Sandy Recovery Highlights Resilience Lessons

Graffiti in New York following the devastation cased by Hurricane Sandy. (photo: Ayasha Guerin/

Graffiti in New York following the devastation cased by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. (photo: Ayasha Guerin /

The Chen residence in the Midland Beach neighborhood of Staten Island is occupied once again. During the 2012 superstorm known as Hurricane Sandy, the Chen home was inundated with 10 feet of flood water, as were other residences in the Midland and New Dorp Beach areas. As of March 2015, the Chen family is back in a restored home thanks to New York’s Build It Back program and the partnership with IBTS (Institute for Building Technology and Safety), an National League of Cities Corporate Partner.

The completed Chen house. (photo: james Brooks)

The completed Chen house. (photo: james Brooks)

The Chen home and others like it have new siding, enhanced insulation and better fire resiliency measures. The property is also raised twelve feet above the ground. The critical measure is that the property is well above both the Base Flood Elevation (BFE) and the Design Flood Elevation (DFE). This means that even if the property is on a flood plain, flood insurance is not required.

The City of New York, working through its Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), established the Build It Back program to coordinate, streamline and evaluate the recovery effort. IBTS is one of the largest contractors serving the city in the areas of architectural and structural assessments, rehabilitation or reconstruction design, contract management and reporting, and final inspections for single family homes.

Visiting the hardest hit neighborhoods on Staten Island and in the Gerritsen Beach area of Brooklyn is an experience both similar and different from visiting neighborhoods in New Orleans hit by Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago. The topography is familiar, and it’s the first sign that these beach bungalows are susceptible to a rising tide. Although the beach dunes rise up from the shoreline, once the waters crest the dunes and flow across Staten Island’s Father Capodanno Boulevard, the landscape drops away another 10-20 feet. Flooding in this area continued nearly a mile inland to Hylan Boulevard.

Build It Back is a massive project. Through March 2015, nearly 26,000 registrants have applied for the program. From Queens, where Breezy Point is located, there are 11,374 registrants. Staten Island has 5,782 registrants, and Brooklyn has 7,968. Eligible homes can have both exterior and interior storm damage repaired. Where appropriate, homes and utility lines are elevated above flood levels as well.

To date, the IBTS team has received contracts to carry out 483 housing elevations. Of these, 253 have received home owner reviews, 198 have received elevation designs for approval, 139 have had construction documents turned over to the city Department of Buildings, and 106 have received permit approvals.

Mr. & Mrs. Slaven with the contractors. (photo: Jim Brooks)

Mr. & Mrs. Slaven with IBTS contractors. In the background sits the Slaven house on cribbing. (photo: James Brooks)

The drama in the story is not in the numbers, but in the first-hand accounts told by residents such as Mr. Francis and Mrs. Lauren Slaven of Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn. Today, their house sits atop 12-foot timber cribbing waiting to be permanently set on its new foundation. A gregarious and talkative woman, Mrs. Slaven is vivid in her recounting of swimming to safety in the face of Sandy. She even managed to save her dog, but lost a pet bird in the ordeal. They will return to their renovated home shortly.

The results of the recovery work thus far have helped drive some innovations both in the management of CDBG Disaster Recovery funds and in the design specifications for home elevations. For example, with support from HUD, IBTS developed a unit price contractor procurement model for CDBG-DR housing rehabilitation and/or reconstruction. IBTS is applying these lessons to the balance of their Build It Back work, bringing a considerable level of savings to New York City storm recovery efforts and also to new work awarded by the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery (GOSR) on Long Island.

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.

The Arts Mean Business

This is a guest post by Jay H. Dick, Senior Director of State and Local Government Affairs at Americans for the Arts.

Meyerson_Symphony_Center_Dallas_1_fullsizeThe Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, Texas, is a visually spectacular example of the type of anchor for economic development that can be achieved when city governments invest in arts and culture initiatives. (photo: Matt Clarkson)

If your city had a new construction company move to town, this would be good news – more jobs, more economic activity, and more tax revenues to be collected. How about if your city received funding from your state to widen a road? Again, you would probably welcome this news with open arms. Now, think about a new arts organization moving to town. Would you look at this group with the same economic lens that you used to look at the construction or transportation business?

