How One Park District in Illinois Is Making Smarter Parks

In many cities, one of the most popular services utilized by the community is open space, including parks and playgrounds. Unfortunately, park use is also one of the hardest things for cities to measure.

Park visitation can be impacted by rentals, holidays, weather and construction, as well as the number of attendees at special events. Cities can use data on these impacts to improve park operations and drive project outcomes. (Getty Images)

This is a guest post by Bobbi Nance and Edward Krafcik. This post is the first in a series celebrating National Parks Week.

With the abundance of startup companies interested in partnering with local governments — and the variety of new technologies designed specifically for this purpose — there has emerged a decision paralysis which inhibits city leaders to act quickly and effectively on any one innovation project. This is only natural — after all, with so much available on the market in terms of technologies and ideas, and with little evidence to show what works and why, it is reasonably challenging for city leaders to decide where to invest when the upside and downside are not yet fully measurable.

In this sneak peek into a case study from the Park District of Oak Park, Illinois, we profile how Oak Park is collaborating with a startup company called Soofa from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. By working together in a highly collaborative and iterative manner, both organizations achieved their goals simultaneously while maximizing the value the new technology provides to the citizens of Oak Park. This case study provides a working example for how innovative public-private projects can succeed, and offers advice on what to look for in a partnership with a startup company and how best to manage the associated risks.

The Park District of Oak Park first contacted Soofa in March of 2016 looking for ways it could count the number of people who use its parks with sensor technology instead of counting manually by hand. Specifically, the district’s goals were to compare the pedestrian use of its parks to inform capital planning decisions, measure the success of event programming and marketing activities, and tell a more complete story of how its parks are used and how valuable they are to the community.

As Bobbi Nance, senior manager of strategy and innovation for the Park District of Oak Park, described, “at any parks and recreation agency, the most popular service utilized by the community is open space, including parks and playgrounds. Unfortunately, park use is also one of the hardest things for park providers to measure. The technology in Soofa products was appealing to us as a data-driven organization because it allowed us for the first time to have consistent data about how our parks are being used, all while providing the added benefit of free solar-powered charging stations to our park visitors.”

A Soofa Core station installed in Oak Park, Illinois. (Soofa)

Soofa makes smart outdoor furniture, like park benches that use solar power to provide phone charging for the public and sensor data collection for public agencies and local governments. Oak Park is one of Soofa’s first smarter parks beta partners, meaning it engaged in a pilot project with the intention of co-creating a technology product that would closely meet its needs.

The network of beta partners also includes agencies like NYC Parks, Oklahoma City Parks and Recreation, Prince George’s County, Maryland, Parks and Recreation, and dozens of other forward-thinking city departments and agencies. You can read more about Oak Park’s installation in this Chicago Tribune article and learn more about how they engaged their community with the new technology by designing a fun QR code scavenger hunt called SpotTheSoofa.

Nance further illustrated how being a beta partner has provided the district with critical data during the first stages of the project. “In the first six months, we’ve already been able to spot differences in usage patterns in the four parks where a Soofa Core station was installed, and we are starting to see how park visitation is impacted by rentals, holidays, weather and construction, as well as the number of attendees at a special event or the number of people that take advantage of temporary offerings like outdoor ice rinks or art installations.”

Data Collection and Interpretation

Pedestrian count data is provided to the Park District of Oak Park in comma-separated value files which provide the district flexibility to study how park use is impacted by events, weather and more. Nance imports this data into her agency-wide dashboard, which is powered by iDashboards. The dashboard enables different types of correlations, including how temperature and events impact park use, and it can evaluate the success of different marketing strategies and tactics by revealing how many people visit the district’s parks based on a particular marketing initiative or advertised event.

While not every city or agency is using a dashboard as comprehensively as the Park District of Oak Park, the main lesson to be taken from this example is that being able to correlate data is crucial. When considering or comparing different technology products, services or companies, cities should ask tough questions about how data sets can be correlated with others, how open a particular data set is (meaning how easy it is to access and share), and how flexible and adaptive it is.

