Momentum Building as White House Celebrates Progress on Veteran Homelessness

Participants of the 100,000 Homes Campaign hear from Dr. Jill Biden during White House event this week.

Participants of the 100,000 Homes Campaign hear from Dr. Jill Biden during White House event this week.

Yesterday, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke at the National Alliance to End Homelessness conference about the growing number of elected officials who have joined the Mayors Challenge to End Homelessness.

“The fact that right now our country has more than 58,000 homeless veterans is a stain on the soul of this nation,” Mrs. Obama said. “It is more important than ever that we redouble our efforts and embrace the most effective strategies to end homelessness among veterans.”

Launched at the White House last month, the Mayors Challenge now includes more than 180 local leaders, as well as support from four Governors.

Earlier in the week, the White House hosted local leaders from across the country to celebrate the success of the 100,000 Homes Campaign. A message from Dr. Jill Biden congratulated communities for housing more than 105,000 of the nation’s most vulnerable homeless, including more than 31,000 veterans.

The events come as cities participating in the Department of Veteran Affairs’ 25 Cities Initiative make significant progress in improving the community systems serving homeless veterans.

Launched in March, the initiative is building on the successes and lessons of the 100,000 Homes Campaign. With technical assistance, cities are developing locally tailored systems to help identify the homeless, prioritize them for service, and place them in available housing that can support them based on their individual needs. In Washington, D.C., community stakeholders have already housed more than 200 individuals using their new system.

In addition to developing these systems, some other lessons of the initiative include:

  • San Francisco: The city is dedicating housing resources for veterans not eligible for VA services. In addition, the city is prioritizing veterans within the Public Housing Authority’s plan.
  • Boston: In announcing his participation in the Mayors Challenge and NLC’s Leadership Network, Mayor Walsh launched www.homesforthebrave.boston.gov, a city hosted website where employers can offer jobs and landlords can offer units for homeless veterans.
  • Seattle: The city’s team has begun looking at how to work with surrounding jurisdictions to identify needed housing due to the high cost of rentals.
  • Baltimore: Obtained a $60,000 commitment from the city to use resources raised from the community to pay for move-in expenses, utility arrears, and other costs needed to place the homeless into new homes.
  • Detroit: The community is using staff from the Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness (PATH) program to guide homeless individuals through the complex process of finding a home and the services they will need to keep it. These staff members are a part of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

To help other communities learn about what is happening across the country to end veteran homelessness, NLC hosted a webinar with officials from San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Community Solutions, and The Home Depot Foundation. The webinar outlined four steps and five questions that local leaders can take to end veteran homelessness in their city.

All of these efforts are creating the change needed to end veteran homelessness by the federal goal of 2015, and end chronic homelessness in 2016. Communities are showing that ending veteran homelessness is no longer a dream, but a reality, one city at a time. To support cities, Community Solutions has launched Zero: 2016. Unlike previous efforts, cities must apply to be a part of this effort and have the commitment of key leaders.

To learn more about Zero: 2016 and have your city apply, go to www.zero2016.org.

For more information on NLC’s work visit www.nlc.org/veteranshousing.

 Elisha_blogAbout the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.

More than money: Alternative incentives that benefit companies and communities

Construction in Raleigh, N.C.

Post adapted from Smart Incentives

Specialized services can complement financial incentives, while taking the concept of a partnership between business and community to a new level. Guest blogger Swati Ghosh, the International Economic Development Council‘s Director of Research and Technical Assistance, reports below on an interesting new paper addressing these and other alternative incentives.

Of all the tools that economic developers use to attract businesses to their community, incentives are the most controversial. Typically financial in nature, incentives are direct subsidies to businesses in the form of tax breaks, loans or grants. Proponents maintain that such subsidies are necessary to grow jobs locally as they reduce the cost, or risk, of doing business in a community. Critics, on the other hand, argue that there is no direct link between economic activity and such business subsidies, and some even suggest that they are a drag on economic growth.

