Dnt Txt n Drv

Kansas has recently become the 26th state to adopt a “no texting while driving” law.  Until January 1, 2011, drivers will receive a warning if they are caught texting while driving and after that, law enforcement officials will issue $60 fines for the offense.

So important has this issue become, that President Obama, even, issued an Executive Order in October 2009 that prohibits federal employees from texting while operation government-owned vehicles and equipment.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has gone one step further and used this Executive Order to develop sample legislation that states can use to draft their own laws to ban texting.

According to the USDOT’s website on distracted driving, some distractions are no-brainers.  Watching a video – yes, highly distracting while driving.  But even eating or talking to a fellow passenger is considered distracted driving and a can result in an accident.  However, it’s the use of cell phones that seem to be the more serious distractions per the following, as listed on the distracted driving website:

  • Driving while using a cell phone reduces the amount of brain activity associated with driving by 37 percent. (Source: Carnegie Mellon)
  • Drivers who use hand-held devices are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves. (Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety)
  • Using a cell phone use while driving, whether it’s hand-held or hands-free, delays a driver’s reactions as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent. (Source: University of Utah)

Earlier this year, CNN reported a study that showed that cell phone bans do not actually reduce crashes.  In a recent, informal online poll, people are pretty much fifty-fifty on texting despite a law (with financial consequences) banning it.  This is shocking despite the data to support a direct link between cell phone usage and accidents – just look at the National Safety Council’s findings.

Technological advances have changed consumer behavior and not always for the good.  Case in point – the poll mentioned earlier, where over 50 percent of respondents admitted to continue testing while driving despite a law banning it.  It’s not enough that we have to have the technology but we must be able to utilize it wherever and whenever we want.  Addressing the texting while driving issue is not just about changing the laws – which is definitely a step in the right direction.  But it’s also about changing a culture we have become accustomed to.

The Global Economy is Not Really So “Foreign”

When Ron Kirk was Mayor of Dallas he spent lots of his time on economic development efforts. He built partnerships across the region and around the world to help generate domestic and foreign investment and to promote local products and services.

For the last 15 months Kirk has been doing the same job only on a grander scale. He has traded the title of Mayor for that of Ambassador; acting now as President Obama’s point man on trade promotion and enforcement.

Kirk’s years as mayor grounded him in communities. He is still as likely to be found meeting with mayors in Detroit, Seattle, Des Moines and Milwaukee as he is meeting with other trade ambassadors in Geneva or Beijing. This ability to see the local picture is what gives Ambassador Kirk a distinct advantage. “The only way to grow businesses,” he says, “is to have a local export strategy.”

The Obama Administration wants to double U.S. exports in the next five years. The National Export Initiative calls for increasing capacity at the Commerce Department, SBA and the Export-Import Bank. There is a particular focus on assistance to small- and medium-sized enterprises who presently don’t export or who only sell to one or two customers in one or two markets outside the U.S.

In the present political climate the debates about the benefits of international commerce and trade have become as passionate as debates about the theory of evolution. In truth it is this fracture in the trade consensus at home that is proving a bigger problem than finding eager trading partners abroad.

Perhaps this is why Mayor Kirk has so seamlessly transitioned into Ambassador Kirk. At one level he is required to consider grand strategy for America’s long-term economic health. But at the day-to-day level he spends his time thinking about mom and pop businesses on Main Street, about the infrastructure to move goods around town or across states, and above all about good jobs that are created in cities and towns – just like the one where he used to be mayor.

Are cities Capitalizing on Fiction?

The latest Emerging Issues column in Nation’s Cities Weekly explores the topic of detection fiction novels that are set in in American cities.

Decades ago, American detective novels were mainly set in New York City or Los Angeles. One observer puts the proportion at fifty percent. Ellery Queen and Nero Wolfe and Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald dominated the detecting field.

Not anymore. Now, murder mystery stories are set in lots of places, reflecting the vitality of local cultures, growing interest among readers in the varieties of American life, and the ingenuity of writers who are rooted in distinct places.

Local color matters and the color in a lot more places matters. For fans of this sort of entertainment, this is a great boon.

For example, Sara Paretsky’s altogether wonderful V.I Warshawski sleuths her way around some seedy parts of the city of Chicago. Phoebe Atwood Taylor‘s Asey Mayo mysteries are set on Cape Cod. The detecting among the Old Order Amish in Wayne County, Ohio is handled by a college history professor in P.L. Gaus’ novels. Walter Mosley opened a new perspective on Los Angeles with the Easy Rawlins series.

