3 Innovative Ways Cities Can Curb Overdose Deaths

New strategies can empower city leaders to not only coordinate actions across multiple levels of government but stem the tide of addiction and substance abuse that is growing in urban, suburban, and rural areas.

Responding to record increases in prescription drug and heroin overdoses across America, the U.S. Communities Alliance made medications that can stop or reverse the effects of an opioid overdose available to the state and local government sector in October 2015. Now, a key medication is available to cities at a steep discount. (Photo: yanyong/Getty Images)

Deaths involving opium-based prescription pain-killers and heroin are increasing sharply, according to new data for all of 2014 recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Every day in the United States, 44 people die as a result of prescription opioid overdose. More Americans are dying every year from drug overdoses than from motor vehicle crashes. Communities across America have seen steady rise in the cost and impact of treating opioid related overdose. In the community of Middleton, Ohio, for example, the cost of treating opioid overdoses has exceeded 10 percent of the Middleton Fire Division overall operating budget. In Indiana, the Indianapolis Emergency Medical Services saw a 58 percent jump in Narcan® applications in just one year, from 2013 to 2014.

Responses are coming from the federal, state and local levels. Here are three notable ways cities can curb the sharp increase in overdose deaths:

1. Funding from President Barack Obama’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget proposal

The proposal includes $1 billion in new funding for states to expand access to medication-assisted treatments for opioid use disorders. Also included is funding for more addiction treatment providers under the National Health Service Corps.

2. Tools and resources from state and local organizations

Organizations representing state and local elected and appointed leaders (such as the National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties, the National Governor’s Association, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors) are educating their members and providing tools to turn back the tide of heroin addiction through strategies such as medication-assisted treatments.

Most notably, the U.S. Communities Government Purchasing Alliance (together with Adapt Phama and Premier, Inc., and acting in partnership with local and state associations) is now making available the life-saving Narcan® Nasal Spray (naloxone hydrochloride), which helps stop or reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, at a steep discount.

3. The creation of local policy solutions

For their part, individual cities are also taking important action steps along the same lines. Naloxone access was cited by New York Mayor Bill De Blasio as a major component of his city’s comprehensive effort to reduce opioid misuse and overdoses.

“By issuing a standing order for Naloxone and building capacity in our health network’s ability to treat people most in need, we will save more lives,” said New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Basset in her comments with the mayor.

A creative response from law enforcement is also an important step.

The City of Gloucester, Massachusetts, is helping change the nature of municipal policing in the face of heroin and opiate addiction. In Gloucester, any person seeking help for addiction from public safety personnel will be connected to an addiction recovery program through a network of local and regional providers. “Gloucester is changing the conversation. Police officers exist to help people,” said Police Chief Leonard Campanello. “Drug addiction is a disease, and drug addicts need help.”

The National League of Cities will engage elected and appointed municipal officials on the many questions and challenges of substance abuse and addiction at the upcoming Congressional City Conference in Washington, D.C., which takes place March 5-9, 2016. Additional details about that program will be posted in this space in late February. City leaders with stories to share on this issue should add comments to this post or contact the author directly.

Brooks, J.A. 2010About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Director for City Solutions. He specializes in local practice areas related to housing, neighborhoods, infrastructure, and community development and engagement. Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.


How the City of Newark is Leading in Historic Preservation

The city of Newark, New Jersey, has a strategy for historic preservation, multi-sector partnership, and the creation of new residential mixed-use development in the heart of downtown.

Newark is demonstrating that, while simple economic arithmetic may dictate demolition and abandonment when it comes to older downtown structures, those willing to see beyond the next fiscal quarter tend to reap far greater rewards. (photo: Harry Prott/Newark CEDC)

Is historic preservation only the crusade of upwardly mobile, urbanist Whites with a longing for a bygone era, or is it the essential strategy for every city and town that thinks creatively about place, the built environment, and the long-term prosperity of residents? Although that was not the intended question that was up for debate at the Legacy City Preservation forum, a gathering of preservation experts and legacy city practitioners in Newark, New Jersey, that was a recurring theme.

