Blueprint for American Prosperity

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If you’ve had the chance to visit America’s big cities, you’ve no doubt noticed that almost without exception they’re pretty terrific places to be these days. The revival of America’s big city downtowns and neighborhoods, the development that’s occurring in the inner ring suburbs, all portend something very useful to the nation’s well being in this century. The prosperity that’s occurred in American cities represents one of the great achievements in the United States in the last decade.

Today, the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program launches a multi-year initiative, the Blueprint for American Prosperity, that urges candidates in the 2008 presidential election to not only take note of how American cities secured their well-being, but also that the nation would do well to mimic those steps. Making places better involved protecting natural resources, investing in transit and other infrastructure, promoting housing, curbing sprawl, securing institutions like museums and universities, improving public safety, conserving open spaces. It also involved welcoming and providing opportunities for young entrepreneurs, and prompting civic excitement. 

“The assets that matter in today’s global and knowledge economy are innovation, infrastructure, human capital, and quality places,” according to the Blueprint’s developers. And what’s good for cities is great for the country. “The top 100 metros take up just 12 percent of our land mass but make up 74 percent of our college graduates, originate over 80 percent of all patenting, and therefore generate 75 percent of the nation’s GDP,” said Amy Liu, the deputy director of the Metropolitan Policy Program. 

The initiative’s launch marks the 10th-year of the Metropolitan Policy Program, one of the great idea laboratories in urban affairs. The director is Bruce Katz, a former Clinton Administration housing official and the winner of the Heinz Award for Public Policy.

Whether presidential candidates take note of the Blueprint is far from certain. They should.

Among the important helpings in the data feast that Mr. Katz’s crew fed to reporters today was this chart outlining how critical metropolitan health is to every state. In Michigan, for example, the Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Lansing metro regions account for 56.5 percent of the state’s population, 60 percent of all jobs in Michigan, and $247 billion in annual economic activity or 66 percent of state GDP. 

Even in Michigan, which has the highest unemployment and the largest state budget deficit, metropolitan regions are holding their own because they’ve developed and embraced a new development strategy.  Health Hill in downtown Grand Rapids, which in the 1990s grew for the first time in 40 years, is the scene of $1 billion in new medical research, training, and patient facility construction, the largest such concentration of health-related construction in the United States.

The Economist magazine last week reported on signs of revival in Flint and Saginaw. Ann Arbor, which also grew in the 1990s, is engaged in an intense civic conversation to establish a new rapid transit line that links the city with Detroit and to build new housing and offices downtown. The Traverse City region has undertaken a two-year, $1.3 million federally-financed transportation and land use study intended to draw up a multi-county plan for guiding development and building transportation infrastructure over the next generation. Several of Detroit’s inner ring suburbs – Ferndale, Royal Oak, Birmingham, to name three – have raised and invested resident taxpayer dollars in schools, central business districts, parks, housing, and transit to stabilize neighborhoods and attract new residents downtown. 

Similar far-reaching growth initiatives are occurring in nearly every other metropolitan region of the country. Last November, for instance, voters in Salt Lake County, Utah approved spending $45 million to protect open space. Residents in Salt Lake and neighboring Utah counties also raised the sales tax to add 23 miles to the 19-mile regional light rail system that opened eight years ago, and to double the length of a new commuter rail system set to open next year. When the construction is finished by 2015, the Salt Lake City region will have spent roughly $3.1 billion to build a 45-mile light rail system, and a 88-mile regional commuter rail network, the West’s second largest regional rapid transit system next to the 172-mile system that Denver is now building.

In Salt Lake City itself, equally impressive projects have occurred. The city was one of the first in the nation to require municipal buildings to achieve the highest standards of energy efficiency. It allows owners of energy efficient low-emission cars to park for free. The city enacted zoning and permitting changes to encourage much more dense downtown neighborhoods, and to discourage strip malls. Salt Lake City also constructed a public library that is a showcase of technology and architecture, and is doing everything it can to support a downtown construction boom that is adding a light rail extension, millions of square feet of new energy efficient retail and office buildings, and more than 1,300 new homes.

In Chicago, Mayor Richard M. Daley has instituted a wave of growth measures that fostered a cultural and economic revival unmatched by any city in the Midwest. The Daley administration has planted 500,000 trees, is putting up the most energy-efficient and environmentally sensitive municipal buildings in the country, has agreed to provide developers with much faster permits if they construct green buildings, and instituted a $600-million-a-year program to repair neighborhoods and city parks. The showcase of Mayor Daley’s program is Millennium Park, a 24.5-acre, $475 million expanse of lawn, wild-grass prairie, sculpture and gardens that joins the fast-growing neighborhoods along Michigan Avenue to Lake Michigan. The park is credited with prompting construction of more than 10,000 new units of downtown housing.

