Time to Re-write Outdated Traffic Ordinances?

By Ildar Sagdejev, via Wikimedia Commons

By Ildar Sagdejev, via Wikimedia Commons

In Heien v. North Carolina, a police officer pulled over a car because he thought North Carolina law required that motor vehicles have two working brake lights.  It turns out the officer was wrong.  The North Carolina Court of Appeals concluded that state law requires motor vehicles to only have one working brake light.

So how did the court come to the novel conclusion? The relevant statute—which were more than a half a century old—referred “a” and “the” “stop lamp,” all singular.

When the driver and the passenger offered different stories as to where they were going, the officer asked to search the vehicle.  Consent was granted and cocaine was found.

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether a traffic stop is permissible under the Fourth Amendment when it is based on an officer’s misunderstanding of the law.  The North Carolina Supreme Court reasoned that reasonableness is the “primary command” of the Fourth Amendment, “[a]ccordingly, requiring an officer to be more than reasonable, mandating that he be perfect, would impose a greater burden than that required under the Fourth Amendment.”

The court also pointed out that reasonable suspicion does not require an officer to actually view a violation of the law before making a stop.  And the court did not want to discourage police officers from stopping cars where they believe the law has been violated.

Three judges dissented criticizing the majority’s reasoning above and pointing out that “[b]y adopting the majority’s rule, we are not only potentially excusing mistakes of law in the exceedingly rare case when the Court of Appeals divines a novel interpretation of a statute, but also those mistakes of law that arise from simple misreadings of statutes, improper trainings or ignorance of recent legislative changes.”

Police officers misunderstanding traffic laws appears to be common.  In an Eleventh Circuit case (United States v. Chanthasouxat), an officer was trained to believe a city ordinance required an inside rear-view mirror and wrote more than 100 tickets for a lack of such a mirror.  But it turns out it wasn’t.

Police would obviously benefit from being given the benefit of the doubt regarding understanding and interpreting traffic laws.  If the Court reverses the North Carolina Supreme Court (and even if it doesn’t), cities should consider revising outdated traffic ordinances so that misunderstandings of law are less common.

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About the author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

Developing a Shared Vision for Educational Alignment Beyond the Classroom

This post was written by Tonja Rucker, Principal Associate for Early Childhood at NLC. The post also appears on the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading’s blog.

Ft. Worth mom and son reading

Historically, education and human service systems have developed independently from each other despite sharing a common purpose.  Insufficient communication and coordination among systems and programs for young children can make transitions difficult and lead to missed educational opportunities.

Researchers, practitioners and policymakers increasingly believe that a more seamless pipeline that addresses a range of academic, behavioral, health and family issues can serve young children more effectively.  City officials are working on alignment efforts on behalf of young children from birth to eight that go well beyond the classroom to include strengthening connections within their communities and linking families to a broad range of supports and opportunities that help them thrive.

Through the National League of Cities’ Educational Alignment initiative six cities – Austin and Fort Worth, Texas; Longmont, Colorado; Hartford, Connecticut; Rochester, New York; and Richmond, Virginia – are receiving technical assistance to help city leaders ensure the healthy development and education of children and increase the likelihood that children will achieve educational success by the end of third grade. In several of these cities, leaders are working with or coordinating the Grade-Level Reading coalitions.

To address challenges, municipal leaders are bringing together key stakeholders to improve early education and strengthen local schools, provide better alignment between preschool and school-based learning, and improve transitions as children move from one level to the next.

Key elements of this technical assistance from NLC include:

  • Helping six cities develop a shared vision for educational alignment and cultivate partnerships among city leaders, school boards, superintendents, principals, early educators, youth development professionals and the larger community;
  • Providing on-site guidance through carefully designed site visits, a cross-site meeting and monthly webinars/conference calls to help the six cities share challenges, discuss strategies, connect to national experts, and develop new approaches for educational alignment;
  • Developing a robust peer network of local leaders in 6 states to deepen their understanding of the core elements of a well-aligned system, cultivate local champions, identify effective strategies, and facilitate cross-city learning; and
  • Conduct statewide summits in four of the cities to facilitate intergovernmental partnerships on early learning among city, state and federal officials. The statewide  mayoral summits will be designed to help local and state leaders learn about each other’s perspectives, initiatives and policies.