The participants themselves, some long-serving historic preservation professionals and many avid volunteers working vigorously in cities, were a mix of men and women from assorted races and ethnicities. They were all highly vocal, highly engaged, highly motivated, highly educated (even without counting the number of Ph.D.’s in the room) and highly entrepreneurial. More than this, many of the stories about first-hand experiences in cities demonstrated the importance of acquiring a certain adeptness at working “the system” to secure desired goals. Those telling the stories also were skilled at pushing for systemic change to advance a broad-based agenda that supports many avenues for community revitalization.

In truth, I felt right at home! Although I’m not regularly creating networking groups for home improvement do-it-yourselfers (Brick + Beam Detroit) or residential micro-development companies (Buffalove Development), the work being done by these folks is the bone marrow of cities. This is from where community strength and resilience springs.

(photo courtesy L+M Development)

Construction workers labor to restore the core of the Hahne & Company department store in downtown Newark. (photo courtesy L+M Development)

The Newark forum was partly a celebration of the rehabilitation of the historic Hahne & Company department store building, a collaboration among the City of Newark, Rutgers University – Newark, L & M Development, and J. P. Morgan Chase. Together these partners, along with several others, are reactivating the former department store as a centerpiece of Newark’s recovering downtown. A similar coalition of partners have nearly completed renovation of the former American Insurance Company tower at 15 Washington Street where the day’s events took place. These are transformative projects in terms of historic preservation, multi-sector partnership, and the creation of new residential mixed-use in the heart of downtown.

(photo courtesy L+M Development)

An architect’s rendering of the soon-to-be-finished Hahne & Company department store restoration. (photo courtesy L+M Development)

Once the grande dame of the local retail industry, the Hahne’s building was abandoned and in a state of disrepair for the past 30 years. During a hardhat tour of the renovation ($174 million, 400,000 sq. ft.), the development team highlighted the future for the building. By December 2016, the mixed-use, mixed-income space will be open to the first residents. A total of 161 rental units, 60 percent market rate and 40 percent for low income residents (at 60 percent of area median income), will be ready. The retail floors, with anchor tenant Whole Foods, will open in March 2016. Rutgers University – Newark will house their Department of Arts, Culture, and Media there, which will include classrooms, artist studios and gallery space. Nearly every relevant tax credit opportunity was leveraged for this project – historic preservation, new markets, and low income housing. For the coup de grace, the great skylight – 4-stories above the central atrium – is being meticulously restored to its former glory.

For Rutgers University – Newark’s burgeoning campus, building preservation and reuse has been a religious calling. Moreover, the imagination and creativity that has gone into rethinking what a university campus is and ought to be is remarkable. University Chancellor Nancy Cantor spoke in almost lyrical terms about the future use of historic spaces both for students and residents. For her, and for many others in the room I suspect, the process of historic preservation has taken on poetic qualities. It is as if the buildings themselves, being returned to productive use, will not only stand more proudly but will instill in those who see and use the space a sense of achievement and hope, and fortify the community for the work ahead.

Heady stuff and quite a challenge for any individual much less a historic structure. After all, we are not talking about the Pyramids at Giza or the Parthenon. But, in effect, the point of the projects are to connect present needs with past capacity. This theme runs through the entire “Action Agenda for Historic Preservation in Legacy Cities” produced by the Preservation Rightsizing Network – an agenda for cities having considerably more infrastructure than needed for the smaller population base now present.

Some of the most interesting work in cities today is in those places at the center of headlines about depopulation, disinvestment, dilapidation, dysfunction, despair, and general disaster. But the headlines never tell the full story nor even the right story. The truth about legacy cities, or any city seeking growth for that matter, is that the social and civic infrastructure (government, residents, philanthropies, neighborhood associations, faith institutions, businesses and schools) are at the heart of setting a vision and implementing the plan to reach the goals.

In legacy cities, preservationists are taking full advantage of the assets they have available – 60 to 100 years of growth in the built environment that yielded homes, factories, shopping arcades, warehouses, transportation systems, public utilities, parks, schools, and neighborhood residents. Although simple economic arithmetic may dictate demolition and abandonment, those willing to see beyond the next fiscal quarter tend to reap far greater rewards. It is for this reason, for the creation of a more prosperous and distinctive place – a place that people want to live in or go to rather than drive through – that historic preservation needs to be an essential strategy for every city and town.

Brooks, J.A. 2010About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Director for City Solutions. He specializes in local practice areas related to housing, neighborhoods, infrastructure, and community development and engagement. Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.

