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Episode 131 Guest Geraldine Gardner

Both a provoker of bold ideas and an implementer of practical ones, Geraldine Gardner of the Centralina Regional Council dives into what’s necessary to make regionalism work for over 2 million people across 9 counties surrounding Charlotte, NC.


Cohen: Josh Cohen

Gardner: Geraldine Gardner

F: Female Speaker

Cohen: It’s easy to focus on the elected and appointed leaders at the city level because that’s where the trash is picked up each week.  But long-term decisions about healthier air, cleaner water, and transformative mobility are better made at the regional level.  You’ll hear how that’s done, coming up next, with Geraldine Gardner on The Movement podcast.  Let’s go.

F: The freedom of movement to access jobs, education, and social activities is a fundamental human right, but that freedom is not distributed equitably, undermining our ability to create vibrant and sustainable communities for all.  Welcome to The Movement, where we talk with the leaders who are reshaping their communities with brave decisions, inspired advocacy, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept the status quo, all in an effort to inspire the next generation of leaders.  Here’s your host, Josh Cohen.

Cohen: All right.  Our guest today is Geraldine Gardner, the executive director of the Centralina Regional Council in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Prior to her time in Charlotte, Geraldine was the director of urban and regional policy at the German Marshall Fund, and also served in key leadership roles for three different mayors in Washington, D.C.  So welcome to The Movement, Geraldine.

Gardner: Thanks for having me.

Cohen: All right.  This is going to be fun.  We’ve known each other for a couple years now.  David Zipper actually introduced us, who was your colleague at the German Marshall Fund, right?

Gardner: And in the city of Washington, D.C., we worked together.

Cohen: That’s right.  That’s right.

Gardner: Yeah.

Cohen: I guess that makes sense.  I remember he also worked under several different mayors too.

Gardner: Yes.  [LAUGHS]

Cohen: Wow, all right.  Well, that’s—

Gardner: We’re part of a great group of people who kind of cut their teeth in D.C. and moved on to other places.  So it’s a great alumni group.  I think you had Anita Hairston on your show.

Cohen: Yep.

Gardner: And Kim Driggins, all part of that group as well.

Cohen: Well, I’m glad we can make this work.  You’re based in Charlotte now.  You know, David is a native North Carolinian.  We’ve recruited you now to North Carolina, which is great.  I hope we can keep you.  But lots going on in Charlotte, so I want to maybe start by having you introduce us to the Centralina Regional Council and the role that the council plays in the Charlotte region.

Gardner: Absolutely.  So, you know, it’s really interesting.  When you—in my entire career, up until coming to this area, I worked at the city level.  And I think cities and communities are sort of natural lenses through which to view issues.  You know, we kind of—we tend to think locally.  And what’s really wonderful about the role that I’m in now and the work that I get to do is that, you know, I get to pick my head up and look at those issues that really cross boundaries.

And when you think about our regions and our communities, you know, whether it’s the air we breathe, the water we drink, you know, the roads and the mobility systems, our economies and our markets, they’re all connected.  And so what Centralina does, which, you know, I find to be really dynamic and interesting, is we kind of wear two hats.  On the one hand, we are the organization, the leaders that are provoking our local governments to pick their heads up from the day-to-day and think about those crosscutting issues that are really shaping the future of our region.  How do we remain competitive?  How do we continue to grow in a sustainable and equitable way?  Making sure that our community members and our businesses have opportunities.

All that requires collective action, and it requires a vision that cuts across what each individual community contributes to that system.  So we are the entity that is—you know, we’re neutral; we’re bipartisan; we are there to bring people together to the table, and to think about how we can think and act regionally.  So that’s kind of one hat that we wear.

The other hat that I think is equally exciting is that we’re an implementer.  So we deliver services, whether that’s workforce development services, helping our seniors and our older adults get access to healthy, fresh foods, transportation.  We work with our local governments; we work on economic development.  So just as we ask local governments to step up and act, we too are acting and kind of are right alongside them, helping to implement these big regional ideas.  So it’s exciting to be able to wear both of those hats and to be able to champion the vision, as well as helping to implement it.