Economic developers should closely follow an emerging alternative – programs and services that assist businesses but are not direct financial subsidies. Termed alternative incentives, these are investments in community programs that strengthen the business climate or that help a particular business in a way that benefits the broader community. They are a win-win: For businesses, alternative incentives can reduce the cost or risk of doing business in a community, yet communities retain these investments even if a firm shuts down or relocates to a different community.

IEDC’s Economic Development Research Partners program has developed a new paper focusing on alternative incentives. It is not an argument against the use of financial incentives; rather, it advocates for increased use of alternative incentives either alone or in conjunction with financial incentives. The paper, “More than Money: Alternative Incentives that Benefit Companies and Communities” (PDF), examines five categories of alternative incentives:

  • Talent/Workforce development
  • Real estate and permitting
  • Research and data
  • Networking and promotion
  • Infrastructure improvements

The paper is based on a survey of the IEDC membership to understand usage of over 40 different types of alternative incentives. It also includes several examples of organizations that have successfully utilized alternative incentives for business attraction and expansion, alone or in conjunction with other financial incentives. The paper concludes with recommendations for ways that economic developers can use alternative incentives effectively:

  • Focus on building relationships
  • Examine your organization’s strengths and utilize them creatively
  • Offer a wide spectrum of services
  • Bring along the key stakeholders
  • Focus on the needs of the community

As scrutiny, clawback provisions and other restrictions on the use of financial incentives increase, it may be beneficial to examine other options to support businesses. Alternative incentives not only stay in the community, but bring less of a burden in terms of monitoring and legal costs – benefits that every community and EDO can agree on.

Citizen Engagement Means More than Just Voting

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Democracy. In the very root of the word is the notion that it is the people who rule. It is engrained in all Americans that in our country, government is by the people and for the people. Of course, for this to be true, the people must be involved. Citizens must be actively engaged in every level of government if our country is to run as we believe it should.

In recent studies by the National Conference on Citizenship, it has unfortunately been discovered that this ideal is not being met. Citizens are not showing the levels of civic engagement that democracy requires, and that our cities need in order to flourish.

In one study on South Carolina, it was found that while the state’s citizens ranked highly for “traditional forms of political involvement” (voting in national elections and registering to vote), they were near the bottom of state rankings in other, more subtle forms of civic engagement: boycotting products, contacting elected officials, forming strong relationships with neighbors, discussing politics and participating in local meetings regarding matters of school or city policy.

In a separate study looking at Washington, D.C., the findings again made clear that just because members of a community vote, there is no guarantee that they are then engaged in the community in other ways. While residents of D.C. have consistently high rates of voter turnout, they are unlikely to have strong relationships with neighbors, rarely eat dinner with other members of their household and while they volunteer at rates higher than the national average (coming in at 32.2%), this still quite low compared to the number of voters.

Between the two studies, it was found that political and civic engagement, in almost any form, is strongly correlated to not only a person’s income, but also to their level of education. While the studies referenced here look at fairly large population areas (the state of South Carolina as a whole and the city of D.C.), in cities with higher numbers of low-income residents with lower levels of educational attainment, there are clear reasons for concern. As elected officials, it can be challenging enough to work with the many different voices that arrive at the table; it is next to impossible to work with the voices that cannot even be found.

Given that a strong community is one that works on behalf of all its residents, it is imperative that citizens from all walks of life exercise their right to be both civically and politically engaged. As new technology is being developed, it is becoming easier than ever to encourage citizens to raise their voice. Emerging apps allow citizens to express needs for city services in real-time and allow elected officials to engage with residents who might never step foot in City Hall.

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In Washington, D.C., the website “Grade D.C.” has been developed as a way for residents to provide feedback on the quality of city services and departments, from the public school system to the police department to the Department of Employee Services. In allowing the community to assign a grade to the work being done by government-run entities, not only do citizens have a voice to express their appreciation and frustrations, but they are able to see the feedback provided by others, and use that to make informed decisions as to the city agencies with which they choose to interact. By establishing this innovative online format to provide feedback to the city, leaders in D.C. have created a non-threatening way to engage with citizens who may not be willing to go to City Hall, yet have a vested interest in ensuring that city services are provided smoothly and effectively.

