Three Approaches for Untangling the Knots of Local Business Regulations

knot(Getty Images)

Oh, what a tangled knot cities can weave with local business regulations. Whether it’s the dizzying application paper trail at city hall, inexplicable permitting or licensing requirements, or an arbitrary approval timeline, this is a government problem that is ripe for a solution. Thankfully, a number of cities are creating a path forward on regulatory reform.

The scope of this problem, although difficult to fully quantify, is substantial for both business owners and local governments. In a recent Thumbtack Small Business Friendliness Survey, the top frustration reported by business owners is a complicated regulatory process. The time spent navigating the current broken system translates into lost income and delayed openings for new businesses.

Meanwhile, the economic health of cities suffers when local business owners and entrepreneurs cannot open their doors quickly, or even worse, decided to locate elsewhere that is more business-friendly. The US Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Regulatory Climate Index recommends streamlining permitting and licensing as a necessary reform for encouraging entrepreneurship, job creation, and overall economic growth.

Cities are taking three approaches to untangling the knots of local business regulation.

Reviewing existing regulations, eliminating ones without a purpose. First, many cities are making sure their local business regulations are actually serving a purpose. Regulations can sometimes be superfluous (for example, an “open flame” permit to place votive candles on restaurant tables) or contradictory to county or state guidelines.

To help cities confront this issue, the Ash Center for Democratic Governance at Harvard Kennedy School launched a regulatory reform framework that provides guiding principles to understand the origin and purpose of a regulation and how to streamline permitting and licensing (side note: it also shares information on using predictive monitoring to prioritize inspections where they are needed most).

Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed a new commissioner to modernize Chicago’s entire municipal code and eliminate unnecessary regulations, and also signed licensing reform legislation that reduced the number of business licenses by 60 percent. The Seattle Restaurant Reform Initiative program formed a team of city, county, and state representatives to tackle regulatory inefficiencies for the local restaurant industry. Kansas City’s Dead Letter Office website is crowdsourcing ideas for regulations that are impractical and no longer serving a valid purpose.

Improving interdepartmental coordination and customer service at city hall. Opening a business often requires paperwork from separate city offices, and these applications can get passed around to different departments like a game of pinball. No wonder the process is frustrating.

Cincinnati reduces this administrative headache, and more quickly process permitting and licensing requests, by using “jump teams” of key staff from across the necessary departments to support the application process from start to finish. Kansas City created the KCBizcare office to offer in-person support and encouragement for business owners navigating the regulatory process. The KCBizcare team serves as an advocate for business owners who are working with city departments, and helps monitor the progress of applications. The one-stop-shop Small Business Center in Chicago has an express lane that streamlines specific types of requests (for example, updating account information or printing a new license) and provides assistance in 15 minutes or less.

Making the regulatory process more transparent and easily accessible. Business permitting and licensing process works better when expectations are clearly communicated, information is easily accessible, and the application process is available online.

The San Francisco Business Portal is a comprehensive website with “starter kits” by industry on how to start a business in the city. New York City also has online “starter guides.” The Seattle Restaurant Success Initiative developed an infographic that serves as a roadmap for starting a restaurant.

Lastly, some cities are moving towards putting the actual permitting and licensing application process online. Boston, Kansas City, and Denver have all secured contracts to move from paper to an online interface. The ultimate goal is to enable business owners and entrepreneurs to apply for all permits and licenses quickly and efficiently, and track their approval status, through one streamlined city website.

By working on one or all of these reform approaches local governments can create a regulatory environment that allows small businesses and entrepreneurs to spring into action, instead of getting tangled along the way.

Robbins_small (2)About the author: Emily Robbins is the Senior Associate, Finance and Economic Development at NLC. Follow Emily on Twitter: @robbins617.

Climate Change Update: FOCUS 2015 and Preparing for COP-21 in Paris

This post was co-authored with Allison Paisner.

