Climate Change Doesn’t Recognize City Boundaries

Drive just thirty miles west of Pinecrest, Florida – a beautiful, cozy village neighboring Miami – and you are engulfed in a dramatically different landscape.  You look around, taking in the dense, semi-tropical air and the mysteriousness of a river that slowly meanders  through the saw grass, a river home to alligators and crocodiles, water lilies, mangroves and mosquitoes.

Everglades_RVThirty miles and you’ve arrived at the Everglades, the third-largest national park in the mainland United States.  The Everglades is the largest subtropical wetland ecosystem in North America, home to roughly 350 species of birds, 300 species of fish, 40 species of mammal, and 21
federally threatened or endangered species.

Last Thursday, as part of our Energy, Environment, and Natural Resources Committee meeting focused on climate change adaptation, we had the opportunity to do an airboat tour of the Everglades. On the bus ride over from Pinecrest, experts from the Everglades Foundation told us stories of the land and the surrounding communities, stories that really drove home the fact that the fate of urban, man-made spaces is much more closely tied to the fate of nature than we think.

Once stretching over 3 million acres in Southern Florida, today the Everglades is confined to roughly 1.3 million acres, with a majority of it designated as a wilderness area to prevent any further alteration of the natural landscape.  In the last century, as a result of growing population and increasing development pressure, the natural water flow has been diverted into 1,800 miles of canals and endless dams.

How does any of this affect cities in South Florida?

In Florida, one in every three residents, and all of the roughly seven million residents of South Florida rely on the Everglades for their water supply.   Most businesses and homes in South Florida are dependent on the continual supply of drinking water from the Biscayne aquifer, and the $55 billion agricultural industry in South Florida would not exist without it.

As we see more visible impacts of climate change, it becomes even clearer that the Everglades and the cities in South Florida are inextricably linked to one another. For example, sea level rise and saltwater intrusion are threatening South Florida’s national parks and the coastal regions, which mostly lie at an elevation no greater than eight feet above sea level. This, in combination with warmer air temperatures, could drastically affect the saw grass beds that are not only home to a tremendous diversity of wildlife, but also serves as the vessel for the water that so many South Floridians rely on for their basic needs.  While it is still unclear the extent to which climate change will affect the unique biodiversity of the Everglades, there is no doubt that its effects will be increasingly seen and felt in both the natural and man-made ecosystems of South Florida.

What are South Florida cities and their partners doing about this?

In South Florida, perhaps because the effects are so visible and in some cases immediate, cities and partners alike understand this connection to nature.  Initiatives are taking place to not only protect and restore the environment, but city governments are strategically thinking about the multiple effects of climate change programs and policies:

  • In 2009, following the Southeast Florida Climate Leadership Summit, elected officials formalized the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, which has been getting a lot of publicity for its unprecedented levels of cooperation and action on climate change issues by cities and counties alike.  Most recently, the Compact released a regional climate action plan, outlining mitigation and adaptation strategies to adopt.  Read about the Climate Compact here.
  • Following a bipartisan decision by Congress in 2000 to direct efforts at restoring the Everglades (Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project), the Everglades Foundation is taking the lead on a number of restoration projects to restore the natural habitat. Projections show that restoration of the Everglades will actually have a 4-to -1 return on investment for South Florida. Watch this video to learn more.
  • The South Florida Regional Planning Council, funded by the U.S. EPA, is currently doing research on the impacts of sea level rise over a 200 year period on seven counties in South Florida. Read more about their work.

These are only some examples of the types of work taking place in South Florida to ensure that cities and partner organizations are effectively preparing for and adapting to a changing climate.  However, what’s clear with the work going on down south is that effective climate change planning necessitates taking a closer look at what’s happening both within and outside of jurisdictional boundaries.

Raksha Vasudevan

About the authorRaksha Vasudevan is the Senior Sustainability Associate at NLC.  Through  the Sustainable Cities Institute, her work focuses on sharing innovative solutions to city sustainability challenges, from climate change and resilience to buildings and energy efficiency.  Follow Raksha on Twitter at @RakshaAmbika and the Sustainable Cities Institute at @SustCitiesInst.

Show and Tell: Cities Share Best Practices at the Big Ideas for Small Business Summit

Mayor Emanuel provided welcoming remarks at the first-ever Big Ideas for Small Business Summit in Chicago.

Mayor Emanuel provided welcoming remarks at the first-ever Big Ideas for Small Business Summit in Chicago.

