Creating a Legacy of Service: How to Engage Citizens

This is a guest post by Mayor Dayne Walling, Flint, Mi. This post is part of the NLC Community Service Series, and originally appeared here.

cities of service 1 - flint, miWith the support of a Cities of Service Impact Volunteering Fund grant in 2013, Mayor Dayne Walling and the city of Flint, Mi., were able to implement neighborhood revitalization projects based on the Love Your Block Blueprint. (image courtesy of citiesofservice.org)

The city of Flint is making great strides in transforming the city block-by-block, neighborhood-by-neighborhood. Our Cities of Service Love Your Block initiative is a critical component of our strategy to harness the power of service and citizens to make a real, measurable impact on the ground as we aim to win the fight against urban blight. As an AmeriCorps alumnus, I believe in the power of citizen service and understand the significant impact of people working together toward a common goal. In Flint, we aren’t only engaging community members to volunteer, but also asking them to help us plan. We want to make sure the things we do are answering the needs of our citizens. The more time and effort we invest up front, the more invested our community members will be for the long term.

Flint became a member of the Cities of Service coalition in 2009, when I signed the Declaration of Service and committed to using impact volunteering to tackle the challenges of neighborhood blight and emergency preparedness. I joined the coalition because I value the role that Cities of Service plays in helping mayors engage citizen volunteers, forge connections across cities, and bring awareness to the issues that cities are facing.

To accelerate neighborhood revitalization efforts and address the massive challenges related to urban blight in Flint, I launched the Love Your City campaign in 2012. With the support of a Cities of Service Impact Volunteering Fund grant in 2013, we were able to implement neighborhood revitalization projects based on the Love Your Block Blueprint all over the city.

We are sustaining and advancing Love Your City through new partnerships with businesses, as well as community and faith-based organizations. Because of our demonstrated success in the first year, we received a second round of funding from Cities of Service and the latest outcomes speak for themselves: to date, citizen volunteers in Flint – in partnership with city agencies and local nonprofits – have revitalized 95 city blocks, cleaned and maintained nearly 300 blighted properties, hauled away more than 2 million pounds of yard waste and trash, and created 116 green spaces and community gardens. Love Your City is truly a movement that is making long-lasting change in the livability of our city and in how citizens feel about their blocks and neighborhoods.

Love Your City is now part of implementing Flint’s new master plan, Imagine Flint, the city’s first comprehensive, long-range plan in over 50 years, developed with input from a diverse group of more than 5,000 Flint residents and community stakeholders. With Imagine Flint as our guide, we will continue to address challenges across our city, including improving public safety, emergency preparedness, opportunities for youth, health, and reducing blight with service-fueled solutions like Love Your Block.

We continue to face significant challenges and our road to recovery will not be easy. However, I am confident that with engaged citizens, targeted opportunities, and dedicated community leaders, Flint will emerge stronger than ever before.

Moving Cities Beyond Performance Measurement

This analysis is a guest post from The American Cities Project at The Pew Charitable Trusts. It originally appeared here

performance measurement graph depictionA recent report on performance management from the National League of Cities suggested that officials work with employees in city departments to identify which performance metrics to use, and that cities measure both outcomes (long-term impact) and outputs (actions taken or completed). (violetkaipa/Getty Images)

The recent explosion in the availability of data is changing the way Americans make decisions and do business in fields as diverse as sports, public health, shopping, and politics. The business of government is no exception. At the local level, new methods of collecting and analyzing information have varied and far-reaching effects on the ability of leaders to understand and work within their fiscal constraints and meet residents’ needs.

Local governments have used performance measurement—collecting and studying data with the aim of improving operating efficiency and effectiveness—for decades, but today’s cities have access to a wealth of other data. Those on the cutting edge are using these data with new analytical tools in innovative ways that often reach beyond the conventional definition of performance measurement. For example, the New York City Fire Department compiles information from various city departments about building characteristics—such as construction material, fireproofing, height, date of construction, and last inspection date—to prioritize buildings for inspections. Boston uses a cellphone app, called Street Bump, to help detect potholes using the accelerometers built into cellphones.

What’s new, beyond the sheer volume of data, to help governments improve?

