Episode 13: Real Leadership is Happening at The Local Level

TransLoc MarketingThe Movement Podcast

Featuring the National League of Cities’ Brooks Rainwater… [more context and any links/videos]

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Episode Transcript

Cohen: Transportation is such a big industry that it’s easy to get focused on the technology, labor, capital investments, and maintenance that goes into just making transportation work.  Our guest today, Brooks Rainwater from the National League of Cities, wants public leaders to look outside their lane to ensure that transit leaders are at the table to help address other critical social issues like housing, job access, and economic opportunity.  Let’s get started.  

F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future.  To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities.  Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real.  Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.  

Cohen: If we’re going to live in the verdant, accessible, and equitable future that we all want to live in, it’s going to have to involve cities.  More and more people are moving to cities because there are jobs, opportunity, education, healthcare, community, all of those in abundance; but growing cities also deal with challenges like gentrification and NIMBYism and congestion.  So our guest today is Brooks Rainwater, the senior executive and director of the National League of Cities’ Center for City Solutions. And if you are not familiar with the National League of Cities, they are dedicated to helping city leaders build better communities.  So, Brooks, welcome to The Movement.    

Rainwater: Great to be here.  

Cohen: All right.  Well, let’s get started with maybe giving a little history into your background and kind of how you ended up at the National League of Cities and then the work you’re doing currently at the National League of Cities.

Rainwater: Sure.  Well, I ended up here at the National League of Cities back in 2013, but really backing up, my background and kind of the work that I do really began when I was at Carolina as an undergraduate.  While I was there I interned for the North Carolina Smart Growth Alliance and really started to get a feel for kind of the urban form and urban issues happening at that time in North Carolina but broadened my horizons to these issues happening all throughout America.  And then globally as I started to explore what was going on in Europe and kind of looking back on the built form of cities that have been around for hundreds of years just really sparked an interest in kind of cities and everything that was going on.  

So after I left North Carolina I moved up to Washington, D.C. and went to graduate school in public administration, and while there worked for a small government affairs consulting firm, and while there really started to understand kind of the interplay between federal, state, and local issues.  So I did a lot of work on kind of technology policy as well as working for nonprofits. And as I graduated from graduate school I got a job which was really a nice interplay between politics and land-use for the American Institute of Architects where I did government relations work and public policy work for them for about nine years, first starting on state government affairs and then kind of launching what was their first local government relations program.  And in the process I started to work with groups like the National League of Cities, U.S. Conference of Mayors, and National Association of Counties. I did a lot of research work there, particularly around green building policy looking at kind of green incentives, what was happening in cities and counties at the time, and then kind of transitioned more towards the impact on health that that design was having.  

And then as I was doing all of this work I started to think that I wanted to be able to look at what was happening in cities more holistically.  I love design. I love being able to look at it from the frame of design, but there was a job opening here at the National League of Cities back in 2013, and I thought that looked great and came over here and kind of started up the Center for City Solutions.  We started the center when I started about five years ago with seven employees. Now we have 25, so we’ve really grown the footprint of the work we do. But fundamentally what we’re trying to do is help city leaders lead, and we do that through research, best practices, on the ground technical assistance, and convening, as well as leadership education.  

So if they are kind of core city issues, whether that be economic development or housing, climate and sustainability, we’re really here working on that.  And we have an eye, I would say, towards kind of future-focused issues in our urban innovation portfolio, and I do a lot of work there, so around what’s happening with autonomous vehicles, the sharing economy, and particularly the future of work.  So I could go even deeper, but that’s kind of the broad story from there to here.  

Cohen: That’s great.  Well, it’s neat to see that through line all the way through from your experience as an undergraduate all the way through until today.  I like to see that. And you touched on this a little bit based on some of the work that the Center for City Solutions is doing, and so I’m curious how the National League of Cities or even the center engages with mobility.  Because you have all those items, you know, you listed a couple other ones, housing and climate and so forth, and so there’s a lot of different things that cities are focusing on and have to pay attention to. And so I guess I’m curious where mobility fits in that compared to all these other things that you could argue are equally as important, housing and the climate and education and economic development and so forth.  