In Philadelphia, a similar desire to engage citizens led to the creation of the tool “Textizen,” as one piece of the New Urban Mechanics movement. Now being used in both Boston and Philadelphia, Textizen permits residents to text in their thoughts and opinions on any and all city projects, dramatically increasing the number of voices that are able to be heard on any one issue. Taking this concept a step further, Boston has developed the “Citizens Connect TXT” program, which gives anyone in the city a way to notify the city of local problems, from graffiti in public spaces to unlit streetlights and other safety hazards. In providing a simple way for citizens to contact their local government, these cities are actively encouraging civic engagement on the part of all

As members of the National League of Cities push to see their cities become centers of innovation, it is important to remember the necessity of including all citizens in this push forward. This is by no means a simple job, yet cities around the country are showing that they are able to rise to meet the challenge by thinking outside of the box and truly valuing the many different voices in their communities. When city officials intentionally choose to harness the powers of technology, the ideals of democracy come closer to being achieved, even in a world that has changed immeasurably since our nation was founded.

Coleman PictureAbout the author: Molly Coleman is an intern with the National League of Cities University.

Advancements in Data-Sharing Are Changing How Government is Run

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Leaders in policy and technology from around the world gather for the Sunlight Foundation’s Transparency Camp.

On May 30th and 31st, innovators in government and technology joined together for the 5th annual Transparency Camp, led by the Washington, D.C. based Sunlight Foundation.

Throughout the two-day event, conversation revolved around the dual concepts of government and data, exploring their interconnected nature and the rapid advancements in data that are changing the way our governments run.

Kicking off the camp was Anthea Watson-Strong of the Google Civic Innovation Team. Drawing from the work of Ethan Zuckerman, she focused on the idea that through the use of “high-value data sets,” the internet can lead to “easy, yet impactful” action on the part of citizens.

Much of the rest of the camp focused on deconstructing this concept. What data is valuable for the public to have? How can this be made accessible to residents, and how can they in turn use it to improve their communities and hold their elected officials accountable? Ultimately, how can innovations in data-sharing be used to strengthen our democracy at every level, and especially locally?

The most foundational of these questions, though, is what data is of value to the general public. Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is almost all city data can be used in meaningful ways by the public, allowing them to become more informed and engaged citizens.

Take, for example the “out on a limb for data” project underway in New York City. Through an effort to decrease the destructive power and massive clean-up needs of trees falling during storms, the city is using block-by-block pruning information as part of a formula to predict which trees are the most vulnerable. From this, they have found that regular pruning of trees leads to a 22% decrease in emergency cleanups.

While conventional wisdom might suggest that data on tree pruning is not essential for city residents to have, the work being done in New York shows its potential importance, as it can allow community members to better prepare for extreme weather events. If access to data on tree pruning is beneficial to citizens, it’s hard to imagine that there is any sort of data that would not be.

Making Data Available, Accessible & User-Friendly

Given the natural limitations as to the amount of data that can be made accessible in a short period of time, a certain amount of prioritization must be done. Since the increased use of data is meant to be a tool to engage citizens, this prioritization need not be the work of only elected officials and city staff; it can, in fact, be something that engages the whole community.

Philadelphia, for example, has already taken steps to do this through its “Open Data Race.” By giving non-profit organizations an opportunity to propose datasets that, if released, would be helpful in accomplishing their work, Philadelphia has created a platform for residents themselves to prioritize the release of data. Not only are citizens given a voice at the table, but they are able to work in conjunction with the government to help build a better city for all.

Over the years, residents of cities and towns have been forced to struggle with the fact that even when data is made available, it is rarely user-friendly, contained in extensive, unsearchable PDF files at best. With rapid advancements in technology, this problem is quickly being addressed, allowing data that has been deemed useful to the public to rapidly be made accessible to average citizens.

