Top 5 Most Popular NLC Blog Posts of 2016

This year saw a number of posts that reached thousands of readers and were shared widely on social media. Here are the top five, in no particular order.

7 Ways City Leaders Can Address Racial Inequities
City leaders must step up to take the lead with their police departments and community members to address racial inequities in their respective cities and towns.

10 Innovative Ways to Attract Millennials to Your City
Philadelphia is a city that has implemented a set of successful policies aimed at attracting and retaining talent in the last decade. During that same period, the city’s population grew by 100,000.

Four Bad Habits to Avoid at City Council Meetings
Learning these principles and avoiding these bad habits will improve your meetings — and your decision-making.

5 Ways Parks Provide a Return on Investment
Parks and public spaces are an integral part of the atmosphere and culture of a city or town. More than that, though, they have a massive positive financial impact – one that is generally overlooked.

5 Things Mayors Can Do to Create Healthier Communities
NLC’s new report, Addressing Health Disparities in Cities: Lessons from the Field, provides lessons learned and examples of actions that mayors and other city leaders are taking to intentionally address childhood obesity-related health disparities.

Paul Konz headshotAbout the author: Paul Konz is the Senior Editor at the National League of Cities.

What Cities Need to Know About the Booming eSports Industry

The world of professional, competitive video gaming is expanding at a rapid pace – and you might be surprised to learn that cities stand to benefit from its growth.

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Twitch streamers (professional competitive video gamers) gather at the White House for its first-ever competitive gaming event on Monday, December 12, 2016.

This post was co-authored by Angelina Panettieri and Courtney Bernard.

This week, more than 220,000 people tuned in to watch the first-ever White House eSports event on Twitch. For those not familiar with the video game industry, this event may prompt a few questions – namely, what are eSports and Twitch? Why is this a draw for so many people? And what could this mean for my community?

NLC staff were on-site for the event, and we’ve compiled the top things every city leader needs to know about the fast-growing industry set to generate $1 billion within the next few years.

eSports are everywhere – and the industry is expanding rapidly.

eSports – a term that refers to professional, competitive video gaming – are increasingly popular spectator events driving major investment and interest. Enthusiasts around the globe attend events in person or stream content with online platforms like Twitch, which has nearly 10 million daily active users. Spectators watch gamers play everything from multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games to strategy games.

Currently, 14 percent of Americans follow eSports. To put that into perspective, eSports spectators actually outnumber those watching the World Series or NBA Finals. And while there are hundreds of millions of people across the country that already watch eSports, even more are playing video games – 49 percent of American adults, to be exact.

The rising popularity of video games and eSports is driving major consumer brands like Coca-Cola, ESPN and American Express to invest in the industry. As the competitive gaming industry continues to evolve, analysts expect audience and revenue growth to accelerate rapidly.

eSports events could drive tourism for cities.

The widespread appeal of eSports make events and tournaments a potentially major draw for tourism, both here at home and abroad. eSports events are selling out stadiums, convention centers and other large venues around the globe. In 2015, there were 112 major eSports events, and they generated $20.6 million in ticket revenues.

In the United States, these events have become a major draw for tourism in cities like Los Angeles and New York. The projected growth trend for eSports suggests that many other cities can leverage the phenomenon to boost tourism and engage members of the community.

The eSports boom has already drawn the attention of traditional sports team owners and franchises. For example, Golden State Warriors co-owner Peter Guber and Washington Wizards majority owner Ted Leonsis recently joined forces to acquire eSports franchise Team Liquid, and the Philadelphia 76ers purchased two eSports teams as well. Partnerships and acquisitions like these could lead to huge opportunities for local eSports expansion.

eSports enthusiasts in your city need robust broadband infrastructure.

In order to leverage this booming new industry, cities need to ensure their broadband infrastructure is up to snuff. While a number of federal programs have targeted the homework gap and the need for students to have access to broadband both at school and at home, cities should not ignore a similar recreation gap for entertainment streaming services. City residents increasingly expect access to broadband at home, whether they use it for work or play. A 2015 study found that a fiber optic internet connection increases the value of a home by as much as an additional fireplace or half-bath.

Online gaming and streaming activities are driving the need for reliable, low-latency broadband service in the home. While broadband infrastructure continues to expand, the percentage of Americans choosing to purchase broadband remains near 70 percent of households. If leaders in your community – and residents – are struggling to see the value of a robust broadband infrastructure, eSports and online recreation may be the missing link.