  • Local governments previously examined statistics only within individual departments. Today, they are gleaning new insights by combining data across agencies.
  • Government officials typically reviewed performance statistics only periodically—annually, semiannually, or quarterly. Now they often have access to usable data in real time, allowing them to be more responsive and efficient.
  • In the past, cities primarily used analytics to understand past events. Today, some are exploring predictive analytics, using data to anticipate occurrences and outcomes.

As local governments continue to operate under fiscal restraints after the Great Recession (as recent Pew Charitable Trusts research found), data and analytics offer cities a critically important way to stretch limited dollars and improve services. Cities today, in the words of one Boston official, need to be ambidextrous organizations that can collect trash, teach kids, and enforce laws today but also innovate and learn to do better tomorrow.

This analysis looks at some of the innovative ways in which cities are using new tools and technologies and considers some of the challenges they face in using data effectively.

Using data in new ways

The huge quantities of data now available to governments present opportunities for cities seeking to improve services while cutting costs.

In an interview with Pew researchers, Jeff Tryens, a former New York City deputy director for performance management, noted that “performance measures are only one place to look for the data that you need to improve whatever it is you’re doing.”  He pointed to New York’s efforts to figure out which restaurants were dumping cooking oil into sewers and clogging pipes across the city. Instead of sending inspectors out to try to catch perpetrators in the act, the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics compared a list of restaurants that have grease-hauling contracts with the locations of sewer blockages—information from unrelated city departments that had not been connected before—to determine which restaurants were most likely to be dumping grease.

Tryens said these data sources didn’t shed much light until city personnel figured out how to effectively cross-reference them. “The rest of the fun stuff was doing lots of analytics to try and figure out what was going on which caused that performance measure to underperform,” he said. City inspectors eventually issued violations on 95 percent of the targets on the suspect list, according to the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics. The increased enforcement led to a decrease in sewer blockages and to savings on inspection and remediation.

Other cities around the country are also using data and analysis in innovative ways:

  • Boston’s Problem Properties Task Force identifies and responds to “problem properties,” which are nuisance buildings and/or vacant lots with persistent criminal activities and code violations. Four substantiated complaints within a 12-month period can land a property on the city’s list of such properties and result in fines and other enforcement actions. The task force analyzes trends using data points from various city departments—including 25-month crime statistics by neighborhood or police district and top-10 address lists for code violations—to predict which properties are at risk for further problems. It then works with landlords to address complaints and violations promptly. In the first two years of the task force’s operation, 275 properties were identified as potential problems. Of those, 58 were listed as problem properties, 44 of which have been remedied and removed from the list. An additional 39 cases were resolved before they were officially classified as problems. Calls to 911 about properties designated for crime-related issues fell by about 70 percent after the cases were deemed resolved.
  • Detroit collects information about response times, medical emergencies, calls for assistance, and other matters from the Fire Department, computer-aided dispatch, 911 dispatch, geographic information system, and other records through FireView Dashboard, a real-time tracking system. City officials use the information to allocate resources for the Fire Department, estimate response times, and plan community outreach. Budget cuts have forced the department to temporarily shut down some fire companies on a rolling basis to save on overtime costs, but the city had little information about how the brownouts would affect response times. One city official told Pew, “To get a response time would be to get two light-duty personnel to go through boxes of written reports and get a calculator to average out the response times.” The new system has helped the department determine which fire companies to brown out at what times to minimize the impact on response times, improving services for residents while maximizing city resources.
  • Las Vegas is using a system known as the Park Asset Data Collection and Data Conversion Program (ParkPAD) to track and measure the city’s park system, cutting costs while improving services for residents. The system stores quantitative data and maps for all park amenities, including benches, restrooms, trees, soil, sod, and hundreds of other components. Previously, the city had to pay for staff time to assess the needs before work could begin. For example, if a park needed new sod, the city would send an employee to the park with a surveyor’s wheel to measure the area needing replacement. Today, using ParkPAD’s digital maps and measurements, the city can determine how much sod it needs within minutes, saving hours of manual labor and improving accuracy.

Using data effectively

For local officials hoping to make real and ongoing improvements to government operations, collecting and analyzing data are just the beginning.