Tonja Rucker headshotAbout the Author: Tonja Rucker is a Principle Associate for Early Childhood in the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families at NLC.

Anonymous Tip: No Corroboration? No problem!


By versageek, via Wikimedia Commons

Does an anonymous, unverified tip of dangerous driving justify a traffic stop? Yes, says a divided Supreme Court.

In Prado Navarette v. California, an anonymous 911 caller reported that a vehicle had run her off the road.  The Court held 5-4 that a police stop complied with the Fourth Amendment because, under the totality of the circumstances, the officers had reasonable suspicion that the driver was intoxicated.  When police stopped the Navarette brothers they smelled marijuana.  A search of the vehicle revealed 30 pounds of marijuana.

The Court’s rationale, in an opinion written by Justice Thomas, is as follows.  The tip of dangerous driving was sufficiently reliable because by identifying specific details about the vehicle the caller necessarily claimed eyewitness knowledge of what happened, police located the vehicle where the caller indicated it would be and the caller used the 911 system, which readily identifies callers and therefore discourages them from lying.

Driving someone off the road creates reasonable suspicion of drunk driving because “[t]hat conduct bears too great a resemblance to paradigmatic manifestations of drunk driving to be dismissed as an isolated example of recklessness.”

While the officer didn’t observe additional suspicious conduct after spotting the vehicle and observing it for five minutes, police do not have to give suspected drunk drivers a “second chance for dangerous conduct [that] could have disastrous consequences.”

Justice Thomas described this case as “close.”

Justice Scalia, in a dissent joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan, accused the majority of departing from normal Fourth Amendment requirements that anonymous tips be corroborated.  “Law enforcement agencies follow closely our judgments on matters such as this, and they will identify at once our new rule: So long as the caller identifies where the car is, anonymous claims of a single instance of possibly careless or reckless driving, called in to 911, will support a traffic stop.”

Read more about this case on SCOTUSblog.

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About the author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

Supreme Court’s Affirmative Action Ruling Likely to Affect Local Government


The Supreme Court’s recent affirmative action ruling should be viewed through the lens of public employment and contracts not just public universities.

In Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action the Supreme Court held 6-2 that voters may by ballot prohibit affirmative action in public universities admission decisions.  While this case was limited to the use of race in public university admission decisions, Michigan’s constitutional amendment also prohibits the use of racial-preference in state and local government employment and contracting.

Presumably, these provisions are also constitutional.  As NCSL’s Affirmative Action:  State Action chart describes, a number of states prohibit the use of affirmative action in local government employment and contracting.

In 2003 in Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger, involving the University of Michigan, the Supreme Court held that public universities may consider race in admission decisions.  In 2006 Michigan voters adopted a constitutional amendment which prohibited preferential treatment in admission to public universities on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.

The majority of the Court held this amendment does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  Justice Kennedy, in a plurality opinion joined only by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, concluded that this case is about who and not how the debate over racial preferences should be resolved.  “There is no authority in the Constitution of the United States or in this Court’s precedents for the Judiciary to set aside Michigan laws that commit this policy determination to the voters.”

In reaching this holding Justice Kennedy rejected a broad reading of past precedent that any state action with a “racial focus” that makes it “more difficult for certain racial minorities than for other groups” to “achieve legislation that is in their interest” is subject to strict scrutiny.

Justice Kennedy pointed to numerous practical problems with this so-called “political process” doctrine including:  assuming that all individuals of the same race think alike; defining race-based categories in a society where “those lines are becoming more blurred;” and determining which policy realms racial groups have a political interest.