Rainwater: Yeah, I think there’s a definite argument to be made that all of them are equally important in some ways, but mobility is really the groundwork for being able to functionally get around in cities and make sure that commerce happens, make sure and think about how you can create a more equitable system.  I think mobility is, frankly, fundamental.  

And what’s been fascinating as we see more and more kind of mobility options, multimodal usages getting around in cities, that there has been an increasing focus in many of our cities on equity and making sure that we have mobility options in all parts of the cities.  And so as we’re seeing great displacement and gentrification, we need to think more holistically on how mobility can be a source of opportunity rather than something that is only available for those living in the more wealthier neighborhoods or kind of the downtown areas.  

And so we’ve seen mobility in a number of ways.  I mean, we’ve done research on autonomous vehicles, quite a few different reports looking at both what’s been happening in the last few years as well as forecasting out 2025, 2030.  We’ve worked with partners like Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Aspen Institute on an autonomous vehicle scenario website, which was a really fun project to start to kind of dig in it and think about how that could look.  We’ve done quite a bit of work on ride hailing and what was happening particularly as Uber and Lyft launched and kind of that impact in cities, both the positive and negative side of that.  

We’re looking at kind of the climate impacts of some of these opportunities that have come online too.  And we’re just about to come out with a report on micromobility and all that’s been happening with scooters and bikes and kind of the great opportunities that have exploded over these last few years.  So it’s definitely, as I said, I think, a core issue that I work on as well as quite a few of my colleagues, because, again, we see it as so foundational.

Cohen: So you mentioned equity there, and I want to pause on that and dig into that a little bit.  So you mentioned that it’s becoming more of a focus; and I guess the question is why? Like, is there a renewed interest from the leaders that you’re working with in equity and in a way that hadn’t been that way before?  And, if so, what led to that?

Rainwater: I think there is definitely a focus by mayors and councilmembers as well as city staff on equity, and I think this has grown more and more in the last few decades as cities have become places that are drawing in great numbers of people.  Prices have been skyrocketing on housing, and there’s definitely been a broader kind of growth of jobs that pay well and those that don’t pay well with a lot of the middle kind of hollowing out.  

And so I think that the challenges with success in cities have led on the other side of that to many leaders trying to figure out how we build more affordable housing, how we think about what the impacts of something like displacement and gentrification are on community members that have made their homes in cities for generations.  And so I think that the nature of how cities have been changing has led to this kind of enhanced conversation about how we think about equity and inclusion as foremost issues rather than secondary issues.  

Cohen: Yeah, I think that’s really important.  And I guess the renewed interest in living in cities kind of forces these issues to the front.  The flipside is it takes a mindful approach to really make sure that you’re approaching all of these issues, these topics that we talked about, the climate, the education, the housing, so forth, with an equitable mindset.  I think it’s really easy to just tackle them without really considering equity. Even if it’s forcing the conversation, I think it’s still very easy for a lot of leaders just to kind of push that off to the side and not really address that directly.  

Rainwater: Yeah, and I think the other piece I would add is that leaders are really trying to counteract the injustices of the past.  So if you think about the housing market and redlining and all of the challenges that we saw there, there is an opportunity now for real leadership at the local level to think about how we built the future together rather than divide it.  And so I think that piece is particularly critical too.  

Cohen: Well, let’s maybe build on that a little bit.  So your CEO from the National League of Cities, Clarence Anthony, a former city mayor himself spoke at an event I went to last November for the American Public Transportation Association.  And the kind of headline that he had or one of the headlines—he had many great thoughts during that speech, but one that really jumped out to me was, and this is a loose quote here, “Transportation leaders should look outside their lane by engaging the people you serve and those you don’t to create the communities we want.”  And I really liked that theme, and so I guess I want to build on that to get at who are some leaders that are doing that well today and why. What are they doing right?