On the website FindTheBest – a research engine focused on both depth and breadth – citizens can complete a search, select “visualize,” and instantly have a graphical depiction of the information that they are looking for. Rather than searching through years of data in order to find useful information, users can instantly see, for example, whereas in 1964, payroll taxes accounted for only 19.5% of the federal tax revenue, today those same taxes comprise 34.15% of total federal tax revenue.

While this technology has not yet been implemented at the local level, it offers a promising direction for the future of data accessibility, allowing for increased use by residents.

Using Data to Engage Residents

In order for data to be a useful tool of a democratic society, it must be more than simply accessible: it must be used. Fortunately, one need only glance around the country to see the incredibly innovative ways in which cities have begun to make use to further engage their residents.

In Salt Lake City, a Snow Plow Tracker has been designed for use in major storms, allowing community members to see exactly where snow plows are working. Chicago has created an annotated map that is intended to help citizens and businesses better understand what the zoning codes in their area actually mean. In San Francisco, data is being used to build maps that show not only where crimes are happening, but also the nature of those crimes in any given area.

In only three examples, the diversity of potential for data use is abundantly clear. With its potential to engage citizens and provide improved city services, data is an integral part of the future of our local governments.

Coleman PictureAbout the author: Molly Coleman is an intern with the National League of Cities University.

Mayors, Residents Make Big Strides with National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation

This is a guest post written by Steve Creech, Executive Director of the Wyland Foundation.

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With cities across the United States facing water scarcity, five U.S. cities were honored today for the commitment of their residents to making water-saving choices as part of the third annual National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation.

The cities of Dallas, TX, Corpus Christi, TX, Huntington Beach, CA, Bremerton, WA, and Crete, NB, led an effort among over 23,000 people across the nation to take 277,742 specific actions over the next year to change the way they use water in their home yard, and community.

Presented nationally by the Wyland Foundation and Toyota, with support from the U.S. EPA and National League of Cities, the challenge had direct participation from more than 100 U.S. mayors, from San Diego to Miami, FL, who encouraged their residents to participate in the online challenge at mywaterpledge.com.

“Access to a clean and reliable supply of fresh water is fundamental to our lives,” said artist and conservationist Wyland. “Most people do not think about their water footprint and the extent to which water quality issues can impact them personally.”

The challenge comes at a time when population growth, extreme weather patterns, water shortages, and again infrastructure all threaten access to a steady, sustainable supply of water in the United States.

The National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation provides a positive way to reward residents across the country for using water wisely and controlling what goes down the drain and into their local watershed.

By sticking to their commitments, the collective efforts of these residents will reduce national water waste by 1.4 billion gallons, reduce waste sent to landfills by 36 million pounds, eliminate more than 179 thousand pounds of hazardous waste from entering our watersheds, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5.3 billion pounds.

Beyond its efforts to foster environmental change, the challenge provides an opportunity for participants from the top five cities to win more than $50,000 in eco-friendly prizes, including a Grand Prize Toyota Prius Plug-In.

City leaders, sustainability directors, and utilities managers who are interested in getting their city involved in the program for 2015 are encouraged to contact the Wyland Foundation at 949-643-7070. To see this year’s final national standings, please visit mywaterpledge.com.

Watch Al Roker & Nancy Stoner, EPA Director of Water, discuss the National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation.

Steve-CreechAbout the author: Steve Creech is executive director for the non-profit Wyland Foundation. He is the co-author of  “Hold Your Water: 68 Things You Need to Know to Keep Our Planet Blue,” a fresh look at the importance of water in our communities and throughout the world. Steve is a former environmental news reporter in southern California and currently blogs for Huffington Post.

Business Incentive Initiative

This post was written by Ellen Harpel, founder of Smart Incentives and president of Business Development Advisors LLC (BDA), an economic development and market intelligence consulting firm. Post originally appeared on Smart Incentives blog.

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Local businesses in New York City’s West Village. Source: Flickr user wallyg

City leaders have many concerns about the cost and effectiveness of economic development incentives in their communities, as we learned from the session on economic development financing tools during last year’s Congress of Cities. A new initiative working to develop best practices for evaluating incentives at the state level will help local elected officials whose communities use state incentive programs for business attraction. It should also provide some guidance for cities striving to assess their own local incentive programs.