Speaking at a recent National League of Cities conference, Rick Cole, deputy mayor for budget and innovation in Los Angeles, said cities should use data to identify potential problems, understand why they are happening, and find solutions. “It’s not the numbers. It’s what you do with the numbers,” he told the audience in Austin, Texas.

Cole advised city officials to check data frequently and make adjustments to operations as necessary to improve performance. In addition, he encouraged leaders to foster a culture among municipal employees that prioritizes innovation and enhancement rather than placing blame, noting that punitive environments inevitably lead to a temptation to “cook the books.”

Whether deliberate or accidental, inaccurate information can lead to flawed decision-making. In New York City, numbers showing a dramatic drop in violence at Rikers Island were found to be faulty, omitting hundreds of inmate fights. Two officials at the facility were promoted based on the erroneous figures. City investigators subsequently concluded in a confidential report that the numbers were inaccurate and recommended that the officials be demoted—one has since retired—according to The New York Times.

Determining which measures are meaningful in assessing government performance can also pose challenges. A recent report on performance management from the National League of Cities explored the issues through interviews with staff from cities across the country. Two frequently offered suggestions: that officials work with employees in city departments to identify which performance metrics to use and that cities measure both outcomes (long-term impact) and outputs (actions taken or completed). The NLC report notes that selection of the most appropriate metrics is often an iterative process, requiring adjustments over time to ensure the best results.

When done correctly, performance metric selection leads municipal leaders to think about the broader questions of whom they are trying to serve and how. Cole gave the example of libraries: Twenty years ago, libraries might have been judged on how many books were checked out. Today, they serve many other purposes, such as providing a safe place for children to go after school and serving as a resource for adults looking for jobs. Because of this evolution, the performance of a modern library requires new metrics.

Conclusion

New data and analytics offer local leaders the opportunity to provide better, more efficient services even as budgets remain tight.

Stephen Goldsmith, a professor of the practice of government at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a former two-term mayor of Indianapolis, called the potential for cities to improve performance using data and analytics “enormous and unlimited.”

“We are at a point in time where the tools that allow us to drive performance exceed the application of those tools,” Goldsmith said. “It’s not technology that’s holding us back; it’s the conceptualization of how you use the tools in a practical way.”

The Pew Charitable Trusts provided generous funding support for NLC’s performance management guidebook

Love Your Block: How Birmingham Citizens are Transforming Their City, One Block at a Time

This is a guest post by Mayor William A. Bell, Sr., Birmingham, Ala. This post is part of the NLC Community Service Series, and originally appeared here.

cities of service 2 - birmingham, ala.The office of Mayor William A. Bell, Sr., engaged citizen volunteers and formed partnerships with various local organizations in order to revitalize communities in Birmingham, Ala. (image courtesy of citiesofservice.org)

In Birmingham, implementing Love Your Block is not just the right thing to do; it is the smart thing to do. Love Your Block gives my residents the opportunity to create projects that will have a deep impact on their neighborhood and ultimately improve the health, safety, and well being of the whole city.

Birmingham became a member of the Cities of Service coalition in 2012 – and committed to making an impact by revitalizing neighborhoods one block at a time. I was proud to receive a Cities of Service Impact Volunteering Fund grant so we could tackle neighborhood blight in a collaborative and actionable way. As recommended in the Cities of Service Love Your Block blueprint, my office engaged citizen volunteers and formed partnerships with organizations such as HandsOn Birmingham, Home Depot, and the Alabama Power Foundation in order to make a significant impact.

In the first year of Love Your Block Birmingham, we exceeded all of our impact metrics and goals. Thousands of Birmingham volunteers cleaned more than 26,000 square feet of graffiti, disposed of more than 70,000 pounds of trash and debris, planted over 500 trees and revitalized 40 blocks. We were able to identify 15 future neighborhoods for ongoing revitalization projects and leveraged 13 additional funding sources to support neighborhood revitalization projects. We also realized that we didn’t just make the streets cleaner – we brought people together to work alongside one another and empowered our citizens to take ownership of their neighborhoods and make a real and measurable impact.

