A Smarter Way to Make Smart Cities

This is a guest post by Isabel Munson.

Songdo, South Korea has been billed as the world’s first “smart city.” (Image: Gale International)

Today, when we hear the term “smart city”, massive interventions powered by some of the world’s largest companies come to mind.

Take the $35 billion+ city of Songdo, South Korea, which was built from the ground-up with the help of Cisco. The planned city boasts 16 miles of bike paths, 40 percent of its area dedicated to outdoor spaces, and a designation as the biggest project outside the U.S. to be included in the LEED Neighborhood Development Pilot Plan (and first LEED Accredited district in South Korea). Most impressive of all is the city’s pneumatic waste disposal system, which funnels garbage from every kitchen in the city directly to a central waste processing center. Only seven employees handle waste for the whole city, and there are no garbage trucks or cans on the street.

But how can you make a smart city if you don’t have several billion dollars or the ability to build a development from the ground up? Aren’t expensive projects by big companies the only way to make your city smart?

Though it may seem counterintuitive, small interventions powered by small companies can have almost as large of an impact with a fraction of the price. The creation of small smart cities companies may seem unrelated to any municipality’s actions, but cities can do a lot to encourage and empower these innovations.

For example, the mayor’s office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston focuses on incorporating futuristic design and technology into the city’s development. Its willingness to invest resources and take chances on new technology has helped small companies succeed while ensuring that Boston remains innovative. I work for one of those small companies, Soofa, a MIT Media Lab spinoff founded in 2014. With the support of New Urban Mechanics, Soofa was able to pilot 10 pieces of smart urban furniture — solar-powered charging benches — just a few months after creating the first prototype.

Soofa CEO Sandra Richter with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and the first Soofa protoype. (Mashable)

Soofa CEO Sandra Richter with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and the first Soofa protoype. (Mashable)

The feedback gained from this pilot phase allowed Soofa to make major bench improvements and complete their first production run this spring, with benches being installed in seven U.S. states.

The new Soofa Bench, with changes made based on results of the Boston pilot program. (Soofa)

The new Soofa Bench, with changes made based on results of the Boston pilot program. (Soofa)

Across the river, Cambridge was also willing to take a risk on a new startup by being an early adopter of Soofa Benches and a R&D partner. The Soofa Bench features a sensor brain that detects the environment around it — from noise and nitrogen levels to humidity and temperature. Cambridge realized that this wealth of data gained from urban environments can be harnessed for more effective city planning, evaluating the efficacy of various programs and developments, and most importantly, helping citizens enjoy their urban spaces! As such, Cambridge was willing to be Soofa’s R&D partner as they develop the most comprehensive sensor brain and data platform possible.

So, why are small interventions better? When entrepreneurs envision ways to improve the city, they dream big, but are constrained by cost and practicality. The resulting products have big potential with a much smaller price tag. Installing a bench is much easier than retrofitting aged infrastructure with sensors, and more cost effective. A solar-powered bench can seem like an unnecessary expenditure, especially to smaller cities, but this investment enables cities to be more efficient and enjoyable in the future.

Creating a space where local entrepreneurs can have their city-improving ideas heard and potentially supported by city governments is critical to the creation of smart cities. Even if no investments are made, gaining the input of stakeholders from professors to designers and engineers is invaluable to future city planning. Chicago’s Array of Things project is another great example of a city using their valuable local academic and technological resources to create a low-cost, high-impact smart cities intervention.

A rendering of the Chicago Array of Things sensor boxes’ functionality. (Chicago Array of Things project)

A rendering of the Chicago Array of Things sensor boxes’ functionality. (Chicago Array of Things project)

Chicago still took input from smart-cities giants like Cisco, but made a conscious choice to loop in local talent for the research and design behind the project. Though here we encourage cities to support small companies creating smart cities interventions, we must give big companies credit where credit is due. Without their push to encourage smart cities projects, smaller companies would never be able to sell their products or get funding — because no one would know what a smart city is! The research, awareness and funding from major companies in the smart cities space has been invaluable. That said, any city can be cost-effectively made into a smart city through small interventions powered by small businesses.