The Hottest Item of the Holiday Season May Also Be Illegal

Hoverboards are anticipated to be a trending Christmas gift this year. City officials will need to anticipate how this very popular device fits into the mobility plans in their respective community. (Image via YouTube screen capture)

“You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch.” That’s what residents are singing in Great Britain this Christmas after the government interpreted the Highway Act of 1835 to ban the hoverboard (also known as the self-balancing scooter) from streets and sidewalks. In London, Mayor Boris Johnson is seeking an exemption, characterizing the law as a “ludicrous and nannying prohibition on the electric scooter-surfboard gizmos.”

And it’s not just London in this fight. On this side of the pond, what may prove to be the hottest item of the holiday shopping season may also prove to be illegal in some locales across the United States.

New York and California are the early adopters in terms of state or local actions for or against hoverboards. A new law in California will, after January 1, 2016, treat the motorized two-wheeled devices more like skateboards and bicycles than like the larger handlebar Segway or the motorized scooter. Riders will need to gear-up with personal protection such as a helmet and obey traffic laws just like bicycles. Private land and pedestrian-only zones will remain closed to the devices.

In New York State and New York City the current legal climate is imprecise but bending toward illegality. Because the state legislative language is unclear about applications to devices such as hoverboards, New York City has chosen to adhere to an outright ban. Although enforcement may be nearly impossible, those that do tangle with the NYPD can expect a hefty fine.

Across the country, especially in southern and warmer climate states, the response to the new toy de jeur is mixed. Back in September, a Harris County Texas Sherriff Deputy found himself the subject of a viral YouTube video of his arrest of a youth riding a hoverboard in a local shopping mall.

Over in Tempe, Arizona, the campus of Arizona State University is treating the hoverboard like a skateboard. Neither are allowed in “walk only” zones. If the state legislature is going to act, they will need to wait until after January 1, 2016 when they return to session.

The technical specifications of the hoverboard seem to be at the center of the debate. Many of the boards have a top speed of up to 6 or 7 miles per hour (MPH). However, the higher-end models have a top speed closer to 12-15 MPH. Accidents impacting the rider or another pedestrian can be serious. Worst case scenarios involve large adult riders hitting an infant stroller or plate glass window.

City officials who do not relish the role of Scrooge or any other infamous Christmas villain will need to anticipate how this very popular device fits into the mobility plans in their respective community. Unfortunately, governing does not get a holiday break.

Brooks, J.A. 2010About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Director for City Solutions. He specializes in local practice areas related to housing, neighborhoods, infrastructure, and community development and engagement. Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.

How Jackson Hole Became a Model of Successful Growth

NLC’s James Brooks visits the outdoor mecca of Jackson Hole, Wyo., and uncovers the risks and promise of successful place making.

The streets of Jackson, Wyo., with ski slopes in the background. (WitGorski/Getty Images)

Jackson, Wyo., is an excellent example of successful place making. Blessed with supreme natural beauty, the town of Jackson and surrounding Teton County have married an iconic western culture with sports and leisure opportunities such as skiing and hiking and easy access to Grand Teton National Park, the Snake River, and a national elk refuge.

The downtown commercial district, surrounding a much-visited town square, is chock-a-block with western outfitters, native craft shops, restaurants, art galleries, hotels, adventure tour operators, and real estate agencies. From the classic old west architecture to the elk antler arches flanking the square, Jackson boasts a heritage and cachet that draws four million visitors each year.

But what happens when a community is too successful? What is the downside when the owners of Snow King Mountain Resort invest in the most advanced snow making equipment available in order to extend the skiing season by two or three months? What is the risk in having multiple major air carriers arrive at Jackson airport from a dozen hub cities and a second home market incentivized by state tax breaks? The risk, according to year-round residents, is that today Jackson populated by two kinds of people: those with two jobs and those with two houses.

The municipality of Jackson (pop. 10,000) and Teton County (pop. 23,000) don’t have much land available for development, hemmed in as they are by park land and wildlife sanctuaries. The last new road was built in the town in 1985. The airport actually sits inside the National Park. New residents to this mountain paradise have embraced a “slow growth or no growth” mentality which has pushed the cost of housing out of the reach of the middle class residents who work in the hotels, restaurants, ski lifts and shops, protect the ski slopes, and lead the wildlife treks and raft trips. As it turns out, paradise is an expensive place to live. Even the U.S. Forest Service is making things worse by proposing to sell 10 acres of land in downtown Jackson, zoned for dense workforce housing, to developers for large-lot homes that could price for nearly $1 million per acre. (As of this writing, the immediate danger is past — but not gone entirely.)

