Celebrating the Attractions of Small Cities

via Wikimedia Commons by Acroterion

German Street in Shepherdstown, WV, via Wikimedia Commons by Acroterion

When I talk about cities I have visited, I use sensory language. I describe the art or architecture I saw, the unique foods I consumed, the sounds of nature or of music I heard, the landscape I traversed or the people with whom I connected. Big city or small city, in the U.S. or abroad, my experiences are similar. There is always something unique or compelling that creates a story about this or that place.

I have previously written on this blog about thriving and creative small cities. Shepherdstown, West Virginia was one such community that offers a range of activities and amenities that draws visitors to the Shenandoah from across the region. This community, while charming, is not unique. In fact a magazine called American Style has been reporting on the creativity and imagination of smaller communities for many years. Although generally focused on arts and cultural assets, the stories about cities represent the wealth of diversity that causes us to celebrate June as Small Cities Month.

There are few things more delightful than outdoor concerts. Eureka Springs, Arkansas offers a veritable cornucopia of music programs year round. A recent look at the city’s website shows an activity calendar listing the 27th Annual Arts Festival in May, the bluegrass festival in June, the 64th season of Opera in the Ozarks during July and the jazz festival in September.

The visual arts – painting, sculpture, metalwork, photography, etc. – offer other opportunities for communities to advantage a unique strength. The Ox-Bow School and artist-in-residence program in Saugatuck, Michigan is one such example. This program was established in 1910 and is now affiliated with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. From a beach, harbor and arts and crafts town, Saugatuck has catalyzed their artist colony status into a genuine growth industry.

Sarasota, Florida may offer the most eclectic mix of arts and culture of any city. The long-established Ringling International Arts Festival (Yes, THAT Ringling) puts circus arts front and center as well as dance and music. A more sublime event will run concurrently during 2014, the 27th Annual Downtown Festival of the Arts. This event provides exhibition space to creators of sculpture, painting, jewelry and crafts. Multi-cultural foods tend to grace all events in Sarasota.

Film and music are at the center of the arts festivals in Aspen, Colorado. The annual FilmFest has grown over the years to rival the film events hosted in Cannes, Toronto and Sundance. The historic Wheeler Opera House offers an unmatched venue for previewing autumn new releases, documentaries or Oscar-quality performances. For those whose tastes run to music, the Aspen Music Festival attracts world-class performers and guest artists.

Programs that showcase the arts and culture thrive in smaller cities as well as in larger ones. Many of these festivals have grown from modest events highlighting local artists and performers in ad hoc spaces into high visibility orchestrations with professional management and national or international reputations. Proof that an investment in cultural and arts programming is an investment well made.

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.

Partnerships Key to Twin Cities Light Rail

This post was written by Roger Williams and Mark Weinheimer to introduce a new case study from NLC about the partnerships that contributed to the construction of the Central Corridor light rail line in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

St-Paul-light-rail

One of the ways cities have tackled challenges to their resiliency has been to undertake transformational projects. These cities have recognized that staying the same, or doing small things, don’t necessarily bring about transformation. But strategically placed projects involving the key challenges of efficient transportation, economic development, community preservation, and job creation can make a difference.

But, given the scope, size and impact of such projects, cities have had to build partnerships and relationships with a diverse group of stakeholders and residents to get these efforts moving. Quite often, they also have had to work to overcome a legacy of past missteps that have eroded community trust and devastated communities.

Despite concerns that partnerships take time and large projects consume resources, study after study shows that  transportation alternatives that are regionally focused, cost effective, located close to affordable housing, and that get residents to their jobs help make cities more amenable to innovative industries and more resilient.

The relationships that were forged by the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, as they undertook the Central Corridor light rail project connecting their downtowns, is an example of how municipalities are coming together with a wide range of partners to overcome obstacles and make these transformational projects a reality.

Working with the philanthropic community and a broad spectrum of civic organizations that serve the communities impacted by the project, local leaders in the Twin Cities developed a template for planning that other cities can learn from.