Data Usage Goals

A graph showing the impact of the 2017 Super Bowl game on park visitation. (Soofa)

The wealth of data gathered by Soofa’s sensors in the four parks across the Oak Park district is only beginning to be tapped into. The project has been live for nine months, with plans for expansion underway to increase the total number of sensors in the district’s parks. Further data use goals that will be explored in the coming months include:

  • Use pedestrian traffic data to improve park operations
  • Inform capital improvement schedules based on knowing how often different parks are actually being used — a goal which ultimately saves money on excessive improvements
  • Become more efficient in offering (and pricing) permits for events
  • Sync up with nearby business improvement districts and share the data to be able to quantify how public programming impacts park use and neighborhood activity in general
  • Measure the impact of park improvement projects by knowing how many more people visit the park after the improvements are complete

Accelerating the Process and Driving Outcomes

The original idea to bring Soofa benches to the Park District of Oak Park was presented in March 2016 by Bobbi Nance to her team via the district’s intranet, where district employees share innovative ideas. In just five months, Soofa technology was installed in four of the district’s parks. How did this happen so fast? Oak Park made a few recommendations on how to innovate efficiently:

  • Figure out early if you want to start with a pilot project or widespread deployment, and align all internal stakeholders accordingly
  • Insulate innovation projects from traditional processes and funding sources
  • Don’t overlook the value and the opportunity that comes from the innovation itself, like being able to co-develop a product that really meets your needs

To learn more and see data visualizations prepared by the Park District of Oak Park, read the full case study here.

About the authors:

Bobbi Nance is the senior manager of strategy and innovation at the Park District of Oak Park. Bobbi oversees the agency’s strategic plans and serves as a catalyst for innovation, moving ideas from concept to reality and accelerating the pace at which her agency implements improvements.

Ed Krafcik is the director of partnerships at Soofa and is an advisory board member for Parks and Recreation Magazine. He collaborates with cities and parks departments across the country to solve problems using new types of data.

How the President’s Budget Proposal Could Stop the Transit Revolution in Its Tracks

Included in the administration’s first budget proposal is a $499 billion cut to one of the federal government’s most successful transportation funding programs: TIGER Grants.

TIGER Grants fund innovative transportation projects such as this light rail system in Seattle. (Getty Images)

This April recess, NLC is encouraging city leaders to engage with their members of Congress while they are at home in their districts for two weeks. Don’t let Congress leave America’s cities behind — join us this week and next as we #FightTheCuts proposed in the administration’s budget.

This post was co-authored by Michael Wallace and Sam Warlick. It is part of a series on the 2018 federal budget.

While on the campaign trail, President Donald Trump often spoke like a true champion of American infrastructure. “Our airports, bridges, water tunnels, power grids, rail systems — our nation’s entire infrastructure is crumbling,” he wrote in 2015, “and we aren’t doing anything to fix it.”

His first three months as president have told a different story. Included in the administration’s first budget proposal is a $499 billion cut to one of the federal government’s most successful programs: TIGER Grants.

Created in 2009, TIGER Grants fund innovative transportation projects like light rail, regional buses, bicycle networks and new freight systems. The process is competitive, transparent and application-based, meaning that the grant winners must demonstrate outstanding economic and community benefits.

Over the past eight years, TIGER grants have supplied $5.1 billion in new funding to some of America’s most innovative urban and rural transportation projects. They include:

  • The QLINE Streetcar in Detroit, which will link the city’s resurgent downtown to some of its most economically-challenged neighborhoods
  • The Texas Rural Transit Asset Replacement project, which upgraded facilities and buses serving low-income, elderly and disabled riders across the state
  • Montana’s Poplar Airport Regional Access Project, which improved bike/pedestrian access and economic development opportunities in rural and tribal communities
  • The nationally-renowned Atlanta Beltline Trail, a green pedestrian and bicycle corridor redeveloped on an abandoned rail corridor

Under the White House’s “skinny budget,” the TIGER Grant program would be crippled. It would cut off the flow of federal investment in innovative transportation infrastructure — a key investment that has helped drive our nation’s economic recovery.

The ball is now in Congress’s court. With two weeks left to present a full budget for adoption, the House of Representatives can keep their promise to reinvest in infrastructure and create prosperity for all communities.

On behalf of city leaders, we strongly encourage Congress to stand with cities across the country and stop cuts to successful, valuable federal programs — including TIGER grants.