After we completed the first round of our Love Your Block initiatives, I recognized that there was still a lot more work to do. Building on our early success, I pledged to make Love Your Block a part of my citywide strategy to make Birmingham a healthier and safer city through my RISE Birmingham program. With the support of an additional Impact Volunteering Fund grant from Cities of Service, we were able to distribute 20 mini-grants to support neighborhood groups in new and continued revitalization projects. RISE Birmingham has now become a movement across the city – we plan to revitalize 60 blocks, remove 90,000 pounds of trash and debris, clean 35,000 square feet of graffiti, plant 300 new trees, and conduct 7 neighborhood clean sweeps. We have also added a community policing component and are forming neighborhood watch groups to promote a sense of pride and community for neighborhood residents.

Like so many cities in America today, Birmingham has faced and continues to face many challenges. As mayor of this great city, it is my duty, privilege, and honor to bring people and organizations together to solve our challenges. I want every resident to know that I will continue to work on the issues about which they care most deeply and I am constantly focused on moving Birmingham forward in the best way I know how: through citizen engagement and collaboration among nonprofit, public, and private partners. Love Your Block has become an essential piece in the puzzle for a brighter future for Birmingham and I look forward to continuing to find out what it really means for residents to love their blocks by deepening our impact across the city.

Journeying to Jerusalem: Examining the Benefits Urban Agriculture Can Bring to Your City

This is a guest post by Allison Paisner.

How can local leaders create a community-building activity that helps citizens make healthy food choices and get outside more? Gardens may be the ideal answer.

Mizmor L'David Garden

Mizmor L’David Garden

While you may not have immediately jumped to the same conclusion, consider that gardens are a valuable resource, providing a good source of nutritional local produce, an opportunity for community engagement, and symbiotic environmental stewardship efforts.

In my travels to urban gardens throughout the city of Jerusalem last summer to conduct food security and community participation surveys, I found the interdependent benefits of locally grown foods too tempting to ignore. Even with the severe water shortages inherent in a desert climate, the proliferation of gardens and edible landscaping in Jerusalem allows cheap access to fresh produce and helps to eliminate food deserts. Whether this is accomplished through a private venture, a municipal undertaking, or even participation in a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), gardens offer rewarding personal and community experiences as well as health and environmental benefits.

From a health perspective, growing your own food or participating in a CSA puts you in control of what’s fueling your body – you choose the seeds (for all those non-GMO lovers), and you control the pesticides (or lack thereof). Gardening can even be a form of moderate cardiovascular exercise.

Max Rayne Hand in Hand Bilingual School

Max Rayne Hand in Hand Bilingual School Garden

In Jerusalem, community-wide urban gardens are run by volunteers or non-profit organizations such as Hand in Hand, and they often offer the fruits of their labor to the public in a very literal sense. Private garden owners donate extra produce to religious institutions or schools such as Mizmor L’David, with some even selling their surplus. Water for the community gardens’ drip irrigation systems is generally provided and paid for by the municipality. One garden run by the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Jerusalem Bilingual School brings students and their families, of both Jewish and Muslim faiths, together for garden work days to achieve a common goal and vision. Whereas crops such as olives, cactus fruit, almonds, pomegranate and figs differed slightly from those found in the more temperate U.S. climate, I was surprised to find that these Jerusalem gardens boast large yields of peppers, tomatoes, onions, eggplants and even corn.

I was able to experience urban agriculture first-hand in Jerusalem, but municipalities across the US – as well as NLC’s Sustainable Cities Institute – are no stranger to gardens and best practices. A growing number of cities across the nation are already promoting the growth of urban agriculture through direct community engagement by passing new zoning policies and by creating Sustainability Plans and local food networks. So this year, instead of stocking up on frozen or artificially low-calorie, low-fat products, try to discover the resources and opportunities available in your neighborhood for locally-grown fresh produce. You might be inspired to participate in a community garden – or even start one of your own!

Allison Paisner headshotAbout the Author: Allison Paisner is an intern with the Sustainable Cities Institute at the National League of Cities. Follow the program on twitter @sustcitiesinst.

New Award Recognizes Innovative Affordable Housing Policies & Programs

This is a guest post by Jess Zimbabwe and Michelle McDonough Winters.