Cohen: Hmm.  I want to pick up on a word that you used there, and I—you probably used this very intentionally, and it caught my attention very intentionally, which was you used the word “provoking,” so provoking our local leaders to kind of lift their heads up.  So I want to dig into that a little bit because I actually think that’s a, like I said, very, very interesting word that you used, and I’d like to maybe better understand what you mean by that.

Gardner: Yeah.  Well, I think, you know, whether it’s the work that I’ve done here in Charlotte or previously when I was at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, I think our leaders, whether they’re elected officials or they’re in local government, they are in the grind.  You know, they are serving their communities.  They’re making tough decisions.  They’re doing the best that they can with the information and the resources they have available to them.  And sometimes it’s a prompt, and it can be—or to provoke them to say, “Let’s think about something from a different perspective.”

At GMF, it was “Let’s think about this from the international perspective.  What are some leaders doing in other countries, in other cities, in other contexts that could inspire you to think differently, do your job better, more efficiently?” et cetera.  Here in Charlotte, at Centralina, it’s “Let’s think about and provoke you to understand what your neighboring community might be facing the same challenge that you’re facing”—whether that’s affordable housing, whether that’s sustainable development, whether that’s mobility, which we’re doing a lot of work on.

So we are—our job is to prompt that thinking, because if we didn’t do that, then everyone would be in their day-to-day grind, with good reason; that’s what they’re there to do.  So we just really think of ourselves as being that impetus to get people to shift their perspective and think about how we can help each other towards a collective vision.

Cohen: What you’re implying there, I guess, is that, you know, if the elected leaders of one community are kind of just thinking of their community, they might—they may build something, or they might want to advocate for something that would maybe be beneficial for them but might have maybe some negative outcomes for others, or maybe just not be as positive for the rest of the region, as well, if they all work together.  Is that fair?

Gardner: Absolutely.  And there are some leaders—and we have many of them on our board—that are naturally inclined to think at a larger scale.  And we love those individuals.  You know, Mayor Lyles, the mayor of Charlotte, you know, she cares about what’s happening in other cities across the region.  And she’s, you know, gone on record and said many times, you know, “A win for Gastonia or a win Concord is a win for Charlotte.”

And so it’s also part of our job to lift up and champion and support those leaders that are already thinking from that perspective, and to get others who they work with to also see that perspective as well.  Because ultimately, at the end of the day, our region has a lot of growing up to do.  You know, we are rapidly growing and changing, and have been.  But from a policy perspective, you know, we are still behind some of our competing regions when it comes to having the type of agenda that’s really going to continue to move us forward.

And so, I think, where we’ve got leaders that are already thinking outside of even the State of North Carolina, outside of our competitiveness in the southeastern region, we’re really thinking about how do we compete nationally and globally for talent and capital and other things.  You know, we need to be really lifting up those leaders and championing them as regional champions.

Cohen: Now when you mentioned these kind of other cities and this comparison set that you’re—that maybe are a little bit more mature, if you will, in their regional decision-making or so forth.  Who are some of those other regions in that comparison set that Charlotte thinks about?

Gardner: One of the things that I find really fascinating about regionalism because, you know, I’m fairly new to this way of, you know, policy and planning—you know, I’ve worked mostly at the regional or at the local and urban level—they’re the organizations that you never hear of.  You know, and I think about like my peers, my peer group, in terms of other executive directors, and the peer organizations that you lead.  They don’t come up in the normal, you know, scope of conversations about places.  We still think about cities.  Right?

Cohen: Mm-hmm.

Gardner: So, great example.  You know, the regional Council of Governments around Salt Lake is doing amazing things on mobility, on equity, on sustainability.  But you never hear of the Upper Wasatch Council of Governments.

Cohen: Right.

Gardner: Right?  You hear about Salt Lake or the greater Salt Lake.

Cohen: Yeah.

Gardner: You know, the council of governments in Boston that’s working across so many different municipalities and counties in the greater Boston area is doing incredible work on fostering a racial equity conversation in the region, and how that’s layered into transportation, and it’s layered into housing and economic development.  You never hear about that organization.  But you hear about the conversation and the great work that they’re doing.

