Citizen Engagement Means More than Just Voting


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.


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.

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.

State of the Cities 2013: Cities Lead. No Questions Asked.

These days there always seems to be some sort of crisis on Capitol Hill.  The debt ceiling, sequestration, and the “fiscal cliff” are all part of the national vocabulary now.  As citizens of the United States, we are often frustrated when our hopes and visions for the country are sidelined by partisan bickering and gridlock in Congress. This political polarization has real life consequences for people, at both the national and local level.  Sure, we may get frustrated enough to call a staff member in our Congressperson’s office or write a letter to give them our two cents, but by and large we let them play their games.

The difference between members of Congress and members of the City Council however, is that Congress isn’t always held accountable for their decisions in the same way that local leaders are.  If you want to know why your mayor increased the local sales tax, you catch him in the produce section of the grocery store.  You can ask your councilmember why she didn’t support the new park in your neighborhood when you run into her at the parent-teacher conference.  At the end of the day, local leaders just don’t have the option of hiding behind party lines in their Washington offices.  And that’s just the way they like it.

Mayor Nancy Chaney, of Moscow, Idaho, actively encouraged her constituents to get involved.  “It’s up to each of you to judge how we’re doing, to offer constructive criticism (and when warranted, praise), or to become more directly involved. Speak up. Run for office. Volunteer. Donate to programs that make meaningful differences” she said.  In fact, this sentiment was expressed by mayors across the country—that it’s the job of every citizen, in partnerships with their mayors and councilmembers, to build a stronger community.

Necessity Breeds Innovation

In each of our State of the Cities posts last week, we wrote about the innovative ideas being implemented by city leaders to create prosperous neighborhoods and communities.  It’s important to note that these innovations aren’t happening just because they look good on paper or play well in a sound bite. They are happening because there is a real need to think creatively about how to address pressing issues with limited resources, a need that, by and large, can only be filled at the local level.  For example, Valparaiso, Ind. Mayor Jon Costas explained that his city “saved $50K converting an old street sweeper into a snow plow.”  Is that cool? Absolutely.  But that’s also a municipal employee who gets to keep their job, or a person who was able to get to work on time because their road was plowed.

When the city of Eau Claire, Wis. partnered with the private sector and received a grant to lay 200 miles of fiber optic cable and create wireless hot spots, everyone got more bars on their iPhone.  It also gave the city a competitive development advantage in bringing more jobs to the community– jobs that many community residents may need in order to make their next mortgage payment.

In her address, Mayor Stephanie A. Miner of Syracuse, N.Y. spoke of the collaboration between city staff, community groups, local public and private sector institutions and dozens of volunteer experts that came together to complete the City of Syracuse Comprehensive Plan: 2040.  She said that the detailed plan “stands as a new long-term policy roadmap for us to continue to be a leading 21st century city”.  It’s that kind of city-wide vision, collaboration and forethought that continue to make cities attractive to a diverse mix of residents.

Bottom line, cities have to do more with less. Where the federal government is able to carry a debt, most cities across the country legally are not allowed to do so.  They have to find savings and innovations wherever they can.  And they aren’t happy with just getting by; they want to thrive, not survive.  We’re just lucky that our local leaders are so creative.

The Stakes are Too High

Throughout our State of the Cities 2013 series, we’ve tried to reflect on all of the great work that is happening at the local level across the country.  We noted that many of the accomplishments that mayors emphasized in their Addresses fell into five broad themes: economic development, public safety, education, infrastructure, and fiscal management.  Strong communities are only strong when all of these areas are working collaboratively together.

The National League of Cities recognizes the importance of the work that is happening in communities on a daily basis.  This is the third year we have analyzed State of the City addresses from across the country, and we are continually amazed at the vision and dedication of local leaders to improve their cities.  Although mayors certainly acknowledge the many challenges they face, we have yet to find a city leader who says, “it’s just too hard” or “there’s nothing we can do”.  These communities are their homes, where their friends and families work and play.  As Charlotte, N.C. Mayor Anthony Foxx said:

As your mayor, I serve the most diverse citizenry in our history – Republicans, Independents and Democrats, the young and old, Hispanics and Asians, blacks and whites, the rich, poor and middle-class, straight and gay, people from every walk of life you can imagine.  My charge – our charge as a Charlotte City Council – is to ensure that every man, woman and child has a chance to succeed, to fulfill what their talents and abilities can lead them to accomplish.

Unlike the decisions of their Congressional colleagues, the decisions of  local leaders often hit home much more quickly and decisively.  When the stakes are that high, cities lead– no questions asked.

We know that city leaders are continually pushing the envelope to find innovative solutions to meet the needs of their citizens, and that the State of the City Address is just one place to highlight successes and address how challenges were overcome.  The National League of Cities is always looking for inspiring city projects, initiatives and stories to profile.  Share your successes in the comments section, email them to and use the #CitiesLead hashtag on Twitter to keep the conversation going.

State of the Cities 2013: Infrastructure Connects the Dots

This is the fifth post in a seven-part series on trends and themes in local leadership.

On February 4, 2013, Mayor Anthony Foxx left his constituency with a final message about the state of their city, Charlotte, N.C.. In a speech that was both reflective of the past and hopeful for the future, Mayor Foxx used his closing moments to drive home how infrastructure – and in particular a new streetcar – can enhance the quality of life for all the city’s residents:

Let me be clear: this streetcar, and resolving this capital budget, is more important than baseball and more important than football.  It is an opportunity to put this city on a path of living together with more opportunity, more economic vibrancy, more quality neighborhoods, more infill development, better schools, more people who want to live here and more businesses who choose to locate here.

