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“A City on the Beach”: An Interview with Santa Monica City Manager Rick Cole, Part I

SaMo Rick

Santa Monica Next sat down to talk with Rick Cole, who took the reins as Santa Monica's city manager on June 29 after leaving his post at L.A. City Hall as deputy mayor in charge of budget and innovation. The Pasadena native and 30-year veteran of local and regional politics spoke with us about his goals at his new position in Santa Monica. This is part one of a three-part interview.

Santa Monica Next: Where do you see Santa Monica’s place in the region as a whole?

Rick Cole: It’s a City on the Beach in the same way that our Pilgrim Fathers saw Massachusetts as a City on a Hill. It is perfectly placed to be a model for others to be inspired by and, in many cases, to emulate.

The inspiration is more important than the emulation because Santa Monica needs to continue to have its own, distinctive character that comes from its history and its geography on the beach. So, you want Santa Monica to continue to be unique, but you also want other people to be inspired by its uniqueness to capitalize on their own potential for uniqueness. You want a constellation of cities and neighborhoods across Los Angeles that are as good at being what they are as Santa Monica is at being what it can be.

SMN: It’s arguably a city with one of the most civically-engaged populations in the region, which can sometimes lead to some very heated debate in the public forum.

I actually enjoy civic engagement. I wouldn’t go to Santa Monica, I wouldn’t have come from Pasadena and Ventura, if I didn’t believe deeply in democracy and in something I learned a long time ago, that people who care have way more in common with each other despite their vigorous philosophical difference than they do with people who, for whatever reason, don’t care.

The Greeks had a word for someone who was not engaged in public life. If you look in the dictionary, it’s “idiot.” The original definition that the Greeks attached to the word “idiot” was someone who was so self-obsessed that they had no realization of the significance and value of public life.

I welcome public discourse, but I think that in Santa Monica, in Washington D.C. or anywhere in between, we do need to keep a modicum of civil discourse for democracy to work. When it becomes poisonous, democracy is at its worst.

SMN: How can a city bridge local government and people who have lost faith in the process? Is it about seeking consensus?

I think it begins with, not seeking consensus, but seeking common ground. And I know that sounds a little like I’m making a fine distinction there, but I think it’s a profound. Consensus is often a kind of watered-down middle ground in which people agree on what they can accept, not necessarily what they want. Finding common ground is different. It often is better than the polarized positions that people cling to.

The wisest counsel I ever heard on this was from a guy named Carl Guardino, who has been a remarkably successful civic leader for decades in the Silicon Valley. He said, in his experience, communities pretty much agree on the most important issues in their town. And there is 80 percent agreement on what can be done to address them. Then, there is 20 percent of real, principled debate. His formula for success is, if a community can focus 80 percent of its energy on getting accomplished what it agrees on, it will be a success, leaving aside 20 percent to vigorously debate things there isn’t agreement on.

But, too many communities spend 80 percent of their energy obsessing about the 20 percent they don’t agree on. That not only poisons the civil discourse with anger and harsh division, but it also minimizes the opportunity to accomplish the things people want to see happen.

Finally, it drives sensible and constructive people out of the public forum because they throw up their hands and conclude nothing is getting done, so why should they waste their time, thereby increasing the vehemence of the public debate of the people that are willing to remain to slug it out.

SMN: In your experience, what are the concrete steps one can take to find that common ground?

Ultimately, our success is measured by the well-being of the community and who better to define the well-being of the community than the people in that community.

Well, you’re not going to find common ground if your mouth is open all the time. So, I think one of the important values that those of us in public service need to practice is listening. And while it can be a cliche that being open to new ideas is something everything would agree on, in practice, particularly professionals, are prone to assume that their life experience and training make them uniquely qualified compared to the citizens, who by the nature of things are amateurs, if you set the spectrum as professional to amateur.

SMN: Right. In the literal sense, they are not getting paid and don’t have the training.

On the other hand, citizens are not only our customers, but they are ultimately the real purpose of community. They make up the community and those of us who work on their behalf, ultimately, our success is measured by the well-being of the community and who better to define the well-being of the community than the people in that community.

The only qualification I would attach to that is, there’s no one to speak for future citizens. And so, both professionals and citizens need to be thinking about the people who will come after us and their interests.

SMN: Speaking of the future, you recently mentioned the opportunity surrounding the coming Expo Light Rail. Could you go a little more in depth about what you meant by that? What do you see as some of the greatest opportunities in Santa Monica’s immediate future?