FOCUS 2015NLC Second Vice President Matt Zone (sixth from left) pauses for a photo with other elected officials at the FOCUS (Forum Of Communities for Urban Sustainability) 2015 event at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C. on March 6, 2015. The event was designed around a discussion of how cities and local governments can fight climate change and provide residents with a higher quality of life. (photo: FOCUS 2015)

This December, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will meet in Paris for COP-21 (the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC) in hopes of negotiating a new, international agreement on greenhouse gas emissions. Whether you are optimistic or doubtful about the prospects for a global accord among the various nations, it is clear that cities and towns will continue to be at the center of any effort to mitigate or adapt to the challenges posed by climate change.

That is why the French Embassy in Washington, D.C. recently hosted FOCUS-15: A Forum of Communities for Urban Sustainability. The mission was to spark thinking, create networks and establish bonds between local actors prior to the UN Conference of Parties in Paris this December. The event brought together French and American leaders from public, private and philanthropic sectors, including nearly a dozen representatives from the National League of Cities (NLC).

NLC Second Vice President Matt Zone and Henrietta Davis, both of whom were part of the NLC COP-15 delegation in Copenhagen, noted how much attitudes had improved in recognizing the role cities play in the process. Just six years ago, all of the attention was given to national governments, and local leaders were treated no differently than small, non-profit interest groups. Looking at COP-21 though, local leaders are closer to center stage.

Workshops centered on the pillars of urban sustainability: waste and water, energy, transportation and land use, resiliency, and urban policy and community empowerment. Because cities are engines of innovation where commitments to sustainability develop at the local level, the forum emphasized the need to for cities and regional authorities to coordinate policies and disseminate best practices as key actors. Communities also need to educate their residents and serve as facilitators for change by equipping citizens with the tools necessary to participate in the decision making process.

Green investments geared towards climate change mitigation, adaptation and resiliency involve high short-term costs – the results of which only translate in the long term. Policymakers need to understand this tradeoff and make fiscally and environmentally responsible decisions that balance the cost- and results-oriented spheres for the future of tomorrow.

Highlights from the FOCUS 2015 conference in Washington, D.C.

Other sustainability trends recognized in French and American cities over the two-day event included the need to accommodate population growth while limiting urban sprawl, transitioning away from a carbon-based transportation system, the inclusion of natural systems and green infrastructure as sustainable alternatives to depreciating built infrastructure, and working within the institutional framework for research and support of city innovation.

Partnerships between local & federal governments and the public & private sector are crucial stimulants to sustainable development, providing means for innovation, access to financial capital, and broadening the scale of influence.

Based on the dialogue between national and local actors throughout the conference, it is clear that the gradual transition to sustainable cities will involve healthy competition and inspire a race to the top.

More immediately, though, there is significant preparation and progress to be made prior to COP-21 this December. With limited authority as local and regional governments, cities need a “Paris deal;” sub-national actors need to bring clear objectives to the discussion, outline what is possible, and show their political support for an equitable and achievable agreement.

Whatever is decided in Paris will not be the end of the road, however. With luck – and the support of cities and towns – it will be only the beginning of a new and ambitious era in urban sustainability.

About the Authors:

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

 

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

Carrots and Sticks: How Cities Are Taking a New Approach to Regulatory Compliance

This post is a response to the recent Governing article on regulatory compliance.

carrot stick(Getty Images)

There has been some recent buzz about the dangers of local regulatory compliance. Regulating businesses is necessary – you wouldn’t want to eat at an unsanitary restaurant, or take your car to an auto mechanic who wasn’t certified. However, some say that regulating businesses can be counterproductive, costly and raise equity concerns. Holding up examples of cities coming down hard against large swathes of businesses on relatively minor infractions can certainly make that case.

But these instances are the exception, not the rule.

Less Stick, More Carrot

While local governments would be wise to heed the warnings of fallout from “inspector zeal,” the regulatory reality is that most cities aren’t filling their coffers with health inspection fines. Ensuring that businesses operate in a healthy and safe way is clearly an important function of city government, but paying for inspectors can be expensive. And because cities are still facing fiscal challenges, many are approaching compliance with caution, carefully scoping out the financial, social and economic costs and benefits of their compliance approaches.