About the authors:

mike_wallace_125x150Michael Wallace is the Program Director of Federal Advocacy at the National League of Cities. Follow him on Twitter @MikeWallaceII.


Sam Warlick is a Senior Communications Associate at the National League of Cities.

Is Your City at Risk of Losing Federal Funding?

There are three main questions that cities need to be aware of when dissecting the political rhetoric around sanctuary cities.


The Trump administration has directed the Department of Justice (pictured above) and the Department of Homeland Security to withhold funding from sanctuary jurisdictions — an order that raises more questions than it answers for cities. (Getty)

This April recess, NLC is encouraging city leaders to engage with their members of Congress while they are at home in their districts for two weeks. Don’t let Congress leave America’s cities behind — join us this week and next as we #FightTheCuts proposed in the administration’s budget.

This post is part of a series on the 2018 federal budget.

Is your city at risk of losing federal funding following the Trump administration’s sanctuary cities executive order? Despite the rhetoric we are hearing, we think the short answer is no — at least, not anytime soon. Many legal issues would need to be resolved before the federal government could act to withhold grant funding from any so-called “sanctuary” jurisdiction.

The courts must first determine the constitutionality of enforcing President Donald Trump’s executive order directing the Department of Homeland Security and the attorney general to withhold funding from jurisdictions with sanctuary policies. Recently, nearly 300 legal scholars sent a letter to the president that argued the executive order violates the Fourth and Tenth Amendments of the Constitution. The cities of San Francisco and Seattle have already filed injunctions to stay the order, and a decision on the cases is expected shortly.

Let’s be clear. When dissecting the political rhetoric around sanctuary cities, there are three main questions that cities need to be aware of: What is a sanctuary jurisdiction? How do Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainers affect a sanctuary jurisdiction? What does cooperation with ICE mean for cities?

First, there is no legal definition of a sanctuary city/jurisdiction. Last year, Congress tried to define a “sanctuary jurisdiction” as a local government that specifically prohibits its government officials from sharing information with federal immigration information officers, which would be a violation of U.S.C. 8 §1373. While the Department of Justice’s inspector general determined that some jurisdictions have policies that limit the types of information local officials collect on immigration status, that did not mean the jurisdictions were in violation of Sec. 1373.

Second, the immigration hawks that are promoting sanctions against sanctuary cities focus their arguments on compliance with voluntary ICE detainer requests. There is no requirement that a local jurisdiction comply with a detainer request. If a jurisdiction does not comply with a detainer request, that does not make them a sanctuary, regardless of what anti-immigration activists argue.

ICE has the authority to issue a detainer request to any law enforcement agency that has in their custody an immigrant charged or convicted of a crime. Compliance with the detainers is voluntary and at the discretion of the local jurisdiction or law enforcement agency. The courts have ruled that detainer requests violate a person’s rights under the Fourth Amendment because they lack probable cause to arrest and keep someone in jail after they have served their time.

The irony in this whole debate is that ICE has broad authority to issue a warrant for arrest for the same immigrant, which would not violate the Fourth Amendment. When asked why ICE continues to issue detainer requests instead of warrants for arrest, the simple answer is that, to do so, they would have to provide probable cause for the warrant. So, while every other local law enforcement officer must show probable cause before arresting someone, ICE seems to believe they are excluded from this constitutional requirement. The courts, however, disagree with ICE’s determination. Several federal courts have ruled in recent years that local jurisdictions can be held liable for violating immigrants’ civil rights if they detain them at the request of ICE without a court order.

Third, local law enforcement agencies cooperate routinely with ICE and other federal law enforcement agencies to arrest and remove the most dangerous immigrants that are part of drug cartels and gangs. Recent enforcement actions by ICE are increasingly focusing on undocumented immigrants who have been in the country for years and have become woven into the fabric of our communities. Their children attend schools with our children. They contribute to the local economy and support local programs.

