President Obama Outlines Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future

This post is written by Carolyn Berndt, Principal Associate for Infrastructure and Sustainability, Center for Federal Relations, National League of Cities.

This morning, President Obama laid out his plan to reduce foreign oil imports by one-third over the next decade, calling this new goal “reasonable, achievable and necessary.” Speaking at Georgetown University, the President invoked the pain at the pump that families and businesses feel when gas prices rise, cutting into their budgets and bottom lines, and said that we “will keep on being a victim to shifts in the oil market until we get serious about a long-term policy for secure, affordable energy.”

“The United States of America cannot afford to bet our long-term prosperity and security on a resource that will eventually run out. Not anymore. Not when the cost to our economy, our country, and our planet is so high. Not when [the next] generation needs us to get this right,” said Obama.

The President’s blueprint for reducing reliance on oil imports calls for both increased domestic production of oil and decreased oil consumption through alternative fuels and energy efficiency. Obama announced incentives to expedite development and drilling of oil and gas from existing leases that are currently not being utilized and called for developing alternatives to oil such as natural gas and biofuels.

Additionally, Obama called for making our transportation system more energy efficient through new fuel economy standards and greenhouse gas emission standards for passenger vehicles and commercial trucks, vans and buses; supporting electric and natural gas vehicles; and investing in high speed rail and mass transit. Obama said that all Americans, whether urban, suburban or rural should have “the choice to be mobile without having to get in a car and pay for gas.”

Regarding efficiency, the president reiterated his calls to Congress for a clean energy standard requiring 80 percent of electricity to come from renewable fuels, clean coal, natural gas and nuclear power by 2035 and restated his commitment to improving the energy efficiency of homes and buildings

Finally, the president said the federal government should support clean energy innovations and research and development in new technologies, saying “our best opportunities to enhance our energy security can be found in our own backyard. And we boast one critical, renewable resource the rest of the world cannot match: American ingenuity.”

Supporting the President’s call to establish a secure, long-term energy policy, NLC urges the federal government to develop and implement a sustainable energy policy that is reliable, equitable and environmentally responsible. NLC also supports measures to improve the energy efficiency of homes and buildings (particularly through the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program), policies to promote the development of alternative and renewable fuels, including strengthening fuel economy standards, and use of alternative and renewable energy sources.

Current NLC policy supports the domestic production of natural gas in an environmentally responsible manner, however the NLC Energy, Environment and Natural Resources (EENR) Committee has chosen to further study the issue as part of its workplan for the year, including focusing on the potential impact that hydraulic fracturing has on drinking water resources. Additionally, the EENR committee this year will study electric vehicle infrastructure and implementation relating to electricity production, smart grid technology and renewable resources.

Former Mayor Helping Cities on a Global Level

Joan Clos has held many titles in his life – doctor, mayor, minister and ambassador. Late in 2010 he added a new title to his resume: Executive Director of United Nations Habitat. In this new role he will have the opportunity to bring his considerable talents in urban planning, housing, job creation and diplomacy to bear for the benefit of urbanizing communities worldwide.

Dr. Clos is perhaps best known for his work as Mayor of Barcelona from 1997-2006. There he transformed a city in advance of hosting the Olympic Games, setting the city and region on a path to prosperity that continues to be a model for other community builders.

During a recent visit to Washington, D.C., Dr. Clos discussed his views on the challenges facing both highly developed cities and cities in the developing world. He also laid out some of his early priorities for his four-year term at UN-HABITAT.

Significant issues facing developed cities include energy over-consumption, high greenhouse gas emissions and the expanding gap between the haves and the have-nots in society. For cities in the developing world, Clos suggests that the combination of rural to urban migration and the absence of industrial jobs in the urban areas are the biggest causes that give rise to slums. To these causes he adds the utter lack of urban planning and local governments with inadequate authority and capacity as significant challenges for such a large portion of the earth’s population.

However, Dr. Clos is nothing if not a practical visionary with a long track record of achievable results to his credit. His strategies for progress rely on the absolute value of land, and urban land in particular, and on the role of the city as economic catalyst in the absence of private-sector-driven industrialization.

Starting with HABITAT and leveraging other UN agencies, the executive director expects to focus on new urban planning models, improvements to the legal and governing structures for urban areas in the developing world and job creation. This is a far more ambitious agenda than the work presently undertaken at HABITAT, to upgrade slums for example.

