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Livability: The Perspectives of Local Government

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Livability: The Perspectives of Local Government

By Paul Helmke
Mayor of Fort Wayne

(Excerpts of a presentation by Mayor Helmke, on behalf of The United States Conference of Mayors, to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.)

WPaul Helmkehen mayors speak of livability, they talk about reducing crime, improving public education, helping kids and adults secure better job and housing opportunities, improving the delivery of public services, recycling brownfields, enhancing the local environment, improving parks and libraries and making transportation systems work for people. These are the issues squarely before local elected leaders and largely drive our agenda.

We don't have a complete definition of livability, but as a mayor, I know it when I see it. And, certainly, I know it when I hear it, and it is something that is very much on the minds of the voters in local communities.

For mayors and other local elected officials, you might say we are in this business. One of the reasons we are here today is that citizens in a very grass-roots way are demanding something more from all of us, their elected leaders. They want us to work harder to help improve their quality of life, not just their standard of living.

"All of this is
pushing what have been historically
locally-oriented issues on to the political agenda of state and federal leaders."

All of this is pushing what have been historically locally-oriented issues on to the political agenda of state and federal leaders, forcing elected officials at every level to respond, and to be aware of how past and current policies have sometimes created problems at the local level.

Contrary to some statements in the press, this definitely is not a top-down movement. It is a local citizen or grass-roots movement, driven by all types of conditions throughout the country. As a local official, I can assure you that this is not a Democrat, Republican or Libertarian issue.

It appears this message is being amplified by the confluence of two population segments. People in newly developed areas are clamoring for improved services, managed growth and some relief from the increasing burdens of auto dependency. People in built communities -- largely central cities, inner ring cities and urban counties -- want more help for their particular needs, like updated infrastructure and facilities, including rehabilitation of parks and libraries, and pedestrian and neighborhood-oriented improvements. People in existing communities also expect more attention to their needs now that we have spent more than two generations investing in and building up the suburbs.

After much anxiety in dealing with the nation's economic restructuring over the past several decades, there appears to be more confidence about our economic future and, collectively, our voters are demanding more attention to issues affecting their quality of life.

What is new about this issue is that it is finally finding a place here in Washington, where debates have focused on sometimes more distant matters. The front door issues -- those issues before you when you open your front door, and not just what you see on the front pages -- are knocking at your door.


Let me provide an example of this, from my perspective as the mayor of a community, which made the transition from a fort to a strong city of 200,000. As President of The U.S. Conference of Mayors, I made brownfields the top issue of my tenure as a leader of the nation's mayors. I didn't call it livability, but it is at the core of so many issues in this debate.

"Brownfields redevelopment" is really a metaphor for renewing our partnership commitments to existing communities.

By recycling the thousands of brownfield sites in communities throughout the nation, we can offer alternatives to simply plowing under and paving over more pristine greenfields, be they farm land, forests or open space.

And, in this way, we can better serve millions of people in communities struggling with this challenge, places where many of us live and work today.

Brownfields, so often in evidence as abandoned properties with all of the outward signs of neglect, are a particularly powerful way to call attention to the need to look at existing communities and policies to help local leaders sustain their economies.

We recycle glass, paper and aluminum cans, but as a nation, we don't fully recycle our land. We believe that existing communities have the capacity to recycle land for reuse in future development, breaking the cycle of developing pristine land or greenfields as a first choice.

Yet, there are obstacles in getting these sites cleaned up and redeveloped. And, the difficulty in redeveloping these sites and capturing all of the many community and economic benefits has also hindered our ability to meet the many concerns of our citizens. Pressing local issues -- transportation, environmental quality, safety, education, and neighborhood-oriented investments in schools, libraries, ballfields and parks -- can be addressed more readily through redevelopment of these sites, as local economies are strengthened, generating the resources to reinvest in our communities.

As a local leader, I can tell you we have been working hard to recycle and restore these lands, attempting to offer developers, business leaders, bankers and others new opportunities to invest and grow in existing communities. But much more needs to done to turn the perception of these "dead zones" into prosperous and thriving uses.