City government should be a partner, not an obstacle, when it comes to small business development and retention in our communities. This is the major theme that emerged from the first-ever Big Ideas for Small Business Summit held in Chicago recently and co-hosted by NLC and the City of Chicago’s Innovation Delivery Team.

The Big Ideas for Small Business Summit provided a platform for senior economic development officials and city staff from 19 U.S. cities to meet in-person and discuss both the proven practices and common obstacles they’ve observed in their efforts to develop local “ecosystems” where new and existing businesses can thrive.

The summit participants established several overarching strategies for small business success:

• Provide entrepreneurs with access to peer networks for support and mentorship;

• Engage proactively with small business owners to create a welcoming environment;

• Establish permitting and licensing processes that are streamlined and transparent;

• Empower city staff to work collaboratively as informed and effective advocates for small businesses;

• Connect small businesses to innovative forms of capital such as crowd-sourced funding and microlending;

• Develop formal incubators to support early-stage businesses in traditional and emerging industries;

• Implement procurement partnerships to support and advertise local small businesses;

• Use data and technology to provide better support for small businesses; and

• Acknowledge and appreciate existing small businesses for their contributions to a city’s unique character

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel shared the success of the city’s 1871 incubator workspace for digital start-up businesses as well as other innovative strategies. Keynote speaker Matt Matros, founder of Chicago-based Protein Bar, advised that cities can support small businesses by maintaining a healthy “business circle of life,” which includes good transportation infrastructure, a strong workforce, and a livable city. Stephen Goldsmith, former Deputy Mayor of New York City and former Mayor of Indianapolis, highlighted the importance of eliminating burdensome city regulations that are restrictive to new small businesses, and also encouraged elevating the role of consumer feedback in determining the success of a small business.

Each city took home a short-list of action items to accomplish over the next months and years that will help make their cities better facilitators of small business development over the long run. The Big Ideas for Small Business Network will continue to collaborate on a monthly basis to discuss how to become better partners with their local small business communities.

From your perspective, how can city governments better partner with small businesses? Let me know at robbins@nlc.org or post your thoughts in the comments section.

TIGER Grants Help Clean up the “Mercer Mess” in Seattle

This is the first in a series of blogs that will explore the impact TIGER grants have on local communities by helping them better leverage financing options, meet transportation safety goals, and increase overall quality of life by introducing alternative modes of transportation.

The Mercer Corridor has been one of the City of Seattle’s most significant transportation challenges for over 40 years. Dubbed the “Mercer Mess,” the corridor’s circuitous one-way routing created major congestion, while restricting easy access to one of the city’s fastest growing neighborhoods, South Lake Union.

From its initial construction in the 1950s, the corridor was supposed to be a temporary solution to provide access to Interstate 5 while it was under construction.  However, it’s vehicle-based design cut through neighborhoods in such a way that it’s resulted in increased traffic and unsafe crossings for pedestrians.

The need for serious changes to the corridor was obvious to both residents and city officials for years. Some 80,000 vehicles, along with growing numbers of pedestrians and bicyclists, travel the corridor, making it a critical east/west route for moving people, goods, and services.

With substantial community buy-in, the city is in the midst of the Mercer Corridor Project. The goal of the project is to create an integrated system of freight, transit, pedestrian, bicycle, and car improvements that make the area a more livable, functional community with easy access to the downtown area.

This project is creating access from neighborhoods in the region to the growing biotechnology hub in South Lake Union, connecting a number of urban centers to a major interstate and helping facilitate improved freight movement for goods between the Port of Seattle and their other shipping facilities.

It is estimated that this project will positively impact commuters traveling to the region’s 245,000 existing jobs and the 50,000 additional jobs expected by 2024 by creating a more efficient and safe traffic flow.  The project also includes bike lanes, better pedestrian facilities, and improved connections to transit.

With a total cost for the first phase of the project of $190 million, the city financed the project with help from a $30 million TIGER grant, and other sources such as city funds and private contributions.

In 2012, the city received a second TIGER grant for reconstruction of the western portion of the corridor.

This second phase aims to connect the nearby interstate highway to a local street and is projected to create 1,000 direct and indirect jobs through its construction.  Additionally, it continues to build on the first phase of the project by further alleviating traffic, facilitating better freight movement, and supporting economic growth in the region by both creating jobs and improving access to them.

For more information on Seattle’s Mercer Street Corridor and other TIGER grant programs, register to attend NLC’s Congress of Cities conference in Seattle, WA, Nov. 13-16, 2013.  The conference will feature solutions to local challenges in the areas of infrastructure development and investment, environmental sustainability, and economic development.