For the people who work in, for and with cities, Dr. Clos is as popular as an international rock star. In a single sentence he can compare the road projects of ancient Roman cities to those in present-day Manhattan and to the Kenyan slums of Kibera.  For city leaders to have such an advocate at UN-HABITAT is like having Bono host a concert for a charitable cause. The possibilities are monumental.

State of the Cities in 2011: Prioritizing Public Safety

This is the final post of a seven-part series about mayors’ 2011 State of the City speeches.

Given the dire state of many municipal budgets, it makes sense that local governments are trying to trim the fat and balance budgets.  However, one area where there is always hesitancy to make cuts is public safety.  In fact, in this year’s analysis of State of the Cities Addresses, we found that many mayors are increasing efforts to make their communities safe places for their residents.  Strong local economies, great infrastructure improvements, more efficient government and all the other topics covered over the past couple of weeks are of little importance if citizens do not feel safe in their neighborhoods.

Beaverton, Ore., surveyed its residents on what the top priority for the city should be in providing public services, and out of forty choices, “Continuing Community Policing” was what mattered most.  Mayor Steve Benjamin of Columbia, S.C., went as far as to claim that public safety was the city’s top priority.

Despite the tough economic times, many cities are not holding back in providing first responders with the resources necessary to excel at their jobs.  Mesquite, Texas, recently opened a new police headquarters, complete with an emergency operations center.  A number of cities increased, or are planning to increase, police forces.  Montgomery, Ala., has its largest contingency of police officers ever – about thirty more than it previously has had.

Even in cities where hiring new officers or increasing resources is proving to be difficult, mayors are not standing idly by.  Marion, Iowa, reorganized its fire department to increase efficiency, allowing for more resources to be directed towards public education efforts.  About 5,300 residents were provided fire safety education.  A number of cities turned to residents for assistance in maintaining safe streets.  In her address, Syracuse, N.Y., mayor Stephanie Miner highlighted a number of civilian led groups working with first responders to improve the relationship between the residents and the police department.  Nampa, Idaho, mayor Tom Dale noted that over 5,000 volunteer hours were logged by citizen patrols.

Some of the larger cities across the nation are looking at the issue of public safety more comprehensively.  In New York City, there is a particular focus on youthful offenders.  The city is working to develop a Youth Justice Center to handle cases for offenders up to age 21.  To combat chronic truancy, over 2,000 volunteers will be added to the school system.  In Boston, Mayor Tom Menino stressed the importance of relaxing the Criminal Offender Record Inquiry laws which will make it easier for offenders to reenter society.

Many mayors are recognizing that even though budgets are shrinking, they cannot sacrifice the long term safety of their communities.  Omaha, Neb., mayor Jim Suttle said, “Our latest crime statistics indicate that a combination of crime prevention, mentoring, enforcement and education are getting gang members off the street and providing job opportunities to those who may otherwise turn to criminal activity.”  This attitude does not means that mayors are ignoring the realities they are facing.  In fact, Mayor Jim Ardis of Peoria, Ill., said “I will say today that I’m not afraid of touching the third rail because we are in too desperate of times to ‘not’ acknowledge the elephant in the room.  Very soon it will be absolutely imperative that this community take a hard look at the public safety portion of this discussion.”

We’ve all seen the stories in the news of public safety workers being laid off, and it’s easy to focus on all these cuts, but we cannot forget that a lot of cities are meeting their challenges head on.  Public safety will always be a central responsibility of local governments, and mayors are not shying away from the challenge.

Read about this project in more detail in The State of the Cities in 2011.  Thank you for following our analysis of the issues of importance to cities across the nation.

State of the Cities in 2011: A New Era of Regional Collaboration

This is the sixth in a seven-part series about mayors’ 2011 State of the City speeches.

Mayor John Monaco of Mesquite, Texas quoted late President Ronald Reagan in his 2011 State of the City speech when he said, “A recession is when your neighbor loses his job…a depression is when you lose yours.”  While neighboring cities’ property tax rates have seen increases of up to 10%, Mesquite’s holds steady.  While neighboring cities are laying off dozens of employees and cutting services, Mesquite is avoiding closures, and even opening a new city hall.  When its success is measured relative to its neighboring cities, Mesquite is sailing along nicely.