This year’s State of the City Addresses showed that mayors across the country are using infrastructure opportunities in a fashion similar to Mayor Foxx. Their Addresses demonstrate that infrastructure can serve as more than just the physical foundation of cities, and rather become the critical catalyst that drives economic development, connects people and provides equal opportunities.  When envisioned comprehensively, mayors emphasized that infrastructure lies at a unique nexus between people and place; government and residents; and the present and future.  Regardless of the scale or scope of the projects in their cities, mayors’ speeches highlighted how thoughtful infrastructure investment provides an alternate trajectory for their cities.

Ramping up the Roads: Connecting People

Mayors and their public works departments always have and always will play an essential role in infrastructure repair and maintenance (Beaverton, Ore.’s Mayor Denny Doyle said it best when he said: “Beaverton cares about filling potholes—we care about the basics.”).  However, cities, including Beaverton, are moving well beyond the ‘basics’ to reimagine the streetscape in terms of accessibility, usability and enjoyment for all residents.  In his speech, Mayor Dwight Jones of Richmond, Va. spoke of plans for downtown Franklin Street to become a throughway that provides access for bicycles, pedestrians, Segways, as well as car traffic.  Additionally, Franklin Street will run through Main Street Station, a welcome center and multi-modal station that serves as the regional transportation hub.

Across the country in San Diego, Calif., Mayor Bob Filner highlighted the importance of creating neighborhoods that are “as safe, attractive and healthy as they can be.”  He gave the example of how a public- private partnership model for redevelopment, one that the city successfully used in the past, can be expanded to assist other neighborhoods throughout the city. As part of this effort, Mayor Filner stressed that transportation systems which enhance quality of life – such as pedestrian-friendly streets and dedicated bike baths – will be critical to meet the varied needs of residents.

In a similar vein, Mayor Lioneld Jordan of Fayetteville, Ark. stated that, “Our vision for convenient and sustainable transportation, however, is much more than traditional highways and includes alternative transportation as a keystone of our future.”  In his Address, he described the 100 shared lane markings for bicycle routes, as well as over 12,000 feet of sidewalks that were constructed all in the past year.  Similarly, in Beaverton, Mayor Doyle and his staff not only filled those potholes, they also planted nearly 450 trees and 1,200 native plants; upgraded over 170 bike path lights to LEDs; and resurfaced 55 streets last year, working to maintain the city’s infrastructure investments while strengthening their Mayor’s commitment to sustainability.

Working the Waterways: Connecting Neighborhoods

In parallel with the streetscape, mayors recognizing and investing in water infrastructure as an invaluable community asset, one that not only has economic and environmental implications, but also serves as a social thread woven throughout the community.   Mayor AC Wharton, of Memphis, Tenn., prioritized the city’s waterfront as a tool to reconnect neighborhoods and people in a city:

In consideration of our local assets, we can never overlook our prized riverfront.  The riverfront is home to our city’s ritual events and celebrations, and common ground for every citizen and every visitor. Because of this, I asked Jeff… to help me develop a balanced approach that attracts people to the riverfront while offering a menu of options to explore and enjoy.

Other mayors spoke more specifically about protecting their watersheds as a means to protect natural resources and enhance quality of life for residents.  For example, San Diego Mayor Filner spoke about a regional convening to address water scarcity in the Bay Delta, while Mayor Pete Lewis of Auburn, Wash. described a wetland expansion project on the local community college campus  that will increase wetland capacity, filter toxins in rainwater and improve water quality.

Richmond’s Mayor Jones aptly stated the role of water in a city’s future when he said, “We have plans drawn that will connect the river’s use to downtown and remove pedestrian barriers to ensure greater access.” He went on to describe the James River as “our precious gem,” a source of pride for the whole city.

Tying together Transit: Connecting Cities

In Somerville, Mass., Mayor Joseph Curtatone spoke of the green line (subway) extension as critical to driving public and private investment in a historically disinvested area of the city: “For years, we’ve invested heavily in West Somerville while the eastern part of our city soldiered on as a great but underfunded neighborhood. I am here tonight to declare quite unequivocally, it’s East Somerville’s turn.”  In Richmond, Va., Atlanta, Ga. and other cities, mayors similarly acknowledged the potential for transit to reduce poverty in particular neighborhoods of the city, connect people to jobs, and provide transportation alternatives that are accessible and affordable.

These mayors and others also recognized the important role of transit in making their city an effective regional player.  Mayor Lewis described how Auburn has emerged as a central transit hub for the region, with four regional transit lines (and numerous local ones) coming together in the city. He went on to describe the implications of this in terms of establishing the city as a regional hub for the education and healthcare sectors.  In Durham, N.C. Mayor Bill Bell congratulated residents for approving a half cent sales tax in Durham and Orange County that will be used to fund new bus and light rail services. With “providing efficient and friendly transit services” as one of five priority areas he spoke of, Mayor Bell not only emphasized the local benefits of connecting people to jobs, shops and healthcare services within the city, he also directly spoke to his partners outside city limits:

We must also remind our neighbors to the east that we are truly one interconnected region that is home to millions of people who cross back and forth across all three counties each and every day. Our transportation problems are regional problems and we must partner together on a regional basis to solve these issues.

Building Connected Cities

Whether mayors are focusing on improving their streetscapes, connecting their transportation services, or enhancing their waterways, the State of the City Addresses this year made it clear that infrastructure improvements and investments serve as an important tool whereby local governments are both responding to citizen’s immediate needs (e.g. filling potholes) and also working with local and regional partners to envision and implement an alternate future that prioritizes increased quality of life for all residents.  Despite scarce resources (and the possible removal of the municipal bond tax exemption), mayors recognize and are committed to infrastructure investments as a priority strategy to create a connected city.

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.