Cities are ready to step into leadership roles as state and federal governments struggle with partisanship and gridlock, representatives at the US Conference of Mayors’ (USCM) annual meeting said this weekend.
More than 200 mayors attended the 86th annual meeting in Boston, which focused on what Columbia, SC Mayor and USCM President Steve Benjamin said are the "Three I’s" — infrastructure, innovation and inclusivity.
But a major point of emphasis for those who spoke was the need for cities and the mayors in charge to step up, take leadership roles and move beyond the partisan division they said dogs governments at higher levels. "We have solutions ready to roll," Boston Mayor Marty Walsh wrote in an open letter to attendees before the start. "But the national conversation isn't working, and the American people are beginning to wonder if it ever will. But cities are different."
At the start of the conference, officials touted statistics that metropolitan areas drive the U.S. economy and the growth of its gross domestic product (GDP), and said that shows the kind of leadership needed. "While Washington waits to act, cities are forging ahead," Benjamin said at a press conference to kick off the meeting.
And in addition to the leadership emanating from city halls across the U.S., former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu in a speech praised the work of Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City who now heads up Bloomberg Philanthropies. By donating millions of dollars to initiatives such as enhancing the use of data or challenging cities to combat climate change, Landrieu said he has "amplified the voices of mayors across the country on issues that matter to our cities."
"At this challenging time, when our government is pushing us backward, at a time when the truth is disposable and deceit is used as a weapon, when the echoes of past injustices linger just beneath the surface waiting to burst forth like a broken dam, it is clear to me that the ideas and the courage that will shape our future democracy will rise from the streets of our cities and the mayors of this great country," Landrieu said.
Mayors call for infrastructure spending
Several city leaders called for a national infrastructure spending package and legislation, something they were hopeful of earlier this year when President Trump released a $200 billion proposal — but that appears tied up in Congress and unlikely to proceed.
That holdup saddens many, who believe that the need for infrastructure investment is something that has bipartisan agreement nationwide. "In a moment of great political division, I would offer to you that infrastructure is something that unites all of us," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said during a panel discussion on infrastructure.
Mayors also spoke of the need for more public-private partnerships, something that has grown in use in recent years. But Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said government still has "trillions of dollars sitting on the sidelines to solve these problems," as many still do not trust the private sector enough to work with them.
In keeping with the increased leadership role cities have taken on, Landrieu said national leaders should look to their urban areas for an example of how to get things done on infrastructure. That includes cities preparing for the introduction of autonomous vehicles (AVs) to their streets, as well as investing in public transportation, although it still lags according to a report by the American Public Transportation Association.
"If Congress and the President want to know if investing in infrastructure works, they should ask the mayors of America because we have a great story to tell," Landrieu said.
Innovation will help bring progress, but cities must help residents prepare
While investing in traditional infrastructure needs is important, Garcetti noted that Los Angeles is trying to do different things such as work with Elon Musk’s Boring Company on a hyperloop to alleviate traffic congestion, or become a test bed for flying cars. "We are choking in traffic and we will try anything," Garcetti said.
And from the private sector’s point of view, representatives said cities must look in new directions to solve their problems, including at new funding models. The old models of simply relying on tax dollars and traditional contract procurement may not need complete replacement but must be part of a toolbox of options.
“You cannot think about these things in terms of, ‘This is how we’ve done these things over the last 20 years.’ The last 20 years are gone,” Emmitt Smith, chairman of E. Smith Advisors and E. Smith Legacy Holdings, and a former NFL player, said at the infrastructure panel discussion.
But while placing a renewed emphasis on innovation, leaders said residents must be brought into the process to allay fears that tech will replace jobs. "For a while there, I think a lot of us were concerned that robots were going to take over the world and take all the jobs. But that’s not the case," Walsh said.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said that the city has worked hard to innovate, including by putting trackers on equipment that was used to help the city recover from Hurricane Harvey last year. By making sure there is equitable access to education, including in lower-income communities, he said that more people will take advantage of opportunities to learn and be trained. "Technology is here to stay, and it’s changing every single day, so we have to change the culture so they’re exposed to it, they’re not afraid of it and we don’t lose them as we continue to evolve from a technological point of view," he said.
An inclusive city is a strong city
The meeting also marked the launch of the Mayors and Business Leaders Center for Inclusive Cities, a USCM initiative to help city leaders continue to build inclusive and equitable communities. "As we have often said, our formula for success is multiplication and addition, not subtraction and division," Landrieu said.
That inclusivity extends to a hope by city leaders that immigrants living in U.S. cities be treated with respect. Garcetti joined mayors from other southern border cities to call on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice to stop the controversial practice of separating families at the border and said there must be a path to citizenship.
"We know there are millions of legal residents here who could become citizens tomorrow," he said during the opening press conference. "In the midst of a corrosive debate about a broken immigration system, this is work we can do today right now to breathe hope and the future back into the country rather than the odious smell of division and fear."
And above all else, mayors pledged to work together on the issues that face cities, regardless of party affiliation.
"Regardless of what might emanate from the halls of Congress or 1600 Pennsylvania Ave or our state houses at times, mayors will continue to set the tone that appeals to our better angels, bridges communities and certainly speaks to our core passions of decency, compassion and respect," Benjamin said.