A certain degree of local competition is healthy, but Mayor Heather McTeer Hudson of Greenville, Miss., would disagree with both President Reagan and Mayor Monaco.  In her State of the City speech, she called for a new era of regional collaboration.  “Though we come from a background of taking care of ‘my four and no more,’ we must progress to the understanding that a rising tide lifts all ships,” she said.

The issues highlighted in mayors’ 2011 State of the Cities speeches certainly don’t obey jurisdictional boundaries.  Residents cross local and even state boundaries on a daily basis as they travel from home to work, school, shopping and entertainment.  Transportation infrastructure cannot dump passengers out as they leave the city, forcing them to relocate to another system.  Public services cannot leave citizens underserved and unprotected as they cross into a neighboring jurisdiction.  And economic growth in one city most certainly affects growth in neighboring cities.

Cities must work together to serve their citizens, and this ultimately increases their attractiveness and strengthens their economies.  In Columbia, S.C., for example, Mayor Steve Benjamin expects inter-modal regional transportation hubs to serve as centers of activity and provide new outlets for small business development.  And he believes projects that require this type of cross-jurisdictional cooperation result in improved city services and reduced taxpayer burden.

Many mayors agree that local success means success for the region.  In Cleveland, Tenn., growth needs over the next 25 years are being assessed at the county level, and the 4.2% increase in jobs this year was reported across the eastern part of the state.  Mayor Tom Rowland knows that Volkswagen’s decision to locate a new plant in nearby Chattanooga will not compete with Cleveland’s economy.  Rather, he is in full support of this success for its spillover effects in new jobs, revenue and growth in Cleveland and other cities.

Mayors are not only looking across jurisdictional borders, they are reaching across party lines to serve their communities.  Mayors like Ardell Brede of Rochester, Minn., are cooperating with one another through non-partisan regional councils.  Mayor Virg Bernero of Lansing, Mich., who also has joined a Blue Ribbon panel of regional leaders in Michigan, is striving to “…set aside turf and political fiefdoms, to embrace new ideas and new ways of collaborating, and then to take action.”

Cities’ cooperation elicits old fashioned sentiments of small town neighborliness.  When your neighbor succeeds, he invites you to share in his successes.  When your neighbor struggles, you are not immune to his hardship.  Most importantly, cooperation builds strength and fosters innovation.  Cities operate in much the same way.  This new era of regional collaboration borrows from these traditional neighborhood sentiments, yet it primes cities to become part of powerful and successful regions in the future.

Read about this project in more detail in The State of the Cities in 2011 and the most recent installment on city infrastructure on CitiesSpeak.  Don’t forget to check back on March 23rd for the final post in this series, which takes a look at prioritizing public safety in the face of potential budget cuts.

State of the Cities in 2011: Infrastructure a Prerequisite for Economic Success

This is the fifth in a seven-part series about mayors’ 2011 State of the City speeches.

In difficult economic times, the need to invest in city infrastructure—transportation, public works and technology—does not decline.  Rather, residents still expect usable roads, transit options, clean water and technological advances.  And as cities struggle to maintain economic competitiveness, mayors recognize that city infrastructure is the necessary shell that allows cities to develop their economies and attract new investment.

In their State of the City addresses, mayors routinely stressed the importance of infrastructure investment as a way, not only to increase quality of life, but to create jobs and spur development.  Their focus is on the future of their cities.

For instance, Mayor Benjamin of Columbia, S.C., declared that “if we’re going to lead on job creation, we must first lead on transportation.”  His intention is to promote public transportation in an entirely different way than the city has in the past, which includes energy efficient buses, regional transportation hubs and inter-modal options.  “This is about a new vision that sees public transportation not as a burden to be carried but a boon that can carry us into a bright new future together,” he said.

In addition, one major aspect of Mayor Jim Suttle’s speech of Omaha, Neb., was the city’s recent efforts to develop a Transportation Master Plan in order to ensure the mobility of residents now and into the future.  “Transportation connects our community and we want to see policies providing choices in mobility to the citizens of Omaha.  The goal is to determine the most effective and efficient choices for moving people throughout our city,” he said.

Even smaller cities like Greenville, Miss., that rely heavily on investment from small businesses, realize the connection between infrastructure development and the ability to attract businesses and create jobs.  That is why Mayor Hudson declared that the city is working to deliver broadband internet throughout the city so that businesses are able to interact with suppliers and customers.  “We must be able to deliver the goods of our local businesses to the world that awaits and that is willing to buy,” she said.