The Pew Charitable Trusts recently announced the launch of the Business Incentives Initiative. This Initiative will help improve data collection, management and reporting within state incentive programs in order to “improve decision-makers’ ability to craft policies that deliver the strongest results at the lowest possible cost.”

Pew and the Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness will engage leaders from seven states (IN, LA, MD, MI, TN, OK, VA) to develop best practices for evaluating economic development incentives by:

  • Identifying effective ways to manage and assess economic development incentive policies and practices.
  • Improving data collection and reporting on incentive investments.
  • Developing national standards and best practices that states can use to successfully gather and report data on economic development incentives.

As project manager Jeff Chapman explained in an interview with Bloomberg BNA:

This initiative builds on Pew’s ongoing project to help state policymakers implement ongoing evaluation of economic development incentives. As states work to measure the effectiveness of these programs, they often find they lack the data needed to determine whether an incentive is producing the expected outcome. Further, there is currently no source that has identified and compiled the best practices on how to overcome this obstacle.

All states were invited to submit proposals to participate, and seven were selected. They have agreed to commit top decision-makers from economic development, revenue, and other relevant state agencies to work intensively with Pew throughout this 18-month program. Each of these seven states has also already begun to address the challenges associated with economic development incentive program management and evaluation. The Pew team will work with the states to develop and implement tailored solutions for each state, while also paving the way for development of best practices and training that will be available to all states.

I am pleased to be part of the Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness team working with Pew on this important effort. Our role will be to leverage our economic development and incentives expertise to provide technical assistance to the states.

Here at Smart Incentives, we have emphasized the importance of data, analysis, transparency and accountability in economic development incentive use. The lack of quality data regarding compliance and effectiveness is a significant problem for the economic development field and policymakers trying to do what’s best for their communities. The Business Incentives Initiative represents a notable step forward in enabling smart incentive use in all states.

HarpelEllen Harpel is President of Business Development Advisors (BDA) and Founder of Smart Incentives. She has over 17 years of experience in the economic development field, working with leaders at the local, state and national levels to increase business investment and job growth in their communities. 

Contact: eharpel@businessdevelopmentadvisors.com or ellen@smartincentives.org. Follow Ellen on Twitter @SmartIncentives.

Ride Sharing: The Big Opportunity for Cities

By Pkg203, via Wikimedia Commons

By Pkg203, via Wikimedia Commons

Uber, Lyft and Sidecar present cities with the opportunity to radically transform transportation in their communities. If cities make use of the lessons they are learning from work with car share firms like Zip Car and with bike share programs, they are likely to achieve remarkable success in the newest iteration of the sharing economy.

However, if current trends are any indication, city taxi commissions see these companies primarily as threats to the established order and are seeking regulatory solutions where a little entrepreneurship might be more properly applied.

The outlook is not at all rosy for the car share firms. A dozen cities are either writing citations to Lyft and Uber drivers, issuing cease and desist orders to the companies, or banning operations outright. To be fair, many cities are also seeking to catch up with the application of technology to this otherwise static public service, so I remain optimistic.

It matters little whether companies such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar are called Transportation Network Companies or traditional taxi and limousine services. The simple fact remains that existing regulatory frameworks for taxis in cities became outmoded with the advent of the smartphone and the app. The sooner taxi commissioners embrace this reality the sooner they will find the path out of the regulatory maze.

Of course cities have some obligation to regulate services to the general public within their jurisdictions. But where is it written that the basis of such regulation must be the existing formula for traditional dispatch taxicabs? What is it that cities need to actually regulate that is not presently required as part of qualifying for a driving license? Enhanced driver training? Premium vehicle liability insurance? Universal service? Car specifications (color, model, age)? Competition? Price? A case probably can be made for the first two or three but not so much for the latter three.

