Common Place   /   May 20, 2014

Nashville and the Future of Civic Engagement

Stephen Assink

Above: Jane Jacobs (third from right in glasses) and architect Philip Johnson (far right) stand with picketing crowds in 1963 outside New York's Penn Station to protest the building's demolition. Walter Daran/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Sometime soon, opera fans will be transported to Manhattan in the 1960s, when a white-gloved activist took on the city's most powerful urban planner. The still-untitled opera will follow the famous struggle between Jane Jacobs, inspirational forerunner of the New Urbanism, and Robert Moses, the so-called "master builder" of New York City. According to the opera's website, the piece will chronicle “the fate of Washington Square Park and lower Manhattan in the 1960s. When Jacobs's neighborhood was threatened by Moses's highway development plans, she mounted community opposition that successfully halted Moses's actions and weakened his hold on urban policy.”

Today, the issues surrounding transportation remain a vital part of urban development. In 2013 alone, more than $64 billion was spent on mass-transit projects in the United States, ranging from light rail to buses. In 2014, the projected investment is expected to reach $81 billion. Maintaining viable transportation links remains an important aspect of city governance.

Yet, in addition to the usual problems surrounding infrastructure—cost, timing, political will, local opposition—something new appears to be brewing. Historically, transportation debates, like the one between Jacobs and Moses, have been primarily local or regional affairs. More and more these days, basic questions of urban transit are subject to outside political forces and desires.

In a development that has generated some press, Nashville’s popular public transportation project, AMP, appears to be on the ropes because of outside political pressure. The AMP would encompass 7.1 miles of bus rapid transit (BRT) that would connect Nashville’s East and West Ends and would cost $174 million to build. Funding would be shared between federal, state, and local governments, with up to $75 million coming from the Federal Transit Administration's Small Starts program. According to The Transport Politic:

From a pure public transportation perspective, the line makes perfect sense: It serves the city’s central east-west spine. Within a half-mile of its stations are 33% of the county’s jobs (132,000 of about 400,000) and 5% of its population (32,000 people), and it is currently undergoing something of a building boom. It would link several hospitals, Vanderbilt University, the downtown core, the transit center, and several tourist attractions. And it would offer transit service speeds similar to those available for private automobiles today.

Above: View of the Nashville skyline across the Cumberland River, Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Until recently, the project appeared to be close to getting off the ground with support from city hall and local businesses. But in early April, Nashville’s mayor Karl Dean, in a concession to community concerns over traffic, eliminated dedicated lanes for the buses along the western route due to fears of congested lanes. What happened?

Although local opposition to the project already existed, the tipping point came from state legislators who recently passed a bill in the state senate requiring approval from the state as well as prohibiting public transit from using the center lanes of streets for loading and unloading passengers—a significant feature of the AMP project. The House bill would allow center-lane transit but only with State approval. The bills have yet to be reconciled before gubernatorial approval.

A lot of the attention concerning the AMP’s future has focused on the Koch brothers, the politically active billionaires who have contributed large sums to conservative causes. Shortly after the passage of the Senate bill, The Tennessean reported that Americans for Prosperity, the brothers' think tank and lobbying organization, had played a role. Many Tennesseans were both puzzled and annoyed that outsiders like the Kochs (who operate from Kansas and New York) had been meddling in state and local affairs. As Ralph Schulz, president and CEO of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce put it:

The AMP Yes coalition is a coalition of local businesses, local individuals and local organizations that live in the community and have a dedication to finding the answers that make this community a great community to live in. These are the people that drive these roads every day, need the alternative transportation opportunities, know where Nashville's headed and know what kind of community they want Nashville to be.

Others share Mr. Schulz's anxiety about Americans for Prosperity’s intervention in Nashville, and the Kochs' involvement has promoted a host of other alarmed voices. Those critical of the Kochs worry about outside influence on local public affairs and what it might mean for other cities. Are these concerns overblown? To answer this, raises the broader question of the significance of cities today.

Recently, two books have addressed this question and praised the virtues of urban democracy. Peter Levine’s We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For and Benjamin Barber’s If Mayors Ruled the World argue that in an age of overheated partisanship on Capitol Hill, cities can take the lead in addressing our most pressing issues, such as inequality and climate change. The authors contend that city officials and their constituents—those closest to the problems—are more likely to be civic-minded and to think in terms of the common good rather than party ideology. Associate Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, Michael McQuarrie sums up this view nicely in his book review:

[B]ecause the relationship between governments and citizens are closer in cities, they are more democratic. So, while cities suffer from contemporary global problems, they are also in a better position to deal with them. In contrast to nation-states, cities are centers of commercial and cultural activity that attract migrants with their economic opportunity and tolerance.

Urban citizens are worldly, making them not only sensitive to global problems but also well-equipped for cooperation across lines of state sovereignty. They are pragmatic problem-solvers, unlikely to be diverted by ideology or unnecessarily resistant to modifying their views.

If Levine and Barber are right, local civic engagement appears to offer a way forward in our current political climate. Yet as recent events in Tennessee show, even a local transportation project with widespread support from citizens across the political spectrum is not immune to disruptive partisanship. As millennials with their heightened awareness of environmental sustainability flock to cities, city officials need to find ways to keep ideological debates from sidetracking important issues and projects. Failure to do so could not only imperil civic services like public transportation, but also prevent cities from addressing the big challenges of our time.

Unlike Robert Moses, who considered transportation little more than traffic control, Jane Jacobs saw such infrastructure as the lifeblood of a city—connecting neighborhoods and encouraging urban diversity. Through community rallies and public marches, she fought and eventually defeated the highly influential transportation bureaucrat because she knew if Moses had his way it would destroy vibrant communities. Her struggle received national attention, but it was her grassroots efforts that had the greatest impact. Jacobs's fight proved that certain urban issues like transportation are best handled as a local (or metro area) affair. Perhaps the next time there is an opera based on a municipal dispute, it will involve a cadre of frustrated urbanites making local politics a nationwide concern.