face the disparities that have always existed, looking at how holistically we can build better quality of life for all people.”
  • “We can’t keep fighting with mother nature. We have to designate lands that you can’t build on. But it has to be done by different levels of government working together,” Emmett said.

Watch the full panel here:

THINKING BIG FOR URBAN INNOVATION

After years of economic volatility, Detroit, Stockton, and New York are now some of the country’s most exciting models of urban innovation. What bold steps are city leaders taking to boost economic growth and spread the wealth, and what role do private partnerships play?

Mike Duggan, mayor of Detroit, addressing equitable neighborhood revitalization:

  • We need to build on what’s strong and not create fresh things. We want to keep the city liveable for working people as luxury developers move in. We spent a lot of time in Washington D.C. We asked New York, ‘If you could rewind the clock on Brooklyn, what would you do differently?’”
  • “We took a lot of good vacant houses and put them on eBay and auctioned them off. We made deals for businesses to come in and take over storefronts. Half the street lights were out before, and we fixed them. Detroit became 100 percent LED system. We had a chance to jump a generation ahead.”
  • “Now 20 percent of new housing is set aside for affordable housing. We don’t let Detroiters move out for other people to move in. We’re consciously making sure it’s redeveloped in a way that’s respectful to those who stay.”

Michael Tubbs, mayor of Stockton, addressing Universal Basic Income:

  • “For me, there was an urgency to try something new when we know that people are one paycheck away from ruin. My staff was scared about Universal Basic Income, but having those tough conversations with each other and ourselves, we spent time on the idea around ‘dignity of work.’ It shouldn’t be attached to what you can produce. But people who are stressed out working 14 hours a day, that’s not a dignified life. So it’s about what people deserve. Americans value that everyone should work. There’s a term called Working Poor, part of Dr. King’s agenda. I started out as a skeptic, but now I’m 100 percent resolved that we need an economic floor to build upon.”
  • “With our UBI program, we’re working with University of Pennsylvania and Tennessee, looking at how money is spent, what impact does financial stability have on health, and what impact does cash have on a connection to community.”
  • “Financial education is not an innate thing for many of us. How do you make sure people use resources wisely? Poor people don’t have money, not because they can’t manage it. They’re actually very good at managing money — they can make $10 last a week.”

Watch the full panel here:

THE FUTURE OF POLICING

From facial recognition software to DNA testing, local and federal law enforcement have embraced high-tech tools to prosecute criminal cases and prevent crime before it happens. But the widespread adoption of these tools has raised concerns about privacy and efficacy. What is the future of law enforcement, and what kind of constraints might be needed?

Michael Harrison, superintendent of police at the New Orleans Police Department, spoke about introducing live cameras to monitor high-crime city streets through a close collaboration with Department of Homeland Security, which runs the program in the city. Julia Angwin, an investigative journalist who covers data and privacy, warned of the dissolution of personal privacy.

Michael Harrison, superintendent of police, New Orleans Police Department:

  • “We want a robust system to prevent crime, and it’s been very beneficial in helping us reduce violent crime. We can see the approach of criminals, and the cameras capture crimes happening in real time.”
  • “Building and sustaining community trust is very important. We worked with the Innocence Project to make sure the cases we take to court are solid. That means we don’t just rely on eyewitness account, which from time to time can be faulty.”
  • “There’s no expectation of privacy on a public street. I’m an advocate for every member of the community, including victims of violence. How many lives need to be lost before we equip ourselves with the right tool to prevent that?”

Julia Angwin, editor in chief, The Markup:

  • “Studies show that there’s no evidence that surveillance reduces crime. Surveillance helps in solving crime and displacing where crime happens, but there’s no evidence of preventing or deterring crime. And it has huge potential for civil liberties violation.”
  • “There are other ways to prevent violence. There’s a legitimate lack of trust between police and community. Community policing and having more cops on beat deter crime. In Oakland, where residents protested camera monitoring, they created citizen-powered surveillance. So the question is not whether or not there should be surveillance. It’s a question of how. It’s a matter of having the right oversight.”
  • Facial recognition is ready for prime time. But we don’t have legal structures in place. It’s a slippery slope when you have no ability to be anonymous. Right now we have a little bit of anonymity, until we do something bad. That’s not the world we’re going to be in in like four minutes.”

Watch the full panel here:

POVERTY AND THE URBAN-RURAL DIVIDE

Cities have been the main beneficiary of 21st-century prosperity, while rural areas are suffering many of the socio-economic problems that have historically plagued urban communities. What does poverty look like in America today? Can the same remedies be applied to both urban and rural environments?

Jesmyn Ward, professor of creative writing, Tulane University

  • “Kids from my neighborhood [in a rural town in Mississippi] think in order to be successful in any way, where they’re able to avoid living from paycheck to paycheck and have access to healthcare, they think they have to leave.”
  • My family has lived in southern Mississippi in poverty for generations. It was hard for me to find stories that reflected my community or my people or myself. From my own experience, the story of rural lives has been lost.”
  • “It’s hard to move back home. There’s nothing in our economy to attract us back.”

Baratunde Thurston, author, activist, and comedian

  • “There’s this trap: The cities are where the money is, but it’s increasingly difficult to live there because of the price of housing. As soon as cities are gentrifying, they’re safer, and we have all this artisanal stuff. But the people who’ve lived there their whole lives are priced out. They can’t enjoy it. I’d like people to benefit from their neighborhoods without leaving. Neighborhoods are made up of people. When you displace people, you’re not improving a neighborhood. You’re displacing people.”
  • “White supremacy is a drug, and we’re addicted to it. Black people [are viewed as] thuggish, ungovernable… And [the myth is] that those of us who succeed are the exception.”
  • “An organization called Restore Oakland has created a vision for people to reenter society that integrates the voice from the community and is not dependent on saviors outside the community. People who live in their communities know what they need.”

Watch the full panel here:

 

[Photo credit: Scott Webb]

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