A Smarter Way to Make Smart Cities

Though it may seem counterintuitive, small interventions powered by small companies can have almost as large of an impact on cities as expensive, big business projects for only a fraction of the price.

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

This is a guest post by Isabel Munson.

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 eight U.S. states and three countries.

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. This R&D project was recently the feature of a Governing Magazine article which discusses in greater detail Soofa’s data collection capabilities.

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)

Edward Krafcik, Director of Partnerships and Business Development at Soofa, participates in the Innovation Central expo pavilion at NLC's 2015 Congress of Cities in Nashville. (photo: Paul Konz)

Edward Krafcik, Director of Partnerships and Business Development at Soofa. Soofa was recently invited to participate in the Innovation Central expo pavilion at NLC’s 2015 Congress of Cities in Nashville. (photo: Paul Konz)

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.

Four Ways City Leaders Can Boost Entrepreneurship and Propel Economic Growth

This is a guest post by Josh Russell and Jason Wiens. This post is the fourth 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.

Startup density varies from city to city across the United States. (Kauffman Index of Startup Activity)

City leaders across America understand that entrepreneurship is key to the success of their economies. That is the message from the 2015 Local Economic Conditions Survey conducted by the National League of Cities.

In that survey, 47 percent of cities said the “number of new business starts” was a positive driver of local economic conditions. New business creation was viewed by more city leaders as source of local economic improvement than any other factor.

These perceptions of chief elected officials are in line with decades of data that show new and young businesses are the primary source of net new job creation. When it comes to job creation, age matters more than size.

But how do these perceptions reflect the reality of entrepreneurial growth in these cities? Is entrepreneurship flourishing in cities where leaders viewed it to be an important contributor to economic growth?

To answer these questions, we looked at a sample of cities linked to their metropolitan statistical areas from 2002 to 2012. Here is what we found:

  • Over the last decade, average startup rates are consistent among cities regardless of their views on new business creation.
  • Startup rates converged in 2012 to 6.9 percent for cities that believed startup rates were an impactful economic factor and to 6.8 percent for cities that did not.

While there is little difference between startup rates in cities that viewed new business creation as an impactful economic factor, the real story is found when we look at employment in startup firms.

The percent of employment in startups has diverged among cities that believe startups are and are not an important economic factor. In those cities that viewed startups’ impact positively, new businesses were adding more jobs than in cities where leaders did not view them to have a positive impact. In 2012, on average, firms in cities that viewed new businesses as having a positive impact started with 15 percent more employees.

2011 marked the first year of an increase in new business creation since the start of the Great Recession. To further boost entrepreneurship and propel economic growth, local leaders have a menu of tools available to them.

  1. Build connections. While capital constraints represent one of the primary challenges to entrepreneurs, research has shown that public venture funds and local incubation centers result in little to no benefit to entrepreneurs. Instead, cities should focus on fostering local connections among entrepreneurs and businesses. These local connections, as opposed to national or global contacts, are vital to an entrepreneur’s success. Focus should be put on events that cause entrepreneurs to think and act together, building a robust local ecosystem. Examples of early-stage entrepreneurship programs that can be implemented in cities include Startup Weekend and 1 Million Cups.
  2. Welcome Immigrants. Immigrants are twice as likely as native-born Americans to become entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurial gains are not limited to low-skill sectors, but include high-skill and high-tech sectors as well. Immigrants and children of immigrants represented 52 percent of key founders of high tech firms in Silicon Valley and over 40 percent of Fortune 500 founders. While legal barriers to immigrant entrepreneurship result in missed opportunities for U.S. economic growth, cities can capture the benefits by welcoming immigrants and supporting their entrepreneurial ambitions.
  3. Support Women. Women face many unique challenges to starting a business and are half as likely to start businesses as their male counterparts. Among the top challenges are financial capital, mentorship, and work-life balance. Women are one-third as likely to access equity financing through angel investments or venture capitalists as men and begin companies with nearly half as much capital. Mentorship plays an important role in developing successful entrepreneurs, yet nearly half of female entrepreneurs say a lack of available mentors is a major challenge facing their businesses. Parenting balanced with work also results in lower rates of entrepreneurship among women. Women with STEM Ph.Ds are significantly less likely to engage in entrepreneurship if they have a child under two, while there is no statistical difference in entrepreneurial rates of comparable men. Local policies that support women in entrepreneurship can create positive economic growth in cities.
  4. Develop Human Capital. Higher levels of education are associated with increased entrepreneurial activity. While a high ratio of college graduates means more entrepreneurial firms, a substantial high school completion rate can further increase a city’s startup activity. Developing a strong school pipeline can help promote human capital and develop a strong, local entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Stated simply, these policies are all about investing in people.

As entrepreneurship rates grow, entrepreneurs are reviving local economies across the nation. The role of city leaders in this arena is to create conditions that allow more entrepreneurs to start businesses and nurture that environment so that those businesses can grow. Cities that invest in people should see entrepreneurial benefits.