About the authors:

Angelina Panettieri is the Principal Associate for Technology and Communication at the National League of Cities. Follower her on twitter @AngelinainDC.

 

Courtney Bernard is the Senior Communications Associate in NLC’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research. Follow her on Twitter @cbernard916.

Affordable Housing is the Real Issue Behind the Oakland Warehouse Fire

Clutter, code enforcement, and safety regulations are simply distractions. Here’s how city leaders can prevent tragedies like the Ghost Ship fire in their own communities.

(photo courtesy of oaklandghostship.com)

The social, cultural, and psychological links between living spaces and their inhabitants are real; spaces often reflect the values of their inhabitants. Beyond just displaying a preference or style, spaces like the Ghost Ship warehouse are built forms for a shared identity that is usually overlooked in most communities. (photo courtesy of oaklandghostship.com)

The tragedy of the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland earlier this month may be a difficult one for cities to absorb. How much was the fire a result of the underground activities and unsafe conditions in the Ghost Ship? How much responsibility does a city – through its building and safety code adoption and enforcement power – have for tragedies that occur in structures those codes are designed to help keep safe?

Code violations and safety hazards were diverse and numerous at the Ghost Ship. The warehouse was home to stairs made out of wooden pallets, cluttered collections of found furniture, no real fire walls separating the spaces of the several tenants who lived there. It’s clear from the photographs of the Ghost Ship that some level of this arrangement was by design, contributing to a bohemian aesthetic with an eclectic collection of East Asian sculptures and furniture, mannequins, paintings by local artists and friends, fabric hung over light fixtures, and an immense collection of pianos, organs, speakers, and other musical instruments. The electrical system posed a hazard as well; reports claim that occupants of the space siphoned power off neighboring properties with a system of ganged extension cords connected to aging fixtures and appliances.

The nature of counter-culture communal living spaces like the Ghost Ship is in opposition to dominant social norms, so it can be easy for people to view he Ghost Ship photographs with an air of smugness and think how different that type of living scenario looks compared to the relatively less cluttered homes many people occupy. But rather than counting the number of unsafe conditions in those photos and pinning blame for this tragedy on the victims themselves, we should focus on education efforts like this public safety video, which was produced by occupants of similar communal living spaces together with fire safety experts involved in the famous Burning Man festival. The video includes numerous safety tips such as locating bars and dance floors near exits, ensuring that battery-lighting signs are placed at two or more exists, and testing fire safety equipment before major events.

For city leaders who are already working to increase fire safety education in their communities, the next question may be: How much blame lies at the feet of code inspectors or fire officials in these scenarios? The city of Oakland’s planning and building department had investigated the warehouse as recently as last month following complaints about trash outside the property and illegal internal structures, but their role is limited and underfunded. In fact, the Oakland firefighters union made several public statements blaming the Fire Chief for understaffing inspection functions in the department.

But Oakland, like its peers, has overlapping agency responsibilities for building inspection and enforcement. In many cities, the fire department works in partnership with departments of planning, public health, public works, and building inspection to inventory, inspect, and enforce code compliance in man-made structures. Given this complex matrix of authority, an incident like the Ghost Ship fire might not represent the failing of any one agency or department but rather a lack of communication among them. In this particular tragedy, no city agency had any record that the Ghost Ship was being used as anything other than a warehouse, and its officially unoccupied status meant that a state-mandated fire inspection was never called. No city official had conducted a formal inspection of the building in more than 30 years.

Ultimately, though – and this represents the largest challenge, systemically, for cities – the fire at the Ghost Ship is a reminder of the costs we pay as a society when we do not provide affordable housing options to artists and other creative types living in communal settings or at society’s margins. Years ago, I lived just four blocks from the Ghost Ship when I rented a room from a sculptor who owned a warehouse she used as her home and studio. The neighborhood was fairly rough-and-tumble at the time, and despite the fact that many considered its buildings incompatible with residential use, artists moved into the area because industrial neighborhoods like that offer creative types the opportunity to live in an affordable setting with less interference when it comes to musical performances and eccentric lifestyles.