If your answer was no, here’s why you should!

The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) with the National Endowment for the Arts recently released their second annual report measuring the arts and culture sector’s contributions to U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). This year’s report found that the arts and culture sector represented 4.32 percent of the GDP – a higher percentage than tourism (2.6 percent), transportation (2.7 percent) and construction (3.4 percent) – at $698.7 billion!

(Americans for the Arts)

In other words, the arts and culture sector have a larger impact on your economy (in terms of GDP) than these other industries. The unfortunate problem is that we don’t readily recognize the economic value and impact of the arts. Luckily, more research is being done on this topic by groups such as the BEA and by organizations like mine, Americans for the Arts.

For example, did you know that, according to our Arts and Economic Prosperity IV study, the nonprofit arts are a $135 billion industry that supports over 4 million full-time equivalent jobs? Further, the nonprofit arts contribute $22 billion dollars in tax revenue, of which $6.07 billion is collected at the local level. Given that most local governments (that Americans for the Arts has studied) appropriate less than they receive in tax revenue, the arts are a wonderful investment!

Our Creative Industries: Business & Employment in the Arts reports provide a research-based approach to understanding the scope and economic importance of the arts in America. Nationally, 702,771 businesses are involved in the creation or distribution of the arts, and they directly employ 2.9 million people. This represents 3.9 percent of all U.S. businesses and 1.9 percent of all U.S. employees – demonstrating statistically that the arts are a formidable business presence and are broadly distributed across our communities. Arts businesses and the creative people they employ stimulate innovation, strengthen America’s competitiveness in the global marketplace, and play an important role in building and sustaining economic vibrancy. In addition to our national numbers, there are downloadable maps on our website of every state, federal legislative district, state legislative district, counties and some larger cities.

Cities of all sizes that, even minimally, invest in their local arts organizations can see economic benefits. For example, over 300 cities have created cultural districts to foster the economic viability of their downtown. Cultural districts are a well-recognized, labeled, mixed-use area of a city in which a high concentration of cultural facilities serves as the anchor of attraction and robust economic activity.

The Playhouse Square Center in downtown Cleveland, Ohio. (Getty Images)

According to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, Ohio, the Cleveland Playhouse Square’s downtown economic impact has been impressive. For every one dollar spent in ticket sales, $2.20 is generated in additional expenditures to the local economy. In a five-year period, 79 new businesses moved downtown, and the cost of downtown office space nearly doubled.

In the late 1990s, Paducah, Ky. had a problem – an area of the city, LowerTown, was run down. Fifty percent of homes were dilapidated; 73 percent of homes were renter-occupied; and there was a 17 percent unemployment rate with 51 percent of people living in poverty. To tackle the problem, city leaders came up with a unique plan: the Artist Relocation Program. City leaders partnered with banks and other businesses and reached out nationally to artists to invite them to move to Paducah. The program would offer them a very low-interest loan if they bought a house, agreed to make improvements, worked as an artist out of their house, and lived there for at least five years.

Dixie Leather Works, located in the LowerTown arts disctrict of Paducah, Ky. (photo: Paducah Visitors Bureau)

Dixie Leather Works, located in the LowerTown Arts District of Paducah, Ky. (photo: Paducah Visitors Bureau)

Ten years later, dilapidated homes have fallen to 3 percent; the renter-occupied rate is down to 15 percent; unemployment is down to 6 percent; and the number of people living in poverty has been reduced to 4 percent. This is all a direct result of the Artist Relocation Program.

These are just a few examples of how the arts and culture can help your city’s economy. The great thing about the arts is they are already in your city. The arts, unlike many industries, are not going to relocate overseas or to a different city. The arts are committed to serving your city’s residents and improving the quality of life. But what they do need are community leaders to recognize them as an industry worthy of both private and public sector support. So, please contact your local arts groups. Get to know them, understand their programming, and how they work to improve your city. And if you have any questions, feel free to contact me directly – I would love to help.