About the TIGER Grants

In 2009, the US Congress dedicated $1.5 million for the first round of the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER Discretionary Grant program, which was created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).  The overwhelming popularity of the TIGER grant program has sustained this resource for local governments for five years and counting.

Through the program, the U.S. Department of Transportation provides competitive grants to local governments to invest in a variety of transportation initiatives that meet community needs while contributing to national transportation goals.

JuliaPulidindi

About the author: Julia Pulidindi is a Senior Associate for Infrastructure at the NLC. Her work focuses on identifying local challenges and solutions to transportation and telecommunications infrastructure issues.  Follow her on Twitter at @JuliaPulidindi.

Who’s to Blame for the Bad Jobs Report?

In a recent post on Wonkblog, Washington Post columnist Neil Irwin placed the blame for the disappointing August jobs report and the sluggish economic recovery squarely on the back of the government sector.

“From July 2008 to January 2013,” he writes, “the sector shed more than 737,000 jobs.”

And to make it worse, the most recent unemployment report revised June and July job growth down by an estimated 74,000 jobs – more than half of which, Irwin points out, was due to government job losses.

“Add it all up,” he writes, “and the picture for government employment is murkier.”

While this is a good assessment, when the lens is focused specifically on local government, the story becomes a little less clear cut.

Since the onset of the economic downturn, local governments have been forced to make tough choices in an effort to provide needed services and bolster their local economies while responding to large and often persistent budget shortfalls.

In 2010, NLC released a report projecting that significant local government job losses would be incurred with lasting impacts for local economies.

“Local governments across the country are now facing the combined impact of decreased tax revenues, a falloff in state and federal aid and increased demand for social services,” the report says. “Over the next two years, local tax bases will likely suffer from depressed property values, hard-hit household incomes and declining consumer spending.”

Furthermore, the report projected that state budget shortfalls would pose a significant threat to funding for local government programs, creating a climate of fiscal distress in which local governments are forced to eliminate both jobs and services. Unfortunately, this has indeed been the case.

As suggested by Irwin, it appears that these trends will not completely course correct in the near future. But an important question is: does it have to be this way?

Despite repeated calls from NLC, the National Association of Counties and the US Conference of Mayors for quick action to stabilize local economies, federal action up to this point has been modest at best – while more aggressive opportunities to boost local economies have not been taken.

Federal investment that helps save local jobs and preserves local services has been and continues to be important for economic recovery in communities across the country.

As Irwin states in his blog post, the onus for job creation can’t be placed on the private sector alone. After all, the business of government is often conducted through the private sector — construction and maintenance, garbage collection, recycling and tree trimming are just a few examples.

Expect less than ideal job growth in the government sector to continue until the federal government gets its act together.

STAR Communities Announces 2014 Leadership Program & Financial Assistance

This post was written by Lacey Shaver, Outreach and Program Coordinator, STAR Communities.

For the past 10 months, more than 30 cities and counties from across the U.S. and Canada have been tracking their sustainability progress through participation in the STAR Community Rating System’s (STAR) pilot program. Working through the rating system with other communities helped participants reflect on their existing programs and learn from one another.

Dylan Siegler, Sustainability Manager at the City of Austin Office of Sustainability says, “STAR allows us to fairly evaluate Austin’s strengths as well as understand our challenges. At the same time, STAR [Communities] will provide the resources to learn from peer cities across North America about their successful sustainability programs and strategies.”

Pacific Northwest meeting of STAR pilot community leaders.

Pacific Northwest meeting of STAR pilot community leaders.

The STAR Pilot Communities hail from all over the country, from small towns to large cities, and the ways that they tackle sustainability issues within their communities are as varied as their sizes and locations. STAR provided a much-needed vocabulary for the pilot communities to more effectively strategize and define local sustainability planning efforts. Its goals and objectives presented a vision of how their communities could become more healthy, inclusive, and prosperous across seven specific categories encompassing the economic, social, and environmental dimensions of sustainability.

Several pilot communities, including Washington, DC, Lee County, FL, and Tucson, AZ, integrated STAR into newly drafted sustainability plans.

“The District of Columbia used the STAR Community Rating System to help create metrics for our new sustainability    plan, Sustainable DC. Measuring the progress of a long-term sustainability initiative is an enormous challenge, so in addition to tracking progress of our plan’s individual actions, the District plans to use STAR as a way to measure the level of sustainability for the District as a whole. Having the ability to benchmark against other cities over time will be invaluable in determining our success and leadership nationally. Before STAR, this would just not have been possible,” explains Dan Guilbeault, Policy Analyst at the District Department of the Environment.