It’s an unfortunate situation for a city and county that have taken solid steps to work together on a common sense agenda. The two governments share a planning director and collaboratively managed a five year process to rewrite a comprehensive land use plan. There are joint departments for animal control, parks and recreation, START (the regional transportation network), fire and EMS as well as 911 emergency dispatch for town police and county sheriff. The operational model is “one vision, one valley, one voice.”

Both the municipality and the county are primed for growth. Water is plentiful and a high-grade (tertiary) regional sewer system is not anywhere near capacity. Demand for the amenities of the Jackson Hole valley remain strong. Yet, as each new home parcel increases in price, the pressures to keep unspoiled vistas and free-standing homes grows stronger. Building a desirable place has been transformed into protecting individual slices of paradise at the expense of the small business owner and long-term residents that created the value proposition in the first place.

Finding the right balance has been the challenge for the municipal and county leaders. Jackson does not have a property tax. State coffers have funded transfer payments of various kinds thanks to the revenues from coal. However, those revenues are projected to decline over time as renewable energy sources come on stream nationwide. Local leaders, who do get sales tax revenues, have been pushing for a real estate transfer tax with a high exemption floor to protect small, moderately priced homes.

Private sector partners have found ways to construct new middle class housing. The master plan for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and Teton Village produced new workforce housing both in Teton Village and in Jackson. Nonprofit organizations such as Habitat for Humanity also brought new low income home construction to the area. This public, private and nonprofit partnership has produced some success — but more still needs to be done.

The Jackson Hole valley is as desirable a place to live as anywhere on the planet. The community weaves a rich tapestry of natural landscapes, abundant recreational options, historic and cultural distinctiveness, ease of access, and high quality of life. This success has triggered the natural reaction to pull up the draw bridge and keep “others” from spoiling what brought recent residents to the area.

Longtime residents, particularly those holding elected or appointed offices in local and county government, are more sanguine. They continue to envision a community that is not restricted by income and that frames reasonable growth within the scope of a thoughtful comprehensive plan. This seems to be the harder work of place making — ensuring that this unique destination remains a haven for a pool of residents that are as diverse as the shades of pink and red reflecting off the Teton peaks at sunrise.

Brooks, J.A. 2010About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Director for City Solutions. He specializes in local practice areas related to housing, neighborhoods, infrastructure, and community development and engagement. Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.

Sandy Recovery Highlights Resilience Lessons

Graffiti in New York following the devastation cased by Hurricane Sandy. (photo: Ayasha Guerin/inhabitat.com)

Graffiti in New York following the devastation cased by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. (photo: Ayasha Guerin / inhabitat.com)

The Chen residence in the Midland Beach neighborhood of Staten Island is occupied once again. During the 2012 superstorm known as Hurricane Sandy, the Chen home was inundated with 10 feet of flood water, as were other residences in the Midland and New Dorp Beach areas. As of March 2015, the Chen family is back in a restored home thanks to New York’s Build It Back program and the partnership with IBTS (Institute for Building Technology and Safety), an National League of Cities Corporate Partner.

The completed Chen house. (photo: james Brooks)

The completed Chen house. (photo: james Brooks)

The Chen home and others like it have new siding, enhanced insulation and better fire resiliency measures. The property is also raised twelve feet above the ground. The critical measure is that the property is well above both the Base Flood Elevation (BFE) and the Design Flood Elevation (DFE). This means that even if the property is on a flood plain, flood insurance is not required.

The City of New York, working through its Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), established the Build It Back program to coordinate, streamline and evaluate the recovery effort. IBTS is one of the largest contractors serving the city in the areas of architectural and structural assessments, rehabilitation or reconstruction design, contract management and reporting, and final inspections for single family homes.