Far reaching strategic alliances and the “plan-full” approach that involved diverse groups, along with the leadership roles played by various actors and sectors, are the key elements that have enhanced this project’s chances for success. The leaders were able to successfully create a shared vision for vibrancy, economic viability, and neighborhood resilience.

The result is not only a new light rail line, but an increased number of affordable homes nearby, preservation of other homes, new arts and cultural offerings, and a vital retail sector that reflects the ethnic diversity of the communities along the rail line.

The Central Corridor light rail line which is scheduled to open in mid-2014 will also provide cost effective transportation for the residents to connect them to jobs in both cities and in the region, and in general strengthen the attractiveness of living in these communities.

Investment in Nation’s Infrastructure is Economic Lifeline

President Obama used the backdrop of the historic Union Depot Station in Saint Paul, Minn. to announce another round of federal TIGER grants – the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery – competitive grant program that has provided 270 communities with an opportunity to make strategic multimodal transportation investments since its inception five years ago. The $600 million in TIGER grants and the president’s proposal for a four year transportation authorization program to replace the current MAP-21 which expires this fall. 

As a new intermodal hub for Saint Paul, the station will connect the Central Corridor Light Rail, Amtrak passenger service, local transit and intercity bus services and a bicycle center. The new light rail line and the station already have generated new housing, retail development, new jobs and increased economic growth. Saint Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, NLC’s President, told Congress in December that the federal support for the new rail line has generated more than $1.2 billion worth of investment in new housing and employment opportunities within the 18 station areas along the 11-mile route. Sixteen colleges, university and hospitals within blocks of the new line employ 67,000 people and are working together to strengthen the neighborhoods.

Similar stories in Normal, Ill. and Atlanta, Ga. demonstrate the power of strategic federal transportation investments. City leaders in Normal sought to bring back the city’s downtown but a TIGER grant helped them realize their plan, as Mayor Chris Koos told a Capitol Hill audience this week at an event sponsored by Transportation for America. With a new quarter percent sales tax, a four-percent hotel tax, and a TIF district, the city was able to invest in creating a welcoming place for community members to gather, eat and shop. Private investment followed with new shops and restaurants and plans for additional mixed-use office buildings and condos are being planned.

In Atlanta, Ga., the Atlanta BeltLine is developing a network of public parks, housing, retail and multi-use trails linked to transit along a 22-mile rail corridor. Funded by a Tax Allocation District (TAD), the project covers more than 6,500 acres of the city. Housing, jobs and new businesses continue to be established near the corridor including $400 million in new private real estate development has been invested within a block of the Historic Fourth Ward Park borders, and $775 million in new development has been invested within a half mile of the Eastside Trail. The $25 million federal investment, including an $18 million TIGER grant, continues to reap economic benefits for Atlanta, the region and the nation.

Against the backdrop of federal investment in transportation and its capacity to generate economic benefits, the president offered a new four-year proposal to fund federal transportation investments. Chairman Bill Shuster convened a roundtable to discuss the future of the federal transportation program and how to pay for it. With funding almost depleted, the president is proposing a $302 billion, four year transportation authorization. The current program expires on September 30 and funding from the federal gas tax is projected to run out before then. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp also unveiled a tax reform proposal that includes $126.5 billion to replenish the Highway Trust Fund.

In a statement, Chairman Shuster said, “I am committed to moving forward with fiscally responsible transportation solutions to promote competitiveness and economic growth, reform programs and focus our resources where they are needed most. Chairman Camp and President Obama have presented proposals that I hope will bring increased focus to the challenges facing the Highway Trust Fund and the importance of the federal role in our national transportation system.”

The national transportation network is a lifeline for our nation’s economy. The federal partnership to maintain that investment means jobs and economic growth. Finding a comprehensive funding solution will allow local leaders to make the long-term investments and planning decisions their communities need.

Community Partners Support Baltimore Neighborhood Growth

What makes a great neighborhood? Why do millennials for example, or any other demographic subgroup, choose one city over another or one neighborhood over another? Several factors that are consistent across many research studies include affordable housing, safe and walkable streets, access to employment and mobility networks, options for entertainment and recreation, and the often intangible characteristic known as buzz.

