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A Leadership Dialogue Event ID: 13-005
December 9, 2013
United Nations Headquarters, NYC

Accelerating Action Towards Sustainable Urbanization: The Role of Private Urban Partnerships in Catalyzing Change

Thank you for the opportunity to be here today on behalf of the more than one million residents of Montgomery County, Maryland, 500 square miles located just north of the nation’s capital.

I am honored to participate in this important discussion about how government and the private sector, supported by organizations like UN-Habitat, can work together to help the world’s urban centers become more sustainable.

I know that I will learn from what others say today and I hope the experiences of Montgomery County can help others as we strive collectively to meet the needs of the world’s growing urban population.

We are very fortunate in Montgomery County. 

Our population has a safe place to live, access to food and water, educational and employment opportunities, and many of the other basic human needs. 

However, like many other urban areas, we face the challenges of crippling traffic congestion, a lack of sufficient affordable housing, protecting water and air quality, an aging population requiring increased health and social services, and many other issues.  

Furthermore, like many other urban areas, the capacity of the County government to address these problems has been stretched to the breaking point, particularly during the Great Recession.

Government alone doesn’t have the resources, the people, or the time to resolve these issues.  

For many issues, the answer lies in partnering with the private sector, which can provide economic, intellectual, and technological solutions that complement government services. 

I’d like to address three areas that I think are critically important in developing healthy and productive public private partnerships.

These are reflections owing, yes, to our experiences in Montgomery County but also reflect what I have observed from connections made on trips to such countries as China, Vietnam, Israel, and India, as well as to Africa and Central America.

I believe UN Habitat can play an important role in fostering advancements in each of these areas through the sharing of best practices, development of training programs, and providing consulting expertise to urban areas lacking sufficient existing resources until local capacity can be developed.

Government Integrity

First, a successful partnership requires trust between the partners.  Government integrity is critical.

It is the necessary foundation upon which all else is constructed. 

In Montgomery County, we have made a concerted effort, particularly during recent years, to advance transparency, improve accountability, enhance responsiveness and deepen engagement between the government, our residents, and the private sector.  This offers benefits to all parties. 

When I became County Executive, I formed an office known as CountyStat, a section of the government devoted to analyzing and publicizing real-time data about the efficiency of County government. 

Modeled after successful programs in New York and other large cities, CountyStat holds departments and agencies accountable for their results in public safety, affordable housing, environmental protection, pedestrian safety, emergency preparedness and more.

This initiative has already saved the County tens of millions of dollars in direct costs and enhanced our overall efficiency.

But this small office can’t possibly process and analyze the vast amounts of data collected by the County government in the course of conducting its day-to-day business. 

Making data available to the private sector and the general public, along with tools to manipulate and analyze this data, allow them to uncover opportunities to increase government efficiency or provide goods and services to meet the needs of our residents where the County cannot. 

Through our newly launched OpenMontgomery initiative, the County government is providing the public with access to  vast amounts of data related to housing, transportation, health and human services, education, the environment, public safety and many other areas. 

The availability of this data will help our residents understand how their tax dollars are being spent, and encourage them to participate in the process of resource allocation and government efficiency  to meet the most pressing needs of the community.

Equally as important, for businesses this data provide a potential gold mine of information that can be used to develop private sector solutions to public problems. 

For example, information about the demographics of our population and the need for social services can help companies operating in this arena target services more effectively, helping to fill the gap in government services.

Real-time traffic data can help logistics experts plan mass transit services, product delivery schedules, and emergency service routes. 

Governments will miss a great opportunity to unleash the creativity of the private sector if we don’t make every piece of potentially useful information available.  I’m confident the results will surprise us.

A huge part of accountability and responsiveness involves making sure that everyone has a seat at the table and a voice in the decisions that shape their lives.

No one who is at the table needs to leave; just make the table bigger and add some seats.

This is especially important given the diversity of our County.

More than 30 percent of our residents are foreign-born.

For the first time in its history a majority of our County are people of color – that 51 percent is split almost evenly between African America, Latino, and Asian.

As for economic diversity, one of the nation’s highest per capita incomes coexists with nearly one-third of our public school students qualifying for free or reduced price meals.

A welcoming attitude plus a strong economy, a quality environment, and an outstanding school system makes Montgomery County a magnet for talented people from every corner of the globe.  

Diversity is more than just a “feel-good” term for Montgomery County. Diversity lifts this County up – and helps enlighten us about the world around us.

Without the energy and intellect and innovation of our immigrant community, Montgomery County would, quite simply, be incomplete.

“New Americans” are a critical piece in building a better future for all County residents.

Long Range Planning

The second area I believe is critically important for forming effective public private partnerships is comprehensive long-range planning. 

We must manage change to the greatest extent possible, rather than simply react.

We must make change work for us and not against us, minimizing unforeseen consequences and future diseconomies.

This may seem obvious, but the examples of where this hasn’t occurred are common.  And it certainly isn’t always easy.

But it’s critical to have a roadmap for the future. 

As far back as the 1960s, Montgomery County recognized that the urban growth of the nation’s capital into the suburbs was coming. 