Visiting the hardest hit neighborhoods on Staten Island and in the Gerritsen Beach area of Brooklyn is an experience both similar and different from visiting neighborhoods in New Orleans hit by Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago. The topography is familiar, and it’s the first sign that these beach bungalows are susceptible to a rising tide. Although the beach dunes rise up from the shoreline, once the waters crest the dunes and flow across Staten Island’s Father Capodanno Boulevard, the landscape drops away another 10-20 feet. Flooding in this area continued nearly a mile inland to Hylan Boulevard.

Build It Back is a massive project. Through March 2015, nearly 26,000 registrants have applied for the program. From Queens, where Breezy Point is located, there are 11,374 registrants. Staten Island has 5,782 registrants, and Brooklyn has 7,968. Eligible homes can have both exterior and interior storm damage repaired. Where appropriate, homes and utility lines are elevated above flood levels as well.

To date, the IBTS team has received contracts to carry out 483 housing elevations. Of these, 253 have received home owner reviews, 198 have received elevation designs for approval, 139 have had construction documents turned over to the city Department of Buildings, and 106 have received permit approvals.

Mr. & Mrs. Slaven with the contractors. (photo: Jim Brooks)

Mr. & Mrs. Slaven with IBTS contractors. In the background sits the Slaven house on cribbing. (photo: James Brooks)

The drama in the story is not in the numbers, but in the first-hand accounts told by residents such as Mr. Francis and Mrs. Lauren Slaven of Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn. Today, their house sits atop 12-foot timber cribbing waiting to be permanently set on its new foundation. A gregarious and talkative woman, Mrs. Slaven is vivid in her recounting of swimming to safety in the face of Sandy. She even managed to save her dog, but lost a pet bird in the ordeal. They will return to their renovated home shortly.

The results of the recovery work thus far have helped drive some innovations both in the management of CDBG Disaster Recovery funds and in the design specifications for home elevations. For example, with support from HUD, IBTS developed a unit price contractor procurement model for CDBG-DR housing rehabilitation and/or reconstruction. IBTS is applying these lessons to the balance of their Build It Back work, bringing a considerable level of savings to New York City storm recovery efforts and also to new work awarded by the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery (GOSR) on Long Island.

Brooks, J.A. 2010About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Director for City Solutions. He specializes in local practice areas related to housing, neighborhoods, infrastructure, and community development and engagement. Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.

How: (Cities) + (Science) = Resilient Communities

For city leaders preparing for floods, droughts, air and water contaminants, rising sea levels and other potential disasters, scientists are essential partners.

Testing-Water-BlogTesting water level levels with a measuring pole.

If pushed to their intellectual limits, most people will be able to name one great living scientist. At the top of any list is either Stephen Hawking (theoretical physicist and cosmologist) or Jane Goodall (anthropologist). Beyond these two, the next most famous scientist is either director of the Hayden Planetarium and host of Cosmos Neil deGrasse Tyson (astrophysicist) or Sheldon Cooper, the fictional physicist on the television sit-com The Big Bang Theory. For those of a certain age, Bill Nye the Science Guy rounds out the top five.

Stephen Hawking of course is the great mind behind A Brief History of Time and other cosmic works that broke all sorts of New York Times best seller records. Alas, it is also true that hundreds of thousands of folks may have purchased his books but only small fractions have actually read them. On the other hand, in any given week, the antics of Dr. Sheldon Cooper are watched by anywhere between 15 and 20 million viewers.

The point is not to disparage our general lack of knowledge about scientists and scientific breakthroughs. Rather it is to highlight how little credibility is paid to good science produced by working scientists who are solving problems of disease, starvation, environmental degradation and species collapse in universities, labs and garages all over America.

Scientists deal in facts, data, observations, experiments, testing and retesting, and vigorous analysis. In big ways and small, scientists are pushing the limits of human understanding and working to solve problems that face the Earth’s population each day. They are the friend and ally of anyone seeking to make life better in communities around the world, and in the present era they are armed with the most sophisticated tools ever invented for measurement and evaluation.

For city leaders preparing for floods, droughts, air and water contaminants, rising sea levels and other potential disasters, scientists are essential partners. They bring a methodical approach to local priorities and work to define research questions, collect and analyze data, and apply results to make local-level predictions.

Working through the American Geophysical Union (AGU), an international coalition of more than 61,000 scientists, a project called the Thriving Earth Exchange (TEX) is advancing human and environmental resilience. The project brings scientists together with community leaders to provide participatory scientific methods and research to local challenges. In short, TEX helps a community imagine and launch innovative projects that leverage Earth and space science for the public good.