Baltimore_SIBaltimore city leaders have set a goal to attract 10,000 new families (some 22,000 individuals) by 2021. In addition to place-based strategies targeting downtown and neighborhoods, the city is seeking young knowledge workers and demonstrating its openness to immigrants. Extensive investments in education and new school construction are designed to lure families with children. Similar to other cities, it is the character of neighborhoods – solid housing stock, parks and open space, proximity to jobs and entertainment – that will have a significant influence on whether or not Baltimore can achieve ambitious growth goals.

A diverse set of partnerships lie at the heart of efforts in the City of Baltimore to revitalize neighborhoods, grow population, and support community prosperity. The coalitions across the city draw expertise and support from philanthropies, real estate developers, educational institutions, church congregations, community development stakeholders, business owners, housing advocates, and city officials. “Big tent” mobilizations are emphasized.  Whether in East, Central, or West Baltimore, partnerships focus on holistic approaches that address challenges of housing, neighborhood stability and vitality, human capital development, commercial improvement, and grass roots empowerment.

The city government does not lack for allies.  Among the most prominent (detailed in a related NLC case study) are: Southeast Community Development Corporation (SECDC); East Baltimore Development, Inc. (EBDI); Central Baltimore Partnership (CBP); BRIDGE Maryland; and the University of Maryland BioPark at the West Baltimore medical center campus.

There is considerable room for optimism in Baltimore. Driving around the city, whether in Hampden or along Charles Street, or the revitalized 36th Street commercial corridor, there are reminders that the city has good bones. Its iconic buildings, broad avenues, and promising neighborhoods constitute a firm foundation for prosperity and growth. Although challenges remain, the community partnerships are a formidable force for positive change in Baltimore.

Brooks, J.A. 2010
About 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.

Partnerships Revitalize Baltimore Neighborhoods

A diverse set of partnerships lie at the heart of efforts in the City of Baltimore to revitalize neighborhoods, grow population, and support community prosperity. In Baltimore, it is “big tent” mobilizations that are emphasized. The coalitions across the city draw expertise and support from philanthropies, real estate developers, educational institutions, church congregations, community development actors, business owners, housing advocates and city officials.

Whether in East, Central or West Baltimore, the partnerships focus on holistic approaches that address challenges of housing, neighborhood stability and vitality, human capital development, commercial improvement, and grass roots empowerment. The combined actions lend credence to the professed goal of the elected leadership to achieve a net increase of 10,000 families by 2021.

East Baltimore site near Johns Hopkins University and Hospital complex where mixed use development is planned.

East Baltimore site near Johns Hopkins University and Hospital complex where mixed use development is planned.

Launched at the beginning of the 21st century with a boost from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the East Baltimore Development, Inc. (EBDI) seeks to transform 80 acres adjacent to the Johns Hopkins University and Hospital complex into a mixed-income residential neighborhood with roughly 2,200 new and rehabilitated homes, anchored by a university research and development building, commercial space, an elementary school, grocery store, and parkland. While a considerable amount of vacant land still remains where homes were demolished, new senior housing is now in place as is the Henderson-Hopkins school and the university research center. Despite progress that is slower than desired, Hopkins president Ronald J. Daniels has publicly stated his intention to be a significant actor in the city’s revitalization.

The Central Baltimore Partnership (CBP), while newer than EBDI, encompasses an enormous swath of territory extending through ten neighborhoods anchored by the city’s Penn Station and the University of Baltimore in the south, and the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus in the north. Within its borders are the Station North Arts District and the Charles North historic district. As with the city’s other coalition of partners, CBP brings together public, private, and neighborhood interests for a comprehensive community development strategy. Projects already completed include housing at Landbank Lofts and the mixed-use development at Miller’s Court as well as the North Avenue Market. Several other mixed use projects are still in development as is the restoration of the Parkway Theater at North and Charles Streets.

Union Mill development complex.

Union Mill development complex.