So, another one that’s always impressed me is what Doug Hooker is doing in Atlanta with the Atlanta Regional Commission.  The Mid-Ohio Regional Council.  All doing really interesting work across systems.  And I think that’s the thing about regionalism that’s very inspiring to me, is that, you know, we tend to—because we’re operating and looking at a larger geography—looking at issues not in a siloed way, but looking at transportation and its connection to equity and housing; looking at, you know, how economic development can be connected to mobility and equity issues.

So it’s a systems approach just because the nature of our scale is a system of communities.  So I’m always very inspired when I get to hear what other regions are doing and what some of those lessons might be for Centralina.

Cohen: Sure.  No, I love that.  So, you know, I mentioned that we’ve known each other for several years; and, you know, I reached back out towards the end of June and early July because Charlotte was in the news.  And so Charlotte was in the news in late June because it had passed its first true comprehensive plan in almost 50 years.  And in fact, we actually talked with Charlotte’s planning director, Taiwo Jaiyeoba, in our episode—I believe it was 53.  We did a kind of a deep dive into Charlotte when I was down there in January of 2020.

So, the end result of that news there in June was Charlotte had this comprehensive plan that got passed by city council, was—included efforts to eliminate single-family zoning.  And so I’m curious to get your perspective on what you expect the results of this to be in the next few years.  And I recognize, obviously, that’s a little bit more kind of very city-specific, but obviously, Charlotte is kind of the big center of gravity in your region, so I think the decisions they make are going to be important.

Gardner: Absolutely.  Well, and I appreciate you bringing this up, because, you know, I think one of my first meetings that I had with Taiwo, you know, he was very—he took great care to share that they, the city, really used our regional plan, CONNECT Our Future, as one of the primary sort of framing elements to approaching the comp plan work.  So Centralina had the benefit of leading a regional bistate coalition about six years ago, funded through the Obama administration’s Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant.  And out of that work came, you know, a plan, a vision for how to grow our region and how to do it in a way that was going to, you know, meet local expectations but also have, you know, a strong regional vision.

So it was great that already our largest city was using the place types and the Corridors of Opportunity framework that we had and that regional vision as its baseline.  Because if we can’t have our largest city understanding the value of regionalism, then how are our smaller communities in more rural areas going to do that?  So that was a huge win for me, to know that they are already thinking in that direction.

I think, the second point that I would make is that, you know, we need bold ideas in our region.  We need Charlotte to lead, to come up with those inspirational ideas, and we need thoughtful and constructive public debate around them.  Because, you know, I know there was a lot of press about the city council being divided and lots of controversy, et cetera, et cetera, but healthy debate that makes ideas better is a good thing.  And, you know, you could argue about the tone of some of those conversations, but, I think, with big, bold ideas that come in a comprehensive planning document, that’s the nature of those planning documents.

Cohen: Right.

Gardner: You know, when I was in D.C., I was a part of a similar story; 2006 comprehensive plan for the city, hadn’t done one in decades, and we went through the same process of, you know, big ideas being criticized.  But what I take away from my D.C. experience, which I think is very applicable here in Charlotte, is the planning toolkit is only so big.  If you don’t have other policy tools in the toolkit, you know, you’re only going to get certain outcomes.  And so I think that that’s one of the big things that I think Charlotte needs to be aware of.  I think there’s a regional conversation that needs to be had on some of these larger policy issues.  That if you only rely on a UDO and land use maps, you’re only going to get half of the outcomes.  And things like affordable housing and mobility and other challenges need other tools to solve them.  And that’s the piece that I think is really going to make or break the vision.

Cohen: Hmm.  It’s interesting to hear you say, you know, talk a little bit about the tone of some of those conversations and some of the criticism and so forth.  Don’t necessarily need to go into that.  You know, certainly, if folks want to, they can dig into that all they want.  But when you talk about when you have these bold ideas, you’re going to have that criticism, you’re going to have that kind of whatever.  Right?  I guess my question is, is I would imagine you’re going to have that even if you had minor ideas, right?  Like, so you’re going to face a criticism either way.