Local law enforcement works closely with these communities by building trust to keep the public safe. Local governments consider the risk of tearing up immigrant families and communities, disrupting the local economy, and eroding the trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

It is the sole responsibility of the federal government to enforce immigration laws. The president, the attorney general and ICE have made it a top priority to enforce immigration deportation for anyone who is in this country illegally, but this does not mean it must be the top priority of local governments. While local governments should not prevent ICE from performing its duties, they are not responsible for enforcing federal immigration laws.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of Congress to fix our broken immigration system. The National League of Cities (NLC) has a clear policy position on comprehensive immigration reform, and cities need to urge their Congressional delegation to stop the corrosive political rhetoric against cities and fix our broken immigration system.

City leaders are doing their jobs — and now it is time for Congress to do its job.

Learn more about NLC’s efforts to fight back against proposed budget cuts to city funding.

yucel_ors_125x150About the author: Yucel (“u-jel”) Ors is the Program Director of Public Safety and Crime Prevention at the National League of Cities. Follow Yucel on Twitter at @nlcpscp.

Don’t Cut Funding for Programs That Help Children Thrive in Cities Across the Country

Federally-funded programs like those slated for elimination in President Trump’s 2018 Budget Blueprint have a proven record of results for young children, and simply cannot survive without continued federal support.

Group of young children drawing with chalk on the sidewalk

Local leaders agree that early investment in a child’s development can make all the difference when it comes to the future success of their youngest residents. (Getty Images)

This April recess, NLC is encouraging city leaders to engage with their members of Congress while they are at home in their districts for two weeks. Don’t let Congress leave America’s cities behind — join us this week and next as we #FightTheCuts proposed in the administration’s budget.

This post is part of a series on the 2018 federal budget.

Ask any city leader and they will tell you that giving children a strong start in life is one of the most important investments we can make toward building vibrant and prosperous communities. This is not just anecdotal — research tells us that 90 percent of a child’s brain development has occurred by the age of five, with 700 neural connections per second being formed during the early years of a child’s brain development.

At the National League of Cities (NLC), we amplify the work local leaders are doing to increase early childhood opportunities for young children. Through partnerships with NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families, cities are aligning systems for young children to improve outcomes for children and their families.

City leaders can significantly advance local progress through programs, policies and the alignment of systems that impact young children, but this work exists within a federal and state context. From help paying the high costs of child care to seats in a Head Start classroom, federally-funded programs like those slated for elimination in President Trump’s 2018 Budget Blueprint have a proven record of results for young children, and simply cannot survive without continued federal support. This budget proposal will harm city leaders’ abilities to foster high-quality early childhood opportunities and support families.

While the blueprint is only a “skinny budget,” we can expect to see a larger plan in the near future that details the more than $54 billion in proposed cuts to domestic programs that help children and families in cities thrive. Cuts to key departments like Health and Human Services should alarm city leaders whose communities benefit from programs like Head Start, which serves over a million children each year.

Classrooms in every state in the country help young children develop cognitive and developmental skills and establish habits that shape their future health outcomes. Without Head Start, many more of our most vulnerable parents would be without an early education setting for their children. Long waiting lists mean that less than half of eligible three- and four-year-olds are able to participate in Head Start.

The Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) is another example of a federal program investing in early childhood. Despite its lengthy name, its purpose is simple: to help parents afford child care. The cost of child care is out of reach for too many families. Center-based infant care is more expensive than one year of public university tuition in 30 states and Washington, D.C.

The experiences children have in child care lay the foundation for their cognitive development and allow their parents to work and pursue education. Every year, businesses lose approximately $4.4 billion due to employee absenteeism as a result of child care breakdowns. However, current levels of funding prevent five out of six eligible children from receiving CCDBG dollars to help their parents afford care.

These are just two examples of the federal programs that work to improve outcomes for young children in cities nationwide. A lack of funding for these critical programs already leaves many needs unmet, and further cuts to domestic programs would risk eliminating this support altogether. On behalf of city leaders, we strongly encourage Congress to stand with children, families and cities across the country and stop cuts to key early childhood programs that our cities’ children and families rely on.

Learn more about NLC’s #FightTheCuts campaign.

About the author: Alana Eichner is the Early Childhood Associate in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.

Five Ways to Fight the Cuts From Your Own City

This April recess, NLC is encouraging city leaders to engage with their members of Congress while they are at home in their districts for two weeks. Don’t let Congress leave America’s cities behind — join us this week and next as we #FightTheCuts proposed in the administration’s budget.

