Smile for the (Red Light) Camera!

This is a guest post by Elizabeth Madison.

red light camera 2 fullsizeDo you think red light enforcement cameras reduce traffic accidents? Or do they exist simply to provide revenue? In either case, their successful implementation depends on the ability of local law enforcement to accurately and reliably measure changes in traffic accidents that occur where the cameras are used. (Getty Images)

Cities and states across the country are engaged in an ongoing debate regarding the use of photo red light cameras at traffic intersections. At the root of this conversation is the fundamental question: Do photo red light cameras promote public safety or are they primarily a source of local revenue?

Solid evidence exists to prove the safety benefits of photo-enforcement. The New York City Department of Transportation, for example, reported a 56% decrease in serious injuries, a 44% decrease in pedestrian injuries, and a 16% decrease in all injuries at New York City intersections with photo red light cameras. NYCDOT also reports that these intersections have experienced a 40-60% decrease in red-light violations. In these instances, red light cameras change driver behavior and reduce the chance of an accident at those intersections.

Denver also has reported improved safety statistics since the implementation of photo red light cameras. City officials reported a 27% decrease in accidents at intersections since installing the technology in 2008. These statistics influenced the outcome of an effort in the state legislature to ban photo-enforcement systems. A bill demanding their removal on the grounds that they do not improve safety and are used only to make a profit (the city made nearly $34 million from photo red light and radar cameras in the last five years alone) was not enacted.

Where Does Your State Stand?

As of January 2015, 21 states and the District of Columbia had passed laws permitting the use of photo red light cameras at traffic lights. Alternatively, 10 states had passed laws prohibiting their use, leaving 19 states with no specific policy regarding their use. The breakdown is as follows:

States allowing photo red light cameras: Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Washington D.C., Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington.
States prohibiting photo red light cameras: Arkansas, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, South Carolina, West Virginia, Wisconsin.
States with no specific policy regarding photo red light cameras: Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Wyoming.

Not every city has voted in favor of using photo red light cameras. Los Angeles, for instance, removed all 32 of the city’s photo red light cameras in 2011. The removal of the cameras was the result of an angry citizenry tired of paying high fines for traffic infractions as well as a fiscally tight local government. Dennis Zine, former Los Angeles City Councilman, explained that the program was costing the city more money to monitor and operate than they were making in infraction fines. Additionally, he claimed the photo red light cameras were “more about revenue than public safety.”

New Jersey instituted a five year pilot program in 2009 to determine the effectiveness of photo red light cameras in increasing public safety. As of December 2014 the pilot program had ended, and there are no plans to continue the program or install cameras anywhere in the state. Multiple system flaws were reported during the pilot program, including inaccurate yellow-light timing, unsuccessful notification methods, and a law suit the result of which reimbursed hundreds of thousands of motorists who were wrongly ticketed.

The penalties associated with a red light violation, when identified by a photo red light system, vary between states. The average price of a red light traffic violation is $50-$100. Both New York and Colorado have ticket fines in this range, with tickets in New York priced at $50 and Colorado at $75. California on the other hand issues a $490 fine, as well as 1 point on the offender’s driving record, for a red light violation.

The level of difference between state fines begs the question, where is the line between fines that are appropriate and fines that are excessive? This distinction may influence perceptions of the purpose of photo red light cameras. For example, perceptions that Los Angeles installed photo red light cameras in order to boost city revenue rather than improve public safety may be in response to the high fines issued in California.

Based on current research, the bottom line for many localities is that use of photo red light cameras does in fact decrease traffic accidents. While these systems may generate revenue for cities, the amount of revenue is specifically dependent on a variety of factors including the level of the fine issued to motorists. There is little current evidence that supports the claim that photo red light cameras are used solely to increase revenue.

For cities considering implementing a photo-enforcement program or for those who wish to demonstrate its effectiveness, local law enforcement must be able to accurately and reliably measure the changes in traffic accidents. Cities need public safety assessments and cost-benefit analysis in order to make an informed decision regarding the use of photo red cameras.

Elizabeth Madison bio photo thumbAbout the Author: Elizabeth Madison is a earning her Master’s Degree in Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia. She is assisting the NLC Center for City Solutions and Applied Research with the expansion of its City Solutions Database.

