Innovation in city programs: How do we know it when we see it?

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Amid persistent attention placed on cities struggling to make ends meet, cities across the country are also engaged in countless efforts to improve the quality of life for their residents. In many cases, these quality of life improvements are strong ammunition against local hardship. It’s easy for cities to get bogged down in their own struggles, but in order to succeed, they must learn from one another. How leaders in Portland are addressing a common challenge may resonate with city leaders in Baltimore, but the opportunities to share this knowledge are often too few and far between.

At the 2011 Congress of Cities, 35 innovative city programs will be recognized as part of the NLC City Showcase. Because of their innovative approaches to solving common city problems and improving the quality of life in communities, these programs are given the opportunity to showcase their efforts and share their expertise with conference attendees—city leaders who experience the same challenges and thirst for knowledge about innovative problem-solving approaches.

In order for these programs to be recognized for their accomplishments, we had to first identify their good work. Let’s take a deeper look at how we made the selections—in other words, how did we know innovation when we saw it?

We began by looking at programs that seek to address the most common challenges facing cities. We know that these challenges include making cities more sustainable, increasing their economic growth potential, supporting community development and citizen engagement, improving infrastructure, and creating opportunities to improve the lives of youth and families. But some programs stood out from the rest, because they approached these challenges in ways that were both cross-cutting and catalyzing. The chosen programs fostered the cross-department and cross-discipline collaboration necessary for problem solving. They also succeeded in creating initiatives that have the potential to catalyze a variety of other positive effects.

As a result of the Virginia Beach, Va. Green Destination program, for example, the city’s tourism and hospitality industry has committed to decreasing its environmental impact. Through this program, the city has married its need to maintain economic viability through tourism with a citywide commitment to sustainability. As a result, the city was named the Commonwealth’s first “Virginia Green Destination.” This effort also has the potential to use one of the city’s most prominent industries to encourage other city departments, local establishments, and residents to make a commitment to sustainability.

In Rochester, Minn., Active Living Rochester is an active community planning collaboration between health, land use, and transportation stakeholders. The city used a local asset—The Mayo Clinic—to strengthen this initiative, which encourages personal health and physical activity and supports a built environment that promotes active transportation (walking, biking, etc.). The program has the potential to catalyze positive advances, including increased quality of life, increased access to goods and services, and decreased costs associated with transportation and healthcare.

The 2011 Congress of Cities’ host city of Phoenix offered a variety of innovative programs. To highlight innovation locally, we welcomed eleven City Showcase programs from in and around the City of Phoenix. One such program, Higher Education Partnerships and Downtown Development, is simultaneously increasing educational opportunities and revitalizing the city’s urban core, in partnership with Arizona State University and the University of Arizona. The city stands to reap long-term economic benefits, as local students find that the city provides them with the career opportunities and quality of life they seek.

These are but a few examples of the kind of innovation we found as we studied city programs from across the country. Learn more about the 24 national City Showcase programs and the 11 featured local Phoenix programs on the NLC website and at the 2011 Congress of Cities.