Members of Congress are on recess from April 10 – 21, but many will hold town hall meetings with their constituents during that time. (Getty Images)

This post is part of a series on the 2018 federal budget.

Now is the time to fight to protect critical funding to cities. Today, Congress starts a two-week period of recess, during which our federally-elected officials have the chance to return to their home districts, connect with constituents, and, in many cases, hold town hall meetings. This recess, one of the key issues on the minds of members of Congress traveling back home will be the long battle for the Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 budget waiting for them when they come back to Washington, D.C., on April 24.

President Donald Trump’s recently released budget proposal is a non-starter for cities. It slashes funding for crucial programs that cities and their residents rely on by cutting more than $54 billion in domestic spending across the board. Make no mistake — no city in America would be better off under the president’s budget proposal, and we must stand together to fight the cuts.

We need local elected officials to take this opportunity to send a clear message to Congress early on: this budget season, Congress must stand with cities. Here are five ways you can fight back against the proposed cuts and tell your representatives that when they get back to Washington, they need to work on a budget that puts cities first.

1) Visit Your Member of Congress’ District Office

Take advantage of the fact that your congressperson is at home in your city during the next two weeks. Learn about how proposed budget cuts may impact your city and how you can set up a meaningful meeting with your member of Congress.

2) Call or Write Your Member of Congress

In-person meetings are always best, but you can also use our template and write a letter to your member of Congress urging them to stand with, and invest in, America’s cities. You can also use our script to call your member of Congress’ district office and urge them to develop a budget that’s focused on building prosperity, expanding opportunity, and investing in America’s cities.

 3) Write an Op-Ed and Have It Locally Placed

Pen a letter to your editor or draft an op-ed highlighting your advocacy on behalf of your city, and ask your member of Congress to not cut vital sources of city funding. We’ve already created an easy-to-use template.

 4) Engage Through Social Media

Print our easy-to-use #FightTheCuts banner and Tweet your photo with it to @LeagueofCities. Let’s see how many local elected officials we can document standing up for cities.

5) Visit

Our strength as an organization lies in our members. We need city leaders to fight back against the proposed budget cuts and tell Congress to approve a budget that works for cities. Find other creative ways you can take action on our #FightTheCuts campaign page.

About the author: Irma Esparza Diggs is the Senior Executive and Director of Federal Advocacy for the National League of Cities.

Seventh Circuit Holds Employees May Bring Sexual Orientation Employment Discrimination Claims

The Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals’ ruling in Hively v. Ivy Tech provides a wider interpretation of nondiscrimination law.

After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, the Supreme Court upheld the law’s application to the private sector. The Seventh Circuit’s new ruling holds that the ban on “sex discrimination” in Title VII encompasses sexual orientation, making it illegal for employers to discriminate against gay, lesbian and bisexual workers. (Getty Images)

The Seventh Circuit Court has become the first federal circuit court of appeals to rule that employees may bring sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII. Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College directly affects state and local governments in their capacity as employers in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate on the basis of a person’s “race, color, religion, sex or national origin.”

Kimberly Hively is openly lesbian. Last August, she sued Ivy Tech Community College, where she taught as a part-time adjunct professor, claiming the school was violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by discriminating against her. She applied for at least six full-time positions between 2009 and 2014, didn’t receive any of them, and in July 2014 her part-time contract was not renewed. She believes her sexual orientation is the reason.

The Seventh Circuit had long held that sexual orientation discrimination claims weren’t cognizable under Title VII. The court decided to revisit this conclusion “in light of developments at the Supreme Court extending over two decades.” These decisions include Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), which granted same-sex couples a constitutional right to marry.

Hively offered two theories for why “sex discrimination” includes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, both of which the 8-3 en banc panel found persuasive.

First, the court considered the “comparative method” in which it asked if Hively might have been treated the same way if everything else in the situation was constant except Hively’s sex. Hively alleged that, had she been a man romantically involved with a woman, she would have been promoted and not fired. So, in short, she was disadvantaged because she is a woman.

Likewise, the U.S. Supreme Court has long recognized that sex stereotyping is a form of sex discrimination. “Hively represents the ultimate case of failure to conform to the female stereotype (at least as understood in a place such as modern America, which views heterosexuality as the norm and other forms of sexuality as exceptional): she is not heterosexual.”