Jay H. DickAbout the Author: Jay H. Dick is the Senior Director of State and Local Government Affairs at Americans for the Arts, an organization which serves, advances and leads diverse networks of organizations and individuals who cultivate, promote, sustain and support the arts in America. Americans for the Arts has partnered with NLC for almost 20 years on a variety of programs.

Retention and Attraction Strategies for a Balanced Retail Sector

This is a recap from Big Ideas for Small Business, NLC’s national peer network helping local governments accelerate effort to support small businesses and encourage entrepreneurship. To learn more, email

Empress of China SFNeighborhood institutions, such as the Empress of China restaurant in San Francisco, are often forced to close their doors due to escalating rent prices – but city leaders can balance retention and attraction strategies to sustain a healthy and diverse local business community. (Image courtesy

Small businesses in some San Francisco neighborhoods are “disappearing as fast as an artisanal ice cube in a $14 craft cocktail” because of a development boom that’s turning neighborhood institutions, like the Empress of China and Lombardi Sports, into housing units. In Washington, D.C., local shops like Jak & Co. Hairdressers are closing their doors due to escalating rent prices.

At the same time, though, Cleveland has found it difficult to attract a full-scale grocery store downtown. Fort Worth also recently struggled to attract a retailer to a lower-income and underdeveloped neighborhood of the city.

What’s happening in these scenarios is nothing new. The real estate industry tends to develop where demand and buying power are high enough to create a return on investment. Even though cities don’t have direct control over the private real estate market, there are indeed strategies local governments can implement to create equity across neighborhood retail sectors.

City leaders should find the right balance between retention and attraction strategies to sustain a healthy and diverse local business community across all neighborhoods. Business retention strategies help existing local businesses keep their doors open. Business attraction strategies encourage or promote business growth in areas that wouldn’t otherwise be considered viable options for investment.

Achieving the right balance can undoubtedly be a complicated and ongoing process. Cities from NLC’s Big Ideas for Small Business peer network recently shared some of their local best practices.

Business Retention

 Legislating to preserve legacy businesses.  San Francisco is considering Legacy Business Legislation that would help retain local businesses in their original location by providing incentives to both the business and property owners. The businesses affected by this legislation are mom-and-pop restaurants, bars, and other small retailers operating in the city for at least 30 years. In recent years, these historic retailers have been “swallowed up” by the city’s development boom.

Providing business owners with site relocation assistance. For existing businesses that can no longer afford their leases, the choices are either to close up shop or relocate to a different neighborhood. Retail site selection tools, like the Retail Site Search from the Washington DC Economic Partnership (WDCEP), catalogue all of the available commercial spaces in the city. Every year, the WDCEP works with several business owners to choose a new, more affordable site for their business. The WDCEP tracks data on new business licenses that provides a unique vantage point into areas where businesses are growing and commercial rents are likely to rise.

Business Attraction

Partnering with a public hospital to build a grocery store in a food desert. Grocery stores are one of the more difficult types of retail for cities to attract in underserved areas. A public hospital in Kansas City, Mo., is supporting the construction of a grocery store in a section of the city that is now considered a food desert. The hospital’s vision is to provide access to fresh, affordable produce so that local residents are healthier and need fewer emergency room visits. Once it’s opened, the hospital will take over the management of the grocery store and offer classes on food and nutrition.

Using vacant space for pop-up retail. Temporarily filling vacant commercial corridors with pop-up retail businesses benefits the local economy in two ways. First, it reinvigorates the neighborhood by attracting visitors and customers, and can help reestablish the neighborhood as a “hot spot” for new businesses or development. Additionally, pop-up spaces provide local entrepreneurs the chance to test their products and skills in a low-risk environment. San Antonio’s OPEN initiative provides entrepreneurs with short-term leases in vacant downtown spaces, and aims to “authenticate downtown as a vibrant urban space, ready for long-term investment.” The Pop-Up Project in San Jose also connects retailers to vacant or underutilized downtown space.