The city government does not want for allies. BRIDGE Maryland, a coalition of 20 diverse church congregations advocating for social justice, drives grass roots efforts to ensure that the region’s poor and disenfranchised have a voice in public decision-making. The University of Maryland BioPark at the West Baltimore medical center campus is an economic development catalyst on formerly vacant land adjacent to the Poppleton neighborhood. Seawall Development, a private company, has made significant investments in mixed-use housing projects including Millers Court (mentioned above) and Union Mill in the Hampden area.

Finally, community development experts within the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond (which serves Baltimore) have teamed up with counterparts in Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Detroit to organize a multi-city virtual laboratory looking at strategies to revitalize older industrial cities.

This veritable army of organizations will be critical for success in Baltimore. The challenges include a dearth of corporate leaders and community development financial institutions (CDFIs), the physical barrier of Interstate 83, which structurally divides the city, polarization along lines of race and class, drug and crime issues and a lingering problem with capacity inside the city government.

Nonetheless, based on my interaction with some of the leaders of these various partnerships, I believe that there is considerable room for optimism. After all, you only need to drive around Baltimore to be reminded that on any given street there are some remarkable buildings and many promising neighborhoods that are the firm foundation to prosperity in this city.

Brooks, J.A. 2010

About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Program Director for Community Development and Infrastructure and is also responsible for leading the International Programs.  Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.

Are Cities Helping Turn the Tide in America’s Fight Against Childhood Obesity?

The good news:  After increasing for more than three decades, we are beginning to see childhood obesity rates fall in some states and communities.  The bad news is that these improvements are not reaching every city, town, and county.

Earlier this month, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and the White House celebrated important milestones in their efforts to promote children’s health.  On July 9, RWJF held an event to showcase signs of improvement in four states (California, Mississippi, New Mexico, and West Virginia) and five communities (Anchorage, Alaska; Granville and Vance Counties, N.C.; Kearney, Neb.; New York City; and Philadelphia) where childhood obesity rates have declined.  The following day, First Lady Michelle Obama joined the National League of Cities to celebrate the achievements made by local elected officials in 330 communities, which represent more than 56 million Americans, that are participating in Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties.

To date, NLC has awarded 1,019 bronze, silver and gold “medals” to these local elected officials for achieving benchmarks related to the five LMCTC goals. Accomplishments include:

  • 155 communities with an active, interagency collaboration on early care and education programs to help young children develop healthy habits at an early age;
  • 991 city or county-owned or operated food-serving venues that are displaying MyPlate to provide a visual reminder of the healthy choices to consider when eating meals;
  • 69 city- or county-owned or operated food-serving venues that are adopting healthy food service guidelines aligned with the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans;
  • 898,266 students who are participating in the School Breakfast Program and 1,511,717 students who are participating in the National School Lunch Program;
  • 161 communities that are creating or revitalizing park and recreation facilities; and
  • 137 communities that are making it easier to walk and bike to school or work.

We do not know which efforts have made the greatest contributions to reducing childhood obesity.  But we do know how this obesity epidemic originated: over time, children have had fewer opportunities for physical activity and less healthy food in their diets.  Making progress on obesity requires addressing the environmental factors behind these trends.  Cities, towns and counties are playing unique leadership roles in building communities that promote healthy living.

For instance, the City of Missoula, Mont., and Missoula County adopted healthier standards for all vending and concession contracts in public places.  Students also have more opportunities to be physically active thanks to a joint use agreement between the school district and parks department that opens the school gym for free programming for fourth and fifth graders.  The City of Newton, Mass., added a bike lane and sidewalk improvement program to promote more walking and cycling.  In Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., the city is using a health-in-all-policies approach, passing a top-ranked Complete Streets policy, changing zoning policies to promote community gardens, and requiring 75 percent of products sold at farmers’ markets to meet healthy food guidelines.

Yet, there is much work ahead.  According to a recent study by the University of Washington, among 34 developed countries, the U.S. ranks 27th in disease burden risk from dietary factors such as diets low in fruits, nuts, seeds, and vegetables.  In addition, the U.S. remains one of the most obese countries in the world. The study also showed that where you live is a key predictor of health.  While residents of San Francisco, Fairfax County, Va., and Gunnison, Colo., have some of the highest life expectancies in the world, individuals in other U.S. counties experience life expectancies that are lower than or similar to levels seen in North African and Southeast Asian countries.

