What It Takes to Be a Comeback City

In this Big Ideas for Cities feature, Gary, Indiana, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson discusses how pulling together the right team, the right ideas, and the right plan has set the city up for a resurgence.

When Karen Freeman-Wilson became mayor of Gary, Indiana, she faced persistent challenges such as crime and blight — but around the time she came into office, the city lost a significant portion of its revenue as well. “So much of [today’s] discussion is framed in the context of the recession of 2008,” said Mayor Freeman-Wilson in her Big Ideas for Cities talk. “That didn’t really mean a whole lot for us. In 2006, the state of Indiana passed permanent property tax caps. And by 2012, they became a part of our constitution, meaning that residential tax-payers paid one percent, commercial two percent, and industrial tax-payers paid no more than three percent. The long and short of that is: on the day I took office, I lost 60 percent of my property tax budget.”

Gary, Ind. Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson delivers her Big Ideas talk in Miami Beach, Florida. (Jason Dixson Photography)

Gary, Ind. Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson delivers her Big Ideas talk in Miami Beach, Florida. (Jason Dixson Photography)

Do you have a big idea? Since 2014, the National League of Cities’ Big Ideas for Cities series has featured cities and businesses that are using “big ideas” to drive communities forward. The series has quickly become a popular platform for leaders to share their success stories and describe, in detail, the steps they’ve taken to make their communities better.

We are currently accepting speaker submissions. Leaders are invited to share the best practices and innovative solutions moving their cities forward. The series is filmed year-round and open to individuals from all sectors – public, private and nonprofit. Talks are filmed at NLC’s studio in our new building on North Capitol Street in Washington, D.C.

Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 8.58.14 AMAbout the author: Tim Mudd is the Program Manager for Content and Social Media at the National League of Cities. Follow Tim on Twitter at @TimMudd.

How the City of Chattanooga Became a Destination for Innovation

In this Big Ideas for Cities feature, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke tells the story of how his city became a hotbed for entrepreneurship and innovation.

When Andy Berke became mayor of Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 2013, he imagined a city where frequent interaction, intellectual and creative collisions, and knowledge spillovers would be routine. Whereas the outgoing city administration worked to revive the city’s ailing industrial sector through the recruitment of traditional manufacturing businesses, Mayor Berke believed the city’s future prosperity was tied, in part, to the innovation economy and would require a comprehensive overhaul of past economic policies.

“In Chattanooga, we know the pain of holding onto the past for too long, because we’ve done it,” says Mayor Berke. “When we talk about economic resiliency and the way mid-size cities can be a part of the future of our new economy, it has special meaning for Chattanooga.” In this talk, learn how this once struggling manufacturing town has orchestrated an economic success story, clustering talent, startups, established firms, nonprofits, research institutions and cultural assets to drive economic revitalization.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke delivers his Big Ideas talk in Miami Beach, Fla. (Jason Dixson Photography)

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke delivers his Big Ideas talk in Miami Beach, Florida. (Jason Dixson Photography)

Do you have a big idea?

Since 2014, the National League of Cities’ Big Ideas for Cities series has featured cities and businesses that are using “big ideas” to drive communities forward. The series has quickly become a popular platform for leaders to share their success stories and describe, in detail, the steps they’ve taken to make their communities better.

We are currently accepting speaker submissions. Leaders are invited to share the best practices and innovative solutions moving their cities forward. The series is filmed year-round and open to individuals from all sectors – public, private and nonprofit. Talks are filmed at NLC’s studio in our new building on North Capitol Street in Washington, D.C.

Related resources

Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 8.58.14 AMAbout the author: Tim Mudd is the Program Manager for Content and Social Media at the National League of Cities. Follow Tim on Twitter at @TimMudd.

3 Reasons Why Infrastructure Needed to Be Addressed in the GOP Debate

Last night, Republican presidential hopefuls again stood before the nation vying to be their party’s nominee. One issue was sorely missing from the debate.