In 2013, the California Public Utilities Commission issued a ruling that allowed Lyft and Uber to operate under less rigid rules than locally regulated taxis. As recently as this week, a federal judge in Houston declined to temporarily restrain Lyft and Uber from operating in Houston and San Antonio. A further hearing is set for July 15, perhaps providing time for the cities and the companies to hammer out an agreement.

The sharing economy offers opportunities for cities to increase the options available for those in need of transportation, lodging (see Airbnb and its similar challenges) and a range of other services not yet envisioned. The sharing economy represents the highest form of individual entrepreneurship and as such deserves the chance to grow and contribute to the daily life and economic prosperity of city residents.

When a company called Flex Car (later bought by Zip Car) arrived in cities more than a decade ago, the transformation was revolutionary. Cities did the unthinkable – they gave up precious curbside parking spaces to a private company to place universally accessible cars in proximity to people in need of wheels for a short-term errand.

Cities created a new regulatory paradigm for this new and much sought after service. I own a car and still signed up in the first month the company offered services in my city (I’m still a member all these years later.) That same spirit of innovation needs to be applied to the likes of Uber, Lyft and Sidecar, and to their successors.

Brooks, J.A. 2010About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Director for City Solutions. He specializes in local practice areas related to housing, neighborhoods, infrastructure, and community development and engagement.  Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.

 

WUF7: Final Thoughts on My Week in Medellin

This is the seventh post in a series of blogs on the World Urban Forum 7 in Medellin, Colombia.

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Had my trip to the World Urban Forum been limited to a tour of the city of Medellin, the trip would have been worth it. This is truly a city on the rise. Gone is the violence and narco-terror for which the city was famous. In its place is a young, vibrant city filled with new libraries and schools serving some of the poorest neighborhoods; parks that include concert halls, a planetarium and computer learning centers; and a metro system that runs the length and width of the city, employing traditional rail cars, cable cars and escalators.

Its town center or “el Centro” is filled with the wonderful and massive sculptures of Fernando Botero, a Medellin native, whose work is wonderfully sardonic and sarcastic at the same time, and includes a small gem of a museum that proudly displays Colombia’s pre-Columbian, colonial and modern artists. Its neighborhoods are diverse and reflective of a city that is growing but retaining a “small town” feel. Looking out over the city at night from a bar atop the Charlee Hotel in the Poblado, one can feel the pulsating rhythms of this increasingly successful business center.

Had my trip to the World Urban Forum been limited to participation in the mayor’s roundtable on urban equity and the new urban agenda, the trip also would have been worth it. This was truly a roundtable that demonstrated the optimism that exists among city leaders from around the world to create “cities of opportunity” — cities where the poorest and most disadvantaged are able to take advantage of what their city has to offer so they can create a better life for themselves and their families.

As I reported in my fourth and fifth blogs, in its broadest sense, the message of the mayors forum was cities are on the rise as economic centers, centers of innovation and centers of learning — what we have chosen to call “cities of opportunity” — and that cities are replacing individual states and nations as the places in which “real change is taking place.”

Had my trip to the World Urban Forum been limited to attending the various “dialogues” that focused on city resiliency and financing, the trip also would have been worth it. For here the conversations focused on how to finance cities, and how to build cities that can respond to and come back from natural and man-made disasters, but not just for the benefit of the few, but in a way that promotes inclusion and social equity.

Though the solutions that were offered are costly, what was clear is that to do nothing would be even more costly. And though it is much easier to make decisions from the top down, or to make investments that benefit the wealthiest residents, for a city to thrive and grow, every resident must be included in the decision making process, regardless of their income or social standing, and every citizen must be viewed as a likely beneficiary of the investments made.

As Michael Cohen, a professor at the New School (New York) said, it is no longer feasible to operate the way Buenos Aires and New York City have operated until now, where 60 percent of the expenditures benefit the wealthiest 11 percent of the population. “If our cities are to be financially sustainable we must find ways to effectively leverage our resources to the benefit of all.”

