L.A. Goes Big … and Philly Should Follow Suit

Executive Director Steve Wray offers his reflections on the 2016 Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange in Los Angeles.


In January when we announced Los Angeles as the destination for the 2016 Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange (GPLEX), I’ll admit that I had some doubts. In previous years, the similarities were clearer between Philadelphia and the metros we visited – places like Chicago (an older, transitioning economy with comparable urban politics), Atlanta (an ambitious metro focused on growth and dealing with racial tensions), San Francisco (a coterminous city/county government with a significant research university presence and a focus on innovation), Toronto (a region defined by its diversity and immigration and known for innovations in urban planning), and Boston (an old and cold northeastern corridor city with a juggernaut of colleges and universities). Greater Los Angeles is three times the size of Philadelphia; its best known industry is entertainment; and the urban form of the region is vastly different from our own. What would we learn there?


But what L.A. may have lacked in initial direct comparisons it more than made up for in lessons that we can apply to our work here at home. So let me focus on what I saw as the overarching message that drives progress in Los Angeles and what should inform our work here in Greater Philadelphia: big challenges require innovative solutions with maximum collaboration.  


As you approach L.A. from the air, you almost lose your breath as you view the scale of the city. An 18-million-person region encompassing a 10-million-person county and a 4-million-person city, Greater Los Angeles sprawls from the ocean to the mountains, and there are few visible dividing lines between communities. Everything runs into each other, connected (and sometimes divided) by endless miles of highways and roads and, now, an emerging transit network.  My perception of Los Angeles prior to our arrival was that this sprawling region would be functionally ungovernable, making challenges intractable and problem-solving virtually unachievable.


But my perceptions were only partly correct. Problems and challenges at the scale Los Angeles faces force leaders to imagine solutions that address the entirety of the problem. Small solutions just aren’t going to get it done. I’ve highlighted a few key examples here.


  • When Angeleno leaders look at the challenge of 46,000 homeless individuals living in the streets, under highways, and in the arroyos, they realize that small solutions simply aren’t enough. Tackling homelessness in L.A. requires innovative new approaches in housing and homeless support services; collaboration across sectors and town, city, and county borders; and a level of sustained funding that is equal to the scale of the problem.

  • Similarly, Los Angeles’s notorious traffic and pollution issues have forced city leaders to focus on massive expansions and enhancements to their transit system. A permanent extension of the 2008 half-cent sales tax increase is on this November’s ballot to support a traffic improvement plan that would serve the entire region (for both practical and political reasons).

  • Having the nation’s second largest school district and largest network of charter schools means that, in Los Angeles, reform can’t stop at just one school. Lessons and best practices must be shared and scaled across all institutions. The Partnership for Los Angeles Schools is doing just that – with the goal of sharing innovation across the Los Angeles Unified School District.

  • And for a fifty-one-mile concrete Los Angeles “River” to become a new urban oasis in the midst of highways and train lines across 17 cities means that piecemeal solutions won’t cut it. You need a master plan that tackles all 51 miles and a strategy that brings along the various constituencies needed to accomplish a project of this size. 

For each of these issues (and many more), Los Angeles leaders are promoting innovative solutions at scale, pulling together unique coalitions (cross-sector, multi-ethnic, cross-jurisdiction), and putting forward new funding proposals (including taxes). The common thread across each effort is that stakeholders aren’t simply working at the margins – they are running campaigns and spearheading long term efforts that take on the whole challenge.


When I think of our region and where we’ve adopted this sort of approach, I think of the Delaware River, where we are building out a comprehensive plan to transform the six-mile length of Philadelphia’s waterfront. I think of the Circuit Trails, our vast pedestrian and bike network that is connecting our region in new and exciting ways. And I think of Mayor Kenney’s Rebuild Initiative, where he put together a coalition to pass a new tax to fund universal pre-k and renovate Philadelphia’s parks, rec centers, and libraries. These are all big ideas with comprehensive solutions and broad coalitions behind them.


So what are the big challenges that we need to tackle at scale? I’ll throw out a few:


  • Cutting our urban poverty rate in half

  • Creating a career pipeline for formerly incarcerated individuals in our region

  • Investing in SEPTA to allow it to be a true engine of our economic growth

  • Doubling the number of kids with access to a summer career opportunity

Taking on any of these challenges requires thinking big, building broad coalitions, leading cross-cutting campaigns, and digging in for the long haul. Are we ready? From what I saw in Los Angeles, yes we are. Let’s get to work.