Wits City Institute Public Lecture

Urban Transformation in Divided Cities

Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Chair of Critical Architecture and Urbanism and Director of the Wits City Institute Professor Noëleen Murray hosted ‘City Dialogues’, a presentation by former Washington DC Mayor Anthony Williams, in conjunction with the United States Consul General Christopher Rowan.

15 February 2017 / Wits Club, University of the Witwatersrand

Words: Elizabeth Pienaar

had transformed a crime-ridden, bankrupt, and racially polarised city into a safe, fiscally sound and less divided city. He did this while at the same time reducing taxes, investing in infrastructure and human services, and returning non-functioning government agencies from the brink of collapse.

During his stint as independent Chief Financial Officer of the District from 1995 to 1998, Williams knew exactly what he was taking on as Mayor: Washington DC had the lowest credit rating in the US; the city was 600 million dollars in debt; services were collapsing; nothing worked (only 30 police cars were functional); the city was racially divided, and the population had dwindled to 500 000. And yet, when Mayor Williams ended his second term, the city had a 16-million-dollar surplus, a growing population, and an increase from 12 to 20 million tourists each year.

Williams offered his audience of city practitioners, academics, and urban planning students a series of key observations drawn from his time in office. 

1. How to view a city: A city has a local and global identity. Local is what you think of it as a resident. Global is how a foreigner will perceive and experience it. Be sure to create a positive image and to implement as many internationally understood standard procedures as possible. This is practical stuff: how does signage work, how are health facilities accessed, how are traffic rules implemented?

2. Be aware that every city has a standard history as well as a unique history: Standard history in the US narrates the country- or worldwide, pre-depression moves from the land, and immigration into the cities, and the devastating effects of the Depression and wars. Localised history notes the 1950s as a time of prosperity in the city, the creation of a black middle class in the 1980s, and the growing complexity of red tape and subsequent demise of the city.

3. Work with the economy you have: It is no good theorising or planning based on the economy you would like to have. Instead, work with the economy you have. The first job is to grow economy, which involves understanding the histories as outlined above, and using these to regenerate the public realm. This is not an architectural conceit but is the much more important acknowledgment of a shared space that everyone who lives in the city values, and impacts on how the city presents itself, and values itself. Steps to reaching shared values include: valuing and honouring contracts and property, setting a baseline for expectations, and gaining public trust through transparency and fiscal soundness. In addition, the public must feel safe in its own city, the economy needs functioning public services, such as policing, and taxes, including sales tax and income tax should be used as engines for a finance base.

4. Build trust to turn a divided city around: The sequence of actions is important. Start by finding the best people you can, as you cannot drive the vehicle before you have the skills to do so. Commit to measurable actions: say ‘I am going to do something,’ then DO it. Symbolic actions can be small but are important. In DC, for example, the repair of the broken lions on the Taft Bridge sent the message that the city was proud again. Introducing a ‘greeter’ at government offices made people feel public services were approachable. Do 10 things to show you are serious and thus gain respect and generate a positive cycle. Build structural integrity and people will believe in you.
5. If you have respect people will go with hard decisions: Holding open dialogues attracting audiences of up to 4 000 people, showed that the Mayor was serious about listening to residents. But even then, the Mayor was able to make tough decisions that went against what people wanted, if those were the correct decisions. After all, the Mayor was elected to lead.

6. In a divided city, you cannot treat all neighbourhoods the same: Calibrate the treatment of neighbourhoods by economic need. Do not force development on ‘good’ neighbourhoods if they don’t want it. Transition neighbourhoods can be developed; needy neighbourhoods require long-term strategic investment. Not all gentrification is bad. Tailor your policy to your asset base. There are benefits, including the possibility of attracting more residents into the neighbourhoods, and bringing positive role models into denuded suburbs.

7. Branding the city: During discussion time, Williams suggested that creating an identity for a city involved understanding the ‘hopes, dreams, and aspirations that your city represents’, and he reiterated the earlier assertion that one must use the tools available. In DC, for example, the concentration of diplomats – it is home to the world’s largest diplomatic delegation – was leveraged to grow and promote tourism. This was achieved through taking the time to meet all diplomats personally.

8. Understand your role: In answer to a question, Williams discussed the importance of pragmatism and vision, reminding his audience that ‘taking care of your people main is your main responsibility. Being pragmatic involves not picking fights based on political allegiance but being prepared to work with everyone.’