Examples of such collaboratives already exist. Five diverse Denver neighborhoods are in the midst of a TEX project to investigate environmental factors that influence health and wellbeing in their communities. Operating under the umbrella of Taking Neighborhood Health to Heart (TNH2H), the neighborhoods of Park Hill, Northeast Park Hill, East Montclair, Northwest Aurora and Stapleton are the target research zones. These areas are bounded by two major interstate highways, transected by three of the metro areas’ busiest thoroughfares, and are near shuttered military installations with defense industry-related dump and waste sites. The research is exploring issues of geohazards, water and soil quality and climate change.

On the Pine Ridge Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Native American and non-Native scientists are working to identify aquifer water quality within the local watershed in order to understand the cause of an extremely high rate of cancer (600% higher than the U.S. average) in Pine Ridge residents. A team working for almost 4 years in close harmony with the Tribal Council and a local cancer survivor group collected samples and ran tests on different water filter models to determine which tool might serve the community best.

Cities with a capacity and willingness to make use of geoscience information in planning or operations are ideal candidates for a TEX project. Community leaders can reach out to AGU staff directly to engage with the Thriving Earth Exchange Program. The program director is Raj Pandya, rpandya@agu.org, 1-303-999-7112.

Brooks, J.A. 2010About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Director for City Solutions. He specializes in local practice areas related to housing, neighborhoods, infrastructure, and community development and engagement. Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.

A 20-Year Shift in Neighborhood Investing

brooklynA new condo building stands in the the lower east side of Manhattan. Source: Getty Images.

Where we live, the kind of homes we occupy and the quest for a place of our own remains closely tied to that goal on the horizon we call, The American Dream. Consequently, our nation’s leaders, including those at the local level, devote tremendous energy to issues relating to housing and neighborhoods.

A scan of the last twenty years illustrates some significant and notable shifts in approach to these issues – with implications for the kind of housing that gets built, who pays for development and at what level and who has choices in the marketplace and who does not.

For example, let’s look back at 1994 when the Home Investment Partnership Program (HOME) was in its fourth year. The HOME program provides formula grants to states and localities that communities use – often in partnership with local nonprofit groups – to fund building, buying and rehabilitating affordable housing for rent or ownership or providing direct rental assistance to low-income residents.

This program remains a staple of the local landscape and a bulwark in support of housing opportunities for those seeking to reach a critical rung on the ladder to the middle class. In fact, during evaluations of this program during 1994, the value and scope of HOME was not in question; the debate centered on the ease and efficiency of program administration and reporting.

PullQuoteIn the same year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched a bold effort called the National Community Development Initiative. Brought to the table was a coalition of 10 major corporations and foundations collaborating to raise $87.65 million in partnership with HUD to accelerate central city neighborhood renewal in 23 cities. Through this remarkable partnership, $20 million from HUD was matched by $15 million from Prudential, $15 million from the Rockefeller Foundation and $12 million from J. P. Morgan, among other partners.

By 1998, research from the respected Urban Institute, and its team of researchers Christopher Walker and Mark Weinheimer (Weinheimer & Associates), offered the first solid evidence of program progress. For community development corporations in the 23 target cities, the report found that housing unit production was up, budgets were larger, management structures were vastly improved and funding sources were more diversified.

Views about community lending also were different in 1994. At that time, the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) was being lauded as a valuable tool to ensure access to credit throughout a community.

Passed into law in 1977 and amended several times, there remained an expectation that this measure increased the ability of advocacy groups, researchers, and other analysts to “perform more-sophisticated, quantitative analyses of banks’ records,” to paraphrase Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke some years later.

There was an expectation that over time, community groups and nonprofit organizations would establish “more-formalized and more-productive partnerships with banks,” thereby influencing the lending policies of banks.

A Different Kind of Partnership

Jumping forward to 2004, you can hear the alarm bells sounding. The HOPE VI program was coming under considerable criticism as a tool to build affordable housing for those most in need. Public housing advocates increasingly needed to rely on private sector investment to serve those who were not able to pay market rates for rent.