16837601306_92fbdc7017_kA view of the podium bearing the presidential seal at NLC’s Congressional City Conference. (Jason Dixson)

For three hours last night at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., 11 Republican presidential hopefuls went back-and-forth on issues ranging from immigration, the nuclear deal with Iran and gay marriage. While the pundits engage in their own debate over who will next challenge frontrunner Donald Trump in the polls, issues of critical importance to the nation’s cities continue to go without the national spotlight they deserve.

Over the course of the election process, the National League of Cities (NLC) is helping city officials engage directly with the men and women hoping to be the next President as part of our Cities Lead 2016 campaign. We want to make sure the candidates know that city issues are America’s issues. One of those issues, infrastructure, hasn’t been mentioned once in the two debates. Here are three reasons why that’s a problem:

1. The Sad State of American Infrastructure is Becoming a Public Safety Issue

Many bridges and structures throughout the country, such as this damaged overpass in Pennsylvania, are in desperate need of repair. (Getty Images)

One in nine of our nation’s bridges are rated as structurally deficient; 240,000 water main breaks happen each year; the number of deficient dams is estimated at more than 4,000 — these stats are just a snapshot of the poor state of America’s infrastructure. On a recent trip to Concord, N.H., as part of our Cities Lead 2016 campaign, we heard directly from local officials on the precarious conditions poor infrastructure has created for the community.

In this city of over 40,000, local officials recently had to close a bridge on which it was no longer deemed safe for fire trucks to travel. The difficult decision to close the bridge has forced first responders to go on a detour through two cities, causing delays in response times. Due to the lack of adequate funding for infrastructure, local officials across the country are making difficult decisions like those made in Concord that impact the safety and well-being of residents — when they shouldn’t have to do so. The next President must tackle the unacceptable state of our nation’s critical infrastructure.

2. Climate Change is Exacerbating Existing Infrastructure Challenges

ThinkstockPhotos-525078077This flooded underpass in New York City illustrates the need for infrastructure improvements that reflect an awareness of the negative effects of climate change. (Getty Images) 

Adding to the concern about aging infrastructure is the impact of extreme weather events. Heat waves, droughts, heavy downpours, floods and hurricanes are straining existing infrastructure challenges, and introducing new ones. With climate change and higher temperatures, extreme weather storms are arriving with greater frequency and intensity. Cities like Dubuque, Iowa, face chronic and severe flooding as a result and are adopting solutions to managing an increasing amount of stormwater runoff.

Extreme weather events, sea level rise, shifting precipitation patterns and temperature variability — all intensified by climate change — have significant implications for water quality and availability, roads, rail and airports, energy infrastructure and our cities’ building stock. These trends have real, everyday consequences for local governments, which are on the front lines when it comes to mitigation and adaptation efforts and making sure their community is resilient. We ask that the candidates give climate change, and the impact it has on local infrastructure, the attention it deserves.

3. The World Has Changed. Our Infrastructure Must Too.

As greater numbers of city residents access data using mobile phones, more cities are finding that apps are an ideal way to share public transport information. (Getty Images)

Together with a series of rapid technological advancements, recent demographic trends are changing the nature of transportation and mobility in cities. Over the last several years, Americans of all demographic groups have embraced new modes of transportation. Active transportation has seen a significant surge — from 2000-2012, the number of people who primarily bike to work increased 60 percent nationwide.

Better technology is also creating greater demand for public transit. There are currently 99 transit expansion projects and 23 major system renovations underway throughout the country, in addition to almost 100 other projects in the pipeline at some stage of the planning, finance and review process. In the very near future even our roads will need to adapt to new technologies, including support for self-driving cars.

We must reexamine how federal infrastructure dollars are supporting 21st century trends. Since 1992, roughly 80 percent of all federal transportation funding has been reserved for the highway system, at the expense of alternative modes. Cities ask that the candidates discuss their vision for the nation’s transportation infrastructure.

Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 8.58.14 AMAbout the author: Tim Mudd is the Senior Associate for Strategic Communications at the National League of Cities. Contact Tim at mudd@nlc.org.

