Political Leadership and Continuity

Political leadership is fundamental to the success of urban regeneration. Although this may seem obvious, it is essential to fully appreciate the significance of political leadership if a regeneration project is to be properly conceptualized, implemented, and sustained. The longitudinal test of political leadership is whether the vision is sustained through changes in political and economic cycles—and whether it results not in community division but greater cohesion.

As regeneration is a long-term, transformative process of change that entails disruption and risk, political leadership is essential to managing the change process so that the “city,” that is, the multiple constituencies ranging from corporate and business chief executives to local residents, feels engaged in the process, understands its importance to the future of the city, and has genuine outlets in which to participate.

It is in the nature of the regeneration projects that their benefits are often not realized and experienced until much later, whereas the sacrifices (budget trade-offs), risks (investment of public funds), and hardships (such as residential and business displacement) are experienced up front in the early years of the project. Therefore, the political leadership must provide the confidence that the costs and benefits of regeneration are in the best interests of the city. Communicating this effectively and openly is essential.

Can Political Leadership Help Achieve Consensus?

It is important to recognize that because of the complex and often controversial nature of regeneration initiatives where multiple constituencies are affected, not everyone will agree that they are in the best interests of the city. It is therefore important not to enter into the regeneration process with the expectation that consensus will be possible. Even though consensus is always desirable, it may not be achievable.

Although consensus may be elusive—even in cases where the benefits are clear, the process fair, open, and transparent, and participation encouraged—the lack of consensus should not, in and of itself, be a reason for rejecting the project. At this point, political leadership becomes crucial. The weighing of public benefit, the responsiveness to constituencies, and the articulation of a longer-term vision of the city are the unique responsibility of political leaders. The box describes the role of continuous political leadership in regeneration projects in selected cities.

Continuous political leadership can ensure the success of regeneration projects

What Can Strong Political Leadership Do? Some of the key lessons that are important to take into consideration in developing the case for political support for regeneration include:

    • Developing a strong vision. The importance of developing a strong vision for the regeneration process has been noted. The core idea and aspiration of the regeneration project must be clearly articulated and accepted in the iconography and identity of the city. Political leadership is essential in articulating and promoting the vision. The city leader (mayor, chief planner) represents the interests of the city at large. Indeed, the leader is often seen as the political embodiment of the aspirations of the broader public interest and populace. This is why the role of the city leader is so critical to regeneration and the shaping of the city’s future.
    • Managing the tension between short- and long-term horizons. Regeneration requires a long-term perspective and commitment that is usually beyond the elected tenure of city leaders and officials. Hence, long-term regeneration projects can be complicated given short-term political demands, constituencies, and professional aspirations that have to be satisfied. Mayors, city leaders, governors, and political leaders are in the unique but difficult position of navigating this dynamic.
    • Creating democratic, transparent, open, and fair processes. Regeneration must be rooted in a democratic process that allows for a diversity of voices, interest groups, and constituencies. Whether regeneration is focused on a small area of the city or is part of a larger city-wide project, the regeneration process must be fair, open, and transparent to have credibility. Although there may not be full agreement on the regeneration project, it is important that there be an opportunity for open participation so that the vision and merits of the project are fully vetted. This must be the case both with respect to the planning and to the implementation phases of the project involving budgets, investments, contracts, and so on. These critical implementation actions must be approved in public processes characterized by open and transparent competition. Political leadership is therefore vital in creating and enforcing these processes if they do not exist, or using existing vehicles for political participation to ensure the process is widely known and advertised.
    • Selling the vision. Regeneration projects require the patient persuasion of a large group of constituencies in order to succeed. Political leadership and tenacity is essential in selling the vision and building support to make the hard choices regarding allocation of resources. Political leaders are key to building excitement about the future and articulating the benefits of regeneration, as well as any trade-offs that may be required. Such trade-offs often include controversial notions of investing for the future versus satisfying current needs. Without political leadership to articulate the vision and a larger purpose for the regeneration program, it is at risk of dissolving from divided constituencies.
    • Setting priorities and allocating scarce resources. Political leadership is a prerequisite to the allocation of scarce public resources that are often required to catalyze regeneration. These constitute the down payment and provide confidence to the private sector to invest and take risks. The public sector is normally the first mover in major regeneration projects. As such, it entails leadership to overcome doubts, commit resources, and manage controversies.
    • Galvanizing coalitions and public-private partnerships. Political leaders play a vital role as facilitators and conveners of constituencies and organizations. The forging of PPPs, particularly in the early stages of regeneration, occurs through the building of relationships and networks that are persuaded of the value of regeneration and committed to its success. While more formal processes, such as procurement, will be important when land is disposed of or financial incentives are disbursed, the stage has to be set for the participation of private, civic, and community partnerships. This is when political leaders can play a key role, whether the public sector is an instigator of regeneration or a supporter of private efforts.
    • Leveraging capital. The scale and complexity of most large regeneration projects—and the up-front investment usually required for infrastructure, often before there is a proven market that can guarantee private returns on capital—requires the leveraging of public and private resources and the sharing of risks. This usually entails securing multiple sources of funding from a broad range of sectors. Organizing the early and patient capital is a daunting task unless a city is in the fortunate position and has the rare opportunity to enlist a large, single, well-capitalized backer, such as the state or a large landowner or philanthropist. Political leadership is essential to identifying and obtaining these funds, whether through advocacy, informal relationships, or formal petitions for funds. Mayors, governors, and political leaders play a critical role often as “fundraiser in chief” to kick-start regeneration.
    • Being tenacious. Regeneration is a long-term endeavor. As such, it requires unusual fortitude and patience. Political leadership is essential to maintaining focus and sustaining the regeneration effort through the inevitable controversies, conflicts, and disagreements among constituencies that occur in any large, transformational effort. Without political leadership, regeneration projects can become stymied and lose momentum, which in turn can result in a loss of confidence and the failure of many efforts. Political leadership must also be deft enough to respond to genuine concerns and critiques of the regeneration effort. Likewise, political leaders should be open to modifications and improvements in response to issues as they arise, thereby making for a better and more-widely accepted project.
    • Managing succession and legacy. Finally, political succession is very important. It is the rare political leader who will be in office from the beginning to the end of regeneration projects. In most cases, the full realization can often take a decade. The power of the vision, the success in forging coalitions, and the embedding of the regeneration program in the spirit of the city can help build confidence. This requires broad and lasting political leadership during the various tenures of political leaders.

It should also be noted that the success of the regeneration program should not be dependent on any one political leader or party. Rather, it should become accepted as a fundamental driver of the city’s future, irrespective of political change.