A Rose Center panel reviews a model of the Mueller Airport redevelopment in AustinA Rose Center panel reviews a model of the Mueller Airport redevelopment in Austin, which includes both for-sale and for-rent homes—25% of the total units on the site—that are affordable to families making less than 80% of the area median income. (photo: Jess Zimbabwe)

Housing affordability is a serious concern for cities across the US. The Joint Center for Housing Studies has reported that 35 percent of Americans and half of all renters are “cost burdened,” meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing. This is a crisis that impacts not only families who stretch their budgets – and their commutes – to afford appropriate housing, but also the economic competitiveness of cities as businesses struggle to attract and retain qualified workers.

To recognize governments that are leading the way to solutions in housing, the ULI Robert C. Larson Housing Policy Leadership Awards recognizes policies and programs that are taking innovative approaches to housing affordability. This year’s call for entries for the Larson Awards, and their companion award program for affordable and workforce housing developments, is open until March 16. The program has honored eight state and local programs since its establishment, six of which went to cities or municipal housing departments:

2014
• City of Austin, Texas, for a comprehensive approach to housing policy. Designated by the US Census Bureau as the “nation’s capital for population growth,” the city of Austin is tackling its affordable housing shortage through a variety of mechanisms. In addition to the housing trust fund and general obligation bond funding, the city implemented planning and development policies and programs that encourage the production of affordable housing – securing affordability for more than 18,000-units since focusing on this crucial issue.

• City of Pasadena, California, for a comprehensive approach to housing policy. Since 2000, Pasadena’s housing policy and programs have resulted in the development of over 5,000 housing units in transit-oriented areas, including 1,370 units of affordable and workforce housing. Pasadena’s commitment to its housing vision, community engagement, and informed dialog has produced a highly integrated and effective mix of goals, policies, and programs for its 2014-2021 housing element plan.

2013
• Baltimore Housing, Baltimore, Maryland, for the Vacants to Value Program. After losing nearly a third of its population since the 1950s, Baltimore Housing launched the Vacants to Value program to help attract 10,000 new residents. The program has leveraged over $25 million in private capital and worked across city agencies to transform vacant housing stock into workforce housing.

• Park City Municipal Corporation, Park City, Utah, for creating workforce housing choices in a resort community. Aiming to reduce the burden on local businesses created by high seasonal job turnover, Park City has supported the creation of workforce housing by providing financial incentives including grants, land donation and fee waivers. The city has coupled these efforts with an inclusionary housing ordinance, homebuyer assistance and rental programs for municipal employees to create and maintain workforce housing opportunities and a more sustainable community.

2012
• New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, for the New Housing Marketplace Plan. A culture of innovation, leadership and collaboration have helped the New Housing Marketplace Plan to create or preserve 165,000 units of affordable housing—nearly 5,000 of which are workforce units – since 2003.

2011
• City of San José, California. Over the last 30 years, the City of San José, the center of Silicon Valley, has become one of the toughest places in the country to find affordable housing. In response, the City adopted a variety of policies and programs that have created 10,600 units of workforce housing. Its policies extend beyond project finance to include long-term planning and periodic revision of its zoning code to reduce regulatory barriers.

Is your community doing something innovative or impactful to address the need for affordable and workforce housing? If so, help spread the word and apply for recognition.

About the authors:

Jess Zimbabwe Headshot 150x150Jess Zimbabwe is Executive Director of the Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use, a program of the National League of Cities, in partnership with the Urban Land Institute. She’s an architect, city planner and politics junkie. Follow Jess on twitter at @jzimbabwe and @theRoseCenter.

 

Michelle Winters Headshot 150x150Michelle McDonough Winters is Senior Visiting Fellow for Housing at the Urban Land Institute’s Terwilliger Center for Housing. Follow her at @mkmwinters and the Terwilliger Center at @ULIHousing.

Why We Host the Congressional City Conference in March

DC neighborhoodColorful rowhouses near the Shaw neighborhood of Northwest D.C. (Getty Images)

We host our annual Congressional City Conference in March for a number of reasons. Most importantly, March is when Congressional action begins to take place. Before March, new members are likely to still be figuring out the ropes; after March, you’ll find that many other people will be competing for your representative’s time. So we’ve planned the conference with a specific strategy in mind: maximizing the return on your advocacy efforts, and enabling you to get in on the ground floor and advocate for your city while your legislators are all ears.