Had my trip to the World Urban Forum been limited to hearing Joseph Stiglitz, the Columbia University economics professor and Nobel laureate, speak passionately about the need for national and local governments to take meaningful steps to end inequality and create opportunity through investments in education, job creation and small business, the trip would have been worth it. Had it been limited to hearing Leon Krier, the famous and highly controversial architect, urban planner and architectural theorist, the trip would have been worth it. His desire to create urban environments that are inclusive but limited in size, and therefore more humane in scale, rang true as we sat in the midst of a city whose one-time modest scale has given way to skyscrapers as far as the eye can see.

Finally, had my trip to the World Urban Forum been limited to visiting the exhibit hall and witnessing what nations and cities around the world are doing to address inequality and create cities of opportunity – from Barcelona to Jerusalem, Guangzhou to Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires to Paris – the trip would have been worth it.

But in fact, this trip to the World Urban Forum 7 and Medellin, Colombia, was worth it for reasons that transcended each of its parts. It was a place for people from around the world to exchange ideas and learn from one another. It was a place where creativity was acknowledged and innovation rewarded. It was a place where one’s status as part of the developed or developing worlds did not seem to matter – everyone had something important to offer.

And it was a place that confirmed what we at the National League of Cities have long stated: cities are the laboratories of innovation and creativity, and the solutions to the world’s urban settlement problems will not happen because of national government. Rather, the solutions will emerge at the local level through the commitment of mayors and other local officials, private sector leaders who share the goal of creating “cities of opportunity,” as well as foundations, non-governmental organizations and universities.

This conference left no doubt: if those who live and work in cities are able to come together to create inclusive, resilient and financially sustainable cities, then the urban future is a very bright one, indeed.

Neil Bomberg

About the author: Neil Bomberg is NLC’s Program Director for Human Development. Through Federal Advocacy, he lobbies on behalf of cities around education, workforce development, health care, welfare, and pensions. Follow Neil on Twitter at @neilbomberg.

WUF7: The Mayors Forum Part II — Individual City Solutions

This is the fifth post in a series of blogs on the World Urban Forum 7 in Medellin, Colombia.

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In my previous blog, I wrote that the focus of the Mayors Forum was on inclusiveness in order to create a “city of opportunity.” However, I would be misleading you if I implied that each mayor was striving to create a “city of opportunity” in the same way. What they shared was an outcome. How they got there very much depended on how developed, how democratic and how wealthy the city is.

This was exemplified by the diversity of approaches for creating a city of opportunity. Some focused on transportation, others on broader infrastructure, others on job creation, others on education, and still others on public spaces, and for most, a combination of different strategies was necessary. But two things did seem to underlie their approaches regardless of the strategy: inclusiveness and money.

The mayor of Barcelona, Spain underscored this when he said, “We can have the noblest ideas, but if we do not have the financial resources to draw upon, there is nothing that we can do to change our cities and create opportunities for our residents.” He called on national and state governments to respect the work that cities do by ensuring that cities have the resources they need to be a city of opportunity. And the mayors of Medellin, Colombia and Asker, Norway reiterated the importance of involving all residents in the decision-making process and not just the rich or advantaged.

In Santiago de Chile, this process enabled the city to move forward with the development of an adequate urban mass transit system. Prior to development of this system, the city and its residents were supporting the 30 percent with cars, while the rest had to make it on their own. Once the city came together to discuss a solution to the problem of moving its residents from home to work and school, they were able to reach agreement that there needs to be a transportation system, including roads and mass transit, that provides 100 percent of the population with access to everything the city offers.

In Nanjing, China, the focus has been on building a metro system that will serve the poorest sections of the city. While not sharing the deliberative process that led to this decision, the mayor did note that if they failed to create a system that benefited the poorest, the city would remain divided and the poorest residents would have no opportunities to access education, jobs and important social services.

And the mayor of Medellin, Colombia, chimed in by underscoring yet again the importance of his city’s metro system to the least advantaged residents of Medellin, and how important it has been to ensuring that they can get to work, to school and to the services they need. “We were able to transform a two-hour or more commute by bus and foot from the most remote sections of the city into a 45-minute commute to the downtown. In this way we were able to give our residents back two and one-half hours of their day, and increase their happiness.”