Chicago’s transformation has been striking. Indeed, when the results of the 2000 census were published, the magnitude of what Chicago accomplished became clear. The city’s population increased by 112,000 people, the first time that happened since the 1940’s. Chicago’s downtown neighborhoods grew by 16,000 residents during the 1990’s, according to the Metropolitan Policy Program. The city’s median income increased 12.6 percent in the 1990’s, 2 percent higher than the median incomes of the state or the six-county metropolitan region.

In the Pacific Northwest, Seattle (see pix) has developed new zoning provisions to reduce the vehicle population in an increasingly jammed downtown. Earlier this year, the city established an ordinance that requires its Transportation Department to give walking, biking and transit equal priority with cars and trucks before it improves existing streets. The directive is leading to more bike lanes, wider sidewalks and fewer car lanes, thus making room for rail lines and buses on some of Seattle’s major streets and boulevards.Seattle just completed a master plan intended to sharply increase the number of miles of bike lanes painted on city streets, or bike paths separated from traffic. A pedestrian master plan is in development. The city is also reworking its parking policies. Last year, Seattle eliminated a provision that required a minimum number of parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet of new construction. It is possible now for new buildings in several downtown districts to be constructed without any parking.

And Seattle is developing alternatives for its residents and workers. A 2.6-mile, $49 million streetcar line that serves downtown opens in December 2007. A 15.6-mile, $2.3 billion light-rail line that links the city’s center with the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is scheduled to start in 2009. Today, Puget Sound residents vote on a $10.8 billion transportation bond measure, more than half of which is devoted to improving public transit. All of these initiatives have helped to make Seattle one of the most popular and prosperous cities in the world. Over the next 15 years, the city’s population is expected to grow to 680,000 by 2022, about 100,000 more than in 2004, and Seattle will generate 84,000 new jobs, 50,000 of them downtown.

$100 Barrel Oil Nears; Streetcars in Portland

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Two items caught my eye today. World oil prices reached $93 a barrel this week, which is why gasoline at the Wesco down the road is $3.07-a- gallon tonight. The other news is the announcement on Monday that city leaders in Oregon want to dramatically expand the number of neighborhoods served by Portland’s spectacularly successful streetcar.

The two developments are related, of course, because as fuel prices rise the sanity and fuel-efficiency of streetcar lines makes ever more sense. 

Dallas opened a 2.8-mile streetcar line in 1989, and since then eight cities have built new streetcar lines, including Memphis, Little Rock, San Francisco and Tampa, all serving growing numbers of riders using restored cars or replicas.

Portland, which opened the first section of what is now an eight-mile loop in 2001, was the first to use modern streetcars, designed and built in the Czech Republic.

A new 2.6-mile streetcar line is scheduled to open in Seattle in December; a new line is to open in Washington in 2009; and a four-mile line is to begin operating in Tucson in December 2010. Miami, Columbus, Cincinnati, Phoenix, Missoula, Grand Rapids and some 70 other American cities are studying the feasibility of opening lines, according to Reconnecting America, a national nonprofit transit research group in Oakland, Calif.

Not since the turn of the 20th century, when metropolitan regions built elegant urban-rail networks, which were later dismantled, have streetcars generated such intense interest, according to the American Public Transportation Association, a Washington trade group.

Much of the reason lies in what happened after Portland decided that a streetcar, operating on fixed tracks and sharing the right of way with cars, was not only a new option for getting from one end of town to the other, but also a boon to developers as a new rail corridor for building homes and offices downtown. The Portland region also has a 44-mile network of light-rail lines, using faster and larger cars, that runs through the center of the city to the eastern and western suburbs. An 8.3-mile, $575.7 million extension is under way, scheduled to open in 2009.

John Carroll, a local home builder who is on a committee that oversees the streetcars, told me earlier this month, “All I can say is that the stars lined up the right way for Portland. The Portland streetcar demonstrated that the city was serious about developing downtown at a time when the core was much quieter than it is now. Our last seven or eight projects have been within a block, block and half of the streetcar line.”

The city-owned streetcar line, which cost $100 million to build, has helped sweep in $2.4 billion in new commercial and housing development, with 7,248 new housing units, according to city statistics. A former vacant railway yard and grimy light-industrial sector on the line’s northern end was transformed into a hip area called the Pearl District. On the other end, industrial ground along the Williamette River has become the South Waterfront, a neighborhood of high-rise condominiums, town houses, offices, parks and a tram with spectacular views.