A mix of these types of retention and attraction strategies will help ensure that all businesses have the chance to be successful, and that all neighborhoods have affordable goods and services available for residents.

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

Regulatory Reform, Data Analytics and Local Food Systems: This Month in Economic Development

Our monthly roundup of the latest news in economic development filtered through a city-focused lens. Reading something interesting? Share it with @robbins617.

boston_1_fullsizeCities like Boston have recently begun a new chapter in economic development by taking an innovative approach to regulatory compliance, creating a win-win scenario in which the community is protected and businesses are encouraged to contribute to a vibrant, healthy economy. (Getty Images)

Grab your scissors, it’s time to cut red tape for local businesses. Whether it’s the dizzying paper trail, inexplicable permitting or licensing requirements, or an arbitrary approval timeline, the local regulatory process is ripe for reform. NLC profiled the three key strategies for untangling the knots of business regulations, and also highlighted how several cities are using a “more carrot, less stick” approach. Mayor Martin J. Walsh wrote a guest blog post for NLC on how he is making Boston more business friendly, including building an online permitting system. The Ash Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School recently launched a comprehensive, online guide to help cities plan out their own regulatory reform initiatives. (Side note, here’s a great article from The Week on other ways cities can support businesses).

Data analytics is driving more effective economic development… There were a couple great stories this past month about how data analytics is improving local government outcomes, particularly for economic development. For example, Transit Labs is partnering with Detroit to use city data to improve inefficient bus routes. Also Louisville and Raleigh are among a group of cities using public feedback on the restaurant review website Yelp to prioritize health inspections for businesses.

…and collecting city data is more valuable than ever. The data analytics movement is creating new dialogue around what is the most effective data for cities to collect and analyze. To this end, Smart Incentives shared advice on how to measure the actual impact of economic development incentive agreements, not just the costs associated with them. The Kauffman Foundation also released a briefing on the four best indicators to measure a city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. (NLC also has a performance management guidebook for cities).

Pioneering local food systems. Creating a local food ecosystem is a win-win situation for food providers and community member. The city of Portland, Maine, is emerging as a pioneer in the local food system scene. Mayor Michael Brennan developed the Healthy Sustainable Food Systems Initiative a couple years ago pledging that 50 percent of food at public schools, universities, and hospitals will be from local sources. To help other cities create their own local food ecosystems, the Council of Development Finance Agencies (CDFA) recently held a course on financing local food systems (follow @CDFA_Update to find out when it will be offered again).

Local government is still the leader in public sector job growth. This month’s Local Jobs Report found that, once again, local government is leading public sector job growth. Both federal and state governments lost jobs, but local government gained 3,000 jobs in March. Our analysis also reviews monthly employment trends from 2008 to now, and looks at whether or not cities are hiring back public safety positions that were lost after the recession due to budget cuts.

Religious freedom in Indiana? Talk about voting with your feet. In the wake of Indiana Governor Mike Pence’s passage of a controversial new religious freedom law, the business community is responding by cancelling expansion plans and prohibiting travel to the state. Angie’s List, headquartered in Indianapolis, is delaying a planned $40 million expansion set to create 1,000 local jobs over the next five years until the law’s ramifications are made clear. The list of other organizations that are banning activity in Indiana includes major companies like Apple, Salesforce, and Yelp. Meanwhile, Governor Pence is working to clarify the intent of the law, and its supporters are explaining that similar legislation already exists in 19 states without comparable pushback.

For a laugh. Or maybe for a shudder. The city of Austin wants you to visit its cemeteries. No, really. The city is developing a master plan for its burial grounds to turn the abandoned (and perhaps creepy?) spaces into public places where people choose to visit. The city’s plans include gravestone repairs, public programming, and other revitalization efforts.

What we’re reading. HuffPo column on how McDonald’s is fighting Seattle’s new minimum wage law. San Francisco Fed’s analysis of whether or not place-based policies like enterprise zones create jobs. A thought piece from Jerry Newfarmer on why people, not technology, are the unsung heroes of innovation in cities.

(Read the previous monthly roundups from January and February.)