In her remarks on July 10, the First Lady asked local elected leaders in the audience to “double down” on their efforts and “push a little bit harder” on the actions they are taking.  She challenged city and county leaders to bring more people, such as faith leaders, business owners, teachers and parents, to the table and to encourage local elected officials in other communities to join Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties.  A list of participating communities is available here.

All of us have a stake in ensuring that our children grow up to become healthy and productive adults.  Whether the U.S. makes continued progress in the fight against childhood obesity or slips further behind other nations on health indicators may hinge on the burgeoning city and county efforts to create healthier communities.

To sign up or learn more about Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties, including seeing the progress made by the more than 330 municipalities and counties participating, please visit www.HealthyCommunitiesHealthyFuture.org

Strategies for Transforming the “Rust Belt”

Many cities, especially the old manufacturing centers hardest hit by economic transformation and demographic shifts, are developing and implementing strategies to attract new residents and new investment. Options that have been or are being deployed to once again grow these cities include targeting immigrants and knowledge workers (“creative class”) as well as place-based initiatives focusing on downtowns and neighborhoods or on amenities like the arts, open space and transit. Leveraging the capacity of so-called anchor institutions – partners including foundations, universities and health centers – continues to be an important part of these efforts.

Economist Jeremy Nowak, who also is the Chair at the Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia, argues that there are several trends that should help older “legacy cities” grow. Factors he and others view as significant include:

• Suburban and exurban empty nesters seeking urbanized spaces with amenities;
• Adults in their 20’s starting to form new households, albeit often households of one;
• Cities as critical gateways for new immigrants;
• The value of academic and health centers and other “growth nodes” found mostly in cities;
• Knowledge workers and those connected to the arts and to cultural institutions arts and culture congregate in cities;
• Societal trends in support of sustainability, walkability, dense social networks and place making are aligned with the values of the urban environment.

Even a casual observer of cities will agree that challenges remain. Research by NLC and other institutions acknowledge that cities must work through issues of poverty, crumbling infrastructure, low quality schools and general conditions of blight as well as perceptions about the ineffectiveness of government institutions in general. Most importantly, says Jeremy Nowak, “a city must come to terms with the cost of public benefits and the actual worth of those goods or services.”

In order to attract middle class families, a city must provide amenities that have broad public value – great public spaces, transportation systems that connect to jobs, residences and recreation opportunities, places that are safe and clean, and services that are fairly priced. City leaders also must embrace the shared governance and management models (partnerships with CDC’s, neighborhood associations, nonprofits and private sector firms) that offer innovations in delivering public goods and services toward the goal of achieving prosperity for all.

Practical Examples

Baltimore’s Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake seeks to grow the city’s population by 10,000 in 10 years. Efforts include the Vacants to Value program, which is rehabilitating vacant housing and offering home buyer incentives, demolishing 4,000 blighted structures, and leaving some land vacant as green space, urban agriculture plots or adjunct yards for existing homes. The mayor wants to cut city property taxes by 20% (reducing the cost of government in the process) and invest in core infrastructure including mobility strategies. A partnership with the state will invest $1.1 billion in new school construction (10-15 buildings) and rehabilitation of others.

There is useful data to help the city target resources. Research from the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance discovered that 35% of neighborhoods in the city (19 of 55) experienced some recent growth. Historic preservation tax credits were an especially critical incentive bringing older houses into prime condition for habitation. Neighborhoods that grew were accessible to roads and transit networks allowing residents to get to jobs, shopping and recreation easier and faster. By contrast, little growth occurred where there is blight and vacant properties. Even where there is good access to mobility networks, neighborhoods with vacant properties are not growing.

In the Idora neighborhood of Youngstown, Ohio, keys to future growth were upgrading the image of neighborhoods, strengthening the real estate market, and engaging large numbers of residents in the renewal process. The goal was to rebuild confidence so that property owners again would be willing to invest both dollars and time in owning and managing a quality home and community. The city’s Lots of Green program acknowledged the need to manage empty space in neighborhoods and encouraged the active role for residents.