But the fact that artists are often drawn to edgy neighborhoods and affordable co-living spaces with ramshackle interiors doesn’t absolve us from a collective duty to provide better housing options to all city residents. Consider what would have happened if code compliance inspections had been completed at the Ghost Ship and the findings showed violations. Former residents as well as associates of the Ghost Ship’s founder and master tenant, Derick Ion Almena, describe him as mercurial and unresponsive to the complaints of his tenants – and the building’s owner, Chor Nar Siu Ng, has a long history of building violations that have caused the city to place liens against her and partners. So, if the city had exposed code violations, it seems likely that either Ms. Ng would have evicted the entire Ghost Ship operation, since their residency was not a legally permitted use of the building to begin with, or Mr. Almena would have evicted several of his tenants to avoid the risk of losing his occupancy altogether. And in those cases, given the white-hot San Francisco real estate market, the individual artists living there would likely have few affordable housing alternatives. Already, residents of other similar spaces have begun receiving eviction notices.

Oakland and the rest of the Bay Area have seen rents and home sales prices rapidly escalate in concert with the local technology boom centered in nearby Silicon Valley. Real estate service Zillow shows that the average monthly rent in the area is $2,899, up about 70 percent from five years ago — the fastest increase in the nation. In this context, renting a space in a co-living situation for $700 is attractive – even without consistent heat, water, or power. California is home to roughly 13 percent of the nation’s population, with a population growth rate slightly higher than the national average. But somehow, the state has accounted for only 8 percent of all national building permits in the past twenty years.

Just days after the Ghost Ship fire, the City of Oakland announced a $1.7 million philanthropic grant to help arts groups stay in Oakland. Even large gifts like that are stopgaps in the scheme of the region’s viciously competitive real estate market, though. And research shows that many affordable artist housing programs end up subsidizing white, non-poor artists. Diverse neighborhoods like Oakland’s Fruitvale have already experienced decades of displacement of communities and artists of color by marginally more resourced artists who see cheap living conditions among the industrial spaces of the neighborhood. Individual artists, artist communities, and the other residents of dramatically changing neighborhoods like Fruitvale all deserve more comprehensive approaches.

California’s dramatic housing shortage has hit the Bay Area hard, and Oakland is especially vulnerable to displacement and gentrification pressures stemming from the region’s rising wealth and dismal housing production. Oakland has long appealed to artists, musicians, and those interested in alternative, Do-It-Yourself culture – even more so since the Silicon Valley boom fueled a frenzied real estate market in neighboring San Francisco. The sky-high costs of living there have pushed artists across the bay to Oakland where they compete with existing residents as well as low-, middle- and even upper-income San Franciscans driven out of the city for limited housing. Many of the displaced are people of color, being pushed out of neighborhoods formed in the aftermath of white flight and blockbusting in the 1960’s.

The devastating fire at the Ghost Ship may have gained speed from the kindling of unsafe Bohemian clutter, or allowed to spread through some neglect in proper inspections – but even without those factors, an astoundingly unaffordable housing landscape is always going to drive some segment of the market into off-the-books, unpermitted and fundamentally unsafe spaces.

City leaders must educate residents in similar living situations about basic fire safety and prevention strategies, such as how to check smoke detector batteries. We also need to hold inter-agency meetings to see how we can better coordinate inter-agency responses and code inspections. These are perennially worthwhile endeavors. Most importantly, though, we need to develop comprehensive, well-considered solutions to housing affordability. Not just a measure here, or a program there – I’m referring to the kind of throw-everything-at-it approach that leaves no idea untested and no possible funding source unexplored. The city of Oakland suffered a devastating loss in the Ghost Ship fire. Working together, we can prevent a similar tragedy in our own communities.

About the author: An architect and city planner, Jess Zimbabwe is the Executive Director of the Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use, a program of the National League of Cities in partnership with the Urban Land Institute. Follow Jess on twitter at @jzimbabwe and @theRoseCenter.

The Arts Mean Business

This is a guest post by Jay H. Dick, Senior Director of State and Local Government Affairs at Americans for the Arts.

Meyerson_Symphony_Center_Dallas_1_fullsizeThe Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, Texas, is a visually spectacular example of the type of anchor for economic development that can be achieved when city governments invest in arts and culture initiatives. (photo: Matt Clarkson)

If your city had a new construction company move to town, this would be good news – more jobs, more economic activity, and more tax revenues to be collected. How about if your city received funding from your state to widen a road? Again, you would probably welcome this news with open arms. Now, think about a new arts organization moving to town. Would you look at this group with the same economic lens that you used to look at the construction or transportation business?

If your answer was no, here’s why you should!

The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) with the National Endowment for the Arts recently released their second annual report measuring the arts and culture sector’s contributions to U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). This year’s report found that the arts and culture sector represented 4.32 percent of the GDP – a higher percentage than tourism (2.6 percent), transportation (2.7 percent) and construction (3.4 percent) – at $698.7 billion!