As a result, the regulatory environment emerging in most cities is guided by a clear articulation of the end game – to ensure safe, healthy communities and prosperous businesses. This means a more informed, sensible carrot-and-stick approach: punitive “stick” measures when necessary, paired with a bushel of “carrots” in the form of compliance incentives and supports.

The “stick only” approach characterized by harsh, blanket enforcement is giving way to targeted compliance that leverages innovations in data and analytics, reforms bureaucratic red tape and makes it easier for businesses to comply in the first place.

Driving Innovation: The Impact of Analytics and Legislation 

New York City and others have enlisted the help of online review tools like Yelp to proactively identify health and safety concerns. A new Pew analysis noted that “[New York City’s] Department of Health and Mental Hygiene launched a nine-month pilot study in July 2012 that used data-mining software to screen and analyze about 294,000 Yelp reviews. It searched for keywords such as ‘sick’ or ‘food poisoning’ to find cases of foodborne illness that may not have been officially reported.”

Some cities – such as Boston, which has created a Problem Properties Taskforce – are even starting to use predictive analytics to better understand and pinpoint particular cases where compliance interventions can have the greatest impact.

Despite efforts to target the worst offenders, compliance “crackdowns” can disproportionately affect lower-income and legacy businesses that don’t have the skills or time to navigate government regulations and can’t afford to pay for fees, tax increases or compliance upgrades to their business. For these reasons, San Francisco is currently considering Legacy Business Legislation to help businesses that have been in operation for over 30 years remain in compliance and in their original locationThese businesses would be eligible for certain types of assistance, including priority access to pre-inspections for ADA compliancy, pro bono legal advice on leases, and property tax rebates. The legislation will predominantly support small mom-and-pop restaurants and cafes, and smaller bars and retailers that cater to the LGBT community.

Regulatory Overhauls

Even more common than predictive analytics and legacy business legislation is simply regulatory reform. Take ChicagoBoston, Cleveland, Kansas City, Mo., and Seattle, for example. These cities are making it easier for businesses to comply by reducing the number of permits and licenses, improving approval times, making requirements and timelines more transparent, revisiting outdated and onerous laws, and creating accessible ways for businesses to interface with government and obtain information.

Improving the ease of doing business is not only the most impactful compliance carrot available to local governments, but it is also a top contributor to a business-friendly environment (often surpassing low taxes). By using carrots and sticks in an innovative approach to regulatory compliance, cities are creating a win-win scenario in which the community is protected and businesses are encouraged to contribute to a vibrant, healthy economy.

christy-mcfarland

About the Author: Christiana K. McFarland is NLC’s Research Director. Follow Christy on Twitter at @ckmcfarland.

Local Government Employment Buoys Stagnant Public Sector

Today’s BLS February jobs report shows a slight improvement in public sector employment, with local government employment responsible for the majority of the gains.

Total public sector employment is up 7,000 jobs in February; local governments added 4,000 jobs, and state governments added 3,000. There were no gains in Federal government employment. Within local government employment, local governments (excluding education) added 2,600 jobs, and local schools added 1,200.

Despite these improvements, local government employment remains 512,000 jobs below its July 2008 post-recession peak.

March jobs report graphic

View the January Local Government Jobs Report.

christy-mcfarlandAbout the Author: Christiana K. McFarland is NLC’s Research Director. Follow Christy on Twitter at @ckmcfarland.