Geneva, New York undertook image building initiatives to first create and then strategically market a dozen unique neighborhoods. Working through the city’s Office of Neighborhood Initiatives and in partnership with volunteers from the Geneva Neighborhood Resource Center, residents are engaged in a process of setting standards they expect from their blocks and houses.

Some revitalization tasks are symbolic like creating a neighborhood mural or new place-centric signage. Other tasks strengthen the real estate market through rehabilitation and sale of formerly vacant houses, aggressive promotions of neighborhoods with the help of real estate agents, and targeted first-time homebuyer incentives.

Other, more tangible efforts, such as strengthening grass roots community associations that engage in problem identification, assessment and solution, often depend on support from city government. That support may take various forms such as advocate, facilitator and champion. I believe that an essential role for city government is to help make recoveries possible by using grants, special lien programs, and clean-up assistance to support confidence-building efforts implemented by residents in concerts with local nonprofits or other community-based institutions. Through such actions, cities create an enabling environment for actions by community stakeholders.

Future Thinking

The analysis presented here was gathered during a forum that brought together thought leaders from the cities of Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit and Philadelphia. These leaders were convened by the Funders Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities and four of the Federal Reserve Banks, with NLC as a supporting partner. Three more such gatherings will be organized during the balance of 2013 and into 2014. In our role of knowledge partner, NLC will contribute to these cross-city discussions but also facilitate the dissemination of knowledge beyond the four target cities.

Keeping a Small Town Thriving

Shepherdstown, West Virginia (population under 2,000) matches the historic charm of a Shenandoah Valley retreat with the energy and entrepreneurship usually found in a more urban setting. In the competition for best in class among small communities, Shepherdstown punches above its size and weight.

Ignore the pre-Revolutionary founding (1762) and the advantages of geography (77 miles from the center of the Washington, D.C. metro area and 10 miles from two National Parks made famous by the Civil War). Shepherdstown has thrived because of the commitments by average citizens, the constant effort to offer events and activities that showcase local resources, the relationship with a local liberal arts college, and a capacity for entrepreneurship.

German StreetOn a single weekend, a resident or visitor in Shepherdstown can listen to live Blue Grass music at the restored Opera House, spend all day outdoors in a town park celebrating Earth Day, visit renovated historic homes as part of a countywide Garden Club program, buy fresh ramps (seasonal onions) at a farmers market or stroll the shops and restaurants of German Street, the main street.

While there is one significant vacant storefront along German Street, what you notice are the wide well-maintained sidewalks and the excellent condition of the older buildings – each having significant architectural qualities. These conditions of course don’t happen by accident. They are the work of average citizens, anchor institutions, and the local government taking action in support of an entire community’s prosperity. The outcomes are the tangible result of entrepreneurship and civic pride.

The historic Reynolds House for example, is a circa 1869 property on a lot laid out by town founder Thomas Shepherd and lovingly restored to its original condition by the current occupants. Shepherd University has two properties in the heart of downtown. The Greek Revival building now known as McMurran Hall, formerly the town hall, was the school’s first building and remains in use today. A smaller building just up the street houses a center for Civil War studies. Main Street

The Entler Hotel, at the east end of the main street, thrived for most of the 19th and part of the 20th century as a commercial inn but deteriorated to a state of near collapse by the 1970’s. Saved by the municipal leaders and a special act of the West Virginia legislature, the Entler is now managed as the Historic Shepherdstown Museum. The Visitor Center for Shepherdstown is also housed in this building.

Ultimately, it is the people one encounters that makes a beautiful place truly inviting. The volunteers in the visitor center are gracious and knowledgeable. A growing crop of well-managed and reasonably priced restaurants and niche shops have owners and staff (often college students) who seem truly delighted to see you in their establishments. Even a casual brush with the locals, as visitors seek directions or point with a quizzical look at the old stone carriage steps, makes for an experience in hospitality and enjoyment.

Shepherdstown is a place people want to visit and a place to which they want to return. There will always be challenges but the people and the institutions seem well suited to meeting those challenges and keeping one step ahead of changing conditions.