Justices Scalia and Thomas agreed that the ballot measure was constitutional but would have overruled the precedent that Justice Kennedy read narrowly.  For the first time since she joined the Court in 2009, Justice Sotomayor read a summary of her dissent, which Justice Ginsberg joined, from the bench—signaling her displeasure with the Court’s decision.

Justice Breyer provided the sixth vote in favor of the amendment but wrote separately; Justice Kagan did not participate in the case.

While those for and against the ballot measure disagree about the wisdom of the Court’s decision, both agree that it will only be a matter of time until more states follow Michigan’s lead.

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About the author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

Ride Sharing: The Big Opportunity for Cities

By Pkg203, via Wikimedia Commons

By Pkg203, via Wikimedia Commons

Uber, Lyft and Sidecar present cities with the opportunity to radically transform transportation in their communities. If cities make use of the lessons they are learning from work with car share firms like Zip Car and with bike share programs, they are likely to achieve remarkable success in the newest iteration of the sharing economy.

However, if current trends are any indication, city taxi commissions see these companies primarily as threats to the established order and are seeking regulatory solutions where a little entrepreneurship might be more properly applied.

The outlook is not at all rosy for the car share firms. A dozen cities are either writing citations to Lyft and Uber drivers, issuing cease and desist orders to the companies, or banning operations outright. To be fair, many cities are also seeking to catch up with the application of technology to this otherwise static public service, so I remain optimistic.

It matters little whether companies such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar are called Transportation Network Companies or traditional taxi and limousine services. The simple fact remains that existing regulatory frameworks for taxis in cities became outmoded with the advent of the smartphone and the app. The sooner taxi commissioners embrace this reality the sooner they will find the path out of the regulatory maze.

Of course cities have some obligation to regulate services to the general public within their jurisdictions. But where is it written that the basis of such regulation must be the existing formula for traditional dispatch taxicabs? What is it that cities need to actually regulate that is not presently required as part of qualifying for a driving license? Enhanced driver training? Premium vehicle liability insurance? Universal service? Car specifications (color, model, age)? Competition? Price? A case probably can be made for the first two or three but not so much for the latter three.

In 2013, the California Public Utilities Commission issued a ruling that allowed Lyft and Uber to operate under less rigid rules than locally regulated taxis. As recently as this week, a federal judge in Houston declined to temporarily restrain Lyft and Uber from operating in Houston and San Antonio. A further hearing is set for July 15, perhaps providing time for the cities and the companies to hammer out an agreement.

The sharing economy offers opportunities for cities to increase the options available for those in need of transportation, lodging (see Airbnb and its similar challenges) and a range of other services not yet envisioned. The sharing economy represents the highest form of individual entrepreneurship and as such deserves the chance to grow and contribute to the daily life and economic prosperity of city residents.

When a company called Flex Car (later bought by Zip Car) arrived in cities more than a decade ago, the transformation was revolutionary. Cities did the unthinkable – they gave up precious curbside parking spaces to a private company to place universally accessible cars in proximity to people in need of wheels for a short-term errand.

Cities created a new regulatory paradigm for this new and much sought after service. I own a car and still signed up in the first month the company offered services in my city (I’m still a member all these years later.) That same spirit of innovation needs to be applied to the likes of Uber, Lyft and Sidecar, and to their successors.

Brooks, J.A. 2010About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Director for City Solutions. He specializes in local practice areas related to housing, neighborhoods, infrastructure, and community development and engagement.  Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.


3 Ways Cities are Leading in Energy Innovation

This is the second blog in a series on why the key to protecting our environment lies in city innovation.


This word cloud captures city leaders’ responses when asked to describe their commitment to sustainability.

It’s no accident that “energy” is one of the main components of city sustainability plans. If we drilled down, much of these efforts likely focus on buildings. With buildings representing 39 percent of the nation’s energy use, 72 percent of electricity use and one third of all global greenhouse gas emissions, city leaders know that a key to meeting their sustainability goals lies in reducing the energy use of their building stock, whether by encouraging energy efficiency or renewable energy use, or both.