Charles Lyons of Arlington, Mass., President of the National League of Cities that year, was so concerned about the “inequality in our communities due to a lack of affordable housing,” that he launched the Divided We Fall campaign to focus on the growing disparities in cities.

partnerpullDisparities continue to confront Americans today, not only in housing and neighborhood amenities but in educational attainment, income and wealth generation, poverty rates, and criminal sentencing.

Despite these disparities, a lively, engaging federal-local partnership on national priorities remains absent. Rather than a partnership with the federal government, all that localities have now is the prospect of federal leverage. This leverage comes in the form of small pools of dollars offered mostly on a competitive basis and encumbered with enough restrictions and conditions to all but eliminate the possibility for experimentation and truly creative thinking from local decision makers.

If we accept the fact that government alone cannot solve the significant challenges that confront communities and that partnerships are the essential ingredient to success, then the only operative question to ask is, ‘What type of partnership will yield the greatest success?’ To that question, the balance of historical fact argues for a partnership of equals, dedicated to achieving consensus, led by those with the proximity and the experience to mobilize community resources in order to achieve positive outcomes for all the stakeholders. It is this recognition and acknowledgement of a wider shared responsibility to the public interest, rather than to any private interest, that is the required component to establish “a more perfect Union.”

It can only be hoped that by the time the National League of Cities stands to celebrate its centennial, the much desired federal-local partnership will be a reality.

Brooks, J.A. 2010About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Director for City Solutions. He specializes in local practice areas related to housing, neighborhoods, infrastructure, and community development and engagement.  Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.

How to Boost Your City’s Visibility


“Technology doesn’t have to be expensive.” That’s what the sales people tell us. These words trigger the warning bell in our heads. But sometimes it turns out to be true, as the city leaders in Lewiston, Maine (pop. 36,600) discovered in their partnership with NLC Corporate Partner CGI Communications.

Prominent on the city’s website is a new video tour that highlights the community generally and offers a specialized focus on arts and entertainment, economic development, community organizations and quality of life. The high resolution streaming video costs the city nothing. CGI Communications builds the entire package and secures sponsorships from area businesses.

I have never been to Lewiston, but now, thanks to the video, I know lots about the community and am looking for an excuse to host an event there. The historic buildings in the downtown are enough to draw my interest and the Lewiston Art Walk is an added bonus. Likewise, the access to the natural world – hiking trails, river kayaking and a wildlife preserve – complement the built environment.

While we all might be drawn to a place because of its natural beauty, its architecture, its amusements and amenities, most of us still have to earn a living. The Lewiston videos offer information on the economic strengths as well as the artistic and recreational opportunities. The economy is diversified across health care, manufacturing, financial services and telecommunications industries. The local fiber optic network serves both businesses and residents and the riverfront development projects represent significant commercial investments.

Video on a city website is not new. But smaller cities like Lewiston tend to spend their local resources on direct service delivery. A web portal, while essential in the present era, is often a no frills site. Lewiston, through its public private partnership with CGI has shown that the city can have the frills and still spend community dollars on key local services.

Brooks, J.A. 2010About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Director for City Solutions. He specializes in local practice areas related to housing, neighborhoods, infrastructure, and community development and engagement.  Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.

Celebrating the Attractions of Small Cities

via Wikimedia Commons by Acroterion

German Street in Shepherdstown, WV, via Wikimedia Commons by Acroterion

When I talk about cities I have visited, I use sensory language. I describe the art or architecture I saw, the unique foods I consumed, the sounds of nature or of music I heard, the landscape I traversed or the people with whom I connected. Big city or small city, in the U.S. or abroad, my experiences are similar. There is always something unique or compelling that creates a story about this or that place.

I have previously written on this blog about thriving and creative small cities. Shepherdstown, West Virginia was one such community that offers a range of activities and amenities that draws visitors to the Shenandoah from across the region. This community, while charming, is not unique. In fact a magazine called American Style has been reporting on the creativity and imagination of smaller communities for many years. Although generally focused on arts and cultural assets, the stories about cities represent the wealth of diversity that causes us to celebrate June as Small Cities Month.

There are few things more delightful than outdoor concerts. Eureka Springs, Arkansas offers a veritable cornucopia of music programs year round. A recent look at the city’s website shows an activity calendar listing the 27th Annual Arts Festival in May, the bluegrass festival in June, the 64th season of Opera in the Ozarks during July and the jazz festival in September.