Republican Presidential Debate: Takeaways for Cities

 This post was written by Zach George.


(Jason Dixson)

Last night’s GOP debate marked the beginning of a long but important process to elect the 45th president of the United States. Six months out from the Iowa caucus, the presidential campaign season is quickly ramping up with all 22 candidates (for now) making their pitch to be their party’s nominee.

Over the course of the election process, the National League of Cities (NLC) expects the candidates to discuss the top issues that are at the forefront of concern to cities: the economy, infrastructure and public safety.

“A meaningful presidential debate should include a discussion of the issues that cities face and how each candidate plans to address them,” said National League of Cities CEO Clarence E. Anthony. “We look forward to being a resource to all of the candidates throughout their campaigns.”

As expected, the economy was a major theme during the GOP debate. But moving forward, we hope to hear more substantive ideas and solutions to grow the economy and create jobs for the millions of Americans that call a city or town their home. What we didn’t hear was a substantive discussion of our other two priorities: the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and public safety. It’s critical that the candidates understand the gravity of these issues in cities and the price we’ll pay as a nation if not addressed.

Municipal governments are responsible for the development and maintenance of most of the nation’s infrastructure, owning and operating 78 percent of the nation’s roads, 43 percent of the nation’s federal-aid highway miles and 50 percent of the nation’s bridge inventory. Over two hundred million trips are taken daily across deficient bridges, threatening the safety of our residents and the movement of goods throughout the country. Cities are calling for federal leadership to renew and restore our once renowned infrastructure system.

Lastly, cities are looking for a serious national conversation about public safety. Stronger partnerships between local and federal government are badly needed. Recent incidents have demonstrated the need for an increased national focus on community policing to build trust between public safety officers and the communities they serve. Partnerships between cities and the federal government have proven to be effective to lower crime; however, more is needed to strengthen policing in cities. We ask the presidential candidates to discuss their plan to invest in community policing and make communities safer in future debates.

Although only 10 of the 22 presidential candidates debated last night, NLC calls on all the presidential candidates to address and prioritize the issues that affect the more than 250 million Americans that live in cities. NLC will keep reaching out to candidates to have a healthy and thorough discussion on these topics throughout campaign and up to November 7, 2016 on Election Day. It’s a long ways away, but this election is too important to sit on the sidelines.

About the Author:
Zach George is a summer intern with the NLC Federal Advocacy team. Contact Zach at


Why Startups Believe They Can Solve Cities’ Greatest Challenges

Smart City Startups 2015 participants gather at the Miami Light Project in Wynwood, Miami, Fla. (Photo: Tim Mudd)

Flying cars wiz across the dense, underworld-like landscape as an ominous, synthesized musical score accompanies the action. That’s Los Angeles in the year 2019, as portrayed in the 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner.

“Any future without the Internet and smartphones is bound to get a few things wrong,” said Shaun Abrahamson, Co-Founder, Urban.US, during the opening talk of Smart City Startups 2015. “But what Blade Runner gets right are the big challenges facing cities today – challenges like climate change, poverty and homelessness.”

The film’s cautionary tale of the implications of technology on society and the environment, served as a useful frame for a conference focused on urban challenges and solutions.

Blade Runner introduced a future world where high-tech places stand in contrast to the decayed. Thirty-three years after the film’s future predictions, today’s cities are indeed grappling with the remnants of past thinking as economic currents speed faster forward in the information age.

Across the globe – we see infrastructure, regulations, service delivery processes and jurisdictional boundaries with roots in a former time, inhibiting the implementation of promising technologies and practices to improve sustainability and resilience, mobility and governance.

Startups, investors, foundations and cities gathered for the Smart City Startups conference in a neighborhood that embodies the crossroad of past and future in Miami. Once the warehouse and manufacturing district, Wynwood’s shuttered factories and neglected warehouses now house graffiti-coated art galleries, restaurants, cafes and creative businesses.

