Leveraging A City Budget for Smart Urban Reform

by Nov 21, 2017Economy, Governance, Smart Cities

Garrett Brinker

Garrett Brinker is a Senior Consultant at the Morris Strategy Group, where he specializes in public policy development, political and economic research, and community engagement. He is a graduate of Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy and the University of Chicago, and has previous experience working on energy policy, urban policy, and health policy, at both the federal and local levels.

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We’re living in tight times. Cities across the country are dealing with strapped budgets, fiscal uncertainty, and a lack of political will to raise taxes to fund capital projects. Despite this, cities are becoming thriving hubs for innovation, entrepreneurship, and creative public policy. Young people are flocking to cities in hopes of better opportunity in their careers. And as cities increasingly compete for the best and the brightest, they must attract top talent with not only job opportunities, but also thriving social environments, full of local coffee shops, microbreweries, farm-to-table restaurants, public gathering spaces, dog parks, and burgeoning art scenes.

Bold and expensive capital projects are exciting undertakings for cities. They can invigorate communities, stimulate economic development, and signal prestige and upward mobility to other cities. But large capital projects take years to develop and require intense political and monetary resources. Focusing on smaller, more incremental improvements should be an approach that cities embrace.

Transforming your city on a budget can foster a bottom-up approach to public policy and urban transformation. It can manifest a sort of direct democracy that empowers citizens, community groups, and local businesses to be change agents in their cities – and to work in collaboration with city officials to foster a vibrant city life. There are many ways citizens and governments can collaborate. Below are only a few modest, yet transformative, approaches for revolutionizing cities.

Promote Walkability

Some cities are naturally walkable. Climate, geography, and density all offer benefits to cities that enable and encourage pedestrian traffic. But many cities are not conducive to walking and have been deeply affected by this country’s car-going culture. Smaller cities especially struggle with these limitations; however, cities can make small steps to empower pedestrians, which could include revitalizing public spaces and improving wayfinding through low-cost measures to ease the access of information.

Cities must re-invest in public spaces, particularly city parks. Parks can serve as important places within cities for all types of activities. Not only can they provide visual appeal, but they also serve as anchors for communities, connect adjacent neighborhoods, and create a space for residents to exercise and meet up. Parks get people outside, out of their cars, and force them to physically interact with their surroundings.

Source: Walk Your City

Source: Walk Your City

And this does not necessarily require large capital investments. Organizing community fundraisers (either through crowdfunding sites or more traditional ventures), planning park beautification days, or creating pop-up farmer’s markets are all relatively simple ways to encourage citizens to reimagine neglected spaces and physically reinvest their time and energy into their communities.

Walkability can also be enhanced simply through improved access to information, which can manifest itself through better signage. Walk [Your City], an “open-sourced ‘guerilla wayfinding’ project,” is helping communities increase walkability at a low cost. Little overhead is required, engagement can be tracked through QR codes, and communities are able to educate citizens on how to explore their own city by foot. It is the hope that these efforts create a groundswell of support within communities to develop more robust pedestrian infrastructure in the future.

Bike-Friendly Policies

Source: League of American Bicyclists

Source: League of American Bicyclists

Cycling is on the rise in many major American cities. And not just in the largest metropolitan areas. The top ten cities that have the highest share of bike commuters all have populations under 250,000. But despite the progress made across the country, half of all household trips occur within three miles, and still only two percent of those are taken by bike.

While bicycling infrastructure is expanding throughout the country, making the leap from a disparate system to an expansive and comprehensive one is not easy, requiring a substantial investment and a lot of political will, fighting back against entrenched interests. Some cities have some impressive accomplishments to brag about, including Portland’s brand new Tillikum Crossing bridge, which is restricted to pedestrian and bike traffic, Copenhagen’s Cykelslangen, or the Hovenring in the Netherlands, the first suspended bicycle roundabout in the world, and a mere pipe dream for most urban planners.

hovenringResponding to this increased demand, cities are investing in more cycling infrastructure. Not every city obviously has the ambition or the funding to build a robust bicycling network; but, cheaper, less-intensive improvements to building cycling infrastructure can encourage ridership, connect fragmented existing infrastructure, or lay the groundwork for a more comprehensive network

Traffic calming techniques can help slow car traffic throughout the city, making streets more amenable to cyclists. Lowering speed limits, shortening the width of the road, extending curbs, and providing alternate routes for large trucks can all help ease the flow of car traffic around a city. Some cities have even taken to creating street murals to calm traffic.

Source: Bike Arlington

Source: Bike Arlington

These improvements should make way for additional marginal investments. Through comprehensive signing or pavement markings, bicycle wayfinding systems empower cyclists – especially those unfamiliar with the city – with knowledge of their surroundings, helping them effectively and safely traverse the city.

As streets are made more amenable for cyclists, cities can begin to build a case for additional more capital-intensive improvements through data. Car counting has long been a crucial component of road design – but what about counting cyclists or pedestrians? Few cities measure these data, and even fewer do some in any comprehensive manner. Luckily, cheap tools already exist to do just that. One example is a product called Placemeter, which “turns video into meaningful data.” Their video analysis is 95% accurate in the daytime, with a moderate drop in accuracy at night. And setting up a measurement point can cost as little as $99 per month. Building out a network of sensors can help policymakers and communities use these data to make the case for additional cycling infrastructure improvements.