Rainwater: I think what Clarence was really trying to get at with his remarks at APTA was addressing transportation as a communal responsibility and pressing transit leaders to use their elevated positions in their communities to address not just mobility challenges but all sorts of community challenges.  In my interpretation, he was implying that we have to imagine cities as delicate social ecosystems in which social challenges have root causes and might be interconnected.  

And so really building off of his comments that he was making, he was talking about this idea that you need to set the table more broadly, so kind of thinking about not just staying in your lane, and if you’re a transit leader, making sure that community members are there at the table, making sure that the elected officials are there.  And so as you’re starting to think about expansions on the transit system, how and who will be impacted?  

And I think a number of cities are doing really well with this.  I think Jacksonville was one that he brought up which is definitely a city working well on this.  I think that what you’ve seen in Denver as they’ve expanded their transit system over the last decade or 15 years has been remarkable, both in growth as well as kind of impact.  Los Angeles right now as they’re spending tens of billions of dollars to kind of transform the city and kind of stitch back the urban fabric from what was such a car dependent city is another place I would point to.  I think, again, that in any of those cities or so many others it gets to this point of thinking holistically and not just focusing in on kind of the core aspects of, “We need to built the system; we need to just be focused on expansion or maintenance,” but instead think about who we’re building the system for.  

Cohen: Sure.  And also recognizing that if you’re going to build an extensive transit system but you’re not going to have zoning that allows for density around that transit system, you’re really not having the same impact as you possibly could.

Rainwater: Mm-hmm.  Definitely.  

Cohen: Same thing with job centers and so forth.  I think there’s a lot of connectivity there that is important on the mobility side and also thinking about how job access is impacting the whole community and not just providing it for white-collar jobs but also ensuring that there’s some access for everyone in the community.  

Rainwater: Yeah, and I think the density question continues to be one of the primary challenges that are faced by so many communities.  That we know that building dense, downtown development near transit leads to success, but the NIMBYs that fight back against that continue to kind of cause challenges in communities.  It’s been fascinating watching kind of the NIMBY-versus-YIMBY battle play out in California as well as in many other states. And I think fundamentally what people are really getting behind is that we need to build more housing, and we need to build more housing for income levels across the spectrum, not just luxury housing but also affordable housing.  And until we do that it’s going to be a challenge continually. And this is where mobility and transit play such a key role, because the interconnectedness is kind of the key piece there, that as we’re thinking about building denser housing, having transit connected to it just makes everything so much better.  

Cohen: So what that makes me think of is I was out in San Francisco recently.  And obviously San Francisco is an obvious place where the housing crunch is really clear, but I think it’s happening in a lot of growing cities across the country.  And I think it’s a good example of the overall thesis that I’m looking at, which is that technology is not the barrier to achieve the world we want to live in. Right?  It’s not like we need some sort of housing technology that’s going to allow for us to build cheaper or better or something like that. That’s not the barrier.  

The barrier is the elected officials who need to make the hard decisions that will allow for more housing and to deal with the NIMBYs and to deal with some of the other regulatory challenges within California with the real estate to deal with that.  And so I’m really trying to identify how do we overcome some of those barriers. Right? And are there other barriers beyond just those hard decisions that need to be made? What are some other barriers that we need to overcome there?

Rainwater: I don’t think that we should give short shrift to the idea that technology in the building sector actually would be quite useful.  If we’d look at kind of mobility and many other sectors, technology has driven down costs tremendously over the last generation, whereas the housing industry costs have only gone up.  So, yeah, there are barriers at the local level, but I do think that investing money and thinking about new ways to build housing, you know, you’ve seen some pretty exciting stuff on kind of the modular housing side.  