DSC_0019A street corner in the Wynwood neighborhood of Miami, Fla. (Photo: Tim Mudd)

For those whose lives and businesses are invested in the success of urban environments, the tension between the old and the new – and its most intractable outgrowths – cannot go unaddressed. There is simply too much at stake.

Can Startups Transform Cities?

As a dedicated partner in the improvement of cities, NLC was a participating sponsor of Smart City Startups 2015. Over the course of the two-day conference, attendees shared their perspectives and expertise on how to transform cities into more efficient, equitable and responsive communities.

Over 100 startups, influential investors, entrepreneurs, thought leaders and policymakers came together to discuss how emerging technologies can solve issues in areas such as energy consumption, mobility, sustainable building, and governance and public safety.

Companies offering platforms to make government “smarter” introduced services like SmartProcure, which allows users to find out what other government agencies paid for contracts by connecting thousands of local, state and federal agencies. MuniRent displayed a platform that makes it easy for public agencies to share heavy-duty equipment internally and with other agencies. NextRequest, a public records management platform, offers cities the ability to coordinate between multiple staff members across departments to quickly fulfill requests.

DSC_0026Participants write down topics for unconference sessions at Smart City Startups 2015 (Photo: Tim Mudd)

In the area of transport and mobility, “rideables” such as Future Motion’s Onewheel demonstrated how citizens might get around cities in the future via an easily storable one wheel skateboard. TransitMix promises better transit planning by allowing planners to sketch routes rapidly and see live cost calculations.

No doubt that these ideas are fascinating and creative, but many participants wondered if the speed of startup solutions outpaces government’s willingness or capacity to acquire them. Cities across the country have proven that it isn’t a matter of willingness – municipal administrations in Boston, Louisville, Chicago, among others have institutionalized cutting edge practices, embedding innovation in their operations. But what both big and small cities need is more than new and cool. They need a real-world understanding of the practical application of these products and their value to communities.

Bridging the Divide

Creativity can solve the needs of cities. Startups around the country are hard at work to find solutions in an environment of rising costs of services, urgent infrastructure needs, employee obligations and state and federal funding cuts.

Moving toward a place where start-up ambitions match local policy decisions requires more forums like Smart City Startups, which generate the dialogue between entrepreneurs and cities that will bring creative ideas to life.

Through our work to help city leaders build better communities, NLC is dedicated to fostering creativity and connecting promising solutions with the communities that need them. If you’re a startup with a solution or a city in need of one – reach out to us.

Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 8.58.14 AMAbout the author: Tim Mudd is the Senior Associate for Strategic Communications at the National League of Cities. Contact Tim at mudd@nlc.org.

Three Ways Cities Can Help Employees Build a Secure Retirement

In support of National Retirement Planning Week 2015, we asked Alex Hannah, ICMA-RC Vice President, Marketing Communications & Education, to contribute the following post on retirement planning tips and resources for public sector employees.

nrpw15-half-page-copyNational Retirement Planning Week® 2015 is a national effort to help consumers focus on their financial needs in retirement.

It’s important for public sector employees to plan and save for a comfortable retirement —whether they are just getting started in their career or have been working for their cities for some time. While many public sector employees will receive a defined benefit pension, it is unlikely to cover all retirement costs. And not all public employees will fully vest in their pension while some do not participate in Social Security.

Added savings to an employer-sponsored retirement plan, such as a 457 deferred compensation plan, and an IRA can be the difference between a financially adequate and successful retirement. Equipping public sector employees with these options and the educational resources to help them save for retirement is key.

Here are a few ways that local governments can help provide their city employees with the tools and resources to build a secure retirement:

Offer efficient ways for employees to enroll in the city’s retirement savings plan.

Many employees delay saving for different reasons, and among them is a perception that getting started can be complicated and take time. One way to combat this is to simplify the process by offering online enrollment, allowing employees to join the plan using a computer, smartphone, or tablet.

Research indicates that employees today, especially younger employees, will use whatever device is within reach, so making the savings plan accessible and easy to enroll across all hardware is important. As an example, an employee could use a smartphone to immediately enroll in the plan while attending an enrollment seminar or online webinar. Once enrolled, messaging is communicated across platforms that employees can use to easily increase contributions to their account. Increasing contributions by even $10 or $20 more can add up over time.