Although riding the Portland streetcars now seems like a logical step to urban prosperity, getting the line built took 11 years of promoting the idea.

A major task included convincing residents that pedestrians, bicyclists, drivers and streetcars could co-exist in the same right of way. Miami, which plans to open a line in 2012, put the problem to rest by producing videos of Portland streetcars as they operate without a hitch, and posting them on a Web site, miamigov.com/MiamiStreetcar/pages/Videos.asp.

Another challenge was raising money. Portland financed its line almost entirely with local taxes.

Two years ago, Earl Blumenauer, Democrat of Portland, convinced his colleagues in the House of Representatives to approve a new funding provision called Small Starts in the federal transportation bill to help pay for the line. This year the program is providing $100 million for building streetcar lines and bus rapid transit systems. Portland wants to use $75 million in Small Starts money to partly finance a 6.7-mile, $146 million extension of its streetcar line.

Portland’s streetcars carry nearly 10,000 passengers a day, almost four times the number it anticipated when the line opened, said Rick Gustafson, executive director of Portland Streetcar, the nonprofit corporation that operates the line. “There’s no question that we are part of the combined investment over the last 20 years that produced the infrastructure that made it possible for people to park their cars and turn Portland into a walking environment,” Mr. Gustafson said. “When you create that, amazingly enough the market responds.”

According to the Portland Oregonian, about 140 miles of the city’s busiest streets show potential for new streetcar routes. Streetcars could make more neighborhoods resemble the popular retail corridor along Southeast Belmont, built originally along a streetcar line in the early 20th century.

I Wish, I Will

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NEW YORK — The three-day Clinton Global Initiative concluded with a flurry of new commitments including a five-year, $4 billion pledge by Pacific Gas & Electric and Ausra to build solar thermal generating stations that both companies says is cost-competitive with fossil fuel generation. California-based Ausra will build at least 1,000 megawatts of solar power plants and PG&E will purchase at least 1,000 megawatts of solar thermal, and the deal will eliminate over 36 million tons of CO2 emissions in California and neighboring states over the next 20 years. Other projects announced here were these:

  • FourWinds Capital Management said it will invest $300 million to develop investment programs that focus on planting, harvesting, and processing of novel sources of bio-fuels using emerging technologies in tropical regions that offer significant environmental and social benefits in addition to alternative energy sources. The investment company also said it would develop a $1 billion global investment program to assist large cities and rural areas in improving their environmental infrastructure, with a particular focus on waste and water management systems.
  • Geothermal Power Company of Iceland committed to spending $150 million to help countries in the African Rift Valley develop geothermal energy resources. The project will invest in comprehensive research into the geothermal potential of Djibouti, and if successful, will build a large power plant driven on geothermal power.
  • Sea Studios Foundation, a Monterey-based documentary film production company, will produce a $16 million integrated media initiative to help audiences understand the connections between seemingly unrelated problems-and solutions-in global health, poverty, climate change, and the environment. Using television, the Internet, and new media, the studio’s “Strange Days on Planet Earth 2020”  series will include periodic primetime television events featuring Edward Norton; an interactive Web site hosted by PBS.org, an iTunes video Podcast series, ongoing “Search for Solutions” contests to foster user-generated content and showcase high-impact opportunities to make a difference, and live screening events involving the public, business leaders, opinion leaders, and policymakers.
  • The Apollo Alliance, the City of Newark, and the Center for American Progress committed to organize Newark’s Green Future Summit in the Spring of 2008. The idea is to identify best practices and mobilize the resources to help Newark catch up with Chicago, Portland, Seattle, New York and other cities that are showcases for prosperity that emerges from developing a clean energy-efficient, green economic development strategy.

These and more than 200 other commitments announced this week were said by President Bill Clinton to touch “at least 100 million people worldwide.” The scope and numbers are stunning, even if half of what was announced here this week is actually executed. Mr. Clinton asserted that nearly 10 million children not in school around the world will enroll for the first time. Some 50 million people will gain access to treatment for neglected tropical diseases. Some 170 million acres of forest will be conserved and restored, an area equal in size to Italy and Switzerland combined. And 11 million adults, most of them women, will gain access to industries and durable jobs.