Gardner: Yes.

Cohen: So you might as well kind of have the bold ideas, if you’re going to face criticism anyway.  Is that—do you think that’s true?

Gardner: Absolutely.  You know, I think change is hard.  I think people—you know, it’s a huge understatement, but it’s just by nature of us as human beings, like, you know, we like things the way they are.  And if someone’s pushing us out of our comfort zone or changing how our home is valued, or changing, you know, how—the type of person that’s going to be in our neighborhood.  You know, all of these debates for the past 20-plus years of urbanism that related to NIMBY type of issues were driven by people’s fear of change.  And, I think, as urban planners and leaders, if you just know that going in, that’s part of—you know, that—hopefully, that’s how they’re teaching planners in planning school now, is just be ready for it.  [LAUGHTER]

Cohen: Right.

Gardner: It’s coming; can’t do anything about it; but try to engage people, listen, hear their perspective, and be open to changing your own ideas.  I think, sometimes if we get balkanized by, “It’s my way or the highway; I can’t change my perspective based on having spirited, productive debate,” then, I think, everybody loses.  So I think it’s in processes like this, especially planning during COVID—and I know this because of our own regional planning process that we’re going through on mobility issues—it’s just really hard to get people to the table who care, who have a different perspective, and get some of those voices that aren’t the usual suspects into the conversation, that want to make the ideas better and not just, you know, dig in their—entrench their position and, you know, and that’s all they care about.

Cohen: Yeah, yeah.  Well, you alluded to this mobility plan.  I know that’s something that you and your team have been spending a lot of time on, this regional transit plan.  That may not even be the best way to describe it.  Maybe you can tell me the best way to describe it.  But I’d love to hear maybe the update on where things stand with that, and what you’re hoping to accomplish with that.

Gardner: Yeah.  So I think it’s the best-kept secret in, you know, regionalism and regional planning, probably across the country—[LAUGHS]—because we are being very bold in crafting a vision for regional mobility for the greater Charlotte area.  It includes not just the Centralina footprint but several counties outside, as well as going into our neighbors’ in South Carolina just over the border.  But what we’re trying to do through CONNECT Beyond is to establish a bold and compelling vision for how our region will move forward to 2040 and transform how not only our residents but also our visitors, our workers, our students can get to the destinations that they need to get to, in safe, convenient, and accessible ways.

And it sounds simple, but for a place in a region like Charlotte, taking transit and taking alternative modes of transportation is just not necessarily baked into the DNA of our region.  And so part of what we’re doing is shifting the conversation around who takes transit, why do they take transit, what are the economic benefits for our region if we make this generational investment in building out, you know, a mobility system that’s going to, you know, stand the test of time.

So we’ve been at this for about 18 months.  We’ve been planning during a pandemic, which has been incredibly challenging, and we have just released a set of draft recommendations, including kind of five big moves for our region.  And later on this summer the full plan will come out, and this fall it will be hopefully endorsed by our policy boards, and then we’ll get going on implementation.

Cohen: And so can you tease those five big kind of bullets there?

Gardner: Yeah, absolutely.  So, I think, one of the most dynamic things about planning for this scale—right?  It’s, you know, 2.5 million people.  It’s, you know, 17 different transit providers.  It’s four metropolitan planning organizations and a rural planning organization.  So it’s just an incredible amount of stakeholders that all have their own geographies, budgets, service areas, ways of operating.  And so one of the things that we’ve really tried to balance in this process is how do we have visionary, bold ideas that are long-term, while also thinking about improving the experience for the rider today.  I don’t want to call it low-hanging fruit because it’s going to take a lot of work to do that.  But simple things, like, you know, when I moved down here and I saw people waiting for the bus stop, no bus shelter.  You know, in some parts of our region, there’s no online system to plan your route.  If you’re at a bus shelter that has a canopy, you know, in other cities, in other regions, there’s an electronic screen that tells you when the next bus is coming.