Share your favorite city or town murder mystery— or the ways your city is capitalizing on locally-set detective stories to create a sense of place or events — by entering a “Comment.”

Why Transparency is Good (or Bad) for Governments?

Despite the recent push for transparency, this concept is not a new one for local governments. Cities around the country have been employing various methods to increase transparency – simply, be more open to the public – in their day to day practices for years now. From broad engines of information like city websites (San Carlo’s in California being one of the first) to more focused tools which display a cities’ expenditures like Your Tax Dollars At Work in Louisville, Kentucky, cities have been looking for ways to better engage their constituencies.

Transparency promotes accountability and provides an opportunity for residents to be better informed about what is going on in their communities. A better informed constituency helps create a better dialogue between residents and government officials and results in better policy decisions. Transparency is also a time saver – having an existing method of being able to push information out means governments spend less time on public disclosure. It’s also a time saver in terms of public knowledge and discussion. With the public being aware of existing policies and background to how and why decisions are made, city staff and officials can spend less time on the “history” of issues and more time on “what should we do next”. Finally, transparency also helps re-purpose information. Hundreds of reports, agendas, meeting minutes, and other city-vital information are created for city staff and officials. Being able to turn this out to the public rebrands the same information for another new and useful purpose.

There are obvious cons to transparency – it costs money and it takes staff time and effort.  Some cities have reported that they have found their IT departments to be very hesitant to the use of online tools and to allow direct public input.  Transparency certainly creates an avenue for the public to start demanding more information.  But is that a bad thing? What is wrong with a better informed constituency? In fact, some cities who have utilized transparency methods say this is one of the biggest payoffs for the investment in these tools – having the public be on the same page with the electeds. In a recent webinar hosted by the National League of Cities and the Public Technology Institute, city staff and officials from San Carlos, CA, Seattle, WA, and Louisville, KY talked about how being transparent has affected governance in their cities. They did agree that it did involve a start-up cost and it did create extra tasks for staff. But their only real regret was not being “transparent” sooner.

So while it may seem tedious and costly, local governments are realizing the benefits of being more transparent and how it is directly related to effective governance.  By being able to comprehensively engage their constituency, they are able to open up lines of communication which, as mentioned before, results in a more educated citizenry and better policy decisions.  Transparency and governance just seem to go hand in hand.

May a greener future begin in a greener classroom?

A number of speakers at the Good Jobs, Green Jobs national conference this week in Washington, D.C. raised concerns that inadequate academic preparation in basic math, science, and reading skills are presenting major barriers in preparing workers for jobs in a clean energy economy.

Given the subject of the conference, a significant focus on jobs, energy, and economic growth was to be expected. But a specific and reoccurring focus on education (not just training) felt particularly significant as this too-often overlooked element represents a critical component to the entire jobs, development, and recovery (green or otherwise) equation.

Dean Allen, chief executive of innovative construction giant McKinstry, lamented that increasingly his company has had to turn away young motivated workers due to poor performance in math and science entrance exams. Representatives from several community colleges also reiterated the complexity of challenges they are facing in training workers with limited education for careers in next generation technologies.

Highlighting the interconnections among education, job creation, national competitiveness, and energy, Allen proposed a linking strategy: green schools.

Consider the statistics: Over half of U.S. schools today are at least 50 years old, and we know that buildings (not limited to schools) consume over 70% of electricity in the country. Based on McKinstry’s own experience, up to 50% of that electricity is currently wasted due to building inefficiencies. Translated into economic terms, a McKinsey & Co. report estimates that approximately $130 billion worth of energy is lost each year.

So building retrofits make a lot of sense, and according to Allen, school retrofits in particular are among the most important places to get started. In addition to the almost countless benefits of green buildings, bringing energy and design technology directly into the classroom provide an unparalleled educational opportunity while also creating jobs and saving energy. To maximize the value of a green school approach Allen advocates two principles: 1. students, teachers, and maintenance workers are to be actively involved throughout the “greening” process, and 2. financial savings realized from reduced utility bills go directly back into the classroom to fund STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs.

Though perhaps not a job training panacea, green schools represent one more strategy to reduce energy use and spur demand for green jobs while also exposing future generations to careers in green industries. The U.S. Green Building Council has been a leader in this movement and offers tools and resources for cities to get started, including the Mayor’s Alliance for Green Schools.