Cities Kick-Start Innovation

Context matters in rankings, whether it is for universities, sports teams or cities. Columbus, Ohio and Medellin, Columbia, are two cities that were recently singled out for recognition. In the case of Medellin the title bestowed was Innovative City of the Year by Citi Group, The Wall Street Journal and the Urban Land Institute. Columbus is the only U.S. city among the list of Most Intelligent Cities adjudicated by the Intelligent Communities Forum.

Although one can always argue over the selection process and the qualifications of the sponsors to properly judge the final selection, it’s hard to find fault with the innovative work being done in these cities that pushed them up to the top of these rankings.

Consider Columbus, Ohio, one of this nation’s “legacy cities” in the industrial heartland. In a review of the city’s accomplishments toward earning the Most Intelligent title, Robert Bell, founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, cites assets including Ohio State University, the Columbus Metropolitan Library and the innovation incubator TechColumbus as significant advances in smart technology application and education. The city is further lauded for its multi-sector partnerships, inclusion of citizens in visioning and transparency of process in decision making.

The astonishing transformation in Medellin bears some of the same hallmarks that define the experience in Columbus. However, Columbus never had to battle the horrendous crime problems that accompanied the drug cartel wars (1975-1995) nor the extremes of poverty that plague so many developing democracies. What gives this city its credibility as “innovative” is its leveraged public investment with private sector partners, a determination to nurture citizen inclusion (participatory budgeting being one example) through the use of social media tools, and real progress to improve the human and social capital of the city’s poorest residents.

To be sure, the story in Medellin is capturing so much attention because so many of the projects pursued are being replicated elsewhere, much in the way Curitiba, Brazil led the field in bus rapid transit. For example, Medellin invested in aerial skyways employing gondolas that link citizens living in poor mountainside villages to jobs in the valley below. A similar system was rolled out in Rio de Janeiro in July 2011. A skyway across the Thames in London, the Emirates Air Line, debuted for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Cities are hotbeds of innovation and city leaders love to share a good story. It is in the sharing of both success and failure that innovation spreads and achieves a long-term impact.

Detroit and DETROPIA

The words come at you harshly and powerfully. Decay. Ruin. Emptiness. America’s Pompeii.

These words accompany images of Detroit from photographers Andrew Moore and Camilo Jose Vergara. The photos have been part of two exhibitions at the National Building Museum in Washington, Detroit Disassembled and Detroit Is No Dry Bones.

Using a large-format presentation, Moore presents images of some of the most iconic structures in Detroit. Viewers come face to face with the downtown United Artists Theatre, Michigan Central Station, The Guardian Building, Ford’s River Rouge Complex and the East Grand Boulevard Methodist Church. All are in various stages of disintegration. At the Cooper Elementary School on the city’s East Side, prairie grass is overtaking the isolated structure.

Vergara has been documenting the urban environment in Detroit for over twenty-five years. He chronicles storefronts on Mack Avenue from 1993 to 2012. Other photos highlight the former Packard auto plant and the graffiti that covers so many of the city’s structures. Critics have called his images Ruin Porn but Vergara expects that those viewing his images “will come to appreciate how the city continues to survive and reinvent itself.”

It’s hard to find hope or redeeming grace in Moore’s work but Vergara seems more interested in perseverance, reclamation and the audacity of the human spirit. His work seeks to offer some focus on those who never left the city and those new residents who see a certain authentic beauty in what is vanishing.

The documentary film DETROPIA by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady also tackles the paradox of demise and rejuvenation. This award-wining film (Sundance, Naples, SilverDocs), seeks to make the complex challenges of globalization, race relations, urban decay and the disconnections between citizens and government more approachable. Moreover, the film, through the stories of residents, adds the elements of humanity and commitment to place that the Moore and Vergara photographs do not provide.

The National League of Cities will give its members a sneak peak at DETROPIA before the film’s release on public television later this year. City and town leaders attending the Congressional City Conference in Washington will be given a special viewing and an opportunity to discuss the film on Monday, March 11.

The stories in this film have broad applicability beyond Detroit. For public officials, the film can be a catalyst for assessing and addressing the many challenges that face neighborhoods and communities in the post-recession period.