Second, in Loving v. Virginia (1967), the Supreme Court held that bans on interracial marriage are unconstitutional. According to the Seventh Circuit per Loving, “[i]t is now accepted that a person who is discriminated against because of the protected characteristic of one with whom she associates is actually being disadvantaged because of her own traits.”

Miscegenation laws were defended because both parties were barred from marrying each other, but the Supreme Court rejected that rationale. If you change the sex of one of the partners in a lesbian couple (just like if you change the race of one person in an interracial couple) “the outcome would be different.” According to the court, “[t]his reveals that the discrimination rests on distinctions drawn according to sex.”

The Supreme Court is likely to review Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College because it creates a circuit split on the meaning of a key term in Title VII. For Hively to prevail, Justice Kennedy’s vote is likely critical.

This term, the Supreme Court was supposed to decide whether transgender students have a right to use the bathroom consistent with their gender identity. Gloucester County School Board v. G.G. would have required the court to interpret Title IX’s language “on the basis of sex.”

The Supreme Court sent this case back to the Fourth Circuit to rehear because President Donald Trump’s Department of Education (DOE) pulled a “Dear Colleague” letter written by President Barack Obama’s DOE interpreting the phrase “on the basis of sex” to include gender identity.

lisa_soronen_new_125x150About the author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center (SLLC), which files Supreme Court amicus curiae briefs on behalf of the Big Seven national organizations, including the National League of Cities, representing state and local governments. She is a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

Public Health and Housing: You Can’t Have One Without the Other

Partnerships that create a solid connection between housing and healthcare can offer a multitude of benefits for cities, including lower long-term healthcare costs, better educational opportunities, and employment that can help raise income levels.

The approach taken by cities like Phoenix, Arizona, of partnering with expert affordable housing developers as well as educational institutions and the medical and mental health communities offers cities a blueprint for how local officials can ensure public health is improved by focusing on housing and supportive services. (Getty Images)

For more than 20 years, the first full week of April has been designated across the country as National Public Health Week.

Notably, this year’s celebration comes on the heels of failed efforts to reform the nation’s healthcare system. While the president and Congress reassess policy options, some states have begun to reconsider whether or not to expand Medicaid.

It is well documented that housing improves outcomes related to health and education, but there is a symbiotic relationship between health and housing. Housing supports health, but in order for someone to thrive in housing, they must be connected to individualized supports that help them maintain their housing.

This understanding is a key component of the Housing First strategy that has emerged in the last 15 years as central to ending homelessness. Connections to medical, mental and dental health are not only good for individuals and families, but they are also fiscally prudent policies that lower long-term healthcare costs. In addition, individuals with stable housing and healthcare are better positioned to pursue educational opportunities and employment that can help raise income levels.

Many of the 31 states that have expanded Medicaid access have begun working in a variety of fashions to integrate Medicaid services with housing.

In California, integrating healthcare supports with housing helped the development of 69 apartments for very low- and extremely low-income seniors, veterans and homeless veterans.

With an increasingly aging community, the city of American Canyon recognized the need to partner with affordable housing developers, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and philanthropies to increase the amount of available housing with on-site services.

With support from the Home Depot Foundation, these local and federal partners joined together with Satellite Affordable Housing Associates to develop cottages with centralized parking, walking paths, recreational spaces and a community clubhouse to support wellness activities, independent living and aging-in-place.

Volunteer associates that are part of a Team Depot in Nashua, New Hampshire pack supplies to help veterans in need. (The Home Depot Foundation)

In Nashua, New Hampshire, Harbor Homes, Inc. provides low-income, homeless and disabled community members with affordable housing, primary and behavioral health care, employment and job training, and supportive services. Their holistic approach to care has consistently shown better outcomes for clients and the community. As a federally-qualified health center, Harbor Homes not only provides access to healthcare, but they have also developed and manage numerous housing sites to help connect these services to individuals and families.

Two weeks ago, at Harbor Homes, federal officials joined Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess in celebrating the city’s certification as the latest community to have met the benchmarks and criteria for achieving the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness.