So, how do you future-proof your city? Prioritize the creation of civic innovation offices similar to New Urban Mechanics to support local talent and small businesses. Small, agile interventions end up having a big impact.

About the Author: Isabel Munson is the Data Strategy Lead at Soofa, an Internet-of-Things company dedicated to creating social, sustainable and smart cities. Her other musings on smart cities, #Soofatalk, may be found at www.soofa.co or @mysoofa.

NLC to Hold Two Leadership Academies to Help Cities Connect Children to Nature

Our RFP to participate in one of two Connecting Children to Nature Leadership Academies in October is now available. Kid w magnifying glassChildren connect to nature in all sorts of ways, from outdoor adventure programs to exploring their local park. (photo: Children & Nature Network)

A new movement is taking shape to help children make stronger connections with nature. Cities and their community partners stand at the forefront of this movement, which has developed in response to a sharp increase in screen time for young children, less time spent playing outside and a rise in childhood obesity over the last two decades.

There is also a growing concern about the potential lack of informed and dedicated environmental stewards in the next generation. Much more remains to be done to connect young people, particularly low-income children and kids of color with nature, and cities have an important role to play in closing this “nature gap.”

The NLC Institute for Youth, Education, and Families and Children & Nature Network (C&NN) launched the Cities Connecting Children to Nature initiative in November 2014, with the support of a three-year grant from The JPB Foundation.

The earliest phase, including a review of scientific literature and a nationwide scan of city practices, is coming to a close. Up next, NLC and C&NN will host two Connecting Children to Nature Leadership Academies in October 2015, in Salt Lake City, Utah and St. Paul, Minn. Each academy will provide participants with access to national experts, promising practice examples and opportunities for peer learning and local action planning.

City leaders can adopt more central roles on their own and in collaboration with C&NN and NLC. This includes prioritizing equitable and abundant access to natural spaces and outdoor recreation opportunities through projects such as green schoolyards, or through the revision of zoning and land use policies. City leaders can also engage with community coalitions to maximize opportunities for children to spend more time in nature.

Coordinated efforts between city departments and partners such as school districts and community-based organizations can maximize benefits to both young people and their communities. Benefits include:

  • Improved health outcomes,
  • More creative and unstructured play in nature,
  • Greater self-esteem, focus, cooperation, and executive function,
  • Stronger academic skills, achievement, and engagement,
  • Increased opportunities for social and emotional learning, and
  • Cultivation of a long-term connection with nature, improved ecological literacy and development of a strong ethic of environmental stewardship.

In 2016-2017, cities that have participated in one of the leadership academies may apply for pass-through grants and technical assistance to plan and implement local initiatives to expand equitable access to nature. See the RFP for more information. Applications are due by Wednesday, July 29.

PriyaCook
About the Author: 
Priya Cook is the Principal Associate for the Connecting Children to Nature program, the newest program of NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.

National Park Service Launches NPS Urban Agenda

This is a guest post by Jonathan B. Jarvis, Director of the U.S. National Park Service.

Jefferson National Expansion MemorialThe Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, Mo., exemplifies the innovative ways city leaders, businesses and NGOs are investing in new parks, new park designs, and new ways to engage communities in creating healthy and livable cities. (National Park Service)

One hundred years ago, lawmakers were considering a radical idea to preserve some of our nation’s most iconic landscapes “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Indeed, what the founders of the national park idea had in mind nearly 100 years ago was incredibly innovative – but today, we live in a different time and a different era that requires new ways of thinking and a renewed relationship between parks and the American people. Since 1916, the American public has diversified and evolved; so, too, has our need to diversify National Park Service parks and programs to answer the call of the next century.

