Sandy Recovery Highlights Resilience Lessons

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

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

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

The completed Chen house. (photo: james Brooks)

The completed Chen house. (photo: james Brooks)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Among these will be:

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

Among the speakers will be such luminaries as:

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

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

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.


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.

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.

For the Love of Eminent Domain

The City of Richmond, California has been abandoned and cast adrift by all those partners who might logically be expected to support local governments facing severe challenges to the local economy and the real estate market. Into the void stepped the private firm Mortgage Resolution Partners (MRP) peddling a grand solution to solve a prolonged and severe disruption in the housing market – use of eminent domain to acquire mortgages with negative equity.

Millions of homeowners have been foreclosed upon in the last six years. California cities have borne a disproportionate share of foreclosures. City leaders in Richmond naturally want to help their residents either by using their own resources or acting in concert with other partners (federal, state, nonprofit, etc.). But everywhere the city looked for timely, serious, and long-term help, no credible partner could be found.

From the Administration came the priority to bail-out banks under TARP, as well as the minimalist Neighborhood Stabilization Program. NSP was so inadequate to the task that its impact proved to be very small indeed. Congress took its pound of flesh in the form of large budget reductions in the Community Development Block Grant program. This is one of the few remaining sources of flexible spending at the local level – spending designed to serve critical housing needs for low and moderate income families. CDBG has become the whipping boy for Members of Congress more interested in centralized control than they are in innovative problem solving.

At the state level, California eliminated the 400 local redevelopment agencies (RDA’s) in 2012 following a state Supreme Court ruling. For decades, those funds had been used successfully to eliminate urban blight and support affordable housing. When he was mayor of Oakland, Governor Jerry Brown used RDA funds to restore the historic Fox Theater. Now those funds are used to help the state balance their mismanaged budget on the backs of cash-starved localities and their low- and moderate-income residents.

And finally, we come to Mortgage Resolution Partners, the white knight galloping to the city’s rescue with a plan to save homes and secure the future of neighborhoods. MRP’s plan however, takes the much cherished and highly valuable power of eminent domain and contorts its purpose and operation to such a degree as to be unrecognizable. Make no mistake, MRP’s advocacy of this strategy will have consequences for cities generally and for Richmond in particular.

If anything was learned in the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case of Kelo v. City of New London, it is that state legislatures and Congress will look askance at local efforts to overreach on use of eminent domain. Mortgage Resolution Partners does a disservice to cities in urging them to take this approach to help borrowers at risk of foreclosure.

James Brooks is NLC’s Program Director for Community Development & Infrastructure. Follow him on twitter at @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

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.