I wasn’t the only observer who found the proceedings disorienting. There really isn’t anything quite like this conference anywhere on the planet. The Aspen Ideas Festival convenes a similar array of prominent thinkers and voices. The World Economic Forum is much larger and, I’m told, more perceptive and far-reaching in its choice of subjects and how far it asks panelists to advance their thinking. The United Nations, which also convened in New York last week, attracts more global leaders. But none of these, nor any other international conference, does as well in attracting such diverse leaders, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu (see pix). And none is motivated so clearly by one person seeking to make the world a better place and successfully making the ask so that not $millions, not $billions, but that something close to $10 billion is committed by individuals, companies, governments, and foundations to execute an incredible array of worthy projects. More was done to help solve the global warming crisis in these three days than the United Nations or the United States has done in half a decade.

Several more big ideas of the 21st century are at work here. The first is that important industrial companies, particularly those in pharmaceuticals, energy, utlitities, and online media see the value of reducing human and global stress to improving their bottom lines. There’s money to be made in solving misery, not only in the development and delivery of new products, but also in fostering collaborations that help companies gain access to new global markets. The second big idea, one that is becoming Mr. Clinton’s signature in this phase of his life, is the value of what he calls “giving back.”  He frames this in the context of the difference between I wish and I will. There were a lot of willing people in New York last week. 

Online, Televised, Blogged, YouTube and More New Media at the Clinton Initiative

NEW YORK — Live television images from the various plenary and working sessions are everywhere at the Clinton Global Initiative. They appear on screens as big as king size bed sheets in the main conference hall. They illuminate flat screens that stand in the halls and smaller meeting rooms. A row of small screens decorate a refreshment area close to the lobby of the Sheraton New York.

This demonstration of televised ubiquity is just the leading edge of a communications strategy that also includes a well-designed and easily navigable Web site, live web casting of every panel discussion that also is archived and retrievable. There are five interior Wi-fi channels for conference participants and a small army of writers and videographers, most of whom represent online publications and networks, few of which — like treehugger.com — that you’ve ever heard of. 

It’s noticeable that the mainstream media is barely here. The Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times did nice wrapups Friday morning. Forbes and Fortune are covering the conference on their Web sites. The New York Times, though, published just three Associated Press and Reuters pieces. The major papers are still useful as arbiters of importance, but as sources of information about the nuances and transitions and ideas explored here this week they played no role whatsoever. The reason: In the age of the Internet and muti-media, it’s not only essential for organizations to tell their own stories, but they now have the tools and skills to do it better than traditional news organizations, and they can reach huge audiences with their own media.

The Clinton Global Initiative, staged by Scott Givens, understands those lessons well. The initiative generates the sort of idea excitement that translates well on television. Invite interesting and knowledgeable people to talk about vital ideas. Carefully set lights and cameras at the right angles. Array the conference with various kinds of titans — movie stars (Jolie and Pitt), media stars (Martha Stewart), political and diplomatic stars (Tony Blair, Al Gore), business luminaries (Larry Page) and grassroots heros (Jane Goodall). Then turn the conference into an eight-hour-a -day talk show broadcast live on the Web.

The beauty of the Web is that all of that content can be archived and readily downloaded for those who didn’t watch in real time. Then producers supplement the video with digital photographs, blogs, and various other print formats — including a running compendium of commitments. The result is that the online visitor can see for themselves on YouTube, MSN, the CGI Website and elsewhere what happened and generate their own narrative. If they need help, they can search the dozens of blogs written here and brought to the fore by Google and Technorati. The combination of self-generated media, mainstream media, new media, all of it instantly available, provides the hundreds of thousands of online visitors who are paying attention this week a kind of instantaneous digital access to this very hopeful global event. Bill Clinton said this afternoon that MSN put the initiative events on its home and that YouTube’s archive of the initiative had generated 500,000 page views. cgipixtv.jpg

Also this afternoon, as if to emphasize the presence of new media here, Larry Page, the Google co-founder, shared the stage with Mr. Clinton and YouTube co-founder Steve Chen to talk about a new section YouTube is building to help non-profits raise money.  The company’s news release described the new project this way: “YouTube’s 2007/2008 Clinton Global Initiative commitment enables nonprofit organizations (in the U.S. those with 501c3 tax filing status) that register for the program to receive a free nonprofit specific YouTube channel where they can upload footage of their work, public service announcements, calls to action and more. The channel will also allow them to collect donations with no processing costs using the newly launched Google Checkout for Non-Profits. YouTube’s global platform enables nonprofits to deliver their message, showcase their impact and needs, and encourage supporters to take action.”

It’s important and representative of the current media age that this event, which is defined by news of opportunity and promise, is taken so seriously by the new media. The news conferences are dominated by bloggers and independent news organizations from around the world.