Recent FCC Proceedings Highlight Importance of Equity, Local Control

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski Speaks On Net NeutralityFormer FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski speaks to the media on the importance of net neutrality on December 1, 2010 at the headquarters of the FCC in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Like so many aspects of our national infrastructure, internet service has become such an integral part of our work, our personal lives, and our social interactions that we tend to take it for granted; we don’t often pay much attention to the World Wide Web until we no longer have access to it. That all changed last Thursday, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted on two widely-publicized proceedings: one related to the issue of net neutrality, and another regarding petitions filed by telecommunications utilities in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., to overcome state barriers to the expansion of municipal broadband networks. In two 3-2 votes, the FCC supported the Chattanooga and Wilson petitions to preempt state laws restricting municipal broadband networks, and adopted a new Open Internet Order which reclassifies broadband Internet access as a common carrier telecommunications service under Title II of the Communications Act.

These decisions speak to the basic tenets of democracy and equity. The internet, which is one of our country’s most sound economic engines, has also developed into a carrier of social good. It protects our right to free speech, broadens our access to information, and enables us to communicate across physical boundaries. Policies that view and protect these services as institutionalized goods to which the public should have unrestricted access reflect democratic ideals and a spirit of equality among all citizens.

Despite their relative obscurity in the public lexicon, the recent decisions made by the FCC are the product of debates in which policy wonks and advocates have been engaged for years. The issues around which the decisions are based received more public attention and increased media coverage in recent months as a result of many factors, including President Obama’s official statements addressing these topics and television personality John Oliver’s rousing (and hilarious) explanation of net neutrality on his late-night television show. This extra attention prompted a massive outpouring of comments submitted to the FCC during the proposed rules’ public comment periods. There were over 4 million comments submitted regarding the Open Internet proceedings – more than any other policy issue in the Commission’s history. This sent the clear message that, despite John Oliver’s declaration of this topic as “boring,” the American people recognize the gravity and importance of these decisions.

Municipal Broadband

Perhaps you followed our previous series on the ins and outs of municipal broadband, which provided a basic overview of muni-broadband networks. Municipal (muni) networks, also referred to as community networks, are built and managed by and within city or regional boundaries. In the case of the recent FCC decision, two cities with existing community networks located in states that subsequently passed anti-muni laws petitioned to expand broadband service outside of their current footprints in response to numerous requests from neighboring unserved and underserved communities. The FCC found that provisions of the anti-muni laws in these states are barriers to broadband deployment, investment and competition, and conflict with the FCC’s mandate to promote these goals. The Commission voted to allow Chattanooga and Wilson to expand their existing networks. Chairman Wheeler, Commissioner Clyburn and Commissioner Rosenworcel voted in favor of the petitions, and in their statements underscored the importance of broadband as a necessity for local growth and opportunity and highlighted the value of municipal broadband in meeting these goals, particularly in areas where service was not provided by industry.

This represents a success for cities, underscoring the importance of local control in infrastructure investments that serve cities’ needs. In response to the FCC’s decision, NLC CEO & Executive Director Clarence Anthony stated that “today’s vote underscores the critical role of local governments in providing broadband services that are integral to a strong, 21st century economy that benefits residents and strengthens communities. Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., are examples of the successful role local governments can play to ensure that high-speed, affordable broadband is available to our cities’ residents. While their petitions to the FCC only apply to their individual municipal broadband initiatives, today’s ruling sets a precedent that acknowledges the need for local flexibility to meet individual community needs. Each community is different, and local governments must have the flexibility and authority to make the best choices for their residents.”

Open Internet/Net Neutrality

The term “net neutrality” is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication. This principle became the ideological basis of the internet as we know it today; the idea of a free and open communications infrastructure did more to catalyze a new age of human connectivity than any other advancement in recent history. It also ushered in a new age of business by modernizing economic transactions and offering the perfect platform for entrepreneurs. Those who wished to start a business but lacked capital could simply build a web presence – thus, the internet became the incubator of the everyman.

The FCC’s recent vote allowed for the regulation of the internet under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, treating it as a public utility and allowing the Commission to regulate it as such. The new rules enable the FCC to prohibit paid prioritization, which would allow Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block or restrict certain content, essentially dividing the internet into “fast lanes” for companies and higher-paying customers and “slow lanes” for the general public. More information is available in the FCC’s press release on this topic.

