POSTED ON APRIL 3, 2013:
Let neighborhoods decide on city spending
The future favors cities with leaders who are peering around the corner.
We need to demand that all who would lead T-Town show us pieces of a leapfrog agenda for City Hall and the whole passel of services we associate with same.
This business of "basic services" and "basic this and that," and how that's the ticket -- it really bores the hell out of me.
The approach underestimates the discernment of many Tulsa voters and should bore every thinking person who wants this town to be exceptional. Think about it: Have you ever wanted to go to a basic city, watch a basic football game, have a basic meal, or watch a basic movie?
What To Do?
Example: We have a tax payer funded ($30 million, Vision 2025 vintage) materials research center at OSU's downtown campus. Why can't we ask this oasis of engineering, nanotech and physical computing to help Tulsa craft a breakout "Fix Our Streets" initiative?
Why can't the little noticed Helmerich Research Center "co-work" with a citizen team, city engineering, our city purchasing unit and the mayor's office to press the street "envelope"?
I know that the "Fix" initiative is moving down the road at light-speed toward "final" definition and a voter referenda in November. And I know that it may be too late to make a suggestion of this kind -- but I really don't care. Maybe we shouldn't be doing big capital initiatives prior to settling our current election round for mayor anyway.
Many of the questions at play in our upcoming mayoral contest are perennial: improving mobility without busting the bank, being safe without having thousands of cops (we have fewer than 800 currently) keeping neighborhoods vibrant, increasing walkability and housing choice, countering inequality by dramatically improving transit and paying all city workers a living wage. But sometimes, the solutions to these challenges are not obvious. We should demand, and the candidates should be required to show, a deeper understanding of solutions that go beyond the usual "blah blah blah" formulations.
What we ask Tulsa cops to do, for example, how we support them with continuous citizen insight and agile technologies is far more important that the yearly cop count. And we can talk, until the horses come home, about superior maintenance of our street grid and prospects for doing new intersections in high-traffic locations, but we can't spend infinite amounts of cash on these things, and shouldn't.
We live in a time when we could be exploring stouter, more adaptive materials for street maintenance and a top notch sensor network to help move more motorists through the corridors we already have in place. And we need to have a serious discussion about a fully funded, state-of-the-art bus/transit system to reduce major corridor congestion, improve air quality and spin downwards the expense of middle-run street investments.
One of the most exciting developments in American public policy is barely covered. Most Americans haven't even heard about it, but it's at the center of several initiatives that have come out of the Obama administration and is at the core of several humongous foundation-funded gambits as well as at the heart of several great projects being pushed at the state and local level.
Writer/technology guru and futurist Steven Johnson's latest book Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age is a powerful piece on what he and others call "peer progressivism." The notion: find superior ways of thinking about long-standing challenges in American society by imagining solutions that defy conventional top-down bureaucratic solutions and the sometimes craven stuff that comes by way of "market based" offerings.
Johnson is one of my personal gurus: he has written a bunch in that wonderful space that features the interplay of technology, science, politics, organization and new ideas. For me, Johnson's best work is about where ideas come from, how we can use organizations, technology and networks of creative humans to craft the future.
Here's what Mr. Johnson had to say in a Wall Street Journal piece from late last year:
"Twenty years ago, the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre pioneered a radical new technique called 'participatory budgeting.' Each year, the city's 16 regions conduct general assemblies in which neighbors debate priorities for the budget: school construction, sewer repair, bridge building. The assemblies create a ranked list of projects, and the government disperses funds accordingly. The money comes from the state, but the decision of what to fund comes from the street. Participatory budgets transformed Porto Alegre almost immediately. Within seven years, the number of citizens with access to the sewer system doubled. The number of new paved roads jumped to 12 miles a year from two-and-a-half miles. The idea has spread world-wide: Roughly 10 percent of municipal budgets in Spain are now allocated based on civic participation, and districts of Chicago and Brooklyn have recently adopted the approach."
Take a gander at three notions with a real nexus to our upcoming fix the streets/capital discussion -- ways of honoring networks of people and a path toward devolution -- that is, pushing decision-making out of the glass cube that houses City Hall.
First, how about a giant neighborhood initiative to give our neighborhoods a tangible role in big capital project selection?
Obviously there would still be a need to "privilege" city staff and conventional planning and engineering on some projects with a citywide cast, but allocating a substantial part of Tulsa's capital kitty using street-level perceptions would represent a very dramatic change for Tulsa. The notion entails re-animating our wonderful but basically toothless Vision 2025 process with all of its neighborhood meetings and intensive participation--but but fueling it properly, with big pots of cash.
Second, how do we change traditional city services -- police, fire, public works -- to get a better blend of high-quality stuff while minimizing outlays? Some readers will recall that I've written, from time to time, about experiments underway in Chicago and other places on cross-training cops and firefighters, co-locating precinct stations with fire dispatch operations/unit warrens. Using some of the contingent deployment computer models Tulsa's EMSA uses so adroitly, unnecessary police/fire outposts could be closed down.
Lastly, we need to dump the business of "silo thinking": the reigning notion that we need to think in narrow, bureaucratic terms about our local challenges.
Consider, for example, the state of Tulsa's public schools in light of another round of stupid state cutbacks. Why can't City Hall emulate Oklahoma City and go beyond, mounting a dramatically bigger version of OKC's voter-authorized "schools and sidewalks" project -- a joint city/school system capital project? The OKC initiative was designed to make OKC more walkable, improve safety among school kids and encourage adults and kids to "move": this is something that a bevy of current research suggests has a spectacular nexus to quashing the obesity epidemic that is a nasty piece of our situation here in Oklahoma.
Folks, it's really all about imagining real empowerment, moving beyond autopilot nostrums and focusing on improving connectivity in the largest sense.
We need to get beyond flat land and soon.
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