Bringing Place Back

Place is back.  Across an array of sectors we are witnessing a renewed focus on “place” – on neighborhoods, cities, and regions.  Place-based strategies are evident in the Obama administration’s cross-agency efforts to coordinate land use, transportation, and environmental programs.  The nation’s leading foundations are launching place-based initiatives. And across the country actors from public, private, and the not-for-profit sectors are collaborating in efforts to improve places.

A focus on place was evident at last month’s CEOs for Cities strategy session convened in New York City.  Participants were “entrepreneurs of place” – a national network of leaders from the civic, business, academic and philanthropic sectors dedicated to building and sustaining the next generation of cities.  One conversation focused on the role of philanthropy in cities, led by representatives of national and community-based foundations.  A conclusion from the discussion was that national foundations are increasingly moving toward place-based efforts, including initiatives at the Ford, Knight, MacArthur, Kresge, and Rockefeller Foundations, to name a few.

The Boston Foundation’s Paul Grogan commented that “the tide is turning for philanthropy in cities.”  Suzanne Walsh with the Lumina Foundation noted that foundations have followed government, which also disinvested in place over time, but appears poised to reinvest.  And Rip Rapson of the Kresge Foundation suggested that an ecology of place is emerging where foundations are collaborating to leverage investments in neighborhoods, cities, and regions.

Later in the CEOs for Cities program, a cross-sector success story on improving place was displayed in a tour of New York’s High Line Park, 20 blocks of converted, elevated rail line in downtown Manhattan.  Through community leadership, city support, and philanthropic contributions, High Line Park opened in 2009 and has transformed a previously vacant, unused corridor into a public space that is used by thousands of people daily and generating significant residential and commercial development.

Of course, place isn’t really back, since places themselves never went anywhere. What’s returning is the renewed attention to place among some of the nation’s institutions and leaders, whether it’s the federal government, foundations, or cross-sector collaborations in regions and cities.  Rapson argued for the necessity of institutions moving in the same direction. “Philanthropy must adopt and drive a point of view that has the underlying support of government and other sectors.”  Grogan added that “there is nothing permanent about the success or failure of cities and places. Our nation’s institutions have to be actively engaged in helping prepare for what’s coming next.”

Forget Everything You Knew About Housing

In the wake of the home mortgage bust there needs to be a reevaluation of every assumption about residential housing. Is ownership always better than renting? Is appreciation always better than equity as a tool for wealth creation? Is bigger in the suburbs always better than smaller in town?

The composition of families is different. The kind of housing people need is different. The design for space and density is different. Federal policy is different. Therefore, how local leaders think and respond on matters relating to housing must be different.

We know there are an increasing number of households where residents span three generations or more. We know that job losses have led families to double-up with parents, siblings or children. We know that being tied to a house that won’t sell has prevented people from moving to a different part of the country where a good job is available. While these conditions are not new to history, they are new to the lives of most Americans today.

Financial experts predict that the Great Recession will impact the behavior of 20-40 year olds for their lifetime much in the way the Great Depression did for their grandparents. If true, that will affect consumer spending, savings rates and homeownership indexes for a long time to come.

The results are likely to be market-driven demand for rental housing within close proximity to employment and entertainment. Second, prospective owners will strike a more balanced valuation between renting and owning. And third, longer-term views will take hold that regard a house as a place to live, stabilize monthly expenses, and possibly increase wealth through equity-building.

For the present, local policy makers will need to put aside several time-tested responses and fly by the seat of their pants. Fortunately, pragmatism and adaptation are what they do best.

Capturing Creativity in Kentucky

City leaders, artists, entrepreneurs, university staff, real estate developers, students, researchers, and many others convened at the 2010 Creative Cities Summit in Lexington, Ky. this month to learn how they can help their cities attract and retain talent, promote entrepreneurship, and encourage civic engagement.

Keynote speaker Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class and Who’s Your City?, kicked off the conference by discussing his research on capturing the essence of the “creative class” and using it to revitalize cities.  Florida’s approach has been met with enthusiasm from some, skepticism from others.  In his presentation, he emphasized the “3Ts”—technology, talent, and tolerance—as key ingredients for making great cities, and he provided compelling evidence that the “3Ts” have made places like Austin and Toronto the next generation of creative cities.  But many see his solutions as a one-size-fits-all approach for cities.