Let me back up by saying that the single most powerful factor in my decision to leave Los Angeles, notwithstanding my tremendous excitement about the work I’m doing here [in Los Angeles], was driving with my son the length of Santa Monica Boulevard from where I live now in Los Feliz to the beach. We did that as it became clear that I might actually apply to be the city manager and might even have a shot at doing that work.

We traversed a cross-section of L.A. neighborhoods, including West Hollywood, Century City, Beverly Hills, and ultimately Santa Monica. The indelible image from that drive was when we crossed La Brea. Thirty years ago, when West Hollywood was incorporated, if you’d made the same drive, the only difference would have been West Hollywood was a little shabbier because it was county territory that no one paid much attention to including the citizens of that area. And today, West Hollywood’s public realm is absolutely distinctive. You know immediately when you’ve left Los Angeles and entered West Hollywood because of the remarkable care for the public realm, the landscaping and the street design, and in the feel of what public and private investment have created.

Santa Monica was one of the pioneers of making great places on the Third Street Promenade. And yet, over the last three decades, there’s not near as much enrichment of the public realm in Santa Monica as there has been in the smaller scope of West Hollywood. So, I think there is an extraordinary opportunity to create a much more robust public realm.

SMN: Why do you think the past 30 years have been different than the initial place-making efforts that created places like the Promenade?

I’m not sure I want to speculate about that because it’s irrelevant. The more significant aspect is the opportunity going forward and I don’t want to dismiss some other great projects that have happened and that are about to happen.

Look at the Colorado Esplanade, and there is the next generation of place-making spurred by the Expo Line. I would argue that when bike-share comes to Santa Monica, that too, will spur greater place-making because people experience the public realm differently on a bike or on foot than they do in a car.

Place-making is not purely physical. Place-making is about the extraordinary richness of spontaneity that comes in vital, dynamic, healthy, safe, clean public spaces where culture, interaction and economic activity flourish because the place is a place that people are stimulated by and cherish and want to linger in and want to, in turn, contribute toward.

Everyone takes for granted that Beverly Hills will look gorgeous. And, I don’t want to disrespect Beverly Hills, but nobody thinks of Beverly Hills as a dynamic place. The greatest public realms are not about lavishing gold plate in the public sphere; it’s [about] bringing the best of the public and private sector together in urbanity, which, since the days of the Greeks, has been the source of so much innovation, starting with democracy, but also, the market economy.

The market economy comes from city markets, where people, face-to-face, were able to exchange value in ways that enriched both sides because what I have in excess, I can share with you and what you have that is better than I could create, I can receive in exchange.

That’s the reason we have cities; that’s the reason cities are flourishing in the 21st century. Southern California has the weather and the diversity that can make some of the most vital, most dynamic public spaces.

You see that in the way in which the Farmers Market has unfolded in Santa Monica over the years. It’s more than just a place where you buy fruits and vegetables; it is part of the cultural and social capital of the city.

SMN: You said place-making isn’t just about physical space. What is that other element that brings people together and creates that dynamism?

Urban environments, by their very nature, are unfinished. People see things and create things and do things that are new and that bring forth new ideas, new relationships, new experiences and new possibilities.

We spend a lot of time now sitting and staring at screens, or even when we’re walking down the street or driving cars, staring at screens. And while I understand the power we are now carrying around in our pockets, at some point, that will wear thin and people will begin to yearn again for the high-touch counterpoint to high-tech. We are going to want to be, because we are social creatures, in community in ways that are not virtual, that are actual.

The dynamism is, again, the serendipity and spontaneity of urban environments. Suburbia’s appeal was that it was neat, tidy and planned. Its shortcomings are that it’s neat, tidy and planned. The imagination is circumscribed by the fact that everything is already taken care of. Urban environments, by their very nature, are unfinished. People see things and create things and do things that are new and that bring forth new ideas, new relationships, new experiences and new possibilities.

Again, democracy emerged from the new city-states precisely because the other forms of government that dominated the 99.9 percent of human creatures on the planet were static. “The king is dead! Long live the king!”

They could not imagine, in those environments, change, other than external change brought about by the sword. But, inside a city, you could evolve from an autocracy to a democracy because of this openness to change that occurs in an urban environment.

No one has been more eloquent and more insightful about that than Jane Jacobs, particularly in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, but even more in a neglected book called The Economy of Cities that really unpacks the vitality of urban environments because there’s... ever-changing stimuli that you experience on the city street, in a cafe overlooking a city street, in a home in close proximity, in walking distance to, an urban environment. All of those things create possibilities that static environments simply cannot replicate.

Stay tuned for parts two and three of this interview later this week.

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