Another way to simplify the enrollment process is through a method called quick enrollment, which allows an employee to enroll in the plan by making just a few choices. The employee is defaulted into investments based on a predicted retirement age. After enrollment, additional education is provided along with direct access to their account so they can make changes and alter their account to reflect their personal goals. This strategy minimizes hurdles to enrollment and allows employee to begin saving for retirement.

Use automatic features to boost savings.

Another reason public sector employees may not begin saving for retirement is inertia; features such as automatic enrollment can address this plan challenge. Auto-enrollment is a feature in a retirement plan that allows an employer to “enroll” an eligible employee in the employer’s plan unless the employee affirmatively elects otherwise. The employee may choose not to contribute at the plan’s default percentage rate or decide to contribute a different amount. Auto-enrollment has proven effective in helping employees get started in saving for retirement.

In addition, some employers may want to consider offering an automatic escalation feature, allowing plan participants to increase contributions automatically over time. The study, “Using Automatic Escalation in Public Sector Retirement Plans to Increase Savings,” from the Center for State and Local Government Excellence, provides recommendations on how governments might incorporate such policies into their defined contribution retirement plans. More research on public sector workforce trends is available on the Center’s website at www.slge.org.

Develop and support an education curriculum with the goal of improving financial literacy.

In order to make smart decisions about their finances, employees need access to the proper financial tools and resources. They may want to understand basic investment concepts such as compounding interest, diversification, and the impact of inflation as well as their risk tolerance.

Knowing the tax treatment of these plans is also important information for city employees. They could also benefit from debt management education; lower debt means employees can focus more of their efforts toward saving for retirement. These concepts, and others, can be explained in a straightforward way when meeting with a local plan representative or through multiple media platforms to accommodate employees’ learning styles, including online resources such as a mobile app, video, calculators, and webinars. The RealizeRetirement® educational resources at www.icmarc.org/realize, contains a wide array of multimedia tools city employees can use, at any stage of their career.

Founded by the public sector for the public sector more than 40 years ago, ICMA-RC’s only mission is to help public sector employees build retirement security. Put simply, we work with public sector employees to help their employees save for the future and the concepts I have outlined are some of the ways that employers can help their employees have a successful retirement.

This article is intended for educational purposes only and is not to be construed or relied upon as investment advice. ICMA-RC does not offer specific tax or legal advice and shall not have any liability for any consequences that arise from reliance on this material. It is recommended that you consult with your personal financial adviser prior to implementing any tax or retirement strategy. Copyright © 2015 ICMA-RC. All rights reserved. AC: 0415-7702

AlexHannah_CSAbout the Author: Alex Hannah is responsible for education and marketing communication strategies for ICMA-RC, a financial services organization focused exclusively on serving public sector employees.


How Mayors Engage & Empower Citizens to Make an Impact

This is a guest post by Myung Lee, Executive Director at Cities of Service.

Nashville-BNashville, Tenn. is one of several cities participating in Cities of Service. iStock images.

Regardless of whether you are celebrating or frustrated with the results of the election, it is clear that people want our leaders to work together to get things done.  But working together with our citizens is already showing results in cities across the country, where well-organized volunteerism is making a difference.

In fact, cities are a model for what is possible.  Mayors, non-profits and citizens are combining to make a real and measurable impact for their communities. Just a few examples:

Albuquerque, New Mexico: Through Mayor Berry’s “Homework Diner” initiative, Albuquerque has provided hundreds of students with access to homework assistance, one-on-one time with educators, and healthy meals cooked by volunteers from the local community college’s culinary school. The program also provides parents with an opportunity to acquire their GED. The schools reported an increase in academic performance, and the success of Homework Diner in two pilot schools has prompted city officials to open six more Homework Diner locations.