As a serendipitous bonus, March also happens to be a great time to visit Washington, D.C. You know that the District is home to the three pillars of federal government, and you may have visited many of our marble-clad monuments before – but there’s a city beyond the tourist brochures and textbooks, and spring is the ideal season to discover all that the nation’s capital has to offer. Although we’ll be keeping you busy during the conference, we encourage you to take some time before or after to explore both the grandeur and the grittiness of our city.

On a pleasant day, the National Mall is a delightful place to take a tree-lined stroll or a break for lunch on one of the park benches. And if you haven’t visited the Smithsonian museums along the Mall since high school, this is your chance to take advantage of a walkable strip of artworks and historical artifacts. As you make your way along this historic pathway lined with cherry trees and budding tulip flowers, stop inside the museums and you’ll find everything from cursed diamonds and movie props to nuclear missiles and other military relics. You may even stumble upon some of the personal belongings of our nation’s forefathers.

D.C.'s Adams Morgan neighborhood

D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood is known for its restaurants, eclectic shops and nightlife. (Getty Images)

Want to get to know the real D.C.? You won’t need to travel far from your hotel. Located in the Northwest quadrant of the city, the Marriott Wardman Park is situated between two distinct neighborhoods – one elegant, and one eccentric. Head north to the residential neighborhood of Cleveland Park, and you’ll find stately old manors and the occasional bookstore or coffee shop. Head south to Adams Morgan, and discover your new favorite cuisine as you explore a hodgepodge of funky bars, mural-splashed walls, ethnic eateries, and quirky shops crammed with off-beat art. Between these two neighborhoods, you’ll experience two sides of the city that you won’t see on TV or read about in most guidebooks.

In the end, you’ll find that Washington, D.C. is a diverse city full of hidden gems – for more suggestions, check out these NLC staff recommendations!

Mari Andrew bio photoAbout the author: Mari Andrew is the Senior Associate of Marketing at the National League of Cities. She works hard to help city leaders build better communities, and believes the world would be a better place if people wore more creative clothing.

Obama’s “Every Kid in a Park” Initiative: Connecting Kids to Nature and History

Two developments last week provide opportunities for cities to connect young people to the outdoors and to local history.

Every Kid in a Park initiativeThe President’s new Every Kid in a Park initiative will help city leaders develop and expand strategies for getting more young people outdoors and connected to our national parks. (Getty Images)

For some children, spending time outdoors isn’t as easy as it should be. In many communities, safety concerns and a lack of access to parks and green space hinder young people from spending quality time outside. This, coupled with a national screen time average of 7½ hours a day (seven days a week) among eight to eighteen year olds, has contributed to an increasingly indoor and sedentary lifestyle for many young people.

Last week, President Obama announced a new initiative, dubbed Every Kid in a Park. This initiative will provide all fourth-grade students and their families with free admission to national parks and other federal lands for a year beginning in September 2015. It’s an important step to providing needed access to the outdoors and ensuring that kids across the country have the opportunity to visit America’s national parks and landmarks. President Obama also requested new funding in his FY 2016 Budget to support transportation for school outings to parks for students from low-income areas.

In line with the Administration’s new initiative, NLC is partnering with the Children & Nature Network on the Cities Promoting Access to Nature initiative. This new, three-year project will help city leaders develop and expand strategies for getting more young people outdoors and connected to parks, green space and natural areas, with a focus on children and youth in economically stressed communities.

New National Monuments
Along with the Every Kid in a Park Initiative, the President announced that he is designating three new national monuments, including the Pullman National Monument in Chicago. “What makes Pullman special is the role it plays in our history,” President Obama said on a recent trip to Chicago, where he designated the factory district a national monument. “This place has been a milestone in our journey toward a more perfect union.”

The Pullman District was America’s first planned industrial town, created in the 1880s to house railroad and factory workers. Many of the jobs in the Pullman district went to African Americans, and the site became a symbol of economic opportunity for African Americans and other minority groups. The area was also where the seeds for the modern labor rights movement were planted. In 1894, workers organized a strike after railroad mogul George Pullman refused to lower rents when he lowered wages.