As we prepare to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service’s establishment in 2016, we have spent a great deal of time thinking about how we can make national parks relevant to a new generation of Americans. One constant in those discussions is the importance of urban parks and National Park Service programs in urban areas.

People are often surprised to hear how urban the National Park Service is. For instance:

  • Forty of the country’s 50 most populated urban areas have national parks located within them;
  • One-third of all NPS sites are located in urban areas;
  • Thirty-six percent of all NPS visitation occurs at our urban sites – Golden Gate being the most visited;
  • NPS historic preservation tax credits have contributed significantly to preserving the character of our cities, generating more than $66 billion in private investment in historic rehabilitations; and
  • Some 30 NPS programs serve urban communities, providing funds and technical assistance for recreational facilities, environmental restoration, historic architecture, historic research, trail building, and youth engagement.

Recognizing this strong base of urban engagement and its potential to connect new audiences to national parks, last week, the National Park Service announced the Urban Agenda for the National Park Service. The Urban Agenda establishes a framework for an unprecedented strategic alignment of parks, programs and partnerships that will better serve communities.

A key component of the Urban Agenda will be realizing the core principles that call for being relevant to all Americans and creating a culture of collaboration. We have identified 10 model cities where we will develop our capacity to act as “One National Park Service” to better serve communities. To assist in activating the Agenda, we have developed a fellowship program that will deploy Urban Fellows in each model city and ultimately serve as a pipeline for growing NPS urban leaders.

The model cities were selected to provide opportunities to address a variety of challenges in spaces where we already have a national park located within the city, places that have national parks nearby, and locations that have no physical national park units, but strong ties to NPS programs. They include:

  1. Boston
  2. New York City
  3. Philadelphia
  4. Richmond, Virginia
  5. Washington
  6. Jacksonville, Florida
  7. St. Louis
  8. Detroit
  9. Tucson, Arizona
  10. Richmond, California

Importantly, the NPS Urban Agenda is supported by the President’s 21st Century Conservation agenda that calls for full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and a $326 million NPS Centennial Fund. If enacted by Congress, this would provide an additional $107 million for federal land acquisition, $47 million for state grants and $25 million for the Urban Parks and Recreation Fund, which assists economically distressed urban communities with the revitalization and improvement of recreation opportunities.

My boss, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, has launched an ambitious youth initiative that will engage the next generation of leaders and stewards through recreation, education, volunteerism, and employment. Specifically, by 2017, the Department will convene coalitions in 50 cities across the country to create more opportunities for young people to play, learn, serve, and work outdoors. The 10 NPS model cities are part of this movement, and over the next year and half, her initiative will result in investments in and support for 50 coalitions in many of our largest and most densely populated cities in the country. The Department of the Interior’s youth initiative goals include engaging 10 million kids in outdoor recreation programs; providing educational opportunities to 10 million of the nation’s K-12 students annually; engaging one million volunteers in support of public lands; and providing 100,000 work and training opportunities to young adults, including returning veterans.

This month, the National Park Service and our partner the National Park Foundation also launched a broad public awareness and engagement campaign called “Find Your Park.” This campaign extends an invitation to the public to understand the current breadth of the National Park Service stands for and rethink where and what all that a park can be.

The National Park Service recognizes that we cannot accomplish our goal of connecting the next generation to the benefits of their parks and public lands without the support and assistance of a whole host of partners. So, I invite you to join us and find ways to engage and share in a public dialogue, to learn from one another, to address the impact of climate change on our cities, to create education and employment pathways for disengaged youth, and maybe even to co-design the next great urban national park. Go out and Find Your Park.

Jonathan_Jarvis_150x183About the Author: Jonathan B. Jarvis began his career with the National Park Service in 1976 as a seasonal interpreter in Washington, D.C. Today, he manages that agency whose mission is to preserve America’s most treasured landscapes and cultural icons. Managing the National Park Service on the eve of its centennial in 2016, Jarvis has focused on several key areas that are critical for the future: enhancing stewardship of the places entrusted to the Service’s care; maximizing the educational potential of parks and programs; engaging new generations and audiences, and ensuring the welfare and fulfillment of National Park Service employees. His blueprint for the agency’s second century, A Call to Action, calls for innovative, ambitious, yet practical ways to fulfill the National Park Service’s promise to America in the 21st century.