As the pilot program wraps up, and the pilot communities begin to submit their data for certification, STAR Communities is now looking to the future and to the next group of leadership communities. Based on the success of and the lessons learned from the pilot program, STAR Communities is pleased to announce the opportunity for all U.S. cities and counties to measure progress towards community sustainability through participation in the 2014 Leadership STAR Community Program.

With extensive support from STAR Communities staff, the selected  Leadership STAR Communities will work through the STAR Community Rating System together with the goal of becoming certified sustainable communities. Local governments that achieve a certified STAR Community Rating are recognized as leaders in sustainability and gain a deep understanding of their community’s strengths and needs to support current and future generations.

Through the one-year Leadership Program, communities will receive tools to measure progress towards a common set of sustainability metrics, access to STAR’s online platform to track the community’s sustainability data, opportunities to learn best practice from other communities, and assistance in sustainability messaging and storytelling.

In partnership with the Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities, STAR Communities will offer financial assistance to a limited number of communities that demonstrate need and the ability to leverage local philanthropic support for their participation in the Leadership STAR Community Program. The full program application and guidelines for financial assistance are available at www.STARcommunities.org. The deadline for submission is Tuesday, October 15, 2013.

Since its inception, the National League of Cities (NLC) has been a core partner of the STAR Community Rating System. NLC and STAR Communities are both dedicated to improving America’s cities and mutually reinforce each other’s missions.

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.

Building the Social Town Hall

This post was written by Stephen Goldsmith and originally appeared in Government Technology Magazine. Stephen Goldsmith is the  Director of the Innovations in Government Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is a former mayor of Indianapolis and Deputy Mayor of New York City.

Social media is the new town hall, where government leaders join residents in the constant digital conversation that occurs on Twitter and other sites. However, in addition to straightforward communication, social media offers much more in transforming how government works and listens. The use of social media is now evolving through four stages.

Stage 1: Social media as a communications channel.

Most city and state elected officials now use social media accounts to share updates and respond to questions from constituents. This information ranges from street cleaning notices to vital emergency notifications. In times of crisis, social media, both to and from city hall, often precedes traditional news outlets. Whether during the search for the terrorists in Boston or responding to the problems caused by Sandy, eyewitness residents and public officials alike turned to Twitter as one of the best and quickest ways for government to communicate. Newly developed apps let residents report problems more quickly and accurately than calling 311.

Stage 2: Enhancing constituent satisfaction with social media.

We can of course find better uses for social media than just facilitating ways for voters to complain or public officials to brag about what they’ve done. The next level of social media use is creating a digital town hall to collect ideas and input from residents. Social tools allow a broader segment of a community to participate in solving a problem or reacting to an idea than a typical town hall, which is dominated by the loudest person who has the time to invest. For example, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee recently combined live-streamed media with questions about the city’s budget submitted via email and Twitter to gather input. Incorporating digital tools into discussions and presentations that already occur at the city level is an easy way to begin using social media at low cost. These conversations can also be entirely new efforts to crowdsource ideas to big problems. For example, Chicago hosted a Twitter discussion called #WhatIfChicago seeking ideas to reduce illegal guns on the city’s streets, which quickly grew into a global conversation.

Stage 3: Listening and acting better through social media.

Although Twitter campaigns and mayoral accounts will engage a good portion of a city’s residents, governments can cast an even wider net through automated analysis of social media conversations taking place in a geographic region. Washington, D.C., has begun to automate sentiment mining on an agency level to supplement direct comments and feedback and develop more holistic ratings of each agency. Such analysis also can trigger service requests (for trash pickup, etc.) before a resident ever submits a formal complaint. Sentiment analysis lets public officials understand concerns before they become full-scale problems.

Stage 4: Social democracy.

The size and complexity of local and state government produced over the last century has moved more to technical professionalism and government by representative elites and less to democratic participation. Talking to large numbers of individuals, synthesizing their thoughts and translating it into action became daunting and in some ways viewed as inappropriately political. Our next generation of social networking will look at ways to renew the democratic fabric — deeply weaving the mined and curated community reactions through the social network into the daily functions for customer service, rule-making, prioritization, problem solving and ideation. When analyzed and combined with 311, 911 and stat program data, social media inputs from residents can unlock insights that make government more efficient and effective.

Social media tools, now widely used for communications, can harness the wisdom of crowds, improving government and involving citizens in a renewed democratic confidence.