So one of our big ideas, our big—five big moves is to build a better bus network, because we know that buses are a primary mode of moving people around the region right now on transit.  We don’t have an underground metro system.  We only have, you know, a limited footprint of light rail.  So let’s build a better bus network.  Let’s make sure that you can be on one end of the region and get to the airport, or be in the north end of the region and get into South Carolina where your job might be.  And there are lots of ways that we can do that.  So that’s one idea.

The other really important idea for our region is really strengthening our urban-to-rural connections.  So this plan cannot just be about improving the commute for people who live in Charlotte.  We had some really interesting rider stories as part of our process where we lifted up—someone lived in Salisbury, which is the county seat of one of our counties here in the region.  If they had to get to a specialized medical appointment in Mecklenburg County, the more urban area, you know, it would take them four hours one way on a bus trip, with multiple transfers, or a $70 Uber ride.  Like, we can do better.

And so that’s what this plan is trying to do, especially for our seniors.  You know, our region is rapidly growing in terms of our population over the age of 65.  People are following their kids who have moved to this region.  Part of our organization serves older adults, and part of our funding stream that comes from the federal government is providing transportation trips.  So there can be much better things that we can do leveraging technology, micro-transit solutions, and just kind of connecting the dots and building a better system that’s integrated to improve those riders’ experiences.

And, I guess, the last one that I’ll highlight is, you know, because when you’re building and thinking about a big vision, you know, always what comes up is, you know, “What’s the million-dollar or billion-dollar investment?”  Right?  So we do—and we have identified a series of strategic, high-capacity mobility corridors.  We have been very intentional about, in this process, not saying this is a light rail corridor or bus rapid transit.  It’s just really about the network and laying out that vision, and most importantly, not putting a price tag on it.

So, I mean, that’s one of those things that I’m really excited about this plan, is that we have a bold vision, we’re being very intentional about what we’re putting in this plan, and we’re being very intentional about laying out the fact that there’s much more studies and detailed planning work that needs to come to kind of, you know, identify how much it’s going to cost, and which mode is going to be placed on each corridor.

Cohen: Yeah.  It feels like a little bit of chicken and egg too, right?

Gardner: Yeah.

Cohen: It’s like, you know, I’m sure some people say, “Well, how can I know if this vision is realistic?  We don’t know the price tag.”  Right?  So I could see where that’s kind of a challenging place for y’all to be in, as far as like building the vision without putting an actual price tag on it.

Gardner: Well, and I think that’s where you—it grabs the headline.  I mean, the— simultaneous, while we were doing this process, the City of Charlotte was working on a transformational mobility network process.  And, you know, very—and I was involved in that and very, you know, it was a thoughtful conversation and very good intentions to come up with a price tag because people were asking the questions.  But then it became just this magnet, you know, that every—“Well, it’s $10 million.”  And it’s like, “Well, yeah, today.  But by the time this thing is built and further study is completed, who knows what it’s going to cost?”  That’s why, for our process, it’s been so vital to frame this in an economic development lens just as much as it is on the mobility.

Cohen: I mean, it’s actually funny that you say that about the price tag, because I think the FAA just signed off on the LaGuardia AirTrain kind of extension that—I think it was Governor Cuomo was really pushing in New York City.  And I think the price tag on that, in like the six years since it was proposed, have jumped from like 500 million to like 4 billion or something like that.

Gardner: Yeah.

Cohen: It was just absurd, the growth.  And I don’t know how much of that is, like, inflation, how much of that is hard cost, how much of that is expansion of the vision.  I don’t know.  But I do think that’s—it’s indicative of what you just said, that, you know, until you have a real good sense on exactly does everybody—is everybody in on this, putting that price tag on there seems like it can be a little bit of maybe more trouble than it’s worth, I think.