A comprehensive plan was necessary to ensure it occurred in an orderly fashion, eliminating uncontrolled and scattered development, minimizing to the extent possible the loss of natural resources such as farmland and forests and the resulting adverse impact on our air and water quality, and protecting access to open space for purposes of tranquility, healing and recreation. 

The County’s general plan for development, adopted in 1964, still serves as the fundamental plan for development today.  It established the legal framework for controlling where, how and at what pace development occurred.

It established compact development corridors in orderly stages with targeted and efficient public investments in water and sewer, streets and highways, schools and libraries, transit, parks and other facilities. 

Separated from these development corridors are preserved rural areas designed to ensure the continuation of farming, and provide protection for important environmental and cultural resources.

Supplementing the general plan are a series of area master plans, which define how development should occur in specific areas, as well as functional plans that outline strategies for the provision of transportation, water and sewer, and other infrastructure.

The process of developing these plans gives residents and businesses the opportunity to see how growth is slated to occur into the future, and helps the private sector identify where there might be opportunities to partner with government to realize the development vision contained in each plan.

Sharing Benefits through Public Private Partnerships

The County’s long-range planning process has opened up many opportunities for public private partnerships. 

The nature of these partnerships has changed over time, reflecting changing conditions as the County has grown from largely rural suburb of Washington, DC in the mid 1900s to the rapidly urbanizing community we are today. 

As development pushed toward the borders of the County, it was apparent that the plan to establish defined development corridors was not sufficient to prevent sprawl and protect important agricultural areas. 

However, merely placing controls on certain development was not politically feasible. 

Economic incentives had to be provided so that everyone gained something in the process. 

Restrictions on growth in identified agricultural areas would minimize the development potential of farmers and other land owners who would be required to forfeit some of their development rights. 

As compensation, the County created the Transfer of Development Rights, or TDR, program. 

This program allowed landowners to sell their development rights to others building in designated receiving areas in a defined development corridor. 

Through this program, farmers benefit because they can continue to farm and receive money for forfeiting their development rights; developers benefit by purchasing development rights which allows for a larger development in an area designated for development; and the County and community as a whole benefit by preserving open space and agriculture in perpetuity, controlling and concentrating development, and by privatizing the cost of land preservation. 

Taking advantage of world-class Federal medical institutions like the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration which are located in the County, we have endeavored to create an environment where emerging companies in medicine and biotechnology can thrive.  

In addition to traditional measures like tax credits and other economic incentives, we have created biotechnology hubs by establishing master planning areas that include major medical facilities, academic institutions, and business incubators to support the creation and success of private biotechnology companies. 

We continually explore opportunities to leverage the tools and resources available to the County to support new private sector opportunities. 

BioHealth Innovation, a public-private partnership I established, is working to bolster commercialization of much of the research and product development underway in the County.

Our current efforts are focused on redeveloping older areas of the County that were created many years ago when land was plentiful and suburban sprawl was the norm.  In particular, areas of surface parking lots and low density commercial space around transit centers are being remade into high-density, mixed use developments that allow people to work, shop, and play where they live. 

It is these areas that provide some of the greatest opportunities for public-private partnerships. 

Under my Smart Growth Initiative, the County has freed up publicly-owned land around transit in exchange for private sector development opportunities and used the proceeds to make needed upgrades to County infrastructure. 

Agreements negotiated between the County and the private sector have led to increased development rights for developers in exchange for the provision of a certain percentage of moderately priced dwelling units so that housing units are available for the less affluent members of society, as well as the construction of community benefits such as roads, parks, libraries and public safety facilities.  Through these partnerships, the private sector realizes greater opportunities to develop market-based properties, while the community gains needed affordable housing and the infrastructure vital to a sustainable society.

We will continue to be challenged by the need for greater sustainability, notwithstanding our being the largest purchaser of renewable energy east of the Mississippi, our green business certification and “green” building requirements, and one of the broadest recycling programs in the nation.  And our efforts require reflection and compromise. 

The process can be long and arduous, and success is sometimes difficult to measure in the short term. 

I was gratified to learn that the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce recently recognized two companies at their annual awards dinner that benefited from the County’s embrace of public-private partnerships. 

A group of private developers that formed a partnership to implement one of our most ambitious urban redevelopment plans to date was honored as a leader in promoting free enterprise and a competitive business climate and in making Montgomery County a great place to live and work. 

And the “Emerging Business of the Year” award was presented to a company that benefited from the County’s commitment to fostering biotechnology firms.

Appropriately for this setting, I’m pleased to say that this company is dedicated to the production of a malaria vaccine that will hopefully help eradicate this terrible disease.

They are doing well and doing good at the same time.

We must also not overlook the contribution that educational excellence makes to economic development success and public private partnerships – from pre-kindergarten through graduate degree work.

Montgomery County’s world-class school system is a critical piece of our economic development strategy.

And I have seen, whether in China, Korea, India or elsewhere, strong links between educational institutions and research and development efforts harnessing public and private resources.

In closing, I thank you again for this opportunity to share and to contribute to the advancement of UN Habitat.

In today’s world we are all touched by whatever happens – be it for good or for ill.

We all have a stake in building urban models throughout the world that can provide sustenance and opportunity for all of our children and their children.

The work is critically important. The challenges are great.

Let us step forward together.

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