Magazine article Nation's Cities Weekly

The Livability Legion at 26: Creative, Still Saucy

Magazine article Nation's Cities Weekly

The Livability Legion at 26: Creative, Still Saucy

Article excerpt

Imagine an "inside the Beltway" policy group that has never lobbied, never appeared before a congressional committee, never engineered federal grants for clients.

Partners for Livable Communities, born 26 years ago out of the National Endowment for the Arts, fits that description. Nary a campaign dollar has even fluttered past its door. Yet Partners has made a difference in cities coast to coast by helping spark a quiet revolution against massive one-style-fits-all physical development in favor of returning quality, livability and urbanity to America's cities.

In a generation when Americans were deserting cities in droves, Partners in 1980 launched an "economics of amenity" program to convince cities and their businesses that there were greenbacks--and civic gold--to be had by investing in such alleged "frills" as parks and open spaces, museums and theaters and restored historic areas.

America's megacities--New York, Los Angeles, Chicago--didn't pay much heed. But scores of mid-tier cities, from Indianapolis to Richmond, Chattanooga to Rochester, Pittsburgh to Orlando to Oakland, listened and drew on Partners' counsel, ideas and networking assistance. From lively public squares to farmers' markets to amateur sports and back-from-the-dead riverfronts, the fruits can now be found coast to coast.

A new civics emerged from these community-building struggles--the idea that neither government, nor business nor nonprofits acting singly can make a city whole. It takes all three, working in inventive partnerships.

In the `90s, Partners struggled with a critical issue--"livability for whom?" Result: a "shaping growth" program to balance redevelopment with social equity and use techniques like community "charettes" to involve people from all classes and backgrounds in shaping the future of their communities. A multi-cultural society, Partners proclaimed, would be America's greatest future asset.

Then Partners joined the voices proclaiming that metro regions have become the critical arenas for growth, economy and culture in the 21st century. Now it's all the more vital to make downtowns "the capitals of our regions," vital 24-hour-a-day centers fostering regional citizenship and creativity.

In one sense, Partners has always been a one-man act--the vision of Robert McNulty, onetime official of the National Endowment for the Arts who teamed up with Nancy Hanks, legendary early chairman of the endowment, to start Partners in the mid-`70s.

Even as government support for Partners projects declined over the years from 65 percent to 6 percent, McNulty tapped communities for fees, industriously entreated foundations and corporations for support.

It's a classic story of the energy and moxie--and sometimes sheer bravado--required of an entrepreneur in the nonprofit policy world. …

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