About the Authors:

Josh Russell is a research assistant at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.



Jason Wiens is Policy Director at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

Three Ways Your City Can Prosper by Embracing Equity

This is a guest post by Sarah Treuhaft. This post is the third 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.

Participants in the SySTEMic Solutions program in Fairfax County make a presentation on robotics. As part of an overall strategic plan for economic growth, cities can create programs like this one, in partnership with universities and area businesses, to funnel students into STEM-related professions. (photo: Northern Virginia Community College)

NLC’s 2015 survey of local economic conditions paints a clear picture of unequal growth in America’s cities, underscoring the need for bold, focused strategies to firmly link low-income communities and communities of color with regional (and global) economic opportunities.

Two years ago, New York City mayor Bill DeBlasio captivated voters with his “tale of two cities” narrative summarizing the dynamics of rising inequality in America’s largest metropolis. NLC’s 2015 survey of chief elected officials reveals how uneven growth is not isolated to high-tech boomtowns, but widespread among the nation’s cities.

The survey illustrates the challenge of poverty amidst plenty: While 92 percent of city mayors said economic conditions improved in the past year, 50 percent reported an increase in demand for survival services like food and shelter, 36 percent saw an increase in homelessness, and 24 percent reported a decrease in housing affordability.

Urban economies are coming back, but the rising economic tide is not translating into good jobs, rising wages, and ownership opportunities for low-income residents and communities of color. Our analyses of the Bay Area and Fairfax County, Va., revealed the persistence of racial inequities in these booming economies. A new report on New Orleans finds that although the region has “staged an unlikely economic comeback,” 41 percent of families are struggling to get by on less than a living wage — up from 35 percent in 2006 — and those families are disproportionately made up of women and people of color. And Alan Mallach’s research on older industrial cities shows how growth is isolated to a few high-density, walkable neighborhoods while income, wealth, and home values are stagnant or declining everywhere else, with African American communities losing the most ground.

Unequal growth is socially and economically unsustainable. Research shows that more equitable regions experience stronger and longer-lasting growth. Demographic changes are also magnifying the costs of racial economic exclusion and upping the value proposition of inclusion. As Baby Boomers retire, their jobs will need to be filled by a much more diverse generation.

Small business owners Al and Marie Pronko benefitted from a $10,000 cash award as part of Detroit's NEIdeas program, which helps local businesses as part of a larger strategy to spur economic growth in the city. (photo: NEIdeasDetroit.org)

Small business owners Al and Marie Pronko benefitted from a $10,000 cash award as part of Detroit’s NEIdeas program, which helps local businesses as part of a larger strategy to spur economic growth in the city. (photo: NEIdeasDetroit.org)

In the face of these trends, cities should embrace equity as their path to prosperity and take steps to foster inclusive growth: growing new jobs and new businesses while ensuring that low-income people and people of color fully participate in generating that growth and fully share in its benefits. Here are three ways forward:

Bake racial economic inclusion into growth strategies.

Getting to equitable growth requires an intentional and strategic focus on removing barriers and building pathways for struggling workers and entrepreneurs to connect to jobs and business opportunities. Many cities are tackling this challenge and implementing new approaches to fuse growth and opportunity. Portland’s economic development agency just launched an Inclusive Startup Fund to provide capital, mentoring, and business advising to startups founded by underrepresented groups. Recognizing the importance of neighborhood businesses to Detroit’s renaissance, the New Economy Initiative held NEIdeas contests in 2014 and 2015 to provide financial and technical support to help neighborhood businesses grow. And in Pittsburgh, Urban Innovation 21 is connecting the city’s low-income African American communities with its knowledge-economy revival by placing youth in internships at area tech companies, supporting local entrepreneurs, and running a new Citizen Science Lab that offers hands-on life sciences trainings.

Implement a homegrown talent development plan.

City leaders recognize that workforce preparedness is central to their economic success, but often focus on attracting young, mobile, college grads from other states. To shift to equitable growth, cities need to cultivate their homegrown talent. Universal pre-K is a winning strategy and San Antonio’s groundbreaking program is already showing results for low-income, predominantly-Latino four-year olds. “Cradle-to-career” partnerships like Promise Neighborhoods are working to ensure children in low-income neighborhoods have the educational, health, and community supports they need to succeed. NLC’s survey reveals there is a great deal of room for cities to adopt targeted and sectoral workforce development strategies. One promising effort is New Orleans’s Economic Opportunity Strategy, which aims to recruit, train, and connect many of the city’s 35,000 jobless black men with jobs coming online at its major anchor institutions. Cities can also unleash talent by knocking down hurdles to employment. Passing “ban the box” policies that remove questions about prior convictions from job applications and creating municipal ID cards that help immigrants access financial and other services are key strategies.

Leverage public spending, investment, and planning as a force for inclusive growth.