As the Georgetown Energy Prize launches today, and in continued celebration of Earth Day (and really, shouldn’t every day be Earth Day), below are some game changers in city energy:

1. Net Zero Energy Use – Fort Collins, CO and Salt Lake City

From the country’s first net zero energy district to the first net zero public safety building, cities are innovating with technical solutions to reduce energy use.

The City of Fort Collins, along with Colorado State University and the Colorado Clean Energy Cluster in 2007 created the nation’s first net zero energy district, FortZED, to produce more energy than it uses from both electric and thermal sources.

Using smart grid technology and renewable energy sources, FortZED has the potential to create 200-300 new permanent jobs focusing on clean energy, energy conservation and the systems to support smart grids.

The Salt Lake City Public Safety Building is the first public safety building in the nation to achieve a net zero rating. Home to the city’s police and fire departments as well as emergency dispatchers, the 175,000-square-foot building utilizes a vast array of rooftop solar panels, as well as an off-site solar farm, to achieve the net zero rating.

Whereas a traditional building of this size would produce 2670 metric tons of greenhouse gases each year, this building will produce just 524 metric tons per year.

2. PACE Programs Move Forward – South Florida and Los Angeles

In September 2013, the cities of Miami, Miami Shores, South Miami, Pinecrest, Cutler Bay, Palmetto Bay and Coral Gables, Florida jointly formed the Clean Energy Green Corridor with YGrene Energy Fund to launch Florida’s first Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program enabling property owners to finance renewable energy, energy efficiency upgrades and hurricane protection measures over the long-term through their property tax bill.

The South Florida PACE program is one of seven active residential PACE programs, despite objections from the Federal Housing Finance Agency. NLC supports legislative efforts to allow state and local governments to develop and implement such programs.

Meanwhile, cities continue to develop commercial PACE programs to offer these same benefits of reducing the high upfront costs and reaping long-term cost savings to the business community.

To date there are 26 active commercial PACE programs, and more than $60 million in financing extended for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects, the biggest of which is a $7 million project at the Hilton Los Angeles/Universal City.

3. Green Design for Affordable Housing – Seattle

Building on the theme of equity that my colleague Neil Bomberg has written about in connection with the World Urban Forum, city leaders realize that sustainable design practices are not just for the wealthy and that affordable housing doesn’t have to mean lower quality housing.

According to the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative (GHHI), of which NLC is a partner, low-income households typically spend 14 percent of their total income on energy costs compared with 3.5 percent for other households.

By incorporating energy efficient appliances, lighting and windows, tankless hot water heaters and whole house fans, among other amenities, into affordable and mixed-income housing, the High Point Redevelopment project in Seattle provides numerous health and environmental benefits to all income levels—not to mention reduced utility expenses for residents.

The retention of 100 mature trees, not only adds aesthetic value, but reduces home energy costs and carbon emissions.

Carolyn Berndt

About the author: Carolyn Berndt is the Principal Associate for Infrastructure and Sustainability on the NLC Federal Advocacy team. She leads NLC’s advocacy, regulatory, and policy efforts on energy and environmental issues, including water infrastructure and financing, air and water quality, climate change, and energy efficiency. Follow Carolyn on Twitter at @BerndtCarolyn.


WUF7: Final Thoughts on My Week in Medellin

This is the seventh post in a series of blogs on the World Urban Forum 7 in Medellin, Colombia.


Had my trip to the World Urban Forum been limited to a tour of the city of Medellin, the trip would have been worth it. This is truly a city on the rise. Gone is the violence and narco-terror for which the city was famous. In its place is a young, vibrant city filled with new libraries and schools serving some of the poorest neighborhoods; parks that include concert halls, a planetarium and computer learning centers; and a metro system that runs the length and width of the city, employing traditional rail cars, cable cars and escalators.