The designation of Pullman as a national monument means that fourth-graders and their families in Chicago, and from cities and towns across the country, will have the opportunity to visit the site (at no charge) and learn about our nation’s rich labor and civil rights history.

EmilyAbout the Author: Emily Pickren is the Principal Associate for Communications in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education & Families. Follow Emily on Twitter at @emilypickren.

LED Street Lights: Energy Savings Likely to Outweigh Initial Costs for These Three Cities

LED streetlights on the Lowry Avenue Bridge in MinnesotaLED streetlights, such as those found on the Lowry Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, Minn., can provide better visibility while reducing emissions and cutting cities’ energy bills by more than 60%. (Joe Ferrer/Getty Images)

Nearly every boulevard, avenue, road or side street in America is lined with opportunities to reduce energy consumption and save important municipal dollars. Street lights in the United States are estimated to use as much energy as six million households, and the energy bills cost local governments more than $10 billion per year.

Due to recent advances of LED and other solid state lighting options, modern streetlights have the potential to cut those figures by 50% or more.

This is why the Obama Administration has challenged mayors around the country to retrofit their lights and install modern, high efficiency lighting. The Presidential Challenge for Advanced Outdoor Lighting sets a goal of upgrading at least 1.5 million poles by May 2016, tripling the previous goal to upgrade 500,000.

The challenge is backed by extensive resources in the Better Buildings Outdoor Lighting Accelerator, which contains financial calculators, case studies, and more. The Solid State Street Lighting Consortium, a DOE-managed peer group of cities pursuing lighting upgrades, also has technical specifications and market reports to help cities through the procurement process.

Thanks to early adopters like Raleigh, Los Angeles and Seattle, many of the concerns surrounding technical issues and public acceptance have been debunked in the last few years, illuminating the path for others to follow. Costs for both energy use and maintenance have proven lower under the new systems. In surveys conducted for the city of Seattle, more than 85% of respondents approved of the new lights.

For many city leaders, though, the decision isn’t quite that clear. As with any major retrofit, the upfront capital cost can be daunting. Los Angeles, for example, has replaced more than 140,000 lights in four years, yielding an annual savings of more than 60%. Even with a payback period estimated at just seven years, the initial cost has been reported to be $57 million. Given the constraints on local budgets, it can be difficult to justify a costly upgrade for a system that is already functioning.

Additionally, some city officials may be waiting to see if those installation costs continue to drop before they convert. Between 2011 and 2013, the cost of new LED streetlights fell an estimated 50%. Even then, the price was four times that of high-pressure sodium lights. In the short term, waiting may result in further savings and an even more efficient LED product.

Nonetheless, the takeaway is overwhelmingly positive. A tipping point seems to have been reached as the rate of adoption accelerates. If the President’s challenge is met, and the 1.5 million poles achieve the same efficiency and CO2 reductions as Los Angeles, it will create a reduction of more than 369,000 tons of emissions each year.

Headshot1-CMartinAbout the Author: Cooper Martin is the Program Director for the Sustainable Cities Institute at the NLC. Follow the program on twitter @sustcitiesinst.

Mayors’ Challenge Seeks to Create Safer Walking and Bicycling Networks

Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx issued the Mayors’ Challenge for Safer People, Safer Streets to improve safety for pedestrians and bicyclists over the next year.

Bike lanesMayors who commit to creating safer, more connected walking and bicycling networks in their cities will be invited to attend the Mayors’ Summit for Safer People, Safer Streets on March 12 in Washington, D.C. (Getty Images)

For the first time in human history, the majority of the world’s population lives in urban areas, including 80 percent of Americans. The increase in the number of city dwellers in the U.S. correlates with an increase in the number of people using non-motorized forms of transportation, such as walking and bicycling, to move around their communities. However, this increase in healthy and environmentally friendly travel modes has a significant downside – pedestrian and bicycle injuries and fatalities have steadily increased since 2009.

Elected officials at the local, state and federal level recognize the need to create safer, more connected walking and bicycling networks. As part of the Safer People, Safer Streets initiative, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx issued a challenge to mayors and other local elected officials to create safer walking and bicycling options for their residents. He challenged city leaders to undertake seven activities over the next year to improve safety for pedestrians and bicyclists of all ages and abilities. Over 90 cities have already joined the challenge.