Mayors attributed their infrastructure successes to the productive use of available sources of funding.  In Bowie, Md., Mayor Frederick Robinson declared that the city had been successful in obtaining almost $2 million in federal, state and foundation grants for capital projects.  And in West Palm Beach, Fla., Mayor Frankel stressed the importance of federal and state funding for infrastructure projects, which have in turn improved the lives of residents and created hundreds of jobs.

Cities are already seeing the positive economic effects of their infrastructure investments, and mayors have no plans to curtail infrastructure advances that will play a major role in local economic recovery.  Rather, cities like Bowie, Md. and Syracuse, N.Y., plan to be even more proactive about seeking federal funding to support city operations and work with their city councils to make the process for obtaining federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds more professional, transparent and results-oriented.

Echoing NLC’s recent call for continued CDBG funding at the local level, Joe Scarborough, the Tuesday afternoon general session speaker at the NLC Congressional City Conference put partisan politics aside for the session to voice his concern for the federal government’s apparent lack of concern for “domestic development,” as he termed it.  The emphasis on infrastructure investment in the 2011 State of the City speeches is on-the-ground evidence that this “domestic development,” and the resources required to fund it, are necessary prerequisites for local economic success.

Read about this project in more detail in The State of the Cities in 2011 and the most recent installment on economic development on CitiesSpeak.  Don’t forget to check back throughout the month of March for more discussion on the State of the Cities in 2011. Next up on March 21st: a look at the new era of regional collaboration.

State of the Cities in 2011: What Are Mayors Saying About Economic Development?

This is the fourth in a seven-part series about mayors’ 2011 State of the City speeches.

In various “State of the City” addresses, local leaders stressed that the best way to improve their city’s economic position is to increase investment within the city, which they admit is no easy task.  Whether it’s through promoting second stage businesses, attracting new businesses to fill vacant storefronts or educating and training the city’s workforce, one common theme is that city leaders are proactively seeking and growing investment and reevaluating economic development strategies to improve their cities’ economic condition.

Take Lansing, Mich., for example.  In a state where the unemployment rate is around 11 percent, 2 percent above the national average, and where cities such as Detroit are hovering around 19 percent, Lansing is in comparatively good shape.  Unemployment is the lowest it’s been in 22 months and is the second lowest unemployment rate in the state, and 2010 was the first year the region saw positive job growth in manufacturing in 15 years.  And while much of this improvement has to do with the “rebirth” of General Motors, Mayor Bernero attributes a majority of the city’s recent successes to the use of specific economic tools such as competitive incentives, corridor development and infrastructure investments.  He stresses that these initiatives are what have attracted large and small businesses alike.

What’s more, Mayor Doyle of Beaverton, Ore. declared that “in these tough economic times… City Hall must do everything it can to support [the] local business community”.  The city literally cut its development code document in half to eliminate inefficiencies and simplify the permitting process, while maintaining safeguards from detrimental development.  In Boston, Mayor Menino described the city’s recent efforts to develop the South Boston Innovation district, a business district focused primarily on attracting and growing clean-tech and green businesses.  He recalls of the city’s efforts, “I said that our waterfront should not turn into ‘Anywhere USA.’  Instead, through creativity and some insistence, it’s becoming a model for the country for how to rebuild the economy around new and growing industries.”

Mayor Lane from Scottsdale, Ariz. even spoke of the recent creation of an advisory council comprised of business and community leaders that will help determine ways to make the city more attractive to CEOs and entrepreneurs.

Many cities are not only focusing on attracting and expanding businesses but also preparing the city’s workforce for future investment.  City leaders understand that one of the most important community characteristics for existing and potential businesses is an appropriately skilled workforce.  If the educational infrastructure does not meet the needs of the prospective business community, they will most certainly locate elsewhere.

Mayor Hudson of Greensville, Miss. spoke of a three-pronged approach: education, infrastructure and jobs.  These factors are interrelated, but if not made to work in conjunction, they can hinder economic advancement.  Mayor Hudson highlights the importance of this relationship, “our students today are the workforce of tomorrow.”

In addition to developing the skills of school-age students, cities like West Palm Beach, Fla. are also exploring ways to “facilitate a mutually beneficial nexus between the city’s business community and the institutions of higher education.”  Mayor Frankel believes the opportunities that are available at local universities can ultimately boost job growth by connecting with the needs of local employers.