(Americans for the Arts)

In other words, the arts and culture sector have a larger impact on your economy (in terms of GDP) than these other industries. The unfortunate problem is that we don’t readily recognize the economic value and impact of the arts. Luckily, more research is being done on this topic by groups such as the BEA and by organizations like mine, Americans for the Arts.

For example, did you know that, according to our Arts and Economic Prosperity IV study, the nonprofit arts are a $135 billion industry that supports over 4 million full-time equivalent jobs? Further, the nonprofit arts contribute $22 billion dollars in tax revenue, of which $6.07 billion is collected at the local level. Given that most local governments (that Americans for the Arts has studied) appropriate less than they receive in tax revenue, the arts are a wonderful investment!

Our Creative Industries: Business & Employment in the Arts reports provide a research-based approach to understanding the scope and economic importance of the arts in America. Nationally, 702,771 businesses are involved in the creation or distribution of the arts, and they directly employ 2.9 million people. This represents 3.9 percent of all U.S. businesses and 1.9 percent of all U.S. employees – demonstrating statistically that the arts are a formidable business presence and are broadly distributed across our communities. Arts businesses and the creative people they employ stimulate innovation, strengthen America’s competitiveness in the global marketplace, and play an important role in building and sustaining economic vibrancy. In addition to our national numbers, there are downloadable maps on our website of every state, federal legislative district, state legislative district, counties and some larger cities.

Cities of all sizes that, even minimally, invest in their local arts organizations can see economic benefits. For example, over 300 cities have created cultural districts to foster the economic viability of their downtown. Cultural districts are a well-recognized, labeled, mixed-use area of a city in which a high concentration of cultural facilities serves as the anchor of attraction and robust economic activity.

The Playhouse Square Center in downtown Cleveland, Ohio. (Getty Images)

According to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, Ohio, the Cleveland Playhouse Square’s downtown economic impact has been impressive. For every one dollar spent in ticket sales, $2.20 is generated in additional expenditures to the local economy. In a five-year period, 79 new businesses moved downtown, and the cost of downtown office space nearly doubled.

In the late 1990s, Paducah, Ky. had a problem – an area of the city, LowerTown, was run down. Fifty percent of homes were dilapidated; 73 percent of homes were renter-occupied; and there was a 17 percent unemployment rate with 51 percent of people living in poverty. To tackle the problem, city leaders came up with a unique plan: the Artist Relocation Program. City leaders partnered with banks and other businesses and reached out nationally to artists to invite them to move to Paducah. The program would offer them a very low-interest loan if they bought a house, agreed to make improvements, worked as an artist out of their house, and lived there for at least five years.

Dixie Leather Works, located in the LowerTown arts disctrict of Paducah, Ky. (photo: Paducah Visitors Bureau)

Dixie Leather Works, located in the LowerTown Arts District of Paducah, Ky. (photo: Paducah Visitors Bureau)

Ten years later, dilapidated homes have fallen to 3 percent; the renter-occupied rate is down to 15 percent; unemployment is down to 6 percent; and the number of people living in poverty has been reduced to 4 percent. This is all a direct result of the Artist Relocation Program.

These are just a few examples of how the arts and culture can help your city’s economy. The great thing about the arts is they are already in your city. The arts, unlike many industries, are not going to relocate overseas or to a different city. The arts are committed to serving your city’s residents and improving the quality of life. But what they do need are community leaders to recognize them as an industry worthy of both private and public sector support. So, please contact your local arts groups. Get to know them, understand their programming, and how they work to improve your city. And if you have any questions, feel free to contact me directly – I would love to help.

Jay H. DickAbout the Author: Jay H. Dick is the Senior Director of State and Local Government Affairs at Americans for the Arts, an organization which serves, advances and leads diverse networks of organizations and individuals who cultivate, promote, sustain and support the arts in America. Americans for the Arts has partnered with NLC for almost 20 years on a variety of programs.

The Best Lifestyle Might Be the Cheapest, Too

This is a guest post by Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert. It originally appeared here.

If you were to build a city from scratch, using current technology, what would it cost to live there? I think it would be nearly free if you did it right.

This is a big deal because people aren’t saving enough for retirement, and many folks are underemployed. If the economy can’t generate enough money for everyone to pay for a quality lifestyle today, perhaps we can approach it from the other direction and lower the cost of living.