Five Ways Cities Can Promote Afterschool and Summer Meal Programs

Providing meals for children through federal Afterschool and Summer Meal Programs is a win-win opportunity for cities. Cities benefit by bringing more federal funds into their neighborhoods, and can improve the health and well-being of low-income children by increasing their access to healthy meals and their participation in fun and safe activities during out-of-school time hours. It is important for mayors and other city leaders to build strong partnerships with stakeholders, such as statewide anti-hunger groups, schools, food banks and other community organizations, to implement meal programs in ways that maximize quality and participation. These stakeholders can serve as important outreach partners that help city leaders connect with their residents to make sure they are aware of the resources available to them. Here are five ways that city leaders can promote afterschool and summer meal programs in their communities. 1. Use the bully pulpit to raise awareness of child hunger and promote out-of-school time meal programs. Local elected officials can write op-eds for local newspapers, emphasize the need for afterschool and summer meal programs in public speeches or at events, and promote afterschool and summer meal programs on the city’s website and through newsletters and social media. Nashville2. Publicize out-of-school time meals through a targeted marketing strategy. An important component of any marketing strategy for out-of-school time meals is a kick-off event. These events can raise awareness about meal programs in a way that brings key stakeholders and families together. Mayors can use kick-off events to frame afterschool and summer meals as a top priority for the city before a large audience of community leaders. Cities can also take advantage of existing national resources such as the National Hunger Hotline (1-866-3HUNGRY) to make meal program site locations and operating hours easily accessible to families. In addition, cities can advertise information about meal sites on utility bills, via robo-calls, or through the city’s 311 information line or the United Way’s 211 information line. Philadelphia3. Sponsor Afterschool or Summer Meal Programs. City agencies such as parks and recreation or departments of housing are well-suited to be sponsors of afterschool and summer meal programs and to host meal sites at local facilities, e.g., recreation centers. Staff from a mayor’s office can also coordinate a working group or task force that focuses on the issue of child hunger and identifies strategies to reduce it, including initiatives to increase participation in out-of-school time meal programs. City staff relationships with key community partners, as well as knowledge of where young people congregate after school and during the summer, are integral to the success of these programs. Houston4. Partner with community organizations that serve afterschool and summer meals. Local nonprofits and other afterschool providers often act as sponsors to provide afterschool and summer meals as well as activities for young people before and/or after meals. Cities can leverage funding for meal programs in partnership with community-based organizations. YEF quotes Boxes-015. Incorporate child nutrition goals into a broader citywide agenda. City leaders can work with staff responsible for broader citywide initiatives such as Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties or other initiatives that focus on children and youth to expand the reach and scope of child nutrition programming. To learn more, check out our new issue brief on afterschool and summer meals. FontanaJamie Nash bio photo About the Author: Jamie Nash is Senior Associate of Benefit Outreach in the National League of Cities’ Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. To learn more about how local government leaders can support out-of-school time meal programs, contact Jamie at nash@nlc.org.

Next Monday, Be a Part of the Movement with the #CitiesServe Hashtag

This is a guest post by Mari Andrew.

Candlelight Vigil Marks 44th Anniversary Of Martin Luther King Jr.'s AssassinationThe Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C. (Getty Images)

On January 19, cities across the nation will celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by promoting service and civic engagement. Dr. King’s courageous and tireless work toward his vision of equality inspired legislators to transform the King Holiday into a day of volunteer service – a day when people from diverse backgrounds could join forces to make their communities better places to live.

The Corporation for National & Community Service conservatively estimated that, on last year’s Day of Service, 360,000 people received emergency food provisions, 38,000 veterans and military members received assistance, and 58,000 youth received tutoring. Citizens in all 50 states participated in projects that refurbished schools, supported job-seekers, and collected clothing. This year, the projects are numerous and quickly growing.

In West Hollywood, California, volunteers of all ages will beautify their local elementary school by painting a mural. Residents of Beverly, Massachusetts have made a commitment to read with preschool children during the entire week. A Philadelphia charter school will be taking donations for their women’s shelter, a community in Fort Lauderdale will revitalize the home of an elderly woman, a nature-loving group in San Jose will make improvements to park trails, and residents of the Twin Cities will work together to sort donations that support services for people with disabilities.

Ready to join the movement? The National League of Cities wants to know what your city has planned for this year’s MLK Day of Service. We invite you to share your volunteer plans for the holiday on Twitter or Facebook using the hashtag #CitiesServe. We’ll be posting pictures and updates from your community’s projects next week, and we look forward to seeing cities in action!

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 colorful clothing.