A year and a half ago, I addressed the "Brownfields 97" Conference in Kansas City, where I said:

"Brownfields is the leading edge of what I believe will soon be the nation's most pressing environmental concern: the loss of open space -- farmlands and forests -- brought about by our continuing patterns of urbanization."

In discussing this issue, I frequently cite data from the American Farmland Trust. For the 10-year period, 1982 - 1992, the United States converted more than 4 million acres of prime farmland to urban land. This is the real stuff -- "prime farmland" -- the kind of land that is very productive.

In that period, we lost prime farmland that is larger in size than the entire greater Chicago metropolitan area, which runs from Northern Indiana to Southern Wisconsin. Or, farmland that is equal in size to the States of Connecticut and Rhode Island. As Chicago Mayor Daley, a former Conference President, so often says, "The U.S. destroys more farmland each year than any nation on earth."

In the same 10-year period, all of the land which was developed, including this prime farmland, is equal in size to the states of Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware and one quarter of Maryland.

I believe there is some urgency to the brownfields issue, particularly when you step back and consider what is happening to farmland and forests in proximity to our urban areas.

Brownfields redevelopment, for so many communities, is about making sure that the land is productive again, unburdened by liability issues and free to capture private sector investment in housing and job-producing businesses. We see this as a cycle of potential renewal, with rising property values and increasing tax receipts to build better communities that our citizens want and expect.


The Conference of Mayors in its testimony before this Committee and our work in support of ISTEA renewal, urged a balanced investment between highways and transit, and flexible funding, as well as continuation of programs like Enhancements and the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program and continued emphasis on system preservation. But the key message that Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell delivered on behalf of the mayors was the continuing need for partnership in addressing the nation's transportation infrastructure needs, urging that the ISTEA framework be used as the basis for this partnership.

Keeping what we have in good repair is very much in tune with what voters are asking for. Recently, the Rebuild America Coalition conducted a national survey and found that an overwhelmingly majority of the respondents believe that keeping existing road surfaces in good condition and free of potholes was more important than building new highway capacity in dealing with congestion. These findings affirm some of the issues we have been discussing today in that voters want more attention to keeping what we have in better condition, as one of the ways to better serve citizens in existing communities.

Most of these transportation elements have been strongly supported by local elected officials, through investments in the CMAQ program to better air quality, in the Enhancements program to better integrate transportation facilities into our communities, in the Bridge Program to rehabilitate these facilities, and in increased investment in public transportation.

The Conference of Mayors would offer several recommendations on how the Committee might follow-up on these and other matters.

(W)e encourage the Committee to hold field hearings and conduct more oversight on state efforts in implementing TEA-21....

We (are) hopeful that the states will use some of the Act's flexibility to make resources available to local areas for transportation infrastructure improvements in support of brownfields redevelopment. In our 1998 Brownfields Survey, we found many respondents citing the need for transportation improvements, such as upgrading and modernizing existing facilities, as necessary to facilitate investment at brownfield sites.

One of our biggest challenges in the transportation arena has been state transportation department officials, who historically denied the linkage between transportation investment and development patterns. TEA-21 certainly provides the tools and the laboratory, but it doesn't guarantee success. It is up to local elected officials working with the governors and state transportation officials to use the tools you have provided.

But, as a key partner in this equation, it is helpful to those of us at the local government level to have this Committee fully engaged in monitoring our progress under TEA-21 and how these substantially increased resources are deployed. This Committee has many other policies -- clean air, water quality, flood control -- that are advanced or harmed by state and local actions in the transportation arena.

Environmental Programs

Given the Committee's involvement with the financing of environmental infrastructure through State Revolving Funds to the States, particularly the Wastewater Revolving Fund, the Conference would suggest some actions related to the issues before the Committee today.

First, it would be helpful to have U.S. EPA prepare information for the Committee on the distribution of these funds within areas of the state, offering some perspective on how existing communities, particularly in urban areas are faring under the program.