Consider energy costs. We already know how to build homes that use zero net energy. So that budget line goes to zero if you build a city from scratch. Every roof will be intelligently oriented to the sun, and every energy trick will be used in the construction of the homes. (I will talk about the capital outlay for solar panels and whatnot later.)

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I can imagine a city built around communal farming in which all the food is essentially free. Imagine every home with a greenhouse. All you grow is one crop in your home, all year, and the Internet provides an easy sharing system as well as a way to divide up the crops in a logical way. I share my cucumbers and in return get whatever I need from the other neighbors’ crops via an organized ongoing sharing arrangement. My guess is that using the waste water (treated) and excess heat from the home you could grow food economically in greenhouses. If you grow more than you eat, the excess is sold in neighboring towns, and that provides enough money for you to buy condiments, sauces, and stuff you can’t grow at home.

Medical costs will never go to zero, but recent advances in medical testing technology (which I have seen up close in start-up pitches) will drive the costs of routine medical services down by 80% over time. That’s my guess, based on the several pitches I have seen.

Now add Big Data to the mix and the ability to catch problems early (when they are inexpensive to treat) is suddenly tremendous.

Now add IBM’s Watson technology (artificial intelligence) to the medical system and you will be able to describe your symptoms to your phone and get better-than-human-doctor diagnoses right away. (Way better. Won’t even be close.) So doctor visits will become largely unnecessary except for emergency room visits, major surgeries, and end-of-life stuff.

 

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Speaking of end-of-life, assume doctor-assisted-suicide is legal by the time this city is built. I plan to make sure that happens in California on the next vote. Other states will follow. In this imagined future you can remove much of the unnecessary costs of the cruel final days of life that are the bulk of medical expenses.

Now assume the city of the future has exercise facilities nearby for everyone, and the city is designed to promote healthy living. Everyone would be walking, swimming, biking, and working out. That should reduce healthcare costs.

Now imagine that because everyone is growing healthy food in their own greenhouses, the diet of this new city is spectacular. You’d have to make sure every home had a smoothie-maker for protein shakes. And let’s say you can buy meat from the outside if you want it, so no one is deprived. But the meat-free options will improve from the sawdust and tofu tastes you imagine now to something much more enjoyable over time. Healthy eaters who associate with other healthy eaters share tricks for making healthy food taste amazing.

Now assume the homes are organized such that they share a common center “grassy” area that is actually artificial turf so you don’t need water and mowing. Every home opens up to the common center, which has security cameras, WiFi, shady areas, dog bathroom areas, and more. This central lawn creates a natural “family” of folks drawn to the common area each evening for fun and recreation. This arrangement exists in some communities and folks rave about the lifestyle, as dogs and kids roam freely from home to home encircling the common open area.

 

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That sort of home configuration takes care of your childcare needs, your pet care needs, and lots of other things that a large “family” handles easily. The neighborhood would be Internet-connected so it would be easy to find someone to watch your kid or dog if needed, for free. My neighborhood is already connected by an email group, so if someone sees a suspicious activity, for example, the entire neighborhood is alerted in minutes.

I assume that someday online education will be far superior to the go-to-school model. Online education improves every year while the classroom experience has started to plateau. Someday every home will have what I call an immersion room, which is a small room with video walls so you can immerse yourself in history, or other studies, and also visit other places without leaving home. (Great for senior citizens especially.) So the cost of education will drop to zero as physical schools become less necessary.

When anyone can learn any skill at home, and any job opening is easy to find online, the unemployment rate should be low. And given the low cost of daily living, folks can afford to take a year off to retool and learn new skills.

The repair and maintenance costs of homes can drop to nearly zero if you design homes from the start to accomplish that goal. You start by using common windows, doors, fixtures, and mechanical systems from a fixed set of choices. That means you always have the right replacement part nearby. Everyone has the same AC units, same Internet routers, and so on. If something breaks, a service guy swaps it out in an hour. Or do it yourself. If you start from scratch to make your homes maintenance-free, you can get close. You would have homes that never need paint, with floors and roofs that last hundreds of years, and so on.

Today it costs a lot to build a home, but most of that cost is in the inefficiency of the process. In the future, homes will be designed to the last detail using CAD, and factory-cut materials of the right size will appear on the job site as a snap-together kit with instructions printed on each part. I could write a book on this topic, but the bottom line is that home construction is about 80% higher than it needs to be even with current technology.