Birmingham, Alabama: In one year, Mayor Bell mobilized thousands of citizen volunteers to clean more than 26,000 square feet of graffiti, dispose of more than 70,000 pounds of trash, and plant 500 trees. Neighborhood revitalization can start small and scale: Birmingham has already revitalized 40 blocks.

Flint, Michigan: Mayor Walling engaged volunteers to get rid of 1.8 million pounds of waste, clean-up 122 abandoned properties and create 57 green spaces.

Nashville, Tennessee: Through Mayor Dean’s “Change for Chestnut” initiative, volunteers provided energy-efficient upgrades in more than 100 homes of low-income residents in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood, reducing annual energy costs by an average of $450 per home.

Working together with organizations such the Corporation for National and Community Service and AmeriCorps, HandsOn, local parks departments and other city agencies, mayors are engaging and empowering their citizens to make real change in their own communities. Mayors are also working together  to learn from one another by sharing lessons learned.

When it comes to bringing about change that touches people’s lives, members of the newly-elected Congress need look no further than their own cities. Leaders using their power to bring people together is the best way to make our entire country a safer, cleaner, stronger place to live.

Myung-J-Lee-BlogAbout the author: Myung J. Lee serves as the executive director of Cities of Service, a coalition of approximately 200 mayors from across the United States and around the world that have committed to using citizen volunteers to tackle pressing local challenges.

Local Action, State Support Needed for Muni Broadband Expansion

This is a guest post by Angela Siefer.

Broadband-CafeGetty Images

According to the Institute for Local Self Reliance, over 400 communities in the United States have a publicly owned broadband network. But how did they get there? How did they access the poles? Where did they find existing assets? Are those assets available for anyone to use? How was the network paid for?  In some cases, these projects were made possible with support from state partners. Since our past blog posts in this series provided a basic overview of municipal networks, this post will focus on how local officials can work with state policymakers. As you may have guessed, it can get complicated.

Projects that increase broadband availability, affordability and adoption tend to occur at the local level but they need state level support. That support can come in the form of access to open networks, state rights of way, dig once policies and facilitating coordination. To date, 19 states have legislated barriers that discourage community broadband projects. Since broadband deployment tends to occur at the local level, states that avoid placing restrictions on who can own and operate a broadband network leave more options open for local entities to implement innovative solutions.

If you think of the Internet as a highway system, the middle mile is the highway and the on/exit ramps and the streets are the last mile. Government funded broadband build-out (by the National Telecommunications Information Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture) tends to focus on middle mile construction. Owners of middle mile networks choose whether or not to make their fiber open to use by competitors. State governments that mandate their fiber be open to use by anyone (at reasonable cost based rates) can help decrease the cost of build-out, whether by for-profit companies, non-profits or governmental entities.

Here are several examples of state level policies supporting local work to build out community broadband networks:

State Level Policies That Expand State Rights of Way

Arizona SB 1402, the Digital Arizona Highways Bill was passed and signed in 2012. The bill expanded the Arizona Department of Transportation’s state rights-of-way to include transportation of information, in addition to vehicles. Whenever funding is available, the Arizona Department of Transportation may install broadband conduit and lease the conduit to providers at a cost-based rate. In Gigabit Communities: Technical Strategies for Facilitating Public or Private Broadband Construction in Your Community, CTC Technology and Energy declares, “state officials estimate that the incremental cost of placing the conduit during other construction processes is comparable to the cost of painting stripes on the highway.” It is a low cost investment that benefits everyone.

State Use of Federal Policies

The FTTH (Fiber To the Home Council) encourages states to utilize the federal pole attachments statute (Section 224 of the Communications Act 5), through which “states are able to assert jurisdiction and require all owners of poles, ducts, and conduits to make those facilities available to new entrants on a non-discriminatory basis and at reasonable (cost-based) rates, terms, and conditions.” The FTTH Council position paper “State and Local Government Role in Facilitating Access to Poles, Ducts, and Conduits in Public Rights-of-Way” lists Vermont, Massachusetts and Oregon as examples of states that have mandated access to poles, ducts and/or conduits.

