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Don't Let L.A. Be the GM of Cities

June 14, 2005|Rick Cole | Rick Cole is the city manager of Ventura and a former mayor of Pasadena.

Antonio Villaraigosa's mayoral victory drew a lot of national attention as a symbol of rising Latino political power. But the analysis stopped there. Few people across the country -- or here at home for that matter -- took the opportunity to talk about the global significance of governing a city as huge as Los Angeles.

According to United Nations experts, the next few months will mark a momentous shift: For the first time in history, a majority of the planet's population will be living in cities.

This isn't just a demographic milestone, it's a revolution. A century ago, just one in seven of the world's people lived in cities. Within 20 years, that number will rise to four of every seven humans.

During that time, according to the U.N., the population will increase by 2.2 billion, a startling 95% of whom will live in cities.

Most of the biggest headline issues in the U.S. (AIDS, terrorism, poverty, failing schools) are now urban issues.

Los Angeles is only the 37th largest city in the world, behind many "mega-cities" you would never guess, such as Bogor, Indonesia, and Pusan, South Korea. Yet L.A. is unquestionably one of the most visible and significant of global cities. It's the second-largest city in America; it's not just the movie capital of the planet but, more important, the mother of all sprawl.

L.A. scarcely escaped being divided into smaller pieces in recent years. First, when the San Fernando Valley threatened to secede. Then the issue resurfaced in the push to break up the Los Angeles Unified School District by mayoral candidate Bob Hertzberg, who barely missed making it to the run-off election.

Voters have given Villaraigosa an opportunity to prove Los Angeles can work. He brings charisma, political savvy and a broad-based mandate. These certainly help. Mexico City's Manuel Lopez Obrador, London's Ken Livingstone and Paris' Bertrand Delanoe have all shown the positive effect that energetic and visionary mayors can make in mega-cities. But as we've seen time and again, the scale of mega-city challenges can dwarf even the most outsized personality.

Consider these statistics: The city of Los Angeles has a $6-billion budget and 22,000 employees -- not including the port, airport and Department of Water and Power. When it comes to enhancing both the quality of life and standard of living of the nearly 4 million people who live here, Los Angeles is a textbook case for forging a more effective way to manage public resources in the 21st century.

For the world's mega-cities, the inherited model of bureaucratic "service delivery" is pathetically obsolete. It's delusional to think that raising local taxes or begging for outside aid will restore the capacity of Los Angeles to adequately fund its police, schools, parks and vital public functions under the existing model. Like other 20th century behemoths -- General Motors comes to mind -- mega-cities will either change or enter into irreversible decline.

Already, a third of the world's urban population lives in slums without public infrastructure or building codes. There are growing areas of L.A. where overcrowding and declining services are creating local versions of the shantytowns of Johannesburg and Manila. Bright lights and big projects won't change that.

If you're looking for signs of world-class success, don't look to the skyline. Calcutta has skyscrapers, and so does Detroit.

Neighborhoods are the urban habitat where most of humanity now makes its life -- and Villaraigosa's success will be tested at that scale. If Los Angeles can't forge new ways to protect public safety, respect the environment and raise the standard of living across its diverse neighborhoods, what hope is there for Santiago, Chile (population 4.8 million), or Shanghai, China (population 8.2 million)?

L.A. Police Chief William J. Bratton has shown how much can be accomplished by refocusing civil servants on results -- in his case driving down the crime rate. The key to Villaraigosa's success will be not only applying that model to other departments but, most important, across departments -- for instance, getting the Planning and Transportation departments working together to increase transit use.

In his new book, "The City, A Global History," Joel Kotkin writes that successful cities need a powerful moral force to hold them together. On election night, thousands of Angelenos gathered to celebrate the new era.

The cry was one of hope: Si, se puede (Yes, we can). That spirit must inspire a fundamentally new and better model for governing a mega-city. On that hope rests the fate of humanity.

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