Second, it would be useful to know from the agency if these resources are promoting outward development or aiding in redeveloping existing areas.

Finally, the Conference is supportive of proposals to redirect some portion of these funds toward wet weather problems, such as municipal stormwater and combined sewer overflow improvements, changes which will help serve continuing clean water needs among existing communities.

Mr. Chairman, we know that some of our development patterns are exacerbating our ability to tackle stormwater and flood control needs in areas all across the country. We are also learning more about how these development patterns might be infringing upon our surface and groundwater supplies. This is an area where we would like to work with the Committee to examine these issues in further detail.

On clean air, the Conference has been very engaged in a number of issues involving implementation of this Act. For example, we have been concerned about the potential effects of the new air standards on brownfields redevelopment. As a result, the Conference has been working on a project with U.S. EPA, the Economic Development Administration, and several cities, including Chicago, Dallas and Baltimore, to analyze the relationship between brownfields redevelopment and achievement of clean air standards.

I would also call the Committee's attention to the Administration's proposal, the Clean Air Partnership Fund, which calls for first-ever funding of $200 million in FY'2000 to help communities fund clean air projects and deploy new technologies. This investment is particularly important to local areas which in the past have only had access to CMAQ funds for mobile source efforts. From a local perspective, we welcome any additional federal commitments to help us meet the increasingly complex air issues before our communities.


Finally, let me note that open space preservation and parks development are areas where the mayors have been very supportive. We, however, will continue to press for more attention on urban parks as the "Lands Legacy" Program and other proposals move forward.

We all know that preservation of open space has important implications for the work of this Committee as you continue to grapple with transportation, air quality, water quality and non-point source pollution, flood control and water resources. Mr. Chairman, I would encourage Members of this Committee to engage in this debate, given your considerable jurisdictional interests in seeing successful initiatives in this area.

Mayors' Agenda

Mr. Chairman, let me close with some comments on the mayors' agenda.

During my tenure as Conference President, I talked extensively about farmland and open space preservation and the need to recycle America's land through brownfields redevelopment. Conference presidents for five successive years have been pressing for a stronger federal partnership on brownfields. We see the Administration's proposal for "Better America Bonds" as a response to local leaders, like myself and others, who have championed a more aggressive federal commitment to local efforts in this area.

Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe, who served as President of the Conference before me, personally championed the cause of the stateside program of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and urban parks, with these issues finally receiving some attention in recent months, nearly four years later. Mr. Chairman, you may recall that he met with you on this subject. Quite frankly, we were disappointed that there was so little emphasis on urban parks in the Administration's plan, but in the whole we believe there is a need for a broader federal commitment in this area. We are pleased to see that Chairman Murkowski is proposing to fully fund the stateside LWCF program and fund urban parks at a much higher level.

I have already noted elements in the transportation area. I would just reiterate our desire to see state officials use these resources to partner more fully with local officials in funding locally-determined transportation projects, such as new rail starts and other alternative transportation projects as well as broader commitments to system preservation, safety, enhancements and air quality.

Mayors have advanced brownfields redevelopment as one of the cornerstones in our "livability" agenda, an area which I have discussed in some detail. Mr. Chairman, next month the Conference will release its Second Annual Report on Brownfields. Among the more interesting findings of this report will be a projection on how many people these responding cities can absorb without adding substantially to existing infrastructure. In this survey, 110 cities estimate that they can absorb more than 3.5 million new residents, a capacity which substantially exceeds one year of the nation's population growth. Tapping just a portion of this potential capacity in existing communities could save taxpayers billions of dollars in future capital and operating costs.

We see brownfields as part of a broader agenda, which includes reducing crime and community-based public safety, improving public education along with community-wide responses to the needs of school age kids, emphasizing arts, cultural and other unique community assets, and renewing our infrastructures, like schools, parks, housing and transportation facilities. In the whole, these issues respond directly to what we as mayors believe our citizens are seeking in their daily lives, concerns which are increasingly characterized as livability.

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