2015 National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation Starts April 1

This is a guest post by Steve Creech.

mayor's challenge for water conservationCities with the highest participation in the 2015 National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation not only discover ways they can reduce the strain on water systems, but they qualify to win over $100,000 in prizes as well. (photo: The Wyland Foundation)

Water shortages may be one of the most dramatic headlines in the news, but cities everywhere are facing mounting challenges to the tune of nearly $1 trillion to address aging water systems, eliminate water waste, and secure a legacy of sustainable water use for our communities.

The National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation gives local governments a consumer-friendly way to rev up residential interest in addressing those issues, from promoting water and energy efficiency to waste reduction and ecosystem health. Held annually from April 1-30, the nonprofit challenge encourages cities nationwide to see who can be the most “water-wise.”

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings (pictured) and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy will join together in Dallas on April 9 to promote the National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation. (photo: The Wyland Foundation)

Mayors rally residents to take action by pledging to conserve more water and other natural resources at mywaterpledge.com. Residents, in turn, rally their families, friends, colleagues and neighbors. Cities with the highest participation not only discover ways they can reduce the strain on water systems, they qualify to win over $100,000 in prizes, including efficient irrigation products, water-saving appliances, and even a Grand Prize Toyota Prius Plug-in. The campaign gets national promotion all month long in USA Today, and winning cities are recognized in a special segment on the Weather Channel with Al Roker. There’s even a classroom edition for schools.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, winner of the 2013 Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation. (photo: The Wyland Foundation)

The campaign is presented nationally by the Wyland Foundation and Toyota, with support from the U.S. EPA, the National League of Cities, and the Toro Company. During the most recent campaign, mayors, city leaders and local water utilities led an effort among residents across 3,600 cities in all 50 states to take 277,742 specific actions over the following year to change the way they use water in their homes, yards and communities.

Translated, those online pledges meant potential reductions in water waste by 1.4 billion gallons. As residents conserve, it also means less money spent on transporting and generating the electricity that brings water to homes, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and less impact on the nation’s already overburdened water infrastructure.

Best of all, supplemental outreach campaigns like the Mayor’s Challenge bring together elected officials, companies, communities and individuals working together to protect and conserve the limited supply of water we have for the future health of our economy and environment.

Cities can participate in the 2015 National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation by signing an online letter of support, which includes complete details about the program, or by calling (949) 643-7070 to request participation information.

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

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.

How Startups Solve Problems at the Intersection of Urbanization and Climate Change

This is a guest post by Stonly Baptiste.

startups postCould startups be the secret weapon to make cities smarter and combat climate change in the face of ever increasing urbanization? (Getty Images)

When you see the word ‘startups’ in the news, you see headlines like “Meet the Hottest Tech Startups,” “Snapchat Could Become One of the 3 Highest-Valued Startups in the World,” or “Why Startups Want This 28-Year-Old to Really Like Them.” But the most interesting startups may be the ones working on problems that can directly help cities.

The Problem: More People + More Energy Consumption = Climate Change

People are moving to cities at rates never before recorded. The urban population of the world has grown rapidly since 1950, from 746 million to 3.9 billion in 2014. This represents a shift from two out of 10 people to five out of 10 people living in cities. The motivations behind this migration vary, from the search for more employment opportunities and increased earning potential to better health care and improved living standards; social factors like better education opportunities also play a role. Whatever the cause, there is no denying the rapid rate of global urbanization.

