Building for the Future in an Uncertain Present: State of the Cities 2013


“Synergy is when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. When applied to finding new solutions to the challenges we face in building a community, this requires an inclusive process that seeks input and ideas from many people. In doing so, we can generate new and better ways of doing business.”

On January 16th, Mayor Tom Dale delivered an inspiring and optimistic State of the City Address titled, “Our People, Our Progress, Our Path Forward,” to the citizens of Nampa, Idaho.  In it, he emphasized people and relationships as the single largest community asset that contributed to solving the challenges of the previous year, challenges that included “reduction in revenues, increased demand for services, and uncertainty at the national level.”  Mayor Dale’s speech was characterized by renewed optimism, and a sense that perhaps the answers to these challenges lay in a fresh outlook towards the city’s future and the creative use of local resources.

The sentiment put forth by Mayor Dale and the “synergy” he describes is a story that rings familiar not only to this community of roughly 82,000 residents, but to small, medium and large cities across America.  In 2013, local governments are facing similar challenges as in prior years, but more than ever, they see community assets—the people, the relationships and the partnerships—as key to solving these challenges.

Regardless of the issue, mayors, city staff and residents are working with their fellow citizens to address traditional challenges through creative problem-solving, often utilizing programs and/or policies to connect what have typically been thought of as disparate issues in new and innovative ways.  Whether the strategies include creative uses of technology, partnership-building in and outside city government, or simply better communication and coordination, mayors and their staff are working to build strong and healthy communities for their constituents—communities that thrive on creativity, transparency and trusted relationships.

Reflecting this, mayors’ State of the City Addresses this year have embraced innovation and experimentation as critical elements to solve persistent challenges in their cities around five major issue areas:

  • Regardless of whether the economy is humming or in crisis, economic development is always at the forefront of local policy making, with mayors often unofficially identifying themselves as the Chief Economic Development Officers of their municipalities. Mayors from cities such as Charlotte, North Carolina and Auburn, Washington. tout improvements to their airports, which connect cities to important international and domestic trading partners, as an important local economic development driver.  Others recognize the critical role of partnering with a variety of institutions (universities, regional cities and private organizations). And as working millennials seek out thriving urban centers to live, work and play, downtown revitalization is a key focus for mayors in cities such as Durham, North Carolina and Wichita, Kansas.
  • With public safety affecting all sectors of city life, from health and education to economic development, it is encouraging to find that several cities have seen a reduction in overall crime rates in recent years. In cities such as Memphis, Tennessee and Salem, Oregon, mayors attribute this, in large part, to new community-oriented policing initiatives designed to help law enforcement become more attuned to the needs and concerns of the citizens that they serve and protect. Other mayors, from cities such as Fayetteville, Arkansas, tout technology advancements to enhance first responder capabilities as a means of improving overall public safety, resulting in a better quality of life for city residents. ­
  • City leaders increasingly view education reform as critical to developing their local labor force and attracting and retaining businesses. Through engaging in creative local partnerships with school districts, Pre-k providers, human service organizations, and local businesses, mayors are leading innovative efforts to strengthen the educational pipeline for all residents. For example, in Columbus, Ohio, Mayor Michael Coleman is working to establish a new public-private partnership for education, focused on attracting and keeping the best teachers and principals; providing access to quality Pre-k; closing the digital divide; and encouraging growth of high quality public and charter schools.
  • Infrastructure demands are not being met with any single solution. Rather, city leaders are using limited funds to imagine multi-modal transportation systems that improve accessibility for more residents—systems that include street car lines, bus lines and bicycle and pedestrian networks. At the same time, many city mayors are taking a holistic approach to infrastructure planning, recognizing the connections between streets, water systems, sewer lines and urban forests as a means to improve quality of life for residents while addressing pressing environmental issues such as climate change and sea-level rise.
  • Since the financial crisis, municipal finance has become a hot topic due to the immense challenges that cities face in meeting budgetary obligations. The aftereffects of the recession still linger, forcing city mayors to put in place tangible solutions to ensure fiscal sustainability.  For example, Fort Wayne, Indiana established a fiscal policy group of experts to narrow its focus on brainstorming strategic options to stem fiscal decay.  Columbus, Georgia reformed its employee pension system, which, combined with other reforms, has contributed to an improved bond rating.

Over the last several weeks, National League of Cities staff from the Center for Research & Innovation and the Institute for Youth, Education & Families analyzed 2013 State of the City Addresses given by mayors and city managers from 30 U.S. cities with diverse populations and geographies, with the intention of identifying cross-cutting issues and innovative solutions. During the week of March 25th, we will publish a blog post each day that reflects one of the five themes identified above.  This series is not meant to be an exhaustive representation of the conditions in cities across America; rather, it is meant to provide a sample of trends in local innovations that can serve as a baseline for discussion and inspiration.

In that vein, we are looking to hear from you:  Do these examples represent the types of creative problem-solving taking place in your community?  Are there innovative programs and policies that your city is utilizing to confront persistent challenges?   We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below and as we continue to post the rest of this series!State of the Cities

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