True, many of these strategies are by no means “innovative.”  But what’s important is that these city leaders are talking about these tools in the context of their communities.  They seem to have taken the time to determine which economic tools are appropriate for their city – which tools will help local businesses expand, how to leverage key investments, like infrastructure, for economic development,  and what workforce skill sets are needed to meet the needs of tomorrow’s growth industries.  And when it comes down to it, simply being able to assess what your city has in order to develop a vision, mission and strategy is the first step in effective economic development and will lead to increased investment.

Read about this project in more detail in The State of the Cities in 2011 and the most recent installment on sustainability on Citiesspeak.  Don’t forget to check back throughout the month of March for more discussion on the State of the Cities in 2011. Next up on March 17th: a look deeper into local infrastructure developments.

State of the Cities in 2011: Sustainability, But What’s in a Name?

This is the third in a seven-part series about mayors’ 2011 State of the City speeches.
Mayors across the country are implementing initiatives to drive economic recovery while protecting the environment, promoting public health and creating vibrant communities with a unique sense of place.  These programs fulfill the triple-bottom-line definition of sustainability – bringing concurrent benefits to the environment, economy and society – and in their State of the City addresses, mayors chose among variable reasons to tout these efforts.  Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the principal goal is, or why cities pursue sustainability, because the ancillary benefits will follow.  Whether primarily motivated by job creation or clean water, and whether using words like “livable” or “green” or no buzzword at all, mayors are talking about sustainability in their 2011 State of the City addresses.

Conservation and efficiency are especially compelling in tough economic times, and many mayors emphasized financial benefits.  Mayor Tom Dale of Nampa, Idaho, mentioned efficient lighting upgrades in municipal buildings that reaped $55,000 in energy bill savings in 2010.  Sacramento, Calif., mayor Kevin Johnson aims to retrofit school facilities to meet LEED standards for green buildings – and use the dollars saved to protect teacher salaries.  New York City launched a green stormwater infrastructure program last year that uses trees and gardens to capture rain, rather than store and treat stormwater in expensive tanks and tunnels.  Mayor Michael Bloomberg boasted that this program saves the city $2 billion a year, which is “a very big deal.”

Other mayors are capitalizing on clean energy technology and green economic development to directly create job opportunities in their communities.  In Columbia, S.C., Mayor Steve Benjamin celebrated the arrival of 1,000 high-paying jobs manufacturing solar panels.  Among Sacramento Mayor Johnson’s top three priorities is using sustainability “game-changers” as a tool to double the number of green jobs by 2020, such as a new biofuel manufacturing industry that converts agricultural waste to fuel for the municipal vehicle fleet.  He calls it “a self-sustaining green economy.”

These and other cities understand that sustainability is crucial for competitiveness and to attract and retain residents.  Transportation choices are also essential for economic growth and a number of mayors expressed plans to invest in public transit.  Salt Lake City mayor Ralph Becker sees the success of the Sugar House Streetcar as a metaphor for the state of his city.  And Mayor Benjamin describes the “bright new future” he envisions for his city through transit-oriented development: “Imagine positioning Columbia as a new, vibrant and green 21st century metropolis with public transportation at its core. … If we’re going to lead on job creation, we must first lead on transportation.”

Though prosperity is a priority for most cities, a number of mayors are celebrating environmental protection for its own sake – independent of its connection to a strong economy.  Cities from Marion, Iowa, to Albuquerque, N.M., are dedicated to improving recycling rates.  Mayor Virg Bernero of Lansing, Mich., seeks to reduce his city’s dependence on coal by constructing a new natural gas power plant.  And Mayor Lois Frankel committed West Palm Beach, Fla., to conducting a citywide greenhouse gas emissions inventory, followed by a climate action plan, in 2011.

Along with “prosperity” and “planet,” the third tenet of sustainability – “people” – is also present in mayors’ speeches, most often manifested through a focus on healthy living.  Mayor Ardell Brede of Rochester, Minn., created smoke-free bus shelters for cleaner air and Mayor Robert Cluck of Arlington, Texas, joined the First Lady’s Let’s Move! campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation.  Even mayors who made no other mention of a program that easily fits under the sustainability umbrella indicated that their city has bolstered bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.   In some places, sustainability is primarily about improving the quality of life.