Robbins_small (2)

About the author: Emily Robbins is the Senior Associate of Finance and Economic Development at NLC. Follow Emily on Twitter: @robbins617.

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

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post was co-authored with Allison Paisner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Authors:

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


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

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

This is a guest post by Stonly Baptiste.

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

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

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

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

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

The Challenge: Redesign Cities

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

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

The Solution: More Urbantech Startups

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

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

startups pic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Ideas for Small Cities: 6 Mayors Discuss How to Get Creative on a Budget

Union City, Ga., Mayor Vince Williams at the Big Ideas for Small Cities EventUnion City, Ga., Mayor Vince Williams at the Congressional City Conference Big Ideas for Small Cities event on Sunday, March 8, 2015. (Jason Dixson)

In a large city, implementing a creative idea doesn’t necessarily mean choosing between innovation and laying off a police officer. Smaller cities, on the other hand, have a significant challenge when it comes to establishing new programs – a smaller budget. This afternoon, mayors from small cities gave examples of out-of-the-box ideas that didn’t break their bank. Here are six ideas they shared with Congressional City Conference delegates:

1. Build your brand around a cultural endeavor: Mayor Jud Ashman of Gaithersburg, Maryland encourages small city leaders to define their community to the larger world through culture. The Gaithersburg Book Festival attracts prominent and celebrity authors from all over the world, not to mention scores of attendees who eat, shop, and stay in the city of Gaithersburg, which normally has a population of 64,000. He shares three tips for putting on this kind of game-changing event in your city: get the whole community involved (including schools, libraries, and private partners), make sure it occurs at the right time, and choose the right event for the market.

2. Believe in your own city. Mayor Nancy Backus of Auburn, Washington says “Show everyone how much you believe in your city, and they’ll believe in you.” Through a very tough economic time, Backus and her council asked “What can we do to attract developers?” And answered their question by restraining development fees, securing grants, and starting a small business assistance program.

3. Put people on your team without putting them on the payroll. If you have the challenges of a big city without the resources, Mayor Christian Price of Maricopa, Arizona suggests finding people in your city who can help change the narrative. These are well-connected, outgoing citizens who can serve as “ambassadors.” They are given accolades and responsibility to debunk the idea that their city is less desirable than their neighbors. Mayor Price’s ambassador program has tremendously changed the story of Maricopa, through real citizens who love their community and want to share it.

4. Have vision for your community. Mayor Vince Williams of Union City, Georgia transformed a failing mall into a movie set, and brought 800-1200 jobs into his city in one year. After a lot of work and state lobbying, this endeavor brought incredible opportunities for young people, huge growth in small businesses, job training, tourism, and tax credits. Identify what challenges could transform into something beneficial for your whole community.

5. The three most important ways to improve your community are partnerships, partnerships, and partnerships. Mayor Garrett Nancolas of Caldwell, Idaho created the Caldwell Youth Master Plan using resources from NLC’s YEF Institute and collaboration with public and private partnerships. For example, the city now offers free swimming lessons for all 3rd graders with help from the bus companies, who bus kids free of charge to this important after-school program that directly correlates to a major improvement in reading scores. Crime has gone down and reading scores have gone up since Mayor Nancolas began collaborating to meet huge goals. Caldwell is now considered one of America’s 100 best communities for young people!

6. Provide education for your business owners. After his city lost its successful and vibrant downtown due to big box shopping centers and online retailers, Mayor Stan Koci of Bedford, Ohio joined with his small town downtown retailers to revitalize the area through education. To reengage with the community identity of Bedford, he invested public dollars to fund free classes to give retailers the tools they need to grow with the times and prosper as small business owners.

Want more big ideas? This event kicks off NLC’s brand new, ever-growing database of City Practices. This is a resource for you to find examples of initiatives and projects in cities of all sizes across the country.

Mari Andrew bio photoAbout the author: Mari Andrew is the Senior Associate of Marketing at the National League of Cities. She works hard to help city leaders build better communities, and believes the world would be a better place if people wore more creative clothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best Lifestyle Might Be the Cheapest, Too

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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