Many mayors, city councilmembers and other local elected officials are already making changes to improve pedestrian and bicycle safety. In Columbus, Ohio, Mayor Michael B. Coleman and the city council adopted the Safe Streets Ordinance, which includes provisions that clarify that bicyclists are protected under the law from being “doored” by motorists, and specify that motor vehicles must allow a minimum of three feet when passing bicycles.

Cyclobia Brownsville 1

City streets are closed to vehicles during CycloBia Brownsville. (photo credit: City of Brownsville, Texas)

In Brownsville, Texas, City Commissioner Rose Gowen and other city leaders have adopted an Open Streets approach; through CycloBia Brownsville the city closes some public streets during designated times so residents can safely use city streets for walking, bicycling and other recreational activities.

Mick Cornett, mayor of Oklahoma City, Okla., is leading an effort to consciously redesign and rebuild the city’s streetscapes with millennials in mind, many of whom are less likely to have a driver’s license and more likely to walk, bike and use public transportation.

NLC, through Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties has helped cities implement strategies such as Complete Streets, Safe Routes to School and Open Streets to improve the design and use of streets for pedestrians and cyclists. To date, more than 200 cities and counties are using such strategies to enhance opportunities for residents who walk and bike to school, to work and just for fun.

To make your city safer and easier to navigate for pedestrians and bicyclists, sign up for the Safer People, Safer Streets Mayors’ Challenge today! When you sign up, let us know on Twitter by using the hashtag #mayors4safety.

About the Author: Tracy Wiedt is the Program Manager for Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties at the National League of Cities.

Cities Can Still Help Children and Families Get Health Insurance

“It doesn’t matter why people don’t have insurance; what matters is that we help them get it.”
-Valerie McDonald Roberts, City of Pittsburgh

<> on July 20, 2010 in New York, New York. (Getty Images)

Although the 2015 deadline to enroll in health insurance through the Affordable Care Act’s Healthcare Marketplace has passed, there are still ways for children and families to get covered. Depending on household size and income, children and families may qualify for Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and enrollment for both programs is available 365 days a year.

Medicaid and CHIP provide free or low-cost benefits to eligible families, including:

  • Coverage for inpatient and outpatient hospital services
  • Screenings and preventative services
  • Prescription drugs
  • Immunizations
  • Mental health services

For the last two years, NLC has been working with local leaders to connect families to these important public health insurance programs through our Cities Expanding Health Access for Children and Families (CEHACF) initiative. Cities have a vested interest in expanding coverage for children and families. When families have health insurance, the burden on hospital emergency rooms is reduced, families avoid the sky-high medical debt that often results in a financial crisis and children are healthier, which means parents take less time off of work to care for sick kids.

The eight cities participating in CEHACF are implementing a variety of effective strategies to get eligible children and families in their communities enrolled in Medicaid or CHIP. These include working with community organizations to coordinate citywide outreach events, conducting targeted outreach, e.g., school-based outreach and training city staff to provide one-on-one enrollment assistance. These cities are working to improve access to coverage for their residents because they know that having health coverage improves the quality of life for families and provides a level of economic and emotional security that families not only need, but deserve.

As Valerie McDonald Roberts, Chief Urban Affairs Officer for Mayor Bill Peduto in Pittsburgh noted in her recent op-ed, “When you find yourself telling your children that they can’t break an arm or a finger not only because it will hurt or take a long time to heal, but also because you can’t afford to take them to the hospital, you feel vulnerable.” With Medicaid and CHIP, no family needs to feel vulnerable.

The bottom line, as McDonald Roberts aptly puts it, is that “when you visit the doctor, the people at the front desk don’t care who issued your insurance card. They just want to see that you have one.”

What is your city doing to promote Medicaid and CHIP enrollment? Let us know by contacting Dawn Schluckebier at schluckebier@nlc.org.

Dawn Schluckebeir_headshot
About the Author:
Dawn Schluckebier is a Senior Associate for Family Economic Success in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. Follow Dawn on Twitter at @TheSchluck.