The transparent and unavoidable conclusion is that the 20th century American journalistic principles and values — if it bleeds it leads — don’t fit here. The BBC broadcast a half-hour talk show from here that featured Mr. Clinton and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg discussing the green economic development strategy that has revived the city’s economy. No American national news broadcaster devoted even a few minutes to the initiative’s ideas or personalities. 

The sort of transactions that occur at this conference — funders putting projects together with government and non-profits to do such things as educate women in Africa — are understood as vital to the world’s progress by the new media. They’re not, however, seen as news by enough conventional American news organizations. As a writer who contributes to both I worry. The old media’s frame needs to adjust to new conditions. The new media’s capacity to develop the revenue streams that enable its writers and producers to really dig in needs to improve. The unmistakable conclusion I draw is that with the complexity and confusion that abounds in helping the world understand itself, people just need solid facts and real stories. The world, in short, needs great media in whatever form it’s produced. 

Climate Change Is A New Global Organizing Principle

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NEW YORK — The X Prize Foundation, which developed a new philanthropic idea called “revolution through competition,” told participants today at the Clinton Global Initiative that it would commit $300 milion in the next  seven years to help solve global crises in each of the four CGI focus areas. The foundation said it is developing new prizes to increase access to renewable fuels, improve energy efficiency, and promote use of cleaner fuels. It also will have new competitive prizes to improve cancer detection and treatment, improving schools and curriculum, and stimulate market-based strategies to produce jobs in poor nations.

The announcement was among the stream of innovative ideas, fully funded, designed to respond to global problems that defy government’s abiity to solve. Other commitments described by Mr. Clinton today include the Sabin Global Health Institute’s $25 million commitment to treat neglected diseases, the Dell Foundation’s $25 million commitment to improve education in poor countries, and Intel’s $300 million five-year commitment to expand and improve its online curriculum to train teachers in developing countries.

The clear priority and focus this year is action to impede climate change, illustrated by multi-billion commitments made by big players. Yesterday Florida Power and Light announced a $2.4 billion energy efficiency and clean energy initiative that includes constructing a solar-powered electric plant. Today Standard Chartered Bank committed to spend the next five years underwriting $4 billion to $5 billion in debt for renewable energy projects with a total project value of $8 billion to $10 billion. The bank said it will target clean energy projects in Asia, Africa and the Middle East and focus its  efforts in areas such as wind, hydro, geothermal, solar, biomass and coal bed methane.

Duke Energy and a coalition of other utilities — Consolidated Edison, Edison International, Great Plains Energy, Pepco Holdings, PNM Resources, Sierra Pacific Resources and Xcel Energy — pledged to increase their collective investment in energy efficiency to serve 22 million customers in 20 states. The collaboration was valued at $3 billion over three years. Mr. Clinton said it will  lead to the elimination of 30 million tons of green house gas emissions per year-the equivalent of taking 6 million cars off the road. With the Edison Electric Institute, the companies also will establish the Institute for Electric Efficiency, enabling them to share and promote best practices in energy efficiency.

I’ve attended a lot of conferences over the years, and elements of this one mimic those. Panels of leading figures in industry, academia, business, and the non-profit communities regularly convene in panel discussions that occasionally divulge some interesting tidbit that you’ve never heard of seen before. Jane Goodall’s chimpanzee greeting yesterday was priceless. 

But I’ve never been to a conference devoted so thoroughly to making things happen, and so much money committed to supporting change that will make a difference. The competition for ideas and attention here is fierce, and the players, particularly the industrial executives, are unexpected. Many of these same suits — Wal-Mart chief executive Lee Scott, for instance, devoted all of the previous years of their careers leveraging the status quo to make billions and contribute mightily to the global environmental crises they seek to solve today. Many of these same people voted for George Bush, no friend to energy efficiency he, and some of them did so twice.   

Redemption, though, is a powerful motivator. And we’ve been told this week, most pointedly by Ted Turner, that there’s money to be made in solving any one of the global problems discussed here — energy and climate change, education, poverty, and health.  

I’ve also never been at an event, national or international, so closely tied to the personality of an individual. The spirit of collaboration and intelligence and adventure that distinguishes the Clinton Global Initiative reflects its founder. Mr. Clinton was on time this morning for a news conference in the press room here at the New York Sheraton and responded this way to a question from a French journalist who wondered “what drives you?”

“I think I should spend my life trying to give back to my country and the world for the great life I’ve had,” said Mr. Clinton. “I owe it to future of the world, children, and my country. I didn’t lose interest in these matters when I stopped being president.  And, frankly, I like it. The reason I do it is I find it immensely rewarding. It’s more interesting than anything I can imagine doing.”