By choosing language that resonates in their community – whether people, planet or prosperity – mayors are speaking to their constituents about sustainability.  At the end of the day, the “how” or “why” is less relevant.  Cities are already acting on their vision for the sustainable future, regardless of the words used to describe it.  Those mayors who understand that sustainability is about solutions, not sacrifices, will succeed in propelling their cities into a 21st century rich in innovation, protective of nature, and with a high quality of life.  If these 31 State of the City addresses are any indication of a greater trend, we can expect strong, continued leadership in sustainability from municipal governments.

Read about this project in more detail in The State of the Cities in 2011 and the most recent installment on government efficiency on Citiesspeak.  Don’t forget to check back throughout the month of March for more discussion on the State of the Cities in 2011. Next up on March 10th: a look deeper in to economic development.

State of the Cities in 2011: Building a More Efficient Government

This is the second in a seven-part series about mayors’ 2011 State of the City speeches.

In a nation where fiscal responsibility is in the spotlight, and groups are grappling for funding, the “State of the City” addresses we read clearly show that city governments are in search of ways to balance their budgets. Unfortunately, all too often city employees bear the brunt of this course of action. However, there is another way. The recipe for a different line of attack consists of one part prioritization, one part transparency, one part public participation and a big dash of creativity.

Budget cuts are never easy and may be the only policy more heart-wrenching to enact than tax increases. Kansas City’s Mayor, Mark Funkhouser, would certainly agree. Mayor Funkhouser stated that, “we have controlled spending. And we did it by laying people off. Actual, real human beings unfortunately hit the street this time.”  Dismissal of staffers is not an enjoyable task for any administrator and although job cuts did not happen in all cities, it has happened in many and will certainly continue in the future.  Peoria, Ill. is another example that reduced its workforce by more than 10% this past year.

There is a reason why giving someone the boot is tough; they are most often a hardworking individual supporting a family. Sometimes job cuts are a necessary tactic, but it appears in the speeches that some cities are using it as a default approach. There are other alternatives that do not decrease the number of public employees, but rather achieve responsible, fiscal, successes through improving the efficiency and structure in which the government operates. These alternatives keep public employees on the job and working, which is the right thing to do.

Getting back to our recipe for success, the first part calls for prioritization. The City of Bothell, Washington labels it “living within your means” others refer to it as “doing more, with less,” either way, financial responsibility and continued excellence is a key aspiration in cities. Governments need to be able to provide their citizens with top-notch services, yet do so while carefully stewarding over the tax revenue they receive. Albuquerque, N.M., for example, was able to reduce property crime by 19% in the same year it “balanced the budget and saved 25 million dollars – all without furloughs or layoffs.” How did the city do it? The mayor made property theft prevention a priority and the public joined the fight by providing useful tips to police officers.

Prioritization is vital to efficiency. Realizing that governments cannot do everything, but rather can provide certain services exceptionally, is imperative. As was demonstrated, all of this can be achieved without government lay-offs. The question then becomes, how do you prioritize?

Mayor Steve Benjamin of Columbia, South Carolina stated it well: “The simple truth is that if there’s one thing you should expect from your government it’s the truth.”  The process for identifying what to cut and what not to cut includes the second two items in our recipe; transparency (truth) and public participation. In places like Nampa, Idaho, cities are placing all of their audits online in an easy-to-read format so that the public can access the documents and know how their tax dollars are being spent. In Beaverton, Ore., the City Council released a call for a Blue Ribbon Task Force to help advise the Council on challenges the city faces as part of an overall dedication to inclusion and public involvement in the process. Neither city made any mention of staff losing their jobs, but demonstrated that the use of creative platforms such as the internet, social media, town-hall meetings, fiscal reports and budget forums are all great ways to get the community involved in making the tough decisions that affect the city’s future. Citizens react to creativity, inclusion and public deliberation in a positive way.

As all budgetary problems usually do, this idea boils down to some simple math.  If you search for priorities among the general public by educating them on the details of various proposals and then offer them a forum to express their views, all while including a little creativity in the process, you can find ways to solve almost any fiscal challenge.  In layman’s terms: prioritization + transparency + public participation + creativity = results. This process is not always easy, but it’s worth protecting a city’s valuable assets more commonly known as public employees.

Read about this project in more detail in the March 7th issue of NLC’s Nation’s Cities Weekly and The State of the Cities in 2011 on Citiesspeak.  Don’t forget to check back throughout the month of March for more discussion on the State of the Cities in 2011. Next up on March 9th: a look deeper in to sustainability initiatives that are driving economic recovery and protecting the environment.

