How to Build a New Type of Urban Practice: Analyzing NLC’s Economic Indicators Report

This is a guest post by Ben Hecht. This post is the first installment in a series focused on NLC’s 2015 Cities and Unequal Recovery report, which highlights the findings of our 2015 Local Economic Conditions survey.

If we want to see dramatically better results, we need new ways of solving the complex problems facing American cities. The findings from NLC’s 2015 Local Economic Conditions survey highlight three opportunity areas where we can focus our attention to catalyze lasting change.

(photo: Bill Dickinson)

Many findings in the 2015 Local Economic Conditions report, recently published by the National League of Cities (NLC), mirrored what we at Living Cities are seeing in the field. We believe that the following three areas, highlighted in the report and below, are particularly important to understand and harness if we are going to build a new type of urban practice that gets dramatically better results for low-income people in cities:

Entrepreneurs, Small Business, and the Rise of ‘Urban Serving Businesses’

The NLC’s finding that “new business startups and business expansions are driving improved economic health in cities” couldn’t be more true. And it’s different than in other recoveries. For example, in our Integration Initiative sites in Albuquerque, N.M. and New Orleans, civic leaders are intentionally tapping into the potential of local entrepreneurs of color and unique contracting opportunities to build growth businesses and to get low-income people and people of color into jobs, especially at a sustainable, living wage. Encouragingly, the Kauffman Foundation recently selected Albuquerque as part of a new project to learn about and identify the best ways to build a local ecosystem to support these emerging entrepreneurs.

Relatedly, we’re seeing the rise of what we’ve termed ‘Urban Serving Businesses,’ structured as social enterprises and otherwise, that are building their businesses in cities, creating jobs and often delivering products and services that are improving the lives of low income people and the communities in which they live. Accelerators like Tumml and participants in efforts like Code for America and Venture for America are great examples of this trend. This is an area of opportunity for cities, and one that Living Cities and our partners are exploring on the job creation front. We’re about to undertake a landscape scan, in partnership with Deutsche Bank, to understand the state of that emerging sector, the ecosystems that currently exists to support them, and the gaps that inhibit their growth and long term success. We’re also interested in learning if a collaborative like Living Cities can play a role in that ecosystem, and what that role could look like.

Addressing the “Skills Gap” Problem from Cradle to Career

Yet, even as businesses grow, we’re still seeing that educational attainment and workforce preparation remain a challenge. As the NLC study found, the misalignment between skills available in the community and the needs of businesses is worsening. This reality is part of why we are a big supporter of the StriveTogether Network, where we’re learning about and testing promising solutions to fixing the skills gap permanently by re-engineering the systems that are failing our kids, from cradle to career. We’re particularly encouraged by the recent announcement of the six sites selected for funding from Strive’s Cradle-to-Career Accelerator Fund. In each site, leaders from the public, private, philanthropic and nonprofit sectors have come together to achieve needle-moving change across the cradle to career continuum, from readiness for Kindergarten to college completion and securing of a good job. They are using data for continuous improvement, disaggregating by race and income, and working to re-direct dollars from approaches that aren’t getting results to those that do. More than two dozen other sites are primed to learn from them and follow in their footsteps.

Innovative Affordable Housing Solutions: Looking the Problem with Fresh Eyes

Finally, the NLC’s study confirms what we are reading about in the papers and on social media every day. Despite “rising residential property values,” the “lack of affordable housing is a major concern facing cities.” We’re seeing communities across the country realize that the tried-and-tested tools that they’ve long relied on to attack the problem are grossly insufficient to address current conditions. That has catalyzed places like San Francisco and Boston to develop new approaches to building market-rate, mixed income, and affordable housing for their residents. In Boston, for example, the Mayor’s Innovation Team (i-team) is tackling the city’s affordable housing challenge in new and creative ways by helping agency leaders and staff through a data-driven process to assess problems, generate responsive new interventions, develop partnerships and deliver measurable results.

NLC’s new report highlights exactly the areas where we need to focus our attention. It provides further fuel for the argument that we need new ways of solving many of these old problems if we want to get dramatically better results. There are many promising solutions out there — in Albuquerque, Boston, Cincinnati and beyond. We all need to help them to succeed and to move them from the periphery of practice to the mainstream.

About the Author: Ben Hecht  was appointed President & CEO of Living Cities in July 2007. Since that time, the organization has adopted a broad, integrative agenda that harnesses the collective knowledge of its 22 member foundations and financial institutions to benefit low income people and the cities where they live. You can reach Ben on Twitter @BenHecht.