The new city would be built on cheap land, by design, so land costs would be minimal. Construction costs for a better-than-today condo-sized home would probably be below $75,000 apiece. Amortized over 15 years the payments are tiny. And after the 15th year there is no mortgage at all. (The mortgage expense includes the solar panels, greenhouses, etc.)

Transportation would be cheap in this new city. Individually-owned automobiles would be banned. Public transportation would be on-demand and summoned by app (like Uber).

And the self-driving cars would be cheap to build. Once human drivers are out of the picture you can remove all of the safety features because accidents won’t happen. And you only summon a self-driving car that is the size you need. There is no reason to drag an empty back seat and empty trunk everywhere you go. And if you imagine underground roads, the cars don’t need to be weather-proof. And your sound system is your phone, so the car just needs speakers and Bluetooth. Considering all of that, self-driving cars might someday cost $5,000 apiece, and that expense would be shared across several users on average. And imagine the cars are electric, and the city produces its own electricity. Your transportation budget for the entire family might be $200 per month within the city limits.

The cost of garbage service could drop to nearly zero if homes are designed with that goal in mind. Your food garbage would go back to the greenhouse as mulch. You wouldn’t have much processed food in this city, so no cans and bottles to discard. And let’s say you ban the postal service from this new city because all they do is deliver garbage anyway. (All bills will be online.) And let’s say if you do accumulate a bag of garbage you can just summon a garbage vehicle to meet you at the curb using the same app you use for other vehicles. By the time you walk to the curb, the vehicle pulls up, and you toss the bag in.

I think a properly-designed city could eliminate 80% of daily living expenses while providing a quality of life far beyond what we experience today. And I think this future will have to happen because the only other alternative is an aggressive transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor by force of law. I don’t see that happening.

Scott AdamsAbout the Author: Scott Adams is the creator of the Dilbert comic series. He can be reached on Twitter at @ScottAdamsSays. You can also find Dilbert on Facebook.

Celebrating the Attractions of Small Cities

via Wikimedia Commons by Acroterion

German Street in Shepherdstown, WV, via Wikimedia Commons by Acroterion

When I talk about cities I have visited, I use sensory language. I describe the art or architecture I saw, the unique foods I consumed, the sounds of nature or of music I heard, the landscape I traversed or the people with whom I connected. Big city or small city, in the U.S. or abroad, my experiences are similar. There is always something unique or compelling that creates a story about this or that place.

I have previously written on this blog about thriving and creative small cities. Shepherdstown, West Virginia was one such community that offers a range of activities and amenities that draws visitors to the Shenandoah from across the region. This community, while charming, is not unique. In fact a magazine called American Style has been reporting on the creativity and imagination of smaller communities for many years. Although generally focused on arts and cultural assets, the stories about cities represent the wealth of diversity that causes us to celebrate June as Small Cities Month.

There are few things more delightful than outdoor concerts. Eureka Springs, Arkansas offers a veritable cornucopia of music programs year round. A recent look at the city’s website shows an activity calendar listing the 27th Annual Arts Festival in May, the bluegrass festival in June, the 64th season of Opera in the Ozarks during July and the jazz festival in September.

The visual arts – painting, sculpture, metalwork, photography, etc. – offer other opportunities for communities to advantage a unique strength. The Ox-Bow School and artist-in-residence program in Saugatuck, Michigan is one such example. This program was established in 1910 and is now affiliated with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. From a beach, harbor and arts and crafts town, Saugatuck has catalyzed their artist colony status into a genuine growth industry.

Sarasota, Florida may offer the most eclectic mix of arts and culture of any city. The long-established Ringling International Arts Festival (Yes, THAT Ringling) puts circus arts front and center as well as dance and music. A more sublime event will run concurrently during 2014, the 27th Annual Downtown Festival of the Arts. This event provides exhibition space to creators of sculpture, painting, jewelry and crafts. Multi-cultural foods tend to grace all events in Sarasota.

Film and music are at the center of the arts festivals in Aspen, Colorado. The annual FilmFest has grown over the years to rival the film events hosted in Cannes, Toronto and Sundance. The historic Wheeler Opera House offers an unmatched venue for previewing autumn new releases, documentaries or Oscar-quality performances. For those whose tastes run to music, the Aspen Music Festival attracts world-class performers and guest artists.

Programs that showcase the arts and culture thrive in smaller cities as well as in larger ones. Many of these festivals have grown from modest events highlighting local artists and performers in ad hoc spaces into high visibility orchestrations with professional management and national or international reputations. Proof that an investment in cultural and arts programming is an investment well made.