So what does this mean in terms of climate change? Energy consumption is the biggest contributing factor to global climate change, and more people means more energy consumption. In fact, 75% of global energy consumption occurs in cities. That consumption is likely to increase as we experience the shift from 54% of the world’s population residing in urban areas in 2014  to 66% by 2050. The environment around us will simply not be able to support this kind of growth and the increased level of energy consumption. Managing climate change seems more and more like a city efficiency challenge.

The Challenge: Redesign Cities

“No challenge – no challenge – poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.”
– President Barack Obama, State of the Union, Jan 20, 2015

The challenge is to create a fast, widely-adopted, effective and lasting impact on the future sustainability of cities; to redesign cities in response to climate change. Previously, the burden of these issues fell on the government. However, due to the increasing budget constraints of so many of the world’s economies, government can no longer afford to take on all of that responsibility.

The Solution: More Urbantech Startups

Technology has always helped shape urban and suburban environments. “Urbantech” describes the emerging technologies that are being used to solve problems at the intersection of urbanization and climate change, from reducing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions to reducing crime and increasing government efficiency.

Over the last 18 months at Urban.Us, we’ve analyzed hundreds of startups that are working on Urbantech problems. We wanted to understand what problems they are solving as well as their customer focus (consumers, businesses or governments). By creating the Urbantech radar, we were able to visualize companies according to their customers and problems they are trying to solve.

startups pic

The visualization reveals some interesting patterns about where founders and investors have chosen to focus – but it also shows where there is open space and opportunity.

The radar also provides strong evidence that the challenge of redesigning cities to positively impact climate change could very well lie in the hands of the consumer, therefore circumventing the government-first approach. By reaching mass consumer adoption, these startups are able to make cities sustainable through channels like the Apple Store, Home Depot and Amazon.

No one can predict what the future of cities will look like – but we can get a glimpse of what’s possible by looking at some of the fastest-growing startups currently reshaping the way people live and work in cities:

  • DASH, a hardware plugin tool that syncs to your mobile phone to turn any car into a smart car, unlocking enhanced performance, cost savings and social driving.
  • OneWheel, a one-wheeled electric skateboard to quickly and easily get you to and from mass transit.
  • Whill, an all-terrain wheelchair that makes hard-to-navigate obstacles like stairs a thing of the past for people with disabilities.
  • Radiator Labs, a radiator cover that converts old cast-iron radiators into precision heating machines with climate control, operational efficiency and safety comparable to any radiator, transforming steam heat into a comfortable and efficient solution.
  • Hammerhead, a handless device that enables cyclists to safely navigate streets.
  • Rachio, a smart sprinkler controller that automatically adjusts your watering schedule based on weather or seasonality to save on water consumption.
  • Zuli, a plug-and-play smart outlet that enables users to control appliances, dim lights, set schedules, and conserve energy from their mobile phones.
  • Lagoon, a smart water sensor that alerts you when there is a leak, tracks usage, and saves money on water bills.

These startups have found a way to impact climate change by leveraging consumers’ need to collect data, save money, and enjoy the user experience. The climate change aspect may not even be a factor for consumer adoption – but through new crowdfunding platforms, distribution channels and government procurement initiatives, these startups could change the future of our cities and the environment.

The Next Step: Local Government as the Coach vs. Quarterback

The way cities work with emerging technologies is entering a new paradigm in which the city is not always the customer but, more often, the regulator and promoter of the best ideas. We are excited to be hosting 100 of the most promising Urbantech startups at this year’s Smart City Startups event – and, thanks to the support and partnership of the National League of Cities, we will introduce local government officials from Tel Aviv, San Francisco, New York, Boston and elsewhere to the innovations these startups offer.

We have all seen the battle between Uber and regulators – and it’s likely that no local government made an attempt to discuss regulating Uber before the battle occurred. We’ve also seen the impact that Rachio is having on water consumption around the country – and in most cities, this shift is still under the radar. Recently, we’ve seen police departments fighting against some of the information shared on Waze.