 

New Evidence That the Tax Exemption Matters

Tax-exempt municipal bonds provide support for infrastructure projects such as the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge in Boston, pictured above. (photo: Will Damon)

Walking down Commonwealth Avenue in Boston this summer, it was hard to imagine more than six feet of snow in this very place not more than a few months prior. Although the snow has melted (finally), a wake of potholes is a daily reminder to residents, businesses and government of the critical need for sound infrastructure.

Most infrastructure projects, including roads, schools and sewer systems, are paid for by tax-exempt municipal bonds. This places municipal bonds squarely at the center of inquiry between increasing infrastructure needs and decreasing public investment.

A new white paper released this month by ICMA and GFOA, Municipal Bonds and Infrastructure Development – Past, Present and Future, helps to untangle the relationship between bond market conditions and infrastructure investment. Demographics and politics appear to play a larger role in capital spending levels than do interest rates, the study finds, but of critical importance is the tax-exempt nature of municipal bonds.

The post-recession slowdown in local and state infrastructure investment would have been significantly worse had the tax-exemption not been in place. “If the federal tax exemption for municipal bonds were repealed, state and local governments would have paid $714 billion in additional interest expenses from 2000 to 2014,” notes author Justin Marlowe, University of Washington. “For a typical bond issue this would mean $80-210 in additional interest expenses per $1,000 of borrowed money.”

Other key findings from the new report include:

  • In 2014, state and local governments invested nearly $400 billion in capital projects, a significant slowdown in spending. Total state and local capital spending has not yet returned to pre-Great Recession totals.
  • Approximately 90 percent of state and local capital spending is financed by debt.
  • There are more than one million municipal bonds in the market today, issued by more than 50,000 units of government, and their total par value is just over $3.6 trillion.

Financing methods, such as pay-as-you-go and public-private partnerships, are explored as alternatives to tax-exempt municipal bonds. Although effective for some types of capital projects, these methods should be viewed as complements to tax-exempt financing, not robust alternatives, notes the report. For example, “[PAYGO] can take decades to save up the requisite capital, and on a present value basis, debt becomes cheaper at some point in the intermediate to long-term future.”

With limited alternatives, the instability of a federal funding stream and a recession hangover that continues to stifle political inclination toward financial risk, the importance of the tax-exempt municipal bonds cannot be understated.

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

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.

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.

How Three Cities Have Taken 311 Into the Digital Age

This is a guest post by Gayatri Mohan. This article was originally published as part of a 311 Day series on the PublicStuff blog on March 11, 2015.

Newsom Makes Announcement With Obama's Top Information Officer Vivek KundraU.S. Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra (L) talks with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom after a press conference announcing the launch of a national initiative to open 311 customer service centers to developers March 3, 2010 in San Francisco, California. Newsom and Kundra launched the national Open 311 Application Programming Interface (API), which will allow software developers to create web applications that will allow the general public to make service requests via smart phones directly to 311 systems bypassing often inundated call centers. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Remember Life Before 311?

Residents lucky enough to live in communities that operate 311 centers know the convenience of having one number to access a host of services and resources. Many of the communities that have used 311 the longest – places like Pensacola, Fla., McAllen, TX, New York City and Philadelphia – have benefited from evolving their 311 centers with the times. First launched for landline phones, they’ve seen a vast improvement in service delivery and city operations by merging call centers with other low-cost channels like mobile, web and SMS. Integrating the latest in communication mediums has not only delivered a consistent resident service experience, but also minimized the time cities spend entering and routing duplicate resident requests.

311 post

311 call center success in the cities of Pensacola, Fla., Philadelphia and McAllen, Texas. (PublicStuff)

Establish a Clear Communication Strategy

Since Pensacola’s launch of its Pensacola 311 program, the city has achieved a 100% request closure rate because of its clear communication strategy to the public. For example, although certain request types on the web portal are categorized under the Police department, the city clarifies that emergency situations still need to be reported to 911 to avoid delayed response. To further facilitate the request submission process, the city offers additional resources like contact information for the Energy and Sanitation departments, so residents don’t have to go searching for them through the city website. Providing such detailed information right at the resident’s fingertips means that city officials spend less time answering common inquiries, and more time working to fix important community issues.