A panel discussion with three Kentucky mayors gave a local perspective from cities that we might not think of as “creative class rock stars.”  Lexington mayor Jim Newberry was joined by Elaine Walker, mayor of Bowling Green, Ky. and Jerry Abramson, mayor of Louisville, Ky. to share what they are doing to foster innovation and create a culture of openness in their cities.

Bowling Green focused on technology by establishing the Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation to provide graduates of Western Kentucky University with the opportunities they need in a diverse set of hi-tech industries to make the city their permanent home.  Under the leadership of Mayor Newberry, Lexington tackled talent by establishing an ongoing local arts grant matching fund, which is made up of a city-county funded base to support local arts initiatives that must be matched by new community donors.  Rounding out the “3Ts,” tolerance, or a diverse city fabric that makes outsiders feel welcome, is equally important to those who “fit in” and to those who may not.  Mayor Abramson identified creating a culture of tolerance as a primary goal in Louisville, one that young professionals have a major role in promoting.

Chances are, these three mayors didn’t read Florida’s book and immediately begin following his gospel for transforming cities.  Rather, his research, along with countless others in the field, merely provides food for thought for how to focus efforts to advance cities.  It is much more likely that local leaders begin, not with an academic perspective, but with a practical one—identifying their specific city’s struggles and advantages—and building from there.

Florida was an appropriate choice to kick off the conference, but much more work needed to be done over the next three days of the summit and beyond.  Research can provide the framework, but cities need to take the leap.  And in doing so, cities need to identify what works for them and tailor their approach accordingly.  Carbon copying Florida’s elements for transforming cities won’t turn Lexington into Austin, but with Lexington’s unique arts scene and vibrant community culture, who would want to?

Healthy urban food systems seeking committed local leaders

In celebration of Earth Day, Grist magazine highlighted 40 people working to “redefine green” in their communities. The list contains a diverse range of entrepreneurs, community activists, scientists, and venture capitalists yet what is perhaps most striking is that a third of the people featured are “altering the green landscape” through food. One of these individuals even ran for and was elected to public office to expand access to urban agriculture in the Town of Carrboro, NC.

Issues of food access and quality have been receiving a lot of attention in the past few years, and more recently have been bolstered by First Lady Michelle Obama’s focus on ending childhood obesity and reality shows like Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. This burgeoning interest in locally produced food has already expanded beyond community gardens and farmers markets to include urban livestock. Chickens, bees, even goats have been making their urban debut in a small but growing number of cities.

With this growing interest in healthy, fresh, and locally produced foods, there is a clear opportunity – in fact a great need – for local leaders to become more actively involved in community food systems. It is curious however, as the American Planning Association has pointed out, given the level of government intervention in other basic needs (i.e. housing, public safety, education) and role in ensuring quality and access to clean air, water, and soil – that a similar priority has not yet been given to the safety and availability of healthy foods.

Even though community food systems directly contribute to issues important to cities, such as public health, community and economic development, food security, and environmental integrity, it is an area that has largely fallen to community advocacy groups, concerned individuals, and small businesses to support and maintain. And while the commitment and vision of community members can have a transformative impact, rarely is a local food movement able to thrive without the involvement and support of the elected leaders who can remove barriers and increase opportunities particularly in regards to production and distribution.

Certainly there is not a dearth of local leadership: Cities such as Cleveland, Boston, and Escondido, CA have facilitated the creation and expansion of urban agriculture by amending zoning codes, creating policy, providing incentives, or adopting ordinances favoring this type of land use. Many other cities have begun to sponsor local farmers markets and some are even targeting small business development programs to support local food entrepreneurs. Few however have formally incorporated a commitment to food access, quality, or security into their long-term planning.

In addition to local benefits, food systems present an excellent opportunity for regional collaboration and appear to be capturing the attention of investors. Urban agriculture has been discussed as a possible revitalization strategy in shrinking cities such as Detroit, and is being floated as the next “green” frontier among venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. While the prospect of mass-produced urban agriculture currently raises more questions than answers, it seems likely that the cities with experience in local food systems will have an added advantage in this potential new marketplace.

As cities’ commitment to sustainability continues to grow so too will the need for leadership surrounding community food systems. While some cities have gotten an early lead, there is still much work to be done and endless opportunities for cities to alter their own green landscape.