Its town center or “el Centro” is filled with the wonderful and massive sculptures of Fernando Botero, a Medellin native, whose work is wonderfully sardonic and sarcastic at the same time, and includes a small gem of a museum that proudly displays Colombia’s pre-Columbian, colonial and modern artists. Its neighborhoods are diverse and reflective of a city that is growing but retaining a “small town” feel. Looking out over the city at night from a bar atop the Charlee Hotel in the Poblado, one can feel the pulsating rhythms of this increasingly successful business center.

Had my trip to the World Urban Forum been limited to participation in the mayor’s roundtable on urban equity and the new urban agenda, the trip also would have been worth it. This was truly a roundtable that demonstrated the optimism that exists among city leaders from around the world to create “cities of opportunity” — cities where the poorest and most disadvantaged are able to take advantage of what their city has to offer so they can create a better life for themselves and their families.

As I reported in my fourth and fifth blogs, in its broadest sense, the message of the mayors forum was cities are on the rise as economic centers, centers of innovation and centers of learning — what we have chosen to call “cities of opportunity” — and that cities are replacing individual states and nations as the places in which “real change is taking place.”

Had my trip to the World Urban Forum been limited to attending the various “dialogues” that focused on city resiliency and financing, the trip also would have been worth it. For here the conversations focused on how to finance cities, and how to build cities that can respond to and come back from natural and man-made disasters, but not just for the benefit of the few, but in a way that promotes inclusion and social equity.

Though the solutions that were offered are costly, what was clear is that to do nothing would be even more costly. And though it is much easier to make decisions from the top down, or to make investments that benefit the wealthiest residents, for a city to thrive and grow, every resident must be included in the decision making process, regardless of their income or social standing, and every citizen must be viewed as a likely beneficiary of the investments made.

As Michael Cohen, a professor at the New School (New York) said, it is no longer feasible to operate the way Buenos Aires and New York City have operated until now, where 60 percent of the expenditures benefit the wealthiest 11 percent of the population. “If our cities are to be financially sustainable we must find ways to effectively leverage our resources to the benefit of all.”

Had my trip to the World Urban Forum been limited to hearing Joseph Stiglitz, the Columbia University economics professor and Nobel laureate, speak passionately about the need for national and local governments to take meaningful steps to end inequality and create opportunity through investments in education, job creation and small business, the trip would have been worth it. Had it been limited to hearing Leon Krier, the famous and highly controversial architect, urban planner and architectural theorist, the trip would have been worth it. His desire to create urban environments that are inclusive but limited in size, and therefore more humane in scale, rang true as we sat in the midst of a city whose one-time modest scale has given way to skyscrapers as far as the eye can see.

Finally, had my trip to the World Urban Forum been limited to visiting the exhibit hall and witnessing what nations and cities around the world are doing to address inequality and create cities of opportunity – from Barcelona to Jerusalem, Guangzhou to Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires to Paris – the trip would have been worth it.

But in fact, this trip to the World Urban Forum 7 and Medellin, Colombia, was worth it for reasons that transcended each of its parts. It was a place for people from around the world to exchange ideas and learn from one another. It was a place where creativity was acknowledged and innovation rewarded. It was a place where one’s status as part of the developed or developing worlds did not seem to matter – everyone had something important to offer.

And it was a place that confirmed what we at the National League of Cities have long stated: cities are the laboratories of innovation and creativity, and the solutions to the world’s urban settlement problems will not happen because of national government. Rather, the solutions will emerge at the local level through the commitment of mayors and other local officials, private sector leaders who share the goal of creating “cities of opportunity,” as well as foundations, non-governmental organizations and universities.

This conference left no doubt: if those who live and work in cities are able to come together to create inclusive, resilient and financially sustainable cities, then the urban future is a very bright one, indeed.

Neil Bomberg

About the author: Neil Bomberg is NLC’s Program Director for Human Development. Through Federal Advocacy, he lobbies on behalf of cities around education, workforce development, health care, welfare, and pensions. Follow Neil on Twitter at @neilbomberg.

Earth Day Reflections from an Urbanophile

This is the first blog in a series on why the key to protecting our environment lies in city innovation. 