The State of the Cities in 2011

This is the first in a seven-part series about mayors’ 2011 State of the City speeches.

From our office in Washington, D.C., NLC staff address local issues on behalf of city leaders from across the country.  We think we know where city leaders’ heads are, but how do they actually view their cities’ progress?  And more importantly, how are they setting the tone for the coming year?  We thought it best to find out from the mayors themselves.

This year marks NLC’s second annual analysis of “State of the City” addresses.  Staff from NLC’s Center for Research and Innovation analyzed mayors’ speeches from 31 cities of all sizes spread geographically throughout the nation.  This analysis was neither exhaustive nor a statistically reliable cross-section of the state of cities in America.  Nevertheless, several common themes emerged, and mayors’ outlooks were overwhelmingly optimistic.

As a result of the analysis, we now know what themes mayors think are most important as they lead their cities in 2011.  They include government efficiency, sustainability, economic development, infrastructure, regionalism, and public safety.  Citiesspeak will be NLC staff’s platform for reporting on and discussing these common themes over the next several weeks.

Mayors are building upon past accomplishments, responding to previous years’ challenges, and drumming up enthusiasm for combating these challenges in 2011.  Through this series, we urge readers to learn from city leaders how best to reflect on local struggles and triumphs and move cities forward.

Read about this project in more detail in the March 7th issue of NLC’s Nation’s Cities Weekly, and don’t forget to check back on throughout the month of March for more discussion on the State of the Cities in 2011. Next up on March 7th: a look deeper in to the efficiency initiatives being undertaken by cities to cut costs and improve services.

Cities Included in the 2011 State of the Cities Project

Albuquerque, NM Charlotte, NC Louisville, KY Peoria, IL
Arlington, TX Claremore, OK Marion, IA Rochester, MN
Beaverton, OR Cleveland, TN Mesquite, TX Sacramento, CA
Boston, MA Columbia, SC Montgomery, AL Salt Lake City, UT
Bothell, WA Greenville, MS Morganton, NC Scottsdale, AZ
Bowie, MD Helena, MT Nampa, ID Syracuse, NY
Brighton, CO Kansas City, MO New York, NY West Palm Beach, FL
Caldwell, ID Lansing, MI Omaha, NE

Ideas Require a Team to Carry Them Forward

The New York Times called John Fetterman of Braddock, Pennsylvania the “Mayor of Rust.” To his credit, the mayor accepts the moniker as a compliment.

To be sure, there are many accomplishments for which Mayor Fetterman can be proud. He has embraced land banks, urban agriculture, and green roofing as initiatives to revitalize his community. Moreover, he has used some of his own money to buy up vacant properties, launch a nonprofit and subsidize artists, all in the name of renewal.

These are all good ideas that are compatible with key aspects of leadership that include vision, energy, and a personal investment of time and talent. However, there is another key element of leadership, the talent for bringing people together and building a coalition. Alas, Mayor John, as he is often called, seems instead to model a top-down style of leadership.

To get a clearer picture of collaborative leadership, one must travel east from Braddock over to Camden, New Jersey. In Camden during a difficult economic period fraught with many unpopular choices, Mayor Dana L. Redd also is grasping for ideas, taking risks, cutting costs, embracing change, repurposing old structures and generally doing everything she can to make a difference. In the case of Camden however, Mayor Redd is working with and through the multi-tiered, multi-faceted community organization known as The Greater Camden Partnership. In this case, success has served to reinforce a unity of purpose across much of  the community.

Ideas matter. This country was founded on an idea about individual liberty and popular self-government. Ideas, creativity, and adaptation are genetically encoded in the American psyche. But something else too; an idea is only as good as the other people with whom it is shared. Very seldom does one individual ever see all the pieces of the puzzle in one bright explosion of realization. We need and depend upon others to refine, reframe, and at times reinvigorate our ideas.

Of course, cities won’t grow or thrive on ideas alone. What’s required is the collaborative team of diverse talents that brings ideas to tangible and achievable actions. As any mayor, councilmember or manager knows, it’s the collaboration with and through peers, colleagues and citizens that leads to long-lasting solutions that can be embraced by the entire community. Abraham Lincoln had his “team of rivals.” Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell had Mission Control. And just like the U.S. Marines, local officials have each other.