Political will, leadership crucial to building great communities

From left: former Maryland Governor and President of the Governors' Institute, Parris Glendening; former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, former FEMA Director James Lee Witt, and former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge at the Governors' Institute launch event.

Great neighborhoods, strong local economies and balanced budgets don’t happen by chance. It takes political leadership and resilience to achieve those goals – political leadership that is sometimes hard to come by.

“Everyone wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die to get there,” said former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge during a conversation between past and current state leaders at the National Press Club today. The Governors’ Institute on Community Design hosted the event, which kicked off newly announced support for the Institute from the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development.

That reluctance to stick one’s neck out can have a negative impact on states and local communities, explained former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who co-chairs the Institute with former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening. Instead of planning for long-term, sustainable economic growth that meets a wide range of goals, it’s easy for elected officials to lapse into short-term, often politically motivated decisions.

“People have come up with this mindset that it’s an either or [between jobs and smart, long-term thinking], and we have to break that,” said Whitman, noting the pressure on state and local leaders to show immediate results.

She emphasized the need for state and local leaders to think tactically and show more resolve, a point Ridge hammered home when he likened current federal and state budget deficit reduction battles to a “kabuki dance” between political parties.

Many of the decisions needed today are bound to be unpopular, because the country needs both cuts to costly services as well as new revenue creation sources to fund important infrastructure upgrades and investments, Ridge said. Drawing attention to the need for increased leadership at all levels of government is therefore vital, as are more transparent and proactive efforts to inform the public about the realities of municipal costs.

“We almost need a public education campaign,” Ridge said about the cost of updating America’s infrastructure systems and investing in the things that will lead to long-term growth. “You flip on a light, you don’t think about [the cost]. You turn the water on, you don’t think about it.”

What that means for the country’s towns and cities is significant, as leaders shy away from making investments or bold policy changes to attract voters. Politicians on both sides of the aisle might recognize the need for smarter decision-making in light of changing market trends toward walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods and evolving population demographics, but it can be difficult to roll out reforms.

Current governors Martin O’Malley of Maryland and Beverly Perdue of North Carolina addressed that point, noting that leaders must persevere through criticism while simultaneously showing how new strategies will benefit communities over the long-haul.

“To continue to have a state that is growing as quickly as our state is growing, and to continue to have the kind of economic development we want,” Perdue said, “you need revenue … not just in North Carolina, but in any state.”

“All the great things you say during the campaign … all the, ‘I can fix it all with a magic wand,’” she said, “If you want to focus on the future, you have to make tough decisions and you can’t just stick your finger in the wind and decide which way the public is going.”

The Institute, established in 2005 and currently administered by Smart Growth America, aims to shore up political leadership and lend assistance to governors looking to promote economic development and make a better use of taxpayer dollars. Glendening said the three federal agencies’ funding support will enhance the Institute’s ability to provide technical assistance and counsel across the country.

“It’s very clear that the innovation is at the local and state level, and it’s important for us to recognize this at the federal level,” said U.S. Transportation Deputy Secretary John Porcari.

For leaders who want to address state concerns in a more comprehensive, strategic and financially sustainable way, the Institute is at governors’ disposal, Glendening said.

“We see our job in the Obama Administration as doing some of the downfield blocking,” Porcari added.

State policy to support main street (Part 2 of 3): An interview with Susan Kirkpatrick

GICD’s last post discussed the important cultural and economic role of well-designed small town downtowns – and identified the need to reverse years of disinvestment through better planning practices. Fortunately, some states are leading the way and have undertaken policy efforts to revitalize their Main Streets.

We spoke with Susan Kirkpatrick, former Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, about one such effort launched by the Ritter Administration in 2010: the Sustainable Main Streets Initiative (SMSI).

Governors’ Institute on Community Design: Tell us about the Sustainable Main Streets Initiative. How did it start? What does it mean for Colorado communities?

Susan Kirkpatrick: The state of Colorado and many of its cities and towns are experiencing very serious budget challenges. The Sustainable Main Streets Initiative was a yearlong pilot project in 2010 to test a model for state/local cooperation to leverage scarce resources. Former Governor Bill Ritter sought to break down silos among state agencies and across existing community development organizations to leverage resources and expertise to assist local communities achieve specific desired outcomes. [GICD note: more information on desired community outcomes and guiding principles can be found here (PDF).]

