Cities and Urbanization

Why city residents should have a say in what their cities look like

Los Angeles, where in 2016 voters approved a tax intended to fund infrastructure, after a three-year public education initiative.

Los Angeles, where in 2016 voters approved a tax intended to fund infrastructure. Image: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Michael S. Burke
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, AECOM
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Cities and Urbanization

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

When it comes to advancing public infrastructure and pursuing efforts to make our urban environments fit for the future, planners, government officials and providers worldwide are increasingly turning to big data to help lead the way.

Connected, real-time information sources heighten understanding of public behavior and can inform decision-making on future needs. At the same time, digital tools and artificial intelligence techniques are being applied in interesting new ways to map and test complex models to improve how assets are delivered, adapted and maintained.

These systems are revealing new truths about how we might transform our roads, bridges, ports, airports and other critical infrastructure assets today and in the future. But industry and government leaders must not lose sight of an ingredient as core to modernizing infrastructure as finding the money to pay for it – public engagement.

It’s been said that public infrastructure articulates the shared view citizens have for the communities where they live. And when it comes down to it, sensors, machine learning or best intentions will never replace public input in answering questions like, “What kind of city do we want to be?” or “How can we apply our resources to improve quality of life for everyone?”

In a 2018 survey of more than 10,000 people in 10 global cities as part of AECOM’s 2nd annual Future of Infrastructure report, we found that half or more of the respondents say they are interested, but lack opportunities to provide feedback on infrastructure planning and decision-making.

How respondents rank major UK and US cities on delivering infrastructure. Image: AECOM

From Sydney to Toronto to Singapore, people say they’d like to have a greater say on issues such as pricing, planning, sustainability and use of personal data.

More than half of those queried say agency requests for citizen feedback on infrastructure projects come too late in the planning stage to be meaningful. Too often, these requests are perfunctory, top-down affairs; a process formulated with pre-determined outcomes more akin to checking boxes than capturing meaningful insights.

To meet the infrastructure challenges ahead and to bolster the social compact between the public and its institutions, we need to shift this approach.

Providers can best address long-term urban infrastructure needs by better involving the public in three key ways:

1. Building knowledge by providing greater transparency, primarily through greater public engagement during the planning, procurement and delivery process, and making infrastructure data more widely available;

2. Improving understanding – of infrastructure broadly and the role it plays in powering economies and enhancing quality of life, and especially awareness of how it is funded and financed, and;

3. Boosting engagement by encouraging the public – as well as academics, the private sector, think tanks and more – to become a bigger part of the discussion through planning, advocacy and politics.

Around the world, a failure to engage with the public before commencing work has delayed or undermined many significant projects, from expanding airports and replacing bridges, to competing to host the Olympic Games. Engagement can be seen by providers as burdensome, slowing the potential of faster projects.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Consulting with the public at all stages of project delivery as part of a collaborative, bottom-up process can result in better outcomes, tighter budgets and clearer benefits.

In the United States, government has advanced initiatives to break down silos between agencies and reward greater collaboration. The US Department of Transportation publishes plain-language toolkits to help citizens weigh in during various stages of major infrastructure efforts.

In New York, communities are invited to prioritize annual spending on local infrastructure projects, from parks to bicycle lanes. In Los Angeles, bus riders answer online surveys on riding habits that will lead to service overhauls.

In Saudi Arabia, a public engagement program during construction of the 112-mile, 85-station Riyadh Metro project aims to build excitement and anticipation, while officials in Ontario, Canada, rely heavily on stakeholder outreach to design rapid transit improvements and to keep the local population updated.

As the public is being called upon more frequently to pay for new infrastructure through higher taxes, charges, rates and ticket fees, there’s an incentive for providers to increase public knowledge that leads to change.

A great example of this is in Los Angeles County, by far the most populous county in the US, with more than 10 million people. In 2016, after a three-year effort that placed a premium on public education, voters overwhelmingly approved a dedicated sales tax that provides up to $120 billion for future transit and road infrastructure needs.

Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, one of the architects of that successful campaign, understood the importance of building a strong public engagement strategy that continues today as projects roll out in the county’s 88 cities.

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“You have to be willing to change, to adapt, to talk people through their fears,” Garcetti said of the process. “I learned a lesson a long time ago, you can’t dismiss people’s fears. You have to understand them and address them.”

Technology and new sources of data will continue to evolve and shape how providers approach delivering resilient and sustainable public infrastructure. However, if we hope to achieve the greatest impact for society, we must be sure an educated public has a seat at the table.

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Related topics:
Cities and UrbanizationSustainable DevelopmentAgile Governance
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