Cities Can Help Close the Meal Gap on Weekends and Holidays

Holiday meals - blogCity agencies can serve meals and reach more children by utilizing existing resources. (Getty Images)

During the weekends and holidays, many of us look forward to spending quality time with our family and friends, and much of that time is spent around the dinner table. It is important to remember, though, that many children and families will go hungry this holiday season – just as many children do on the weekends when they don’t have access to federal Afterschool and Summer Meal Programs. For many families across the country, the Afterschool and Summer Meal Programs provide healthy meals that parents and caretakers rely on to help ensure their kids are fed during out-of-school time hours. Providing meals on weekends and holidays is a great opportunity for these programs to reach even more kids. Local leaders and city agencies that sponsor meal programs can help fill a critical need by building off of their existing programs to serve weekend and holiday meals. Under the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), public agencies such as public housing authorities and parks and recreation departments, as well as schools, nonprofits (e.g., Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs) and faith-based organizations are eligible to serve meals and snacks on weekends and holidays. Many meal program sponsors find it challenging to fully staff their meal sites on weekends and holidays, but they can work with vendors and other partnering organizations to develop a plan to gradually phase in weekend and holiday meals based on existing enrichment programs. A gradual, phased approach could provide sponsors with needed flexibility to respond to staffing and funding needs. Below are a few strategies for cities that are thinking about serving meals on weekends and holidays:

  • Utilize existing staff and staff from volunteer programs: In Minneapolis, the Nite Owlz late night teen program is held primarily in inner city parks on Friday and Saturday nights. They are currently expanding their meal service program, and the involvement of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board would allow this program to extend healthy food choices to over 350 teens each weekend night throughout the year.
  • Develop creative partnerships between city agencies and community partners: In Washington, D.C., a strong partnership between the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), and Metroball, a local nonprofit summer basketball league, has helped to reach over 300 teenagers on Saturdays during the summer. DPR acts as the meal program sponsor and serves the meals at the basketball league sites, and the local police department helps spread the word about the program. Summer meals sites are open in D.C. on Saturdays at select Department of Parks and Recreation Centers, D.C. Public Library locations and community-based organizations.
  • Start by serving one meal on Saturdays during the school year. There are approximately 40 Saturdays during the school year, and these days provide a great opportunity for sponsors that implement the Afterschool Meal Program during the school year to serve meals one additional day per week.

For more information on serving weekend and holiday meals, check out the Food Research and Action Center’s resources, including this Afterschool Meal Matters recorded call.

Jamie Nash bio photo
About the Author:
Jamie Nash is Senior Associate of Benefit Outreach in the National League of Cities’ Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. To learn more about how local government leaders can support out-of-school time meal programs, contact Jamie at nash@nlc.org.

Citizen Engagement Means More than Just Voting

citizen-engagement-blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

textizen-blog

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

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

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

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

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.

Detroit Needs Mr. Orr and Mayor-Elect Duggan

The lawyers and pundits will scour every word in the ruling by Judge Steven Rhodes declaring the City of Detroit eligible for bankruptcy. Truth be told, I’d probably find that exercise exhilarating!

In the end however, it’s not the ruling from Judge Rhodes with which I am preoccupied. Nor am I particularly concerned with what Mr. Kevyn Orr, the city’s emergency manager, will ultimately present in terms of a plan of adjustment for the city. Rather, I am thinking about January 1, 2014, when Mayor-Elect Mike Duggan and five new city council members take the oath of office and assume their responsibilities to the citizens to Detroit.

Mr. Orr of course has all the power to do what he believes is appropriate to address the fiscal crisis in the city. Judge Rhodes has given him considerable latitude so long as the entire fabric of the recovery plan is reasonable and just in the eyes of the court, especially where pensions are concerned.

But what power does Mayor-Elect Duggan have? More precisely, what power will he have after January 1st? If you answered, “no power at all” you would, I think, be wrong. While Mr. Duggan may indeed have little in the way of decision-making power he nonetheless was ELECTED to office as were five new councilmembers. More to the point, Mr. Duggan reasonably believes that he and his colleagues on the council do indeed have an important and significant role in the management of the city’s recovery.

True leadership grows out of commitment, passion, vision, perseverance, and teamwork. There is every indication that Mr. Duggan and Mr. Orr, former law school classmates, will make an effort to work together. Success for Detroit requires that the cold-blooded management decisions that are the purview of Mr. Orr are tempered by attention to the best interests of actual residents in Detroit – residents represented by the elected political leaders – Mr. Duggan and his council colleagues.

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.

Why Cities Lead

Cities illustration
Washington, DC is a transient city.  At least it feels that way to me, a transplant.  I moved to DC a little over two years ago, after spending a couple years in Chicago, and before that, Louisville.  When I meet people here, their first question typically is, “what do you do?”  But what quickly follows is, “where do you come from?”

For a lot of people, the answer to the latter question is a city.  Whether it’s Saint Paul, Omaha, Hartford or Phoenix, people often define themselves in terms of their community.  They take pride in the cold winters they survived in Chicago, the hot, humid summer days of Houston, or the mountains that frame their memories of Denver.