In Delft, Netherlands and Budapest, Hungary, the opportunities provided by effective transportation networks were already there; what was lacking was the ability for many of the residents to enter the job market because the skills they had were not the ones local businesses wanted. Delft’s strong technology sector, a driver of job creation, was limited in its ability to absorb unskilled workers. To address this, the city entered into agreements with construction companies, service providers and others who hire lower skilled workers, requiring that they first hire local unemployed residents before recruiting from elsewhere.

Budapest, a city with low relatively low unemployment, still faced enormous employment issues. Long term unemployed residents were not being hired, and young people were also not being incorporated into the workforce. In response, the city set up its own public works program for low skilled workers and worked in partnership with local businesses to ensure that long-term unemployed workers were considered for jobs; and if they were not hired, the city would step in with high-skilled opportunities. The same was done for the city’s youth.

For some of the mayors, there could be not hope of creating a city of opportunity unless the city was safe. In Johannesburg, South Africa and Gombo, Congo, the latter having just been torn apart by a civil war where young people were often soldiers, the response could not simply be having more police. Efforts to move the youth away from violence required their complete engagement in each city’s development, so that the young people saw a future for themselves in the city in which they live.

Finally, many of the mayors spoke of the need for accessible and meaningful open spaces, and educational systems that included pre-school and after-school programs.

But all of this came down to one issue for each of these mayors, and that was the creation of a city filled with opportunity, where every resident feels a part of the city, has pride in their city, and benefits from being part of the city. As the mayor of Medellin put it, “We want every resident to be happy; to feel good about where he or she lives, and to benefit from every aspect of life that the city has to offer.” Something every United States mayor wants for their residents as well.

WUF 7 Day One: Are ‘Cities of Opportunity’ Really Possible?

This is the second post in a series of blogs on the World Urban Forum 7 in Medellin, Colombia.

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The theme of the United Nations World Urban Forum 7 in Medellin, Colombia, is “Equity in Development — Cities for Life;” or what I prefer to call “Cities of Opportunity.”

According to the United Nations, it is now estimated that two-thirds of the world’s urban population live in cities where income inequality has been increasing. In many cases, this increase has been staggering. These inequalities can be seen in urban spaces, with cities divided by invisible borders that create social, cultural and economic exclusion.

This conference has been designed to provide city leaders with the tools they need to create cities in which the design, governance and infrastructure of cities has a direct and positive impact on the lives and opportunities of their inhabitants. In other words, this conference is about ensuring that cities of opportunity remain possible, and become a reality.

Over the conference’s seven days there will be lectures, dialogues, discussion groups, training sessions, roundtables and assemblies.

Among these will be:

  • A mayors’ forum in which mayors and their representatives will discuss how urban planning, design, legislation, governance and finances can be strengthened to ensure equitable local development; and share experiences how urban leaders have been able to reduce urban inequalities and move toward equitable development;
  • A United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) sponsored discussion on how to provide basic services to under-served communities;
  • Training sessions addressing diverse topics such as the use of public space to reduce inequities, food security in low income areas, workforce strategies in urban slums, building safe cities through inclusive participation, sustainable communities, learning to respond to mega-disasters, ensuring resiliency and responding to youth violence;
  • Assemblies designed to address major urban issues including youth, gender equality and business; and
  • Side events such as one on urban innovation and inclusive governance meant to supplement the conference’s agenda.

Among the speakers will be such luminaries as:

  • Richard Florida, professor at the University of Toronto and New York University and senior editor of The Atlantic;
  • Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate in Economics and professor at Columbia University
  • Judith Rodin, Ph.D., president of the Rockefeller Foundation
  • Richard Sennett, professor at the London School of Economics and New York University;
  • Ricky Burdett, professor of Urban Studies and director of the London School of Economics Urban Age Programme; and
  • Sarah Rosen Wartell, president of the Urban Institute.

What remains to be learned in the ensuing days is how cities of opportunity should be conceptualized and ultimately implemented. Stay tuned.