Build Easily Accessible Resources

Similar to Pensacola, the city of McAllen has built out a thorough library of answers to avoid spending time on commonly asked questions. Helpful articles like “Everything You Need to Know About Brush in McAllen” pop up as a resident tries to submit a request to provide immediate answers and open up time for call center staff to attend to more pressing issues. Making helpful resources accessible through various channels has allowed the city to achieve a 98% request closure rate through its call center alone.

Integrate With New Technology

Philadelphia is one of the largest US cities with a call center, and has taken more than 6 million calls with a wait time of less than 40 seconds and average call duration of 3 minutes. To offset the incredible call volume, Philadelphia has integrated its call center operations with their mobile and web platform, Philly 311. Building a connected system on the staff-end has allowed city officials to track and update submitted requests simultaneously across all platforms, avoiding duplication and manual data entry.

Using effective workflow management systems, cities have been able to route information to the right city official equipped with the required tools to fix and close out requests on time. This encourages residents to participate in improving their neighborhoods, improves the quality of community interactions, and raises public trust in government to create a continuous loop of constructive dialogue and feedback.

Gayatri Mohan bio photo 175x175About the Author: Gayatri Mohan is Marketing Team Lead at PublicStuff, a civic software company based in New York. She can be reached at gayatri@publicstuff.com.

Municipal Fiber and the Digital Divide: A Modest Proposal

This is a guest post by Angela Siefer and Bill Callahan.

fiber_optics_2With a little effort, city leaders could develop account-sharing models and policies that encourage smart, grassroots solutions to the affordable broadband problem at little or no public cost. (Getty Images)

The explosion of interest in community-owned fiber on the part of elected officials and technology leaders has created an opportunity that few have noticed: cities could leverage these investments to help lower the barriers to home Internet access that still keep low-income, less educated and older citizens out of the digital mainstream. This could be easily accomplished, at it would cost cities practically nothing.

Here’s how: cities could allow neighboring households and community groups to share that terrific bandwidth – and its cost – by using community-owned fiber to power grassroots Wi-Fi networks.

Almost all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and community-owned fiber networks employ Terms of Service language that prohibits customers from extending their networks across property lines to share access with their neighbors. City-owned networks can expand the possibilities for affordable broadband access in disadvantaged neighborhoods simply by changing their Terms of Service to allow network sharing.

As demonstrated by the rise of Google Fiber, the advent of city-owned networks selling 100 megabit or gigabit Internet access for $75, $90 or $100 a month raises the competitive ante on broadband speed and price for traditional cable and telecommunications ISPs. This is great news for tech-savvy middle- and upper-income residents, as well as for data-dependent businesses and community anchor institutions like libraries and hospitals.

But in many city neighborhoods, we’re faced with the stubborn fact that large numbers of mostly low-income citizens still don’t have home Internet access at any speed.

The American Community Survey for 2013 reports data for 575 U.S. “places” with more than 15,000 households. 282 of these communities – nearly half – reported no fixed broadband connections (defined as any connection beyond dial-up or mobile) in at least 30 percent of their homes. 151 reported that at least one fourth of their households have no home Internet access of any kind – no dial-up, no mobile access; nothing. Not surprisingly, these Internet-free households are concentrated in low-income neighborhoods where residents are least able to afford the $30, $40 or $50 monthly cost of an Internet service subscription.

Of course, low-income households that can’t afford current DSL or cable Internet services have little to gain from the availability of fiber broadband service that costs twice as much.

But suppose that cost could be split among five, ten or twenty users?

One of the great value propositions of Big Bandwidth is its shareability. There’s not much a single household can do with a gigabit connection that couldn’t be accomplished with a tenth (100 mbps), a twentieth (50 mbps) or even a fortieth (25 mbps) of that capacity. But put that gigabit connection into an office, a call center or library where forty, fifty or more users share it, and its value becomes apparent. All the users sharing that gigabit start connecting to the Internet at speeds far greater than their “shares” (because of how network routers optimize and balance packet streams) – and at a total cost far below the equivalent number of single-user accounts.

The economic advantage of networked access sharing has been so obvious for so long that no business or organization would even think about buying individual Internet service accounts for employees working at the same location – and no ISPs would waste time trying to sell them. Since home broadband took root a decade ago, the same has become true of households; we provide for our family members’ need to connect simultaneously in different parts of our homes with routers, network cables and Wi-Fi – not by subscribing to multiple Internet service accounts.