In identifying with a city, people show that they see their values reflected in that place – whether it’s their community’s unique emphasis on equitable transit and affordable housing; its renowned music scene or cultural amenities that leave residents proudly proclaiming: keep my city weird; or a national reputation for entrepreneurship and thought leadership that instills a persistent pursuit for the next big thing.

Responding with “New York” might invoke thoughts of cheap food from anywhere in the world, at any time, while “Cleveland” might bring back memories of the small-scale urban farms popping up across the city.  For me, “Owensboro, KY,” my hometown, speaks to my appreciation for mutton, college basketball and lazy summer days on the banks of the Ohio River.

These attachments to place reveal that city design, culture and reputation are fundamentally intertwined with how we perceive ourselves and what we care about.  However, if we peel away those layers, what unites all cities is what actually makes them home.  Cities host our aspirations and our struggles.  They are the setting of our unique personal stories. They are where we have families, make friends and form community.  They are where we rally for justice, and where we celebrate our most tightly held beliefs.

Last week, at NLC’s annual Congress of Cities Conference in Seattle, we heard Bruce Katz, Vice President at the Brookings Institution and founding Director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, talk about what he has dubbed the “metropolitan revolution.”

He described how the pragmatic and resourceful leaders that govern our cities are taking on the big issues, ones that Washington refuses to solve, and helping to reshape our economy and fix our broken political system.  This national movement that Katz so aptly described resonated with our members.

Cities and towns, large and small, are continuing to tackle the tough issues that they always have—poverty, unemployment, fiscal challenges and aging infrastructure to name a few—with a renewed sense of urgency needed to address current national and global crises.

“In the absence of federal leadership, cities are stepping up,” said Katz.  “In this century, cities will lead and the states and federal government will follow.”

I like that idea – the leadership that will define our future will be the leadership closest to our communities.  The mission of cities is very much about getting things done, not bickering about ideology and being bogged down by politics.  Our members work hard every day to make their communities better places.  After all, their city is their home.  Their constituents are their neighbors. And that’s why cities lead.

In future posts on this blog, we’ll highlight the ways in which cities are tackling our country’s most urgent problems.  I hope you will join the conversation.  Let us know how your city leads on Twitter and Facebook with the hashtag #CitiesLead.

The Great Leadership Divide

While the U.S. government is stalled and wallowing in its own political dysfunction, I spent last week in the midst of some 3,000 movers and shakers representing the municipal movement on a world-wide scale. These city leaders and professional staff from national municipal associations were gathered in Rabat, Morocco for the World Summit of Local and Regional Leaders organized by United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG).

The difference between what’s going on in Washington, D.C. and the stories that city leaders from around the word shared in Rabat could not have been more profound. In Rabat, leading city officials from Metro Vancouver, British Columbia discussed how to achieve a goal of zero solid waste output while down the corridor Guangzhou, China shared information from their Urban Innovation Institute and representatives from Quito, Ecuador reported on the 74 percent of residents using public transport each day.

By contrast, the news from Capitol Hill, in the world’s wealthiest nation with one of the oldest written constitutions, Members of Congress could only achieve consensus on the culpability of the other guy in the failure to adopt measures to keep the government open.

In the Congress, no real solutions were being offered, no practical compromises reached, and no acknowledgement of the need to serve the common good were put forth. Worst of all, no leadership was being demonstrated by elected Representatives in a country that still purports to be the best example of republican democracy the world has ever known. Looking back across the Atlantic Ocean some half-a-world away, I had no explanation that I could offer to all the delegates who wanted to know how the U.S. government could have reached this state of utter disappointment.

But to end the story here would be a terrible waste. Because this story has a genuinely happy ending.

In the face of many dysfunctional national governments all over the world, cities are leading! The small City of Almere, Netherlands (pop. 30,000), part of the wealthy Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) block, is building one of the most sophisticated traffic management systems using GPS technology and a city-wide fiber optic network.

In the global south, there is a mutuality of support and information sharing that feeds the aspirations of Kenyans in Mombasa, Columbians in Bogota, and Chileans in Santiago. At the hyper-local level, at the regional level, and at the global level, city officials are exercising creativity and innovation to solve problems and to improve the quality of life for residents. Sometimes they are acting alone and sometimes they act in partnership with the private sector or a combination of grass-roots community groups.

The important thing however is that these city officials are taking some risks and exercising real leadership. It’s a wonder to behold and a privilege to participate in such a process.

While it may be trite to say that the world is small and growing smaller, one cannot ignore that for a few days in Rabat, representatives from cities serving half the world’s population exercised a commonality of vision, a unity of purpose, and a clarity of judgment that crossed dozens of languages and cultures all toward one universal end – making life better on a small patch of land called “home.” I cannot help but be impressed by the success that can be achieved when Cities Lead!

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.

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.