This word cloud captures city leaders’ responses when asked to describe their commitment to sustainability.

I grew up feeling a lot of guilt on Earth Day. When April 22 of every year came around, I felt a huge pile of bricks dropped on my shoulders. How many more natural resources could we waste? How could we ignore what we were doing to our water bodies? How could I have thrown away my leftovers yesterday? For twenty-four hours, the burdens of protecting the natural environment, large and small, fell on me.

Ok, so that’s a bit exaggerated but you get my point. Earth Day often feels like this thing removed from us — a day to celebrate/reflect/commemorate “nature” as though it is a play we are not quite a part of, only a peripheral spectator (or sometimes active villain) in.

The reality, though, is this is far from the truth. The fact is the makeup of our Earth has radically changed. We have a global population steadily on the rise, over half of which currently lives in cities. Think about that — over half. And this rate is only increasing.

Yes—as a society we are responsible for resources wasted, overused and undervalued. But we are also responsible for technological innovations; creativity; and conservation efforts that have helped us make leaps and bounds in conserving natural resources, and preserving and protecting the natural environment — all the while meeting the varied needs of a growing global population.

The fact is, on Earth Day and every other day, cities matter. Cities are where unlikely partners come together to solve a problem that seems impossible. Cities are the places where people’s ideas collide to form better, more effective outcomes than any of us could imagine on our own. And cities provide the key to protecting and enhancing our natural (humans included) environment.

Take, for example, the Wyland Foundation’s National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation, an annual competition, which in 2013 had participation from residents in over 1,000 cities across the United States and saved 5.4 million single use water bottles from being used—all in a month’s time. Or the Georgetown University Energy Prize, a friendly competition where small-to-medium sized local governments across the country will be competing to design replicable, scalable energy efficiency programs to win a multi-million dollar prize.

Healthy competitions like these spur creativity and innovation, but they are also capitalizing on the fact that local governments across the country are already innovating and finding creative solutions to jointly meet environmental, economic and social issues. Cities across the country are framing their priorities with a recognition of our present situation and a nod towards the future, allowing them to create comprehensive, forward-looking programs and policies that embrace the natural and human environments as inseparable.

In reflecting on his city’s commitment to sustainability, Mayor Ralph Becker, of Salt Lake City, said: “As we look ahead toward 2015, we envision continued progress to a new kind of urbanism that embraces accessibility, sustainability, diversity and culture. Sustainable Salt Lake – Plan 2015 reflects a broad and ambitious agenda to protect our resources, enhance our assets and establish a path towards greater resiliency and vitality for every aspect of our community.”

I no longer feel burdened when I think of Earth Day because I recall all the exciting activities taking place in cities to find scalable solutions to some of our most pressing problems of today. I know that I have a very real personal responsibility to protect the natural resources around me. However, reading the sustainability missions of cities across the country is an affirmation of what I know to be true; the collective—that is, cities—in fact holds the key to protecting our environment.

Raksha VasudevanAbout the author: Raksha 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.

WUF7: City Resiliency — Facing the Reality of Natural and Man Made Disasters

This is the sixth post in a series of blogs on the World Urban Forum 7 in Medellin, Colombia.


Throughout the week long meeting of the World Urban Forum in Medellin, Colombia, there was clear agreement:

Our climate is changing, temperatures are increasing, sea levels are rising, droughts are worsening, storms are becoming more violent, fires are larger and more expansive, the interface between urban and rural areas seems to be disappearing, allowing diseases to spread to places where they once never existed, and other natural disasters like earthquakes are impacting more and more people.

Furthermore, as the world’s population becomes increasingly urban, as human settlements occupy more and more available land, natural and man made disasters are becoming more consequential.

But there was also agreement that population and density alone are not the reasons that natural and man made disasters are becoming more consequential. Our cities are becoming more dependent on technology to work; the infrastructures of our cities are becoming more complex; individually and collectively we are becoming more dependent on mass services for survival. If our cities are to continue to grow and become places of opportunity, they must be able to respond to the impacts of environmental and other changes, and resilient not just for some, but for all regardless of their economic or social position.

