City needs clear vision of how it will develop

At issue | July 21 column by Herald-Leader's Tom Eblen, "The two Jims vary widely on development"

This mayoral election cycle, while unequivocally focused on the economy, has also been as much about "making Lexington" (new development, historic preservation and master-planning), with CentrePointe as the most prominent example.

What is lost in the current rancor between the two candidates is an honest assessment of the connection between urban and economic development, and the role that the city can play in shaping these mutually reinforcing goals.

To what extent should a local government insert itself into the process of development? The tools available to plan and grow cities have never been so profuse as they are today; the next mayor should find the talented people who can bring them to Lexington.

In the current arrangement, the various agencies and authorities such as the Planning Department, the Downtown Development Authority and the Office of Environmental Policy execute their various mandates, but the city isn't equipped to synthesize these factors into a strong vision.

The most successful cities and regions use this kind of cross-disciplinary thinking to shape urban spaces as engines of innovation, entrepreneurship and culture.

Ed Glaeser, a prominent urban economist, has written eloquently about the connection between economics and cities — for example, he suggests that urban areas once existed (as was the case with Lexington) to increase productivity and to reduce the costs of manufacturing (think: hemp manufacturers, distillers and education in Lexington's case). Today, industry has found more suitable locations abroad and in rural locations.

However, cities today are really good at spreading the flow of ideas among a dense population. While I personally don't support sociologist Richard Florida's model of the "creative city" — or the idea that a so-called creative class will serve as a city's economic core — Florida and Glaeser argue that urban centers today give residents a chance to develop strong personal and professional relationships that can give rise to anything from social connectivity to new business growth.

If this is true, how are governments and agencies successfully implementing ideas into real policy actions? In April, the well-respected Regional Planning Association hosted a conference in New York called "Innovation and the American Metropolis," that considered innovative approaches to the design and management of cities.

Tom Wright, the executive director of the RPA, framed the conference as a chance to discuss new methods of urban planning and how they are being applied. New digital tools — such as locative software, social media and GIS — are giving planners a real time look at the mechanics of urban life.

Increasingly, these tools are being adopted in innovative ways to understand how spaces work and how we could change them.

For example, Long Island recently launched the "Long-Island Index" a comprehensive survey of land use that makes complex data legible to the public. The content served as the basis for a design competition about suburban infill opportunities, which provided free press for the region.

In Newark, N.J., the planner/educator Damon Rich talked about how that city is activating local community groups to enact small pieces of a more coherent urban and economic development plan in their own neighborhoods. The "This is Newark" program brought world-class talent to an underserved city.

Lexington's mayoral candidates have used development as wedge. However, our city needs leaders to proactively imagine how Lexington can attract new innovations, new entrepreneurial spirits and a new sense of community. By doing do, the city can tie together its missions to further economic development and responsible urban planning.

Jim Gray's proposal, to create a new commissioner-level position to coordinate these activities is a good first move. Lexington needs world-class talent; and as a matter of fact, many Lexington natives have just these skill sets, except they can only find opportunities elsewhere.

The signs of new life in Lexington — new businesses, restaurants and neighborhoods — are testament to the will to succeed and to do so on a grass roots level, the city government should tap into this passion by creating a bold vision of our future.

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