Our goal is to enhance awareness and increase partnership between local governments and startups working to solve the same problems, so that the best solutions can be promoted and cities can begin to preemptively manage the impact of regulation. Urban.us and NLC are joined by Direct Energy, the Knight Foundation and others aligned with the goal of sharing experiences that cities are having as they work with startups to build new relationships that will forge the future of urbanization and climate change.

stonly_baptiste_headshotAbout the Author: Stonly Baptiste is the Co-Founder of Urban.Us, where he leads investment research, community management and platform development for the fund, which now works with 16 startups around the world solving urban challenges. Additionally, he is co-organizer of Smart City Startups, a multi-day, multi-track event based in Miami that recruits 100 of the the most promising startups from around the world who are working to solve challenges at the intersection of climate change and urbanization. Additional participants include officials focused on innovation and economic development from local governments in Tel Aviv, San Francisco, New York, Boston and more. Investors such as Vast Ventures and Fontinalis Partners, and global companies such as Direct Energy, EDF, and Canary Wharf join to further government efforts to work with startups and promote innovation in cities.

The Best Lifestyle Might Be the Cheapest, Too

This is a guest post by Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert. It originally appeared here.

If you were to build a city from scratch, using current technology, what would it cost to live there? I think it would be nearly free if you did it right.

This is a big deal because people aren’t saving enough for retirement, and many folks are underemployed. If the economy can’t generate enough money for everyone to pay for a quality lifestyle today, perhaps we can approach it from the other direction and lower the cost of living.

Consider energy costs. We already know how to build homes that use zero net energy. So that budget line goes to zero if you build a city from scratch. Every roof will be intelligently oriented to the sun, and every energy trick will be used in the construction of the homes. (I will talk about the capital outlay for solar panels and whatnot later.)

image

 

I can imagine a city built around communal farming in which all the food is essentially free. Imagine every home with a greenhouse. All you grow is one crop in your home, all year, and the Internet provides an easy sharing system as well as a way to divide up the crops in a logical way. I share my cucumbers and in return get whatever I need from the other neighbors’ crops via an organized ongoing sharing arrangement. My guess is that using the waste water (treated) and excess heat from the home you could grow food economically in greenhouses. If you grow more than you eat, the excess is sold in neighboring towns, and that provides enough money for you to buy condiments, sauces, and stuff you can’t grow at home.

Medical costs will never go to zero, but recent advances in medical testing technology (which I have seen up close in start-up pitches) will drive the costs of routine medical services down by 80% over time. That’s my guess, based on the several pitches I have seen.

Now add Big Data to the mix and the ability to catch problems early (when they are inexpensive to treat) is suddenly tremendous.

Now add IBM’s Watson technology (artificial intelligence) to the medical system and you will be able to describe your symptoms to your phone and get better-than-human-doctor diagnoses right away. (Way better. Won’t even be close.) So doctor visits will become largely unnecessary except for emergency room visits, major surgeries, and end-of-life stuff.

 

image

 

Speaking of end-of-life, assume doctor-assisted-suicide is legal by the time this city is built. I plan to make sure that happens in California on the next vote. Other states will follow. In this imagined future you can remove much of the unnecessary costs of the cruel final days of life that are the bulk of medical expenses.

Now assume the city of the future has exercise facilities nearby for everyone, and the city is designed to promote healthy living. Everyone would be walking, swimming, biking, and working out. That should reduce healthcare costs.

Now imagine that because everyone is growing healthy food in their own greenhouses, the diet of this new city is spectacular. You’d have to make sure every home had a smoothie-maker for protein shakes. And let’s say you can buy meat from the outside if you want it, so no one is deprived. But the meat-free options will improve from the sawdust and tofu tastes you imagine now to something much more enjoyable over time. Healthy eaters who associate with other healthy eaters share tricks for making healthy food taste amazing.

Now assume the homes are organized such that they share a common center “grassy” area that is actually artificial turf so you don’t need water and mowing. Every home opens up to the common center, which has security cameras, WiFi, shady areas, dog bathroom areas, and more. This central lawn creates a natural “family” of folks drawn to the common area each evening for fun and recreation. This arrangement exists in some communities and folks rave about the lifestyle, as dogs and kids roam freely from home to home encircling the common open area.