While cities do not control all of the policy levers needed to move toward equitable growth, they can leverage their land use planning and zoning powers, procurement, and infrastructure investments to connect unemployed and underemployed residents to good jobs and transform disinvested neighborhoods into resilient “communities of opportunity.” The upturn in market activity presents cities with opportunities to implement classic equitable development tools — local hiring, community benefits agreements, permanently affordable housing, living wages, etc. — to ensure long-term residents benefit from publicly-subsidized development and can stay in their neighborhoods as they improve. Cities must also innovate new tools — like San Francisco’s new Retail Workers Bill of Rights — to turn low-wage jobs into jobs that support strong families and strong communities.

Now is the time for cities to lead on inclusive growth. Please join us at the 2015 Equity Summit October 27-29 in Los Angeles to explore these and other strategies for building “All-In Cities,” and sign up for our newsletter for regular stories about what works for equitable growth.

About the Author: Sarah Treuhaft is Director of Equitable Growth Initiatives at PolicyLink. She leads the organization’s work to advance racial and economic inclusion as an economic imperative and coordinates the development of the National Equity Atlas. You can connect with Sarah on Twitter @streuhaft.

How LinkedIn Can Help Your City Match Jobs with Trained Workers

This is a guest post by Nicole Isaac. This post is the second 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.

Skilled workers, like this engineer maintaining the gas turbine of a power plant generator, are in high demand - but cities need more effective ways of connecting with them. (Getty Images)

Skilled workers, like this engineer maintaining the gas turbine of a power plant generator, are in high demand – but cities need more effective ways of connecting with them. (Getty Images)

While some contend that the United States economy may be impacted by a skills gap, at minimum, researchers have found that there is a skills mismatch between the available jobs and the majority of the trained workforce to fill these jobs.

According to a recent McKinsey Global Institute report, in countries around the world, 30 to 45 percent of the working-age population is unemployed, inactive in the workforce, or working only part-time. In the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, India, Brazil and China, this equates to 850 million people. In the United States alone, there are approximately 20 million people who are unemployed, underemployed, or marginally attached to the workforce, yet there are 5.4 million available jobs just waiting to be filled by people with the right skills.

We’re seeing these skills mismatch trends across American cities today. For example, the National League of Cities’ Cities and Unequal Recovery report suggests that the “skills gap” is the most common concern facing local economies, with 21 percent of cities reporting an increase in the gap over the past year, and exacerbated by the lack of coordination across leading partners for the respective components of workforce development.

This is a real challenge – and, given the number of available jobs and a recovering economy, a significant opportunity for cities across the country. As the report notes, “cities are rising to the challenge and embracing the opportunity by creating collaborative, systemic workforce development approaches to not only improve the local talent pipeline, but also to open communications with employers about assessing needs and improving hiring practices.”

Working with local, state, and international levels to address the challenges around skills, both in supply and demand, is strongly aligned with LinkedIn’s vision to create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce. We work towards this objective each and every day through partnerships with cities to address workforce issues with LinkedIn’s technology and insights from our Economic Graph. We know firsthand that online connectivity allows for faster, better job matching; smarter labor and educational policy making; more efficient hiring and skills assessments at companies; and overall economic improvement in developed and emerging countries.

That is why, in February, we worked on New York City’s Tech Talent Pipeline program, a $10 million initiative meant to train New Yorkers for high-tech jobs. Together, we analyzed aggregate LinkedIn data from more than three million LinkedIn members in the New York City region and 150,000 NYC-based businesses to provide Tech Talent Pipeline with insights on the current state of the city’s tech industry. Using the data, the city can determine how to strategically invest their resources to create the greatest economic impact.

In June, we announced a partnership with the Markle Foundation called Rework America Connected. This partnership will provide an online destination that connects every sector of the labor force within Colorado and Phoenix, leveraging the job seeking and skills matching capabilities of LinkedIn. Through greater transparency among employers, educators, and job seekers, we’re aiming to create greater economic opportunity for the middle-skilled workers of Colorado and Phoenix.

We’ve been working with the National League of Cities and local governments and other stakeholders to identify and support workforce strategies for the jobs of today and tomorrow. Specifically, three of the cities recognized by the NLC – Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, and Nashville – were recently highlighted as part of the TechHire initiative for their focus on training workers for today’s in-demand tech jobs. LinkedIn is partnering with Philadelphia employers, city officials and non- profits to assist with skills alignment in the city. In Nashville, we are working with the Nashville Technology Council to better prepare their curriculum with business needs. Finally, in Salt Lake City, we have been working with the local economic development teams on providing individuals with access in-demand jobs.

Our overall goal in working with cities is to provide individuals with greater economic opportunity, and we’re planning to take the lessons learned from these current initiatives and apply them more broadly in other cities and regions. These public private partnership models are one mechanism by which cities can utilize innovative approaches to age-old problems– through creating more efficient data-sharing models and leveraging the resources of private sector partners to impact communities now.

About the Author: Nicole Isaac is the Head of Economic Graph Policy Partnerships at LinkedIn.

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.

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.