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.

Can Cities Survive on Love Alone?

Although For the Love of Cities by Peter Kageyama was published in 2011, the book, concept and author have been gaining popularity recently by a breadth of cities and city-loving organizations.

Kageyama calls for city leaders to take on the task of giving “love notes” to the community. Yes, that right, love notes or emotional capital, in the form of parks, arts, open space, local culture, play, walkable spaces. These create emotional connections and attachment between people and their cities.

It is certainly well documented that a thriving quality of life, or “lovability” as the case may be, supports growth and helps people feel attached to their communities.

But in the context of what this means for local governments, is Kageyama’s “lovability” theory the answer cities have been waiting for? Can cities survive on love alone? Here’s my take.

Lovability is not a silver bullet. Although coffee shops, dog parks and cultural events are critical to retaining and attracting residents and businesses, “lovability” is not a sufficient condition to bolster economic growth and retain/attract talent in places that are truly struggling.

A community needs a baseline level of economic health and employment opportunity before quality of life becomes a driving force, i.e. no amount of dog parks can solve Detroit’s underlying economic challenges.

This isn’t to say struggling cities shouldn’t strive to enhance quality of life/lovability, but they need to do it along-side the difficult work of addressing critical challenges like economic development, workforce skills, infrastructure and youth violence.

Chelsea mich clock tower

Chelsea, MI is a case in point for the mutual support that can exist between “love notes” and functional services. Nearly 30 years ago, the downtown association, elected officials, community banks, Chamber of Commerce, small business owners, and regulatory departments worked together to fully invest in returning its rundown downtown as the epicenter of the community. The catalyst for attracting storefronts – love notes, in the form of the the Purple Rose Theatre Company and a local restaurant.
The partnership tapped Chelsea native and long-time resident, actor/musician Jeff Daniels, who founded the nonprofit theater Purple Rose. The restaurant, the Common Grill, was given space to open in an old vacant department store in the middle of the downtown. The theater and restaurant not only enhanced local culture and attachment, but brought patrons into downtown and allowed for pedestrian traffic in other shops.

Create a culture of authentic engagement. Cities can do much to create lovability and attachment, but more important, how can cities tap this attachment for authentic civic engagement that drives change in the community?

Through support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, NLC recently released Bright Spots in Community Engagement, a scan of communities across the country to better understand how local governments are empowering residents to advance the well-being of their communities.

Creating a culture of authentic engagement involves:

  • Reaching a broad spectrum of networks and representatives from all facets of the community, particularly those not typically engaged
  • Using new tools and strategies, particularly those that tap the power of technology, i.e. open data
  • Using a range of strategies (both traditional and more innovative) to engage residents. This helps reach more populations and leads to greater sustainability
  • Knowing when to lead and when to providing more subtle leadership in the form of support and collaboration where efforts are well underway from the grassroots
  • Making the physical and digital space available for engagement (schools, libraries)

For example, in the city of Philadelphia, partnerships across sectors have led to an open data and technology initiative that has attracted the city’s co-working spaces, venture funds, local foundations, emerging technologies, press and universities.

“My belief is that if we keep helping these good guys [in City Hall] do good work, their colleagues will need to learn the value of partnering with engaged citizens,” noted Alex Hillman of Indy Hall, a co-working space in the city dedicated to neighborhood development.

The city of Philadelphia is an active participant, serving as a convener of key stakeholders, providing access to data systems, using the mayoral bully pulpit to bring attention and lend credibility to the initiatives, and institutionalizing this strategy through the mayor’s executive order on open data and the appointment of Mark Headd, formerly of Code for America, as the city’s first Chief Data Officer.

Cities across the country, like Chelsea and Philadelphia, are not only developing creative ways to help residents feel love for their cities, but leveraging this love into long term economic and fiscal impact and authentic civic engagement.

Cities Kick-Start Innovation

Context matters in rankings, whether it is for universities, sports teams or cities. Columbus, Ohio and Medellin, Columbia, are two cities that were recently singled out for recognition. In the case of Medellin the title bestowed was Innovative City of the Year by Citi Group, The Wall Street Journal and the Urban Land Institute. Columbus is the only U.S. city among the list of Most Intelligent Cities adjudicated by the Intelligent Communities Forum.

Although one can always argue over the selection process and the qualifications of the sponsors to properly judge the final selection, it’s hard to find fault with the innovative work being done in these cities that pushed them up to the top of these rankings.