 

image

 

That sort of home configuration takes care of your childcare needs, your pet care needs, and lots of other things that a large “family” handles easily. The neighborhood would be Internet-connected so it would be easy to find someone to watch your kid or dog if needed, for free. My neighborhood is already connected by an email group, so if someone sees a suspicious activity, for example, the entire neighborhood is alerted in minutes.

I assume that someday online education will be far superior to the go-to-school model. Online education improves every year while the classroom experience has started to plateau. Someday every home will have what I call an immersion room, which is a small room with video walls so you can immerse yourself in history, or other studies, and also visit other places without leaving home. (Great for senior citizens especially.) So the cost of education will drop to zero as physical schools become less necessary.

When anyone can learn any skill at home, and any job opening is easy to find online, the unemployment rate should be low. And given the low cost of daily living, folks can afford to take a year off to retool and learn new skills.

The repair and maintenance costs of homes can drop to nearly zero if you design homes from the start to accomplish that goal. You start by using common windows, doors, fixtures, and mechanical systems from a fixed set of choices. That means you always have the right replacement part nearby. Everyone has the same AC units, same Internet routers, and so on. If something breaks, a service guy swaps it out in an hour. Or do it yourself. If you start from scratch to make your homes maintenance-free, you can get close. You would have homes that never need paint, with floors and roofs that last hundreds of years, and so on.

Today it costs a lot to build a home, but most of that cost is in the inefficiency of the process. In the future, homes will be designed to the last detail using CAD, and factory-cut materials of the right size will appear on the job site as a snap-together kit with instructions printed on each part. I could write a book on this topic, but the bottom line is that home construction is about 80% higher than it needs to be even with current technology.

The new city would be built on cheap land, by design, so land costs would be minimal. Construction costs for a better-than-today condo-sized home would probably be below $75,000 apiece. Amortized over 15 years the payments are tiny. And after the 15th year there is no mortgage at all. (The mortgage expense includes the solar panels, greenhouses, etc.)

Transportation would be cheap in this new city. Individually-owned automobiles would be banned. Public transportation would be on-demand and summoned by app (like Uber).

And the self-driving cars would be cheap to build. Once human drivers are out of the picture you can remove all of the safety features because accidents won’t happen. And you only summon a self-driving car that is the size you need. There is no reason to drag an empty back seat and empty trunk everywhere you go. And if you imagine underground roads, the cars don’t need to be weather-proof. And your sound system is your phone, so the car just needs speakers and Bluetooth. Considering all of that, self-driving cars might someday cost $5,000 apiece, and that expense would be shared across several users on average. And imagine the cars are electric, and the city produces its own electricity. Your transportation budget for the entire family might be $200 per month within the city limits.

The cost of garbage service could drop to nearly zero if homes are designed with that goal in mind. Your food garbage would go back to the greenhouse as mulch. You wouldn’t have much processed food in this city, so no cans and bottles to discard. And let’s say you ban the postal service from this new city because all they do is deliver garbage anyway. (All bills will be online.) And let’s say if you do accumulate a bag of garbage you can just summon a garbage vehicle to meet you at the curb using the same app you use for other vehicles. By the time you walk to the curb, the vehicle pulls up, and you toss the bag in.

I think a properly-designed city could eliminate 80% of daily living expenses while providing a quality of life far beyond what we experience today. And I think this future will have to happen because the only other alternative is an aggressive transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor by force of law. I don’t see that happening.

Scott AdamsAbout the Author: Scott Adams is the creator of the Dilbert comic series. He can be reached on Twitter at @ScottAdamsSays. You can also find Dilbert on Facebook.

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.

President 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 the NLC Institute for Youth, Education & Families. Follow Emily on Twitter at @emilypickren.