On the last day of WUF7 this message was driven home again and again in a dialogue that included Joan Clos, director of the World Urban Forum; Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation; Luz Helena Sarmiento Villamizar, Colombia’s Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development and others intimately involved in addressing urban resiliency.

Joan Clos said that “we must create a new system of organization because of the limitations of available land. The more land we occupy the more problematic is our growth, especially if we wish to be resilient.”

Judith Rodin said that everything we do in cities must be done through the lens of resiliency so that our cities and the people who live there can adapt, survive, respond and grow no matter what the shock, and do so without regard to the economic or social position of the city or its residents. She added, “Never before has humanity faced such a threat as it does today. The sheer number of people at risk at any one time is unprecedented.”

There was also agreement that to do so takes money and innovation, and requires engaging all members of society while developing strong partnerships between the public and private sectors. And lest we think the cost is too great, the Rockefeller Foundation’s research shows that every dollar invested will save $15 in future losses. “The upfront costs are huge, but the cost of doing nothing is far greater. For example, the World Bank has shown that right now 25 percent of the businesses that fail after a disruptive event never reopen. That is too high a cost.”

What then is a resilient city? Luz Helena Sarmiento Villamizar put it this way: It is one in which the risks from climate change are mitigated, the relationship between sustainable and urban development are understood, and are done so understanding that the challenge of creating an equitable city must be the defining lens.

Therefore, it is not enough to ensure that the wealthiest parts of a city come back to life; or that the downtown business district is protected. It requires that every resident, every neighborhood, every community and ultimately the entire city come together to respond to a natural or man made crisis.

“In Colombia it means that we cannot forget that poor people are likely to be the most vulnerable. If we are to meet their needs we must include them in the resiliency planning and development process, since they are the most vulnerable economically and socially,” said Villamizar.

Kathrine Vines, director of the climate change risk assessment network of C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a non-governmental organization working with 66 cities around the world to mitigate the effects of climate change, reiterated this point. “We must ensure that each city’s residents, economies, etc., can respond to the undeniable stress of climate change since cities are the first place citizens go to manage risks of climate impacts,” Vines said.

Stefan Denig, vice president of Siemens Sustainable Cities Program said “we must not forget that cities are at incredible risk of huge catastrophes. London has built barriers to the Thames. In the first 30 years the barriers were only raised twice; in the last decade they have been raised 40 times. It is likely that New York City will experience a disruptive weather event every three years.”

Denig added, “if New York City failed to move toward a more resilient city, it would lose $3 billion over the next 20 years. If it only responded with protection it would still lose money over the next 20 years. But if it moved toward resiliency, investing the same $3 billion over the next 12 years would save the city about $6 billion over 20 years.”

So what then was the lesson of this dialogue, one that also included the mayors of Lampa, and Quillota, Chile, both of which in the last ten years experienced an 8.9 earthquake, a tsunami on the nearby coast, and serious flooding; a council member from Toronto, which has begun to experience devastating winters due to a shift in the jet stream; and a representative from the World Bank who underscored the financial problems facing any efforts to create resilient cities? That time is rapidly running out to create resilient cities that can respond to and recover from the ongoing changes in climate, and the increasing urbanization of the planet, both of which are conspiring to increase the likelihood of experiencing catastrophic events. To do otherwise, is to live in a constant state of denial that can only result in catastrophic outcomes.

Neil Bomberg

About the author: Neil Bomberg is NLC’s Program Director for Human Development. Through Federal Advocacy, he lobbies on behalf of cities around education, workforce development, health care, welfare, and pensions. Follow Neil on Twitter at @neilbomberg.

Answering the Call to “Save our Sons”

Standing with leaders and advocates committed to black male achievement, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan gives remarks at Preservation Park on the need for cities to develop effective strategies to improve life outcomes for young men of color.

