Too many mayors are risk-averse in ways that prevent them from allowing residents to make small, incremental improvements to their cities, says Allison Joe, deputy director of California’s Strategic Growth Council.
Instead, city leadership needs to find a way to make ‘yes’ its default position and figure out how to get a project done rather than focus on why it won’t work, she argues.
Joe is visiting the Kinder Institute for Urban Research this week as part of the Mayors' Institute on City Design – West in Houston. At the conference, mayors of mid-sized cities from around the west and southwest will bring vexing development issues for rigorous workshopping from a team of design experts, including Joe.
Those conversations are confidential. But we wanted to glean some insights from the Mod Squad of experts that’s coming to town.
Joe’s work focuses on development in California. She has a background in public infrastructure finance, economic development, and housing policy, among other areas.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Andrew Keatts: So what is it that you wish mayors and elected officials understood about cities?
Allison Joe: Very broadly, taking risks in even small ways – temporary installments, arts projects, infrastructure, and economic development – taking those risks to vet an idea is really worthwhile. Things like popups, in everything from a retail store, to a parklet, to even a government help desk – like a councilmember setting up shop in front of a café – those kinds of interactions with the public are so incredibly valuable for the public to understand how government can be more engaging.
Take the risk and see what works. It may not work every time, but it’s a small investment to be able to do a potentially impactful thing and catalyze an idea.
AK: What is it that you think prevents government from doing that sort of thing? Is it fear of liability? Is it generally a conservative culture among staff? I just see things all the time where I think, “Well I understand where they’re coming from, but man must that be frustrating if you’re just a resident who doesn’t pay attention to this stuff so closely.”
AJ: The barriers are a few things. The first is that, if you don’t take that initial risk, people aren’t familiar with it and so it’s harder and harder to do. This comes up with parklets a lot. Government does a great job of telling you what you can’t do, not what you can do. So the idea of doing something more innovative, even if it’s temporary, you get mired in the permits you have to fill out, the approvals you have to have, what’s been done before, what hasn’t been done before, people saying “we don’t know.”
I think that really frustrates anyone who wants to do something more innovative, even if you’re in the bureaucracy, right? That’s what I’ve been doing a lot of work in, via the Strategic Growth Council, is asking “is it possible?”
The response I typically get is, “well, we’ve never done that before,” or “that’s not how we’ve traditionally done it.” But, that’s not the question. That doesn’t answer the question.
That’s just a mental, cultural, institutional barrier. It’s a challenge for those who want to do those projects, or want to pitch those ideas, because they end up getting discouraged.
AK: The thing that folks always lean on when I talk to them is liability. They tell me, “It’s easy for you to say that now, but you’re going to be the first person to criticize us if somebody is sitting on a bench someone put up without a permit, gets hit by a car, and we get sued.” How do you deal with that basic fear of liability?
AJ: I think that locals should be concerned about potential liabilities. But there may be enough momentum to address some of the liabilities. So much of it is that there’s more focus on the legal impact as opposed to the financial impact, even though those kinds of small temporary investments usually don’t take that much.
There are ways to get other stakeholders engaged so they can invest some of the funds or even shoulder some of the liability. But it can get pretty complicated when you’re talking about potential public liability, for sure. That’s not easy, but it can be handled.