State Coordination Efforts

States can help facilitate coordination of broadband infrastructure projects among interested partners. With coordination from the State of Connecticut Office of Consumer Counsel, an initial five municipalities issued a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) to Develop Gigabit Internet Networks in Connecticut. This RFQ has three goals:

  1. Create a world-leading gigabit-capable network in targeted commercial corridors – as well as in residential areas with demonstrated demand – in order to foster innovation, drive job creation and stimulate economic growth;
  2. Provide free or heavily discounted 10-100 MB (minimum) Internet service over a wired or wireless network to underserved and disadvantaged residential areas across the territories and diverse demographics; and
  3. Deliver gigabit Internet service at prices comparable to other gigabit fiber communities across the nation.

This effort reinforces an extensive state fiber network, streamlined processes governing rights-of-way, and a single administrative point of contact for building broadband infrastructure.

State partners can play a critical role in the build-out of municipal networks. Most importantly, they can support innovation and progress with smart policies and carefully executed support to local projects. The outcome is increased opportunity for local governments to improve broadband availability, affordability and adoption.

Angela-Siefer-HeadshotAbout the Author: Angela Siefer is a digital inclusion consultant and an adjunct fellow at the Pell Center, Salve Regina University. She is currently finishing up the Pell Center State-Level Broadband Policy Primer. You can find more of her work at http://angelasiefer.com.

Comparing Cities’ Performance: A Global Breakthrough

This is a guest post by Neal Peirce.

Global-Cities-CPGetty Images

How to compare the performance of cities across the world?  What’s the particulate matter in a city’s air?  Debt service as a percent of a city’s own revenue?  Green area per 100,000 population?  Number of firefighters by the same per 100,000 gauge?

Now, for the first time ever, a clear, internationally agreed on set of indicators has been announced.  And it has the seal of approval of the Geneva-based International Organization for Standardization — “ISO” –the globally recognized arbiter of standards in every area from electrical engineering to financial management.

The story of how the ISO standard was put together over several years, the effort spearheaded by Patricia McCarney of the University of Toronto’s Global Cities Indicators Facility, was reported in an article on the new Citiscope.org website.

The genesis of the effort was a challenge by World Bank officials in 2008.  Nine pilot cities, including Bogota, Toronto, Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte put together an initial list of some 115 indicators.  But through a series of technical committee meetings around the world, the proposed indicators were examined and revised repeatedly for quality and relevance.  The list was finally winnowed down to 46 validated by the ISO as its official “ISO 37120″ standard and announced last spring.

The new open standards are for cities to learn and compare — but will also place pressure on them to perform well.  Friends, political opponents, the media will all be checking.  What’s the share of the city population that lives in slums– especially in comparison to similar cities, at home or abroad?  Energy consumption of public buildings per year?  Percentage of a city’s solid waste that is recycled?  Annual number of public transportation trips per capita?  Green acres per 100,000 population?

Supporters also claim the ISO will be a significant game changer, encouraging higher levels of city service delivery.   The verified data could improve cities’ credit and bond ratings, appealing to investment decision-makers.  Cities with strong ratings may also be strengthened in appealing for national government assistance and tax sharing.

Cities won’t be obliged to share their data and join the system.  But they may well find themselves under pressure from citizen, business, academic and the media insisting they use the ISO standards so that their performance can be benchmarked clearly against peer cities, both in-country and — in today’s increasingly globalized economy — across the globe.

“It’s a potential game changer for world cities and everyone who works for cities, for journalists evaluating city performance, for the World Bank in determining grants and more,” notes Dan Hoornweg, former World Bank official, now a professor at the University of Toronto and an early proponent of world city standard setting.

A new “World Council on City Data” has been formed to verify data cities submit and guide the process.  The council’s member cities include London, Rotterdam, Shanghai, Dubai, Chicago, Johannesburg, Buenos Aires and others.

But there’s little doubt: not every city, not every urban expert, will agree on the indicators and processes.  But discussion is welcome.

