By the year 2050, two-thirds of the world's population is expected to live in urban areas. Four mayors from around the world, together with moderators Charles Ogletree of Harvard and Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, shared their insights into "Investing in 21st Century Cities." Michael Nutter of Philadelphia, Annise Parker of Houston, Matteo Renzi of Florence, Italy, and Anthony Foxx of Charlotte, brought their different perspectives to a conversation on innovation, competition and attracting the best and brightest to their cities.
The panel agreed that cities are “laboratories of innovation.” Foxx likened city development to the rings in a tree. “You can see how city leaders thought about the future by the different phases of growth.” He constantly asks the question “are we building systems that will endure for hundreds of years?" While mayors have a range of long-term priorities -- green development, mass transit infrastructure and other elements, choosing what to fund can prove a challenge. As Nutter observed, “the current tight budget climate focuses the mind.” Top priorities, Nutter and Parker agreed, are education, jobs and infrastructure.
Infrastructure is a city’s greatest asset, but it requires massive investment, and it can be difficult to justify these heavy costs to the electorate. Parker put the issue on the ballot and found that voters were willing to fund infrustructure because they recognized the importance of the investment. Renzi explained that Florence, one of the world’s great historical cities, has a particular burden. “I am the mayor of Florence, not of a museum in the sky,” he said. “For Florence, our history is not only a piece of the past but a provocation of the future.”
Urban centers are located in regions that thrive or fail based on that city’s success. However, city government has limited political control over regional policies. These overlapping jurisdictions, Foxx said, can make planning much harder. Mayors increasingly have to take a global view, too. “I’m not in competition with Charlotte," said Parker. "I’m in competition with London and Dubai.” Renzi agreed. “The world really is flat. We need to network cities in creativity or crisis.”
The mayors discussed their efforts to cultivate cities that not only draw in new talent from across the United States and the world, but also provide a high quality of life to those who are already there. Foxx stressed that supporting the arts, both in schools and for the public, is particularly important to the future of cities. He also stressed investing in education as the best path to innovation. “We cannot simply lay kids off. They have to go somewhere.” Nutter agreed. “We need to rethink how we fund education across the U.S...We need to align more equitable funding with our goals.”