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Embrace Your Role: Public Works Leaders as Implementers of City Vision

January 10, 2014

Embrace Your Role: Public Works Leaders as Implementers of City Vision
By Mike Eastling, City of Richfield
Over the past 15 years, a seismic shift has occurred in the way Minnesota cities build themselves. There are three drivers to this shift:
Driver 1: Eliminated or diminished redevelopment tools
Cities were once able to implement their redevelopment plans by:
  • Envisioning a new downtown that eliminates obviously conflicting adjacent land uses.
  • Planning for new land uses that promote a better city, through zoning and Comprehensive Planning.
  • Actively implementing the new vision using two primary tools:
    • Purchasing some of the properties that are being used in a way that conflict with the new vision – through eminent domain, if necessary. 
    • Encouraging development consistent with the new vision by providing financial incentives – say, Tax Increment Financing (TIF).
Recently these tools have been eliminated or diminished in at least two significant ways:
  • In 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court, in Kelo v. City of New London, virtually eliminated the use of eminent domain for redevelopment purposes by finding such takings unconstitutional.
  • A series of legislative actions in 1988, 1989, 1990, and 1995 on the use of TIF in Minnesota leave TIF severely restricted in influencing developers. In 1996, the Legislative Auditor found these restrictions “reasonable.”
Driver 2: Expanded definition of public improvements
Planners and engineers are introducing new or expanded views of traditional public improvements. Instead of a street reconstruction project, we have:
  • Context sensitive design
  • Traffic calming
  • Systematic development of informed consent
  • Complete streets
  • Sustainability
  • Smart growth
  • Living streets
  • Neighborhood greenways
  • Transit-oriented development
I am starting to detect that our public is trying to tell us something. Rather than rebuilding the infrastructure, they want us to re-envision our communities using infrastructure as the vehicle for change.
The traditional, tried-and-true method of muscling our way through a special assessment hearing and moving on to final design just may not cut it anymore (dang it!). We are expected to be collaborative, interdisciplinary, and even – yes – visionary (yikes!).
Driver 3: Civic engagement in the information age
There are 2 billion smartphones and tablets worldwide; more than 25% of all cell phones are smart phones; more than 55% of new cell phones are smartphones. 
Smartphone users are back-checking the information on our display boards as they stand in our open houses. We need to be transparent or we will be caught on the spot. 
When city staff and consultants had a monopoly on the information on a project, we could afford to be the “experts.” We now have no alternative but to fully engage our constituents, or they might engage outside the system through blogs and the like to undermine our efforts. 
What is the public works response to this shift?
Recognize and embrace our new role as city-builders. Public works leaders may be guilty of abandoning their role as city builders in deference to the city planners. Now more than ever we need to be full partners in building our cities. We have much to offer.
Perceive our capital improvement projects as gateways (opportunities) to a redevelopment process. We may need to add a year or two to our project development timeline in order to process all the implications of a street reconstruction project. Is a bikeway, a greenway, or a transit way need to be part of the project? Are there ROW takings that would advance some needed land use changes in the project area? These are big questions that need time to sort out and missed opportunities if we don’t.
Engage the new hyper-aware tech-savvy constituents. We can’t afford to simply manage this new constituent. Meet them on their turf, with their tech toys. Use Facebook, twitter, and websites to draw them out. Find new tools like Mindmixer to invite their own ideas and respond to the full spectrum of ideas that are advanced not only by government insiders but by the constituents themselves. These tech savvy, engaged constituents are the young future leaders and council members of our cities.
Mike Eastling is director of public works with the City of Richfield. Phone: (612) 861-9792. Email:

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