Standing with leaders and advocates committed to black male achievement, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan gives remarks at Preservation Park on the need for cities to develop effective strategies to improve life outcomes for young men of color.

As teams from 11 cities across the nation gathered in Oakland last week to share ideas on how to improve life outcomes for young black men and boys, energy and commitment levels were high. Following President Obama’s launch of his My Brother’s Keeper initiative, the room buzzed with a palpable sense that the stars were finally aligning for a serious push to promote black male achievement in communities throughout America.

The participating cities have been developing local plans and building diverse coalitions during the past year under a technical assistance project sponsored by the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families at the National League of Cities (NLC) with generous support from the Open Society Foundations’ Campaign for Black Male Achievement and in collaboration with PolicyLink. Selected by NLC through a competitive RFP process, the cities include: Charlottesville, VA; Chicago; Fort Wayne, IN; Jacksonville, FL; Louisville, KY; Milwaukee, WI; Oakland, CA; Omaha, NE; Orlando, FL; Philadelphia; and Portland, OR.

Underneath the excitement in Oakland, however, was a recognition of the huge challenge that lies ahead and the importance, as expressed by many of the young men who were part of the city teams, of “keeping it real.” For me, that means being brutally honest – with ourselves and with others – about the changes in public policies and systems that will be needed to achieve lasting and measurable results for our young black men and boys, who face disproportionately high risks of school failure, joblessness, incarceration, and violence-related death.

I found myself thinking about how easy it is to enter a zone of wishful thinking, to put our energies into events or activities that engender good feelings but don’t yield enough of a change in the circumstances of young black men and boys to boost their future prospects. If we hope to “move the needle” in key areas such as education, safety, work, and family for this vulnerable group, we need sustained interventions that are both significant enough to create real opportunity for the individuals they touch and are implemented at sufficient scale to yield gains that are seen and felt across the community. As Eric Wilson, executive director of the Oakland Housing Authority said to me in describing the task ahead, “We’ve just got to stop doing programs for 30 kids … that’s not going to get us there.”

So what’s the alternative? I believe we need to pay greater attention to the “red flags” that already tell us when children and youth are in trouble and marshal the resources to respond more forcefully to those warning signs. In the earliest years of life, serious health problems or developmental delays can be detected through early screenings and low levels of school readiness are documented upon entry to kindergarten. For school-age children and youth, chronic absence (missing more than 10 or 15 days of school), failure to read proficiently by the end of third grade, truancy or disciplinary problems in middle school, and behavior that results in early contact with law enforcement serve as additional indicators that young black men and boys are struggling or losing their way.

Each of these “red flags” represents a potential point of intervention for cities that are seeking to boost black male achievement. They also give us a way of sharpening and narrowing our focus – to decide what we will do first, second, and third – and in the process to be clear about the results we are seeking and the indicators that will tell us whether we are moving that needle.

The resources that will ultimately be needed to make a difference will be large, and they will be won only through tough choices and inevitable battles over local, state, and national priorities. With budget outlooks in many cities improving, do new funds go for more police on the streets or more help for young black men and boys who are trying to get back on track and redirect their lives? As Ron Davis, director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) at the U.S. Department of Justice reminded the group during his keynote address in Oakland, we need to strike a balance between these competing demands while recognizing that no city is going to arrest or prosecute its way out of the problem. We desperately need more pathways to education, work, and opportunity.

I was struck by the recent news coverage of the couple with two young children who issued a distress call when their sailboat became stranded in the middle of the Pacific and their one-year-old grew seriously ill. Some criticized the parents’ judgment, but no one questioned the need to rescue them at sea. In contrast, the SOS calls that we witness every day – as reflected in the “red flags” already apparent to so many in our communities – all too often go unanswered. Those of us committed to improving life outcomes for young black men and boys must find ways to heighten the sense of urgency surrounding their plight. We have a moral obligation, as individuals and as a nation, to mount a rescue mission for them as well.

About the Author: Clifford  Johnson is the Executive Director of the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families at NLC.