ISPs are happy to encourage all this access sharing within their customers’ premises. But they draw the line – a hard, bright line written into their Terms of Service – when it comes to letting customers share their network with the neighbors. The reasons are commercial, not technical; ISPs make money on account charges, and they don’t want their customers to get ideas about avoiding them. It’s a profit-driven business model.

But municipal broadband networks don’t have to follow that model.

Over the past eight years, cheap, modular “open mesh” Wi-Fi devices have transformed the possibilities for community networking at the very local level – the apartment building, housing estate or city block. Any building owner or group of neighbors can acquire a few of these devices for less than a hundred dollars each, distribute them at 100-200 foot intervals around a target area, connect at least one of them to the Internet, and start distributing robust, secure Wi-Fi Internet throughout the area.

Open mesh networks are providing public or “house” Internet access in thousands of hotels, apartment complexes, campuses and campgrounds. These networks are also found in some public housing estates and high-rises, installed by local housing authorities who understand the importance of affordable Internet for tenants’ income and education prospects.

There’s no technical reason why block clubs and community organizations in lower-income neighborhoods can’t use this same cheap, off-the-shelf technology to create truly affordable local broadband access, by sharing connections and costs among neighboring households. But unlike the people running apartment buildings, campgrounds and hotels, community residents will almost always find that Terms of Service restrict them from sharing bandwidth with their neighbors, at any price.

Municipal broadband providers can solve this problem with the stroke of a pen, simply by allowing neighborhood account sharing in their Terms of Service.

With a little effort, city leaders could take the next step: Working with neighborhood leaders and digital inclusion advocates to develop account-sharing models and policies that encourage smart, grassroots solutions to the affordable broadband problem at little or no public cost.

Angela Siefer 150wAbout the Authors: Angela Siefer is a digital inclusion consultant and an adjunct fellow at the Pell Center at Salve Regina University. She envisions a world in which all members of society have the skills and the resources to use the Internet for the betterment of themselves and their communities.

bill callahan 150wBill Callahan is a Cleveland-based community organizer who has worked for the past twenty years on grassroots training and access strategies to close the digital divide. He currently serves as the director of Connect Your Community, a collaborative of community-based digital inclusion advocates in greater Cleveland and Detroit.

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.

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.

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.

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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-andstick 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.

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

Expanding on the President’s TechHire Initiative: How Innovation Districts Catalyze Jobs, Creativity & Growth

"Photo by Jason Dixson Photography. www.jasondixson.com"President Barack Obama, seen here speaking at NLC’s Congressional City Conference on Monday, March 9, revealed his new TechHire initiative to expand access to tech jobs in communities across the country. NLC has just released a new research brief on Innovation Districts that explores the President’s ideas in more depth, specifically reinforcing the important intersection where business, education, technology, and city leadership meet.

With President Obama’s announcement at the NLC Congressional Cities Conference of the new TechHire initiative, the White House will make available $100 million in grants to expand the number of Americans in well-paying tech jobs. The program will include city leaders, universities, community colleges, and the private sector with a special focus on underserved population, working together to expand tech jobs. At the same time as TechHire ramps up in the initial 21 cities, it is increasingly apparent that place in the 21st century economy matters more than ever. City leaders know that the tech sector of today is increasingly gravitating away from suburban office parks towards central cities and innovation districts.

Cities incubate creativity and serve as labs for innovative ideas and policies, and the place where this is happening more and more is in Innovation Districts. These districts are creative, energy-laden ecosystems that focus on building partnerships across sectors. Innovation Districts attract entrepreneurs, established companies, and leaders from all walks of life, providing them with the space and the place they need to create unexpected relationships and find transformative solutions.

From established environments, like the Boston Innovation District to the newly developing innovation district in Chattanooga, one of the founding TechHire cities, there is an increasing focus on catalyzing economic growth through “spatial clustering.” These districts share similarities with traditional economic clusters, but differ in key ways. Placemaking is central to innovation districts, and there is a focus on being sited in high-density areas with a cross-section of employees that want to share ideas instead of being cloistered apart from one another. These urban ecosystems foster collaboration and bump and spark interactions between workers that might just create the next big idea.

NLC’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research (CSAR) has just released a new research brief on Innovation Districts that explores this concept in more depth, specifically reinforcing the important intersection where business, education, technology, and city leadership meet. Further work will be forthcoming in this space, including an in-depth look at the innovation district forming in Chattanooga, as well as work in partnership with other key players. Innovation districts can encourage experimentation and serve as a key strategy for cities as they further urban economic development and pave the way for new job opportunities through initiatives like TechHire.

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.