Gardner: Yeah.  Well, we’ll certainly see.  I mean—[LAUGHS]—I mean, at the end of the day, we’re going to have to know because there’s lots of—you know, we spent a lot of time thinking about funding and partnerships as related, you know, to this study.  And I think another big idea that’s sort of hovering below the radar right now but I think is vital to the success of implementation is, you know, how do we bake in the informal partnerships that have been developed over the years across these various planning organizations and transit authorities.  You know, there’s operating agreements and things like that, but truly, at the end of the day, are we driving towards some form of regional transit authority?  And we’ve looked at models across the country, and, you know, at the end of the day, it’s not—you know, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. But if we’re truly going to compete, and we’re going to do what we say we need to do to make this plan a reality, we’re going to have to come to terms with how do we institutionalize the collaboration and think about, you know, what are those mechanisms.

And there aren’t too many places across the country that are building regional transit authorities from scratch anymore, you know, and so how do we build a better model and not repeat some of the mistakes that are happening in some of the older organizations that are going through issues with revenue and ridership?  And so I think that’s another exciting opportunity that this plan is going to really point us towards that we’ll sink our teeth into in the coming months.

Cohen: Wow.  Yeah, no, you’re right.  I mean, that isn’t something that people are doing every day.  All right, well, let’s wrap up with this.  It’s a little bit more on the tactical side, but I want to, you know, leverage the fact that you’ve got this experience working, you know, both in government, in D.C., and now with government in your role now with Centralina.  What have been some of the tactical things that either you’ve done or you’ve seen others do that has been the most impactful to achieving success, kind of as defined by kind of the organization that you or they are serving?

Gardner: Yeah, I mean, I’m trained as a planner.  I—you know, that that was—that has been my job for a very, very long time.  And so I think I go back to assuming you have something to learn.  You know, I spent a lot of time on living room couches when I worked in communities, just listening, you know, and trying to understand from a community perspective, you know, what’s going on, “What are your challenges?  What do you think the opportunities are?”  And I apply the same perspective to the work that I do now.

You know, I came down here.  I’ve never lived in the South before because I don’t—you technically could consider D.C. the South, but it is not culturally.  And I just—you know, being that sort of humble observer and listener and letting your own opinions evolve over time and just listening to people, I think, has been really important to my success.

You know, I went out on the road for when I first got here and visited as many communities as I could get to, just to sit down and talk to each other and understand, you know, what is the small-town rural experience like, you know, in the far reaches of our region.  You know, “What issues are you facing, and how can my organization help?”  So COVID, you know, made that relationship-building really difficult and really challenging, and I need to get back to it.  But I think that that’s been certainly the biggest thing that I’ve always gone back to in any new situation, just trying to build relationships, listen, be humble, learn, and then go and figure out what my strategy is going to be or our strategy is.

Cohen: You mentioned that maybe even some of your perspectives have involved, even through those conversations.  Has there been something that maybe some preconceived notion you might have had about the region that once you got here and you started having all those conversations from, you know, Iredell County all the way down to Union and around, you know, all the way to the east and west?  Did you see some of those or have a perspective that kind of shifted a little bit during that time?

Gardner: Absolutely.  I mean, I find, through conversation, that every, whether it’s the manager or administrator or a mayor or elected official that I’ve met with, they see value in regionalism in different ways.  And I think part of our challenge and responsibility as an organization is to meet people where they are when it comes to regionalism.

You know, I never want to be the organization, and I don’t think—Centralina, in its 50-year history, has never wanted to be the big brother, you know, kind of telling everybody what to do.  That’s not our role.  You know, it kind of goes back to, you know, we want to be present, and we want to be helpful, but we have to help people think about how do they move the regional vision forward in a way that’s going to meet the expectations of their community, be right for their political and economic context.  And we have to weave that fabric together.  You know, we just can’t assume that everyone is going to be in the same place.  Conversations are going to look different in the town of Davidson than they are going to be in the Village of Marvin or in other places.  And I think that’s what makes the job so interesting and, I think, exciting for me and others that work at the organization.

Cohen: Awesome, awesome.  Geraldine, thank you so much for this introduction to some of the regional work that you’re doing there in Charlotte.  Lots of exciting things going on in the Charlotte area with the Charlotte Regional Council.  Best of luck with CONNECT Beyond and the regional mobility plan and as you release the rest of that later this fall.

Gardner: Thank you so much.  It was fun.

F: Thanks for listening.  If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast.  You can find out more at or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP.  Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.