Since the new year began, I have been struck by public messages of two local elected leaders suggesting – in different words, from different angles – that it’s time for more Nashvillians to think harder about the city’s future.
One was from Metro Council Member-at-large Bob Mendes. The other was from Councilman Freddie O’Connell of District 19.
Both used the word “vision” and suggested it is in short supply at city hall of late. Not a good spot for a modern city to be in, even (or especially) one nearly overwhelmed by calamities ranging from pandemic to destructive weather to a recycling provider gone bankrupt.
Mendes published a nearly 2,000-word post on his website titled “Where are we going?” O’Connell insists “it’s time to talk about vision.”
'Complete the transition from old plans to new dreams'
“For too long,” Mendes writes “the city government was fixated on accomplishing the goals of the last generation and not really thinking about where to go next. Voters figured that out in 2019 and made a change. They'll also figure out that a new vision is needed and demand it from city leaders.
“Now is the time to complete the transition from old plans to new dreams. Now is the time to pick the place on the horizon where we want to be a generation from now and make it happen.”
O’Connell, in his twice-monthly constituent newsletter last week, posted a striking 800-word statement offering good uses for the millions of federal economic relief coming Nashville’s way. He listed nine specific ideas, including “Fix every single CSX railroad crossing that blocks traffic and add bike and pedestrian access where it’s lacking.”
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“Since COVID began,” he noted, “Metro has received $121 million from the CARES Act and will receive $260 million in American Rescue Plan (ARP) dollars, some of which have already been allocated. Across 2021, separate from that, we allocated $1 billion in Metro capital. And federal infrastructure dollars are on their way. That's a lot of money! But I've had a hard time understanding what our strategic approach to all this spending is. I think it’s time to talk about vision…”
“I absolutely want to know how the community wants to invest,” O’Connell said. “But I also want to live in a city that leads on priorities. I want Nashville to be the city that people look to as a model for governance on community safety, infrastructure, transit, education, housing, and equity.”
These are encouraging words, coming from two thoughtful elected officials in Metro Government. The rest of us should ponder their words.
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3 lessons Nashville has learned in past visioning projects
This is not a new subject. Citywide visioning, while a complicated undertaking, has been done successfully here.
Nashvillians have initiated different kinds of city-wide visioning as many as a half-dozen times over the past half-century. The important ones have been broad gauged in both subject matter and the scale of participation.
Since the 1990s especially, there have been these thoughtful efforts at establishing a vision for the future, including Partnership 2000 (1988), Nashville’s Agenda (1993, 2007), The Plan of Nashville (2005), and NashvilleNext (2012). In each case, the sitting mayor at the time understood and embraced these initiatives.
Over the decades, as the city has evolved, the shape of such civic exercises also changed. Here are some common lessons we’ve learned:
Not just city hall. There’s more to our city than city government. Mayors and Councils are important to long-range planning and management. But imagining what the next few decades ought to be, more citizens should be at the table.
Nashville is a more complicated place today. The city’s diversity is more visible and better understood now than a generation ago – and so, therefore, are the requirements of solid public participation.
Organize well. Like the public exercises that came before, a new city visioning process must be thoughtfully planned, both to respect all participants who come forward and ultimately to produce good results.
I hope we will hear more from Mendes, O’Connell and their colleagues, as well as from Mayor John Cooper, about all this. But we also know a lot more regular citizens and non-government leaders should have a say – and will certainly have a stake – in what our city aims for next.
Aiming high comes first, to make Nashville the best it can be.
Nashville has done this before. We can do it again.
Keel Hunt is a columnist for USA TODAY Tennessee Network and the author of three books on Tennessee politics and culture. Read more at www.KeelHunt.com.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Nashville's vision: How citizens can unite and create a better future