The FCC’s net neutrality ruling will not subject ISPs to rate regulation, tariff unbundling or any other new taxes or fees. However, opponents of net neutrality have already proposed counter-legislation and threatened lawsuits. The FCC has braced itself for a bevy of aggressive litigation.

Better for Cities

The FCC decision on municipal broadband represents a major win for local policy makers in that they restored local control and enabled the cities of Chattanooga and Wilson to provide improved services in their communities. Municipal broadband networks offer high-speed internet access at affordable prices; they encourage economic development in cities and towns; they help local government and municipal services to function more efficiently; and most importantly, they meet the specific needs of a community as defined by its citizens. Municipal networks underscore the notion that internet access is a right, not a privilege, and that local governments can and should intervene to ensure that this right is protected equally for all Americans.

Nicole DuPuis bio photoAbout the Author: Nicole DuPuis is the Senior Associate for Infrastructure in NLC’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research. Follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicolemdupuis.

A Quick Look at All Local Government Cases on This Year’s Supreme Court Docket

Summary of all local government cases on the 2014-2015 Supreme Court docketThe Supreme Court’s 2014-2015 docket is now complete. While the same-sex marriage and Affordable Care Act cases will receive the most attention, the docket is chock-full of cases significant to local government. (Jung Soo Kang/Getty Images)

The State and Local Legal Center’s (SLLC) Midterm Review article summarizes all the cases accepted and already decided that will affect local government. Expect decisions in all the cases by the end of June.

Here are some highlights:

Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona and Sheehan v. City & County of San Francisco are probably the most significant cases of the term for local government. Depending on how the Court rules, both could impact every city and county in the United States. The issue in Reed is whether sign codes may treat some categories of temporary signs more favorably than others. If the Court holds they cannot, virtually all local governments will have to rewrite their sign codes. In Sheehan the Court will decide whether the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to arresting a mentally ill suspect who is armed and violent.

The question in Los Angeles v. Patel is whether a hotel registry ordinance which allow police officers to inspect registries without a warrant violates the Fourth Amendment. Even if your city or county doesn’t have a hotel registry ordinance it is likely to be affected by this case. In many states mobile home parks, second-hand dealers like pawnshops and junkyards, scrap metal dealers, and massage parlors are subject to registration and inspection laws and ordinances.

The Court has already decided one of the two Fourth Amendment traffic stop cases it will hear this term. In Heien v. North Carolina the Court held that a police officer’s reasonable misunderstanding that North Carolina required two working rear brake lights did not invalidate a traffic stop. In Rodriguez v. United States the Court will decide whether a police officer violated the Fourth Amendment by requiring a driver to stay a few minutes after an already-completed traffic stop to wait for back up before his canine performed a dog sniff.

In Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project the Court will decide whether disparate-impact claims can be brought under the Fair Housing Act. This is the third time the Court has agreed to hear this issue; the two previous cases settled. Local governments have found themselves on both sides of this issue.

Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans will be the Court’s second ruling on the newly-minted government speech doctrine. The Court will decide whether Texas can reject a specialty license plate featuring the Confederate Flag because license plates are “government speech.”

The Court will decide a number of employment cases this term including EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch. The issue is whether an employer can be sued for failing to accommodate an employee/applicant’s religion because the employer failed to ask if a religious accommodation was needed. Until this case the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said the applicant/employee had to ask for a religious accommodation.

While the Court has been clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause prohibits excessive force against pretrial detainees the Court has not been clear about what exactly that means. In Kingsley v. Hendrickson the Court will articulate the substantive requirements for an excessive force claim brought by a pretrial detainee

T-Mobile South v. City of Roswell is one of the few local government cases already decided. The Court held that local governments must provide reasons when denying an application to build a cell phone tower. The reasons may be included in council meeting minutes issued at the same time as the denial letter.

Lisa Soronen bio photoAbout the Author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

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.

