This past week I have been dipping my toe in and out of the livestream for the ArtPlace America Summit. One of the plenary sessions I went back to listen to more fully was a discussion ArtPlace CEO Jamie Bennett held with Kresge Foundation CEO Rip Rapson and Detroit Future City Executive Director Anika Goss-Foster about public/private partnerships.
The title of the session was “You’re not the Boss of Me: What Happened to the Public in Public-Private Partnerships?” and the most fascinating parts dealt exactly the issue of who the boss is in public-private partnerships.
Around the 12:15 point, Rapson talks about how one of the previous mayors of Detroit had approached him at the Kresge Foundation asking if they would fund a long range master planning process to revitalize Detroit. The team Kresge put together was so successful in generating participation and investment from the community that the city administration started to feel that their prerogatives were being challenged and their competency was being questioned. The city government began resisting the efforts of the Detroit Future City team Kresge put together to work with them.
Kresge decided to shutdown the process for a year and pull it out of the mayor’s office. However, they had built up so much momentum getting the community involved over two years, the community wouldn’t allow them to dial things back. Kresge restructured things toward a community ownership model and finished the master plan.
Around the same time, a new administration took charge of Detroit city government and they embraced the externally generated plan. But then the same dynamic developed where the city government came to resent the involvement of outsiders. According to Rapson, they did recognize the talent of the Detroit Future City team, but they wanted to absorb the organization into the city planning department and have them work under the city’s terms.
Rapson says that in the current national environment, the lines between public and private are much more porous than in the past. At one time a philanthropic entity wouldn’t get involved with this type of work. At one time the view was that private sector work was tainted and the public sector was far too messy and political.
Today he says, when faced with a problem there is more of a negotiation of who does what the best. Who is best equipped with the expertise, capacity and resources to address an issue. For instance, only the city government is empowered to set zoning laws, levy taxes, etc.
What intrigued me was Rapson’s implication that Detroit Future City’s work was influencing how the Detroit city government viewed and executed community outreach, shifting it from an authoritarian approach to a more collaborative one. Though there is still work to be done.
I wondered if this might presage a new trend in the way cities might operate. Jamie Bennett asked if the ideal wasn’t supposed to be that citizens already had the opportunity to participate in planning through their vote and approaching their government representatives.
Rapson responded acknowledging that in this particular case, the Detroit Future City team had helped to create a constructive process and environment. But he also makes note that it had been an anti-democratic (his term) philanthropic institution which had been responsible for making sure the community voice was at the table.
My read between the lines on this was marginally cautionary. It is working in Detroit thanks to a number of conditions that have come into alignment, but it perhaps shouldn’t be seen as a broad panacea applicable to every city.
It sounds like Detroit Future City is doing a great job involving community input in their advocacy. Goss-Foster said people will come up to her in the streets and supermarkets to point out that the group with which they identify isn’t included in the plan. She said she often concedes they are right and invites them down to her office to talk about getting them included.
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