Promote and Transform Public Spaces

Parks, as mentioned earlier, are wonderful gathering spaces for members of cities to play, to interact, and to talk business. But we often do not consider all of the other outdoor space outside of parks as public space that can be cultivated and reimagined.

Caption: A parking space in Nashville is transformed into a small but, vibrant, parklet. Source: my.parkingday.org

Caption: A parking space in Nashville is transformed into a small but, vibrant, parklet. Source: my.parkingday.org

Park(ing) Day is an annual event that occurs on the third Friday in September. Started in 2005, it encourages citizens, artisans, and activists from all around the world to come together to transform meter parking spaces into temporary public parks. This event, which has now spread to over 160 cities worldwide, highlights the importance of public space in cities, provides a forum for critical debate on the allocation of and necessity for public space, and helps bind together citizens in their communities.

Some cities have taken to treating whole streets as places, at least temporarily. In Bogota, Columbia, for several hours on Sundays and holidays, the streets are transformed into more than 120 kilometers of car-free spaces. Known as the “Bogota Ciclovía,” About two millions people, around 30% of Bogota’s population, take advantage of the Ciclovías on a weekly basis. In my city, Washington, D.C., the northern part of Rock Creek Park – an expansive, lush urban park that bisects the city from north to south – is closed to vehicular traffic on weekends, giving cyclists, joggers, and other two-legged athletic enthusiasts the opportunity to enjoy miles of roads unencumbered by the danger that cars usually pose. These transformations give citizens the ability to imagine their roads as something other than just arterials for cars, but rather pleasant and safe places for fostering healthy living and social cohesion. And with some capital and political will, hopefully these street revolutions will unlock new opportunities for how we design streets and think about all public spaces in the future.

Promote Public Art

Art can also revitalize cities. It can facilitate creative placemaking through murals, sculptures, and art galleries, and it can help strengthen the economic well-being and social fabric of a community by creating physical spaces, such as museums, storefronts, and eye-catching installations, that bring together people and promote economic development.

Two major reports released this year by the National Endowment for the Arts championed the vast potential for combining art and urbanism. One report found that 73 percent of people who attend art programs do so with the intention of interacting with others, highlighting the potential for art to serve as a powerful force for social cohesion. Yet, 38% of people considered cost a barrier for not attending art programs. These two data points alone make a case for working to bring art to the people.

Caption: Street art at the 18th Street ‘L’ Station on the CTA Pink Line. Credit: Adam Jones

Street art at the 18th Street ‘L’ Station on the CTA Pink Line. Credit: Adam Jones

Public art does not necessarily require large investments, such as Cloud Gate in Chicago (which received no public funding) or Nashville’s expensive, controversial, and publicly funded “Stix” sculpture, with a price tag of $750,000. Organizations, like the Project for Public Spaces, advocate for improving public spaces through “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” (LQC) projects that are designs to be implemented immediately and directly involve the community. And the beauty of LQC projects is that they often do not require world-renowned artists, city council approval, or long-term planning and investment. These projects are popping up all around the country, from Camden Night Gardens to The Lawn on D in Boston. In Chicago’s neighborhood of Pilsen, street murals have gained notoriety. And with the help of the Chicago Urban Art Society, murals have recently been commissioned throughout Pilsen to reinvigorate and amplify the creative scene in the neighborhood. These murals have contributed to Pilsen’s resurgence, and the neighborhood is now considered one of the best places in the city to explore by foot.

These projects, and many others around the country, can involve artists and non-artists alike, create deeper bonds within the community, and present a vision that might lay the groundwork for future change.

Looking Forward

We’re living in exciting times – when anyone from mayors and powerful city officials, down to individual citizens of communities, can have enormous impacts on the future of their cities. In a world that is moving more rapidly every day, cities and their citizens are demanding change and improvement at a faster pace. But public policy and the outcomes of policymaking often run counter to this notion. These types of city transformations described above (and many others) embrace incrementalism, and help develop a more robust lattice of communities, connections, and infrastructure throughout cities. They seek to bind the city together, on a budget, one street at a time.


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  1. Thanks Garrett, glad you mentioned that sensors can be used to measure and support cyclists and pedestrians. Taking all public space users into account is critical if we’re going to adapt our cities for safer, healthier, and people-friendly spaces.

    As evident from Project for Public Spaces and others that you reference, many organizations and cities are actively promoting community involvement in transforming public spaces. The City of San Francisco has even created a public space stewardship guide and other resources to help neighborhood associations, non-profits, and elected representatives help improve the public spaces around them (http://publicspacestewardship.org).

    Strapped budgets don’t need to hold back urban transformation, but it does take a different approach. In fact, the lack of certain resources can often leverage innovation. Jaime Lerner, former mayor of Curitiba in Brazil, says that if you want creativity, cut one zero from your budget…and if you want sustainability, cut two zeros!

  2. Makes lots of sense and also becomes a city we want to live in. As far as data collection goes, I was in contact with miovision https://miovision.com/smart-cities-start-here-webinar/ who work collecting and analysing traffic and pedestrian patterns when Toronto, Canada was making a big decision about whether to have a permanent bike path along Bloor st there. In the end, they did!


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