Consider Columbus, Ohio, one of this nation’s “legacy cities” in the industrial heartland. In a review of the city’s accomplishments toward earning the Most Intelligent title, Robert Bell, founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, cites assets including Ohio State University, the Columbus Metropolitan Library and the innovation incubator TechColumbus as significant advances in smart technology application and education. The city is further lauded for its multi-sector partnerships, inclusion of citizens in visioning and transparency of process in decision making.

The astonishing transformation in Medellin bears some of the same hallmarks that define the experience in Columbus. However, Columbus never had to battle the horrendous crime problems that accompanied the drug cartel wars (1975-1995) nor the extremes of poverty that plague so many developing democracies. What gives this city its credibility as “innovative” is its leveraged public investment with private sector partners, a determination to nurture citizen inclusion (participatory budgeting being one example) through the use of social media tools, and real progress to improve the human and social capital of the city’s poorest residents.

To be sure, the story in Medellin is capturing so much attention because so many of the projects pursued are being replicated elsewhere, much in the way Curitiba, Brazil led the field in bus rapid transit. For example, Medellin invested in aerial skyways employing gondolas that link citizens living in poor mountainside villages to jobs in the valley below. A similar system was rolled out in Rio de Janeiro in July 2011. A skyway across the Thames in London, the Emirates Air Line, debuted for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Cities are hotbeds of innovation and city leaders love to share a good story. It is in the sharing of both success and failure that innovation spreads and achieves a long-term impact.

Japanese Localities Build Growth on Arts and Culture

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of blog posts on Jim Brooks’ trip to Japan with the The Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR) Fellowship.

The Tate. The Getty. The Guggenheim. MoMa. These are household names and as such are among the most prestigious museums of modern art in the world. Breaking into this august company is a tremendous challenge. But for sheer inventiveness and audacity, a grade of A+ goes to the remarkable Chichu Art Museum in Japan’s Kagawa Prefecture overlooking the Seto Inland Sea – Japan’s first national park.

The CLAIR delegation in Tokyo

The CLAIR delegation in Tokyo

The region already boasts a small “garden museum” on the grounds of the studio use by Isama Noguchi, a pioneering sculptor and creator of earthworks, gardens and plazas. His major works are in Paris, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Fort Worth and Venice. Another gem, the Genichiro Inokuma Museum of Contemporary Art in Marugame City places an extensive collection of his work in a facility designed by famed architect Yochiro Taniguchi, known for his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MoMa). Also of interest is Taniguchi’s design of the Higashiyama Kaii Setouchi Art Museum at the foot of the Seto Ohashi Bridge.

The Chichu is genuinely a world class facility. The building itself is a work of art and a product of architect Tadao Ando, who also designed the sister gallery the Lee Ufan. The galleries of the Chichu are housed within a hill, leaving the land’s natural beauty unscathed. Artworks are bathed in natural light from skylights yielding brightness or shadow as each minute of the day passes. On display are works by Walter De Maria (Time/Timeless/No Time), James Turrell (including Open Field), and five water lily works by Claude Monet, the acquisition of which pre-dated the creation of the museum.

For the state and local government leaders of Kagawa Prefecture, Takamatsu and Marugame cities and other localities, economic prosperity is tied to a mix of economic assets including high quality modern art, scenic and historic places, and a spiritual and emotional connection to the shrines and temples set among the natural landscape of the island of Shikoku.

During 2013, the prefecture will host an international arts festival, the Setouchi Triennale providing a 108-day festival across three seasons using multiple venues dotting the Inland Sea islands and the museums on the main island of Shikoku. More than 170 artists from 16 countries will display works during the festival period.

Art at the Lee Ufan Museum

Art at the Lee Ufan Museum

Some important strategic partners already are involved beyond the government entities. The Fukutake Foundation has, for example, helped to underwrite both the Chichu and the Lee Ufan museums on Naoshima island and launched the original arts festival in 2010.

Other scenic, historic or spiritual attractions include Ritsurin Gardens, the Zenigata sculpture at Kotohiki Park and the Zentsuji Temple. In fact, 88 temples and shrines dot Shikoku. A formal pilgrimage road, known as the Shikoku Henro, is in various stages of development.

The state and local leaders who have presented these strategies have a solid vision and are not afraid to experiment with some non-traditional approaches. The commitment, imagination and world class assets will likely reap significant economic rewards.