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.

Open Data Is Finally Making A Dent In Cities

This post originally appeared on Fast Company’s Co.Exist blog.

Chicago-StOpen data can help you find your lost dog, make your commute more efficient, and make government more transparent – if cities will let it. (Getty Images)

What is the best way to get from 12th Street to Main, and should I take the subway, a bike, or rideshare? How many lobbyists are there in my city and more importantly, what are they doing? And, by the way, where did my dog go?

All of these questions and more can now be answered in cities as a result of open data. Beyond just its functional use for an increasingly app-dependent society, data collection and analysis is powering and redefining how we think about ourselves and how we interact with others, in almost every part of life. From who we date, to who we share our commute with to work, a whole new world is being created through access to useful, usable information.

As with a range of leading issues, cities are at the vanguard of this shifting environment. Through increased measurement, analysis, and engagement, open data will further solidify the centrality of cities.

In Chicago, the voice of the mayor counts for a lot. And Mayor Emmanuel has been at the forefront in supporting and encouraging open data in the city, resulting in a strong open government community. The city has more than 600 datasets online, and has seen millions of page views on its data portal. The public benefits have accrued widely with civic initiatives like Chicagolobbyists.org, as well as with a myriad of other open data led endeavors.

Transparency is one of the great promises of open data. Petitioning the government is a fundamental tenet of democracy and many government relations’ professionals perform this task brilliantly. At the same time that transparency is good for the city, it’s good for citizens and democracy. Through the advent of Chicagolobbyists.org, anyone can now see how many lobbyists are in the city, how much they are spending, who they are talking to, and when it is happening.

Throughout the country, we are seeing data driven sites and apps like this that engage citizens, enhance services, and provide a rich understanding of government operations In Austin, a grassroots movement has formed with advocacy organization Open Austin. Through hackathons and other opportunities, citizens are getting involved, services are improving, and businesses are being built.

Data can even find your dog, reducing the number of stray animals being sheltered, with Stray Mapper. The site has a simple map-based web portal where you can type in whether you are missing a dog or cat, when you lost them, and where. That information is then plugged into the data being collected by the city on stray animals. This project, developed by a Code for America brigade team, helps the city improve its rate of returning pets to owners.

It’s not only animals that get lost or at least can’t find the best way home. I’ve found myself in that situation too. Thanks to Ridescout, incubated in Washington, D.C., at 1776, I have been able to easily find the best way home. Through the use of open data available from both cities and the Department of Transportation, Ridescout created an app that is an intuitive mobility tool. By showing me all of the available options from transit to ridesharing to my own two feet, it frequently helps me get from place to place in the city. It looks like it wasn’t just me that found this app to be handy; Daimler recently acquired Ridescout as the auto giant continues its own expansion into the data driven mobility space.

We are a data driven society, from the private sector where consumer data drives the bottom line to the public sector where more and more outputs are being quantified and analyzed. New businesses are being created and existing firms are growing as companies use open data to build products that improve the lives of people living in and visiting cities. In whatever city you are in, data is a tool to make lives easier, create more robust two-way communications between the governing and governed, and increase and improve commerce.

In the National League of Cities’ newly released report, City Open Data Policies: Learning by Doing, we sought to find out what cities are currently doing with open data and what they could be doing far into the future. Working together with our partners at American University’s Department of Public Administration and Policy, this publication is a resource for cities developing open data policies.

By opening data, cities are developing an unprecedented portal into the operations and functioning of government for the use of and to the benefit of community members, the private sector, and open government advocates. Enhanced data analysis and increased open data availability also allows us to envision a future where city services are radically transformed, leading toward a seamlessness of operations from city government to resident delivery. This forward momentum further reinforces that data has become the infrastructural backbone in the century of the city.

Brooks Rainwater bio photoAbout the author:Brooks Rainwater is the Director of the Center for City Solutions and Applied Research at the National League of Cities. Follow Brooks on Twitter at @BrooksRainwater.