But I also think that from the local perspective one of the biggest challenges is regionalism and regionalism done well.  When we think about here in the Washington, D.C. area where I live or in the San Francisco Bay area, so often we think about the center city as kind of the core piece of this.  But a lot of the barriers are actually placed by the suburban communities that surround the center cities. If you think about kind of the density challenges in San Francisco for example, San Francisco certainly needs to kind of overcome that, build taller, you know, many of those things; but a lot of the communities around there, if they were to build denser, if you built a stronger transportation network kind of connecting everything together that would really start to alleviate some of the housing crunches that they’re seeing in communities like where I live here in the Washington, D.C. region as well.  

And so I would really look to kind of stronger regionalism.  And then there’s also barriers placed on cities from states. We’ve had an upsurge in ____________________________________________________ [00:17:33] in many states over the last few years in particular as kind of the dichotomy between the politics of local governments and state governments play out, the whole urban-rural divide, and some of the challenges there.  

Cohen: Yeah, we’ve seen that a lot in North Carolina too.  

Rainwater: Yeah, I was going to say.  Unfortunately there is not really a great silver bullet where we can just fix housing because it’s such a multifaceted issue.  But I think if we start to pull away some of these layers and go kind of point by point and really think about what the ultimate goal is that we’re trying to achieve, you can start to see some opportunities that are arising.  And I think even in California right now where the state government this year is, I say, working a little bit better with local governments compared to last year when they tried to pass a housing bill that just preempted cities, because, frankly, we need to have governments working together on this.  

And then I wouldn’t also let the federal government off the hook.  The federal government for many, many years used to provide a lot more support on affordable housing.  And ever since the 1980s a lot of that support has diminished, so I think we really need a national action plan for housing that works together with state and local governments to really kind of put some heft behind what is not just a local problem but a national problem.  

Cohen: So what was the origin of that?  Was that the Republican White House during the ’80s?  What led to that change there in affordable housing and the lack of reinvestment in that relatively, I guess, over the course of the next 30 years?

Rainwater: Yeah, I think it was starting in the 1970s and then really accelerating in the 1980s, that it was the era of deregulation and kind of taking funding away from government programs across a wide swath of programs.  So I think that’s where you started to see that happen, and then, frankly, it continued into the 1990s when we were reinventing government and doing all kinds of fun stuff there too. So I think not until the last few years have we really started to kind of turn the tide and start to think a little bit more about how government should be involved in some of these issues.  

These are generational changes.  I think a lot of younger people, in particular, growing up and feeling the effects of the Great Recession are thinking about government in different ways and that maybe there should be a little bit more of an activist government helping on issues of whether it’s housing or college education, you know, thinking about the Green New Deal.  There’s a lot of opportunities for kind of partnership between government and those being governed.  

Cohen: Yeah, I think it’s fundamental, and I think that goes back to the equity question we kind of talked about at the beginning, which is I think if the folks that are governing are not in touch with those who are being governed, there is a risk of—bad actors is maybe too active a description.  It may not be a real active, like trying to be a bad actor as much as it’s just things kind of will be off by a fraction, and over time it just continues to build and build and build.

Rainwater: Yeah, and I think we’ve also moved over the last generation into a more winner-take-all society, which there are some positives, but there’s also many negatives.  And trying to counteract that with government policy, you know, if you have lots of wealth moving into cities and lots of wealth can be built there, you also have to think about how that impacts those that are not building wealth.  And I think that’s where government can play a role and is increasingly doing so.  

Cohen: It seems to me that what’s missing there is the overall kind of vision or values of a community.  What role do the mayors and the elected officials in a community have for either creating that vision or implementing that vision or recognizing it’s not there?  Because to me that seems like that’s an area where, again, no one is a bad actor as much as it’s just a gap, and without a clear vision of what our community stands for it’s easy for things to go sideways just because people are going after the latest thing or getting distracted by something else.  