GICD: Why create a program focused on main streets?

SK: One way to identify a vital community is to look at its “Main Street”, the place where citizens go to shop, work, and gather to talk and to celebrate. The town square is an essential element of human history but some of Colorado’s main streets are declining and the Ritter administration thought we could do more to help, in spite of our financial constraints.

Colorado has been part of the branded Main Streets® program from the National Trust for Historic Preservation which works in a systematic way to help with revitalization but we wanted to bring a broader team of players from state agencies to work with local citizens on downtown improvement. That is why we created the program focused on main streets.

GICD: Why is it important for state government to support community design and planning? Isn’t that a local issue?

SK: Local government is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution; local governments exist by virtue of state legislative direction. In Colorado, state agencies have great respect for local control and preferences but we also recognize our responsibility for community vitality. Just think about how state highways affect community design and planning! Imagine how difficult it would be for a small town to ensure water quality for visitors without oversight and assistance from a state agency. States and their local cities and towns are partners in the pursuit of quality of life for citizens, though it is hard to break down the silos to make the partnerships more effective.

What sorts of efforts have you seen in the pilot communities since the Sustainable Main Streets Initiative was launched?

SK: Two of the pilot communities, Monte Vista and Fowler, developed agreements with the Colorado Department of Transportation for meaningful improvements for pedestrians in their downtowns. The City of Rifle created a plan to redevelop an important commercial site at the entrance to its downtown. The area in Denver known as Five Points created a Master Plan for the district that has been incorporated into the City of Denver’s neighborhood planning process. This was a breakthrough for Five Points. These specific outcomes were achieved in spite of the very short timeframe – eight months of work by state agency personnel and community volunteers.

The below video, from late 2010, explores in greater detail the innovative Sustainable Main Streets Initiative launched during the final year of Governor Ritter’s Administration:




The Sustainable Main Streets Initiative brought together multiple state agencies to support enhanced livability in communities around Colorado. In the third and final part of this GICD series on small town downtown design, we will look at the exciting changes underway in Fowler, Colorado – one of the SMSI pilot communities – and how state government has supported their livability efforts.

State policy to support Main Street (Part 1 of 3): Revitalizing small town downtowns

Vacant storefronts in downtown in Richford, Vermont (Image Credit: Wayne Senville)

Main Streets are a quintessential part of American culture. For generations they have served as the center of small town and neighborhood life. They have been mythologized in literature (think Thornton Wilder’s Our Town), were the backdrop for Robert Preston’s Music Man, and have been immortalized by musicians from John Mellencamp to the Rolling Stones.

In the post-war years, however, residents of suburbs and small towns around the country have watched many of their downtown commercial and social hubs wither. With the rise of the automobile, as well as other factors, more and more families moved far from town centers. Businesses eventually followed. Today, sprawling development continues to stretch out towns while big box retailers take away trade from the Main Street shops – the butcher, the hardware store, the five-and-dime. In many communities, high vacancy rates have replaced a bustling streetscape.

An important part of American culture is under threat.

A key to revitalizing these downtowns is linking preservation and economic growth – not preservation anchored solely in history and design aesthetics, but practical preservation focused on place-based economic development. In other words, capitalizing on what makes each Main Street or downtown area visually and culturally unique.

Historic, vibrant Main Street design in Skaneatles, New York (Image Credit: EPA Smart Growth)

Unfortunately, a complicated web of government policies and investments can make it difficult, and sometimes illegal, for rehabilitation efforts or new construction to reflect traditional Main Street aesthetics with street-level businesses, upper-story housing, and wide, pedestrian friendly sidewalks. State government has an important role to play in overcoming these barriers.

But what does this role look like? In the second part of this series about downtown design and revitalization, we will speak with state leaders to get an inside look at how state government supports these cultural hubs.

The Governors’ Institute on Community Design®, a NEA leadership initiative in partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency and Smart Growth America, tackles state policy related to a wide range of growth, development and design challenges. The Governors’ Institute works directly with governors on policies and processes to bridge the gap between state government, local government, and on-the-ground placemaking initiatives.

Want to hear more about creative placemaking and design projects at the NEA? Visit the Art Works blog.


Check out the other posts in this series: