Photoillustration by Sarah Barton
In hindsight, the title “100 Days to a Better RVA,” with its sense of finality, is a misnomer. Richmond is and always will be a work in progress.
When I set out in June to introduce and investigate 100 ideas in 20 weeks for improving Richmond for RVANews.com, the city was on an impressive run of recognition for everything from having the best beer bar to being the best river town.
At the same time, 25.3 percent of residents lived below the poverty line, the city was on pace for the most homicides since 2007, public and private transit was inadequate, and schools were literally crumbling.
The project remedied none of these shortcomings. But it did spark debate and encourage understanding, which is important because the only path to a better Richmond is through elevating the level of conversation. This requires listening, clear language and a commitment to logical arguments instead of only appealing to emotions or debating with what Aaron Sorkin calls “ten-word answers.” Richmond is a one-of-a-kind, DIY city perpetually on the cusp of the next step, and it will face some trajectory-altering decisions over the next few years.
During the 100 days, some articles reframed the debate surrounding contentious issues, such as the redevelopment of Shockoe Bottom (Day #031) and Boulevard (Day #071). Richmond is obsessed with building big shiny things, but that’s just what futurist Alex Steffen calls “stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it GDP.” Why don’t we challenge ourselves to a higher goal, like incrementally building a neighborhood better than the nationally acclaimed Fan?
Other articles aimed to offer fresher ideas, such as improving commerce and walkability by reverting Cary Street and Main Street from one-way commuter roads to two-way streets (Day #037). Day #005 offered a variation on the “Little Free Libraries” that have been popping up around town. Used telephone booths could be repurposed in parks as “Little Free Sports Libraries” with the simple inscription “Take a Frisbee, leave a basketball.”
Some topics were too important to skip. Virginia needs to broaden voting-rights restoration so that hundreds of thousands of felons can rejoin the democratic process (Day #092). The use of GEO Group, the face of private prison corporations, at the new city jail dangerously blurs the lines between profit and rehabilitation (#075).
The biggest takeaway from the project was a deeper understanding of the hurdles that stymie progress. Richmond’s inability to think regionally will always be a drag. The Dillon Rule — which limits municipalities’ powers to those explicitly granted by the state — ties the hands of the local government when it comes to tasks as simple as changing bus routes.
Richmond’s new mayoral system and stronger City Council leaves the city open to the principal-agent problem of politics: when the incentives for leaders don’t match the best interests of the city. This causes planning and the vision of leadership to be constrained by the end of terms, the next election and the desire for political advancement. All of this undermines the main objective: improving the lives of Richmond’s residents today, tomorrow and forever.
These hurdles don’t spell “game over,” but they are worth understanding when taking positions or casting ballots.
“100 Days to a Better RVA” was not only an acknowledgement of the accomplishments of this city, but also a jumping-off point in the quest to build a safer, healthier, sustainable, inclusive, fiscally sound, well-educated and entrepreneurial city. I hope it shed light on needs, inspired neighbors and encouraged residents to think differently about this amazing town.
To see the full “100 Days” series, visit rvanews.com/tag/100-days-rva.