The visual arts – painting, sculpture, metalwork, photography, etc. – offer other opportunities for communities to advantage a unique strength. The Ox-Bow School and artist-in-residence program in Saugatuck, Michigan is one such example. This program was established in 1910 and is now affiliated with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. From a beach, harbor and arts and crafts town, Saugatuck has catalyzed their artist colony status into a genuine growth industry.

Sarasota, Florida may offer the most eclectic mix of arts and culture of any city. The long-established Ringling International Arts Festival (Yes, THAT Ringling) puts circus arts front and center as well as dance and music. A more sublime event will run concurrently during 2014, the 27th Annual Downtown Festival of the Arts. This event provides exhibition space to creators of sculpture, painting, jewelry and crafts. Multi-cultural foods tend to grace all events in Sarasota.

Film and music are at the center of the arts festivals in Aspen, Colorado. The annual FilmFest has grown over the years to rival the film events hosted in Cannes, Toronto and Sundance. The historic Wheeler Opera House offers an unmatched venue for previewing autumn new releases, documentaries or Oscar-quality performances. For those whose tastes run to music, the Aspen Music Festival attracts world-class performers and guest artists.

Programs that showcase the arts and culture thrive in smaller cities as well as in larger ones. Many of these festivals have grown from modest events highlighting local artists and performers in ad hoc spaces into high visibility orchestrations with professional management and national or international reputations. Proof that an investment in cultural and arts programming is an investment well made.

Brooks, J.A. 2010About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Director for City Solutions. He specializes in local practice areas related to housing, neighborhoods, infrastructure, and community development and engagement.  Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.

The Economic Impact of Public Transportation Investment

James Brooks, Roger Williams and Mark Weinheimer contributed to this post.


Far too many in this country face a transportation infrastructure that is woefully inadequate, limiting opportunities and increasing costs in terms of people’s time and money. While other countries continue to invest, America’s aging infrastructure inhibits our nation’s economic competitiveness and lessens quality of life.

In recognition of National Infrastructure Week 2014, NLC is joining a number of national organizations to call attention to the consequences of inaction and the importance of interconnected infrastructure that provides a safe, secure and competitive climate for economic development and job growth.

On topics such as infrastructure funding and financing and the economic impact of public transportation investment, NLC will call attention to why further infrastructure investment is vital for our nation’s cities.

We ask for local leaders and advocates in the policy community to join NLC in advocating for policies that are informed and driven by local needs. At stake is not merely how quickly we can move people from Point A to Point B – but how we can promote opportunity and build stronger local economies.

The Twin Cities Story

One case in point is the impact of investment on the Central Corridor (The Green Line) light rail project in the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Despite concerns that partnerships take time and large projects consume resources, study after study shows that transportation alternatives that are regionally focused, cost effective, located close to affordable housing and that connect residents to their jobs help make cities more amenable to innovative industries.

The relationships that were forged by the Twin Cities, as they undertook the Central Corridor light rail project connecting their downtowns, is an example of how cities are coming together with a wide range of partners to overcome obstacles and make transformational projects a reality.

Working with the philanthropic community and a broad spectrum of civic organizations that serve the communities impacted by the project, local leaders in the Twin Cities developed a template for planning that other cities can learn from. In addition, the U.S. Department of Transportation not only contributed dollars to the project but restructured funding formulas to ensure the addition of light rail stations in underserved minority neighborhoods along the proposed route.

Far reaching strategic alliances and a “plan-full” approach that involved diverse groups, along with the leadership roles played by various actors and sectors, are the key elements that have enhanced this project’s chances for success. The leaders were able to successfully create a shared vision for vibrancy, economic viability, and neighborhood resilience.

The result is not only a new light rail line, but an increased number of affordable homes nearby, preservation of other homes, new arts and cultural offerings, and a vital retail sector that reflects the ethnic diversity of the communities along the rail line.

The Central Corridor light rail line which is scheduled to open in mid-2014 will also provide cost effective transportation for the residents to connect them to jobs in both cities and in the region, and in general strengthen the attractiveness of living in these communities.

Brooks, J.A. 2010About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Director for City Solutions. He specializes in local practice areas related to housing, neighborhoods, infrastructure, and community development and engagement.  Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.