The Seamless City
Mitt Romney's urban policy adviser delivers a surprisingly sane book on his time as a mayor of a major city.
Rick Baker, former Mayor of St. Petersburg and current campaign adviser on urban policy to Mitt Romney, released The Seamless City in 2011. The book explores Baker’s time at the helm of St. Petersburg, Florida (pop: 244,769). In particular, Baker explores the policies he pushed for to make St. Petersburg “seamless.” According to Baker “In a seamless city, when you go from one part of town to another you never cross a seam – whether a street, interstate overpass, or railroad track – and enter a place where you feel the need to reach over and lock your car door.”
As perhaps his greatest example of eliminating seams, Baker explores the formation of the Midtown neighborhood in St. Petersburg. He explains how they restored historic buildings, some with government assistance, some with mere encouragement to be assets to the community, instead of reminders of better times. He also notes that they created a position within the city, deputy mayor, to focus solely on the development of the area. Of particular interest, Baker notes how he ended up in Washington D.C. working with the federal government to get a USPS facility converted into a more welcoming facility that actually served the neighborhood.
The book’s subtitle is “a conservative mayor’s approach to urban revitalization that can work anywhere,” and for the most part that’s probably right. He by-and-large seems to understand how urban areas function, and how government can help support them. Baker doesn’t seem to hold the views of many mainstream conservative leaders who love to bash cities. I’m not sure I believe his policies would actually work exactly as they were implemented in St. Pete in in the rust belt where wealth is harder to come by, but the principles can be adapted to fit. Baker’s approach (always conveniently made clearer by hindsight) is straight-forward and would likely work anywhere if the community as a whole buys-in.
My biggest takeaway from the book was the use of a scorecard system (City Scorecard), effectively an open government tool, to measure and demonstrate how different facets of the city are performing. Many cities would be wise to adopt a similar system, and make it accessible to their citizens.
I found a few excerpts in the book particularly encouraging coming from a Republican mayor.
On the importance of downtown…
Downtown is the heart of the city. It is the place where our crossroads come together, our common bond. Picture in your mind’s eye a city you have visited. You are probably not thinking of the suburbs, shopping malls, or industrial parks – you are picturing the downtown era.
On downtown living…
The most important way to entice people to live downtown is to make it a nice place. Among other efforts, the city government needs to participate in making the area attractive. Beautification efforts area as critical to downtown residential successes as they are in the neighborhoods. Investments in sidewalks, paved crosswalks, decorative streetscaping, mast arm traffic lights, and downtown parks pay off. They improve the environment and convince private investors that the city is serious about downtown development
If the area is safe and pedestrian-friendly, and has retail, dining, and fun events, people will want to be part of the downtown neighborhood. We encouraged the Sembler Company, a local developer who built a major grocery store and retail center in the heart of downtown. The availability of grocery and other shopping within walking distance, along with downtown’s quality urban feel, made it much easier to attract people to live in the core.
Early in my term, I visited Miami to meet with a developer who was considering building rental apartments downtown. His argument for downtown living was compelling: If he builds another rental complex in the suburbs, the amenities he can offer are a swimming pool and tennis courts. If he builds rental apartments downtown, the amenities he can sell are movie theaters, restaurants, night clubs, museums, galleries, performing arts, the Pier, Major League Baseball, the Grand Prix, the St. Petersburg Bowl, and hundreds of waterfront events – all within walking distance of each other. We even built a playground in Albert Whitted Park and a climbing rock in Straub Park for downtown dwellers and visitors with children.
3 out of 5 stars
Folksy writing style gets in the way of Baker’s story at times. The broad topic leads to some things feelings oversimplified. Overall, the book fairly informative. It’s always educational to learn the viewpoints of someone who doesn’t seem to march lockstep with their party.