Rainwater: I think this is where it’s worth mentioning that consistent polling shows that mayors and local officials are the most trusted level of government.  And I think a lot of that gets down to kind of that old trope, “It’s where the rubber meets the road.” You know, if a pothole needs filling, you know that the mayor is the person that needs to do it, and you see the mayor or councilmembers out at grocery stores, and that they get citizen reaction quite quickly.  And so all that being said, I think the mayors reflect the leadership and wants and needs of those that they govern, but they also fundamentally are able to lead and kind of guide those in communities with great ideas and kind of push on things that might be challenging because they’re willing to take a stand and show real leadership.  And I think that we’ve seen more activist mayors over the last 15 or 20 years as well.  

Cohen: Who are some of those that really jumped out to you?

Rainwater: I’d say here in Washington, D.C. Mayor Bowser is doing a great job really trying to tackle affordable housing because it’s become such a challenge.  Mayor Peduto up in Pittsburgh is one that I’ve been incredibly impressed with, all the work that they’ve done on technology and innovation and everything with autonomous vehicles and really transforming the city and moving it from where it was 10, 15 years ago to where it is today, which is a leader in many of these fields.  I think on the West Coast you see Mayor Garcetti that has been a champion for everything with mobility and transportation. I mean, think you could go on and on with a list of mayors that are really out there and kind of taking a stand.  

Our president right now, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson of Gary, Indiana has been such a champion for legacy cities and ways that we can kind of transform many communities much like Gary that were very hard hit by deindustrialization and thinking about what that transformation looks like.  And so, again, I think what we’re seeing though is these mayors are kind of coming out and taking a strong stance and leading in their communities, but they’re also becoming national leaders. And that’s been fascinating to watch as there are mayors like Mayor Pete Buttigieg running for president and others thinking about kind of jumping into the race.  You know, who knows? Maybe 2020 will be the year of a mayor becoming president. 

Cohen: Well, Senator Booker and his background as well.

Rainwater: Yeah.

Cohen: Yeah, that’s an interesting perspective.  And I wonder what impact that would have. We’re probably wishful thinking there, but it’d be really interesting to see what impact having a mayor or someone whose background is a mayor as the president would impact things.  I know they have a lot of things on their plate once they get to that level.  

Rainwater: I think we might finally pass an infrastructure bill.  

Cohen: Maybe.  Maybe. [LAUGHTER]  So let’s maybe transition a little bit to some tangible takeaways.  I really want to think about what our audience can take away here that they can use to help us create this future that we all want to live in.  So what are some things our audience can do tomorrow that can help us move down that road?  

Rainwater: I think first and foremost embrace local experimentation.  If there’s anything that I’ve learned in the work that we do here, it’s that change is happening rapidly, and sometimes it’s difficult to kind of deal with what can be very disruptive environments.  You know, pointing to what has happened with something like raid hailing and then e-scooters, ultimately the companies themselves need to be better actors in working with communities. But on the flipside of that, mayors and other local leaders have been champions of these new technologies; they just want to make sure that they work best for the community environment that they’re in.  So thinking about how you can incorporate those new technologies, how you can think about things like open data and making sure the kind of transparency and civic engagement is top of mind. I think that’s key.  

I think the other piece is always try to solve these problems through an equity lens, so don’t be afraid to engage with residents.  Don’t think about equity as an afterthought, but think about it as kind of core as we’re looking at programming around housing, around mobility, around kind of climate and climate justice issues.  That would be kind of the two key things I would leave the listeners with, as well as, again, just let’s celebrate the success that’s happening in cities while also being cognizant of the things that we need to fix.  

Cohen: I think that’s a great couple of lessons that we can pull from this.  Brooks, this has been really helpful for me to get some context directly from someone who is working with cities and with elected officials who are on the ground closer to the problems than the federal government and state governments and what you’re doing to help them.  Where can folks find you or the National League of Cities if they want to learn more?

Rainwater: Sure.  It’s been great to talk with you as well.  You can reach me at Rainwater@NLC.org or feel free to check out our website at NLC.org.  And, again, great to talk to you today.

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 TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.  

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