Next week (November 11), in a webinar jointly sponsored by Citiscope and Meeting of the Minds, there’ll be an opportunity to hear more about the new ISO and its processes from key city players, plus a chance to debate its methods.  Speakers will include McCarney as well as Alvaro Lima (Boston Redevelopment Authority), Andrew Collinge (Greater London Authority, and Maria Belen Perez Chada (city of Buenos Aires).  For details and the event password, check this website: http://cityminded.org/cal/new-urban-indicators-city-services-quality-life/.

Neal-Peirce-CSAbout the Author: Neal Peirce is the editor-in-chief of Citiscope

A Mayor’s Perspective on Why Certify: An Interview with Ed Murray, Mayor of Seattle, Wash.

This is a guest post by Hilari Varnadore, executive director of STAR Communities


Recently, STAR Communities announced that Seattle was awarded the 5-STAR Community Rating for national leadership in sustainability. The city recorded the highest score to date, and is only the second in the nation to achieve the 5-STAR rating for its participation in the STAR Community Rating System (STAR), which evaluates the livability and sustainability of U.S. communities.

This blog post features Seattle Mayor Ed Murray reflecting on the Emerald City’s experiences with STAR — achievements that he is especially proud of and areas that the city has targeted for future investment as a result of the assessment’s findings.

How has the STAR Community Rating System enriched Seattle’s already impressive sustainability work?

The STAR Community Rating System daylighted programs delivering sustainability benefits across several different goal areas. Understanding where our investments are leveraging sustainability impact helps inform budgeting and prioritization and that is incredibly important when a city is planning investments for the future. It allows us to reliably direct resources in a manner that will continue to benefit Seattle residents and businesses well into the future.

How will STAR help you promote a healthy environment, a strong economy and well-being for all residents, now and for future generations?

The roadmap that STAR provides to a healthy, prosperous and safe community helps us create a shared vision — with the community — of what we want Seattle to be and the best ways to get there. STAR is a great tool for fostering community engagement around Seattle’s sustainability work.

What are some highlights from your city’s achievements, as reflected in the STAR certification?

Seattle has a goal of becoming carbon neutral — it was reassuring to receive maximum credit for our climate adaptation and greenhouse gas mitigation work. It showed us that we are on the right path. We also received a high number of points for our leading edge energy efficiency programs and the Green Seattle Partnership – a unique public-private partnership working to restore and maintain Seattle’s forested parkland.

How has the STAR Community Rating System improved transparency in Seattle and helped you better message your sustainability work to constituents?

The very thorough processes of collecting, analyzing and reporting all of the data required for the assessment was big leap forward in terms of Seattle’s commitment to transparency. It’s hard to be transparent if you don’t have a clear means of communicating your work. STAR provides that clarity. I’m not interested in talking about generalities when it comes to Seattle’s sustainability work, and neither are our residents. We’re interested in specifics and that’s what we got with the STAR Community Rating System.

STAR Certification helped you identify some areas requiring additional work. How do you plan on addressing those gaps going forward?

The STAR equity measures showed we have some work to do in the area of Environmental Justice. To address that gap, we recently launched an Equity & Environment Initiative to explore who is and isn’t benefiting from Seattle’s environmental progress and how we can advance equity and provide opportunities for everyone to participate in Seattle’s environmental movement. STAR will be a great tool to help us track the outcomes and accomplishments of this initiative.

For other cities considering STAR certification, what would you tell them?

STAR is so much more than a recognition program. It is worth it to invest the time needed for a robust assessment. It’s a valuable tool that can help your city make great strides in sustainability outcomes.

Mayor-Ed-MurrayAbout the Mayor: Ed Murray has been Mayor of Seattle since January 2014. He served in the Washington State Senate from 2007-2013, and before that for 11 years in the Washington State House of Representatives.


H-Varnadore-BAbout the Author: As Executive Director of STAR Communities, Hilari is focused on advancing a national framework and rating system for sustainable communities. Previously, she served as Frederick County, Maryland’s first Sustainability Director in the Office of the County Manager and was a member of the Urban Sustainability Directors Network.