“We have a long tradition of service here in Nashua,” said Mayor Donchess, “and we take care of our own. Thanks to the efforts of community partners like Harbor Homes, and with the support of federal, state and local resources, we are able to celebrate this achievement. This challenge is a commitment that we have made and we will keep. It requires vigilance and dedication.”

As in California, the Home Depot Foundation has partnered with Harbor Homes and others to ensure veterans and their families have safe housing. Due to Harbor Homes being able to support veterans and others placed into housing with services and resources provided through Medicaid, investments by other partners (such as the city and the state, as well as the quarter of a billion dollars committed by the Home Depot Foundation to veteran-related causes) can be leveraged to help more individuals and families.

With Dr. Ben Carson now at the helm of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, city leaders have a secretary who has consistently talked about the importance of housing as it relates to health. In the weeks to come, local officials should ensure these connections are fully understood by Congress as the federal budget is developed.

About the author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter @HarigBlaine.

Mayor Sal Panto Testifies for Brownfields Redevelopment Funding

“Turning polluted properties back into productive real estate helps us create jobs in distressed communities while simultaneously improving public health and safety.”


Easton, Pennsylvania, Mayor Sal Panto describes his community’s brownfields redevelopment successes to the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Committee’s Environment Subcommittee. (Sam Warlick/NLC)

On Tuesday, Mayor Sal Panto of Easton, Pa., testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee’s Environment Subcommittee to advocate for brownfields redevelopment funding. Mayor Panto, Chair of the NLC Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee, commended the committee for addressing municipal liability and identified further areas for improvement.

As a testament to the impact of brownfield projects in local communities, Mayor Panto described how the City of Easton leveraged grant money to clean up the asbestos-tainted Simon Silk Mill site for mixed-use redevelopment. Currently, the site is reopening with retail and arts offerings for the local community.

“As a local government official, I can attest to the fact that brownfields redevelopment is a powerful economic tool,” said Mayor Panto. “Turning polluted properties back into productive real estate helps us create jobs in distressed communities while simultaneously improving public health and safety.”

Present in significant number across all U.S. states and Congressional districts, brownfields are commonly described as “real property, the expansion, redevelopment or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant.” On behalf of NLC, Mayor Panto urged the subcommittee to increase or maintain the current overall authorization level for the EPA Brownfields Program.

He provided several specific suggestions:

  • Increasing the single-site grant cap to $1 million, or $2 million via administrator waiver,
  • Ensuring that the ownership requirement for multi-purpose grants will not complicate existing issues around municipal liability, and
  • Allowing that up to 10% of grants be used for administrative costs to cover rent, utilities and other expenses.

Additionally, Mayor Panto applauded the House for addressing several issues previously raised by NLC, including the issue of voluntary acquisition of property and the grant eligibility for local governments where properties were acquired prior to January, 2002.

In addition to Mayor Panto, the Subcommittee heard from Mayor J. Christian Bollwage, Elizabeth, NJ and representatives of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, and Smart Growth America’s Leadership Institute. Governor Parris Glendening, president of the Leadership Institute, noted that “historically, the EPA Brownfields program has been a lifeline for communities that are struggling to overcome blight and contamination at abandoned industrial sites.”

For more information on the Congressional hearing, read Mayor Panto’s written testimony and the National League of Cities letter on brownfields. For more information on the EPA’s Brownfields Program, read NLC’s issue brief on modernizing the brownfields redevelopment program.

About the author: Sam Warlick is a Senior Communications Associate at the National League of Cities.

Connecting the Three E’s of Healthy Housing

These cities show that a commitment to equity, engagement and enforcement can provide city leaders with the information they need to adopt an integrated approach to healthy housing efforts that is driven by data, informed by the community, and addresses housing code violations.

When city leaders work to align their resources and partners, residents can better access housing environments that promote healthy growth and development. (Getty Images)

This post was co-authored by Michelle Miller and Alyia Gaskins. It is part of NLC’s Culture of Health series.

A house is more than just a physical structure. Our health – how long and how well we live – is shaped by the opportunities and environments where children, youth and families live. In cities across the county, hazards in homes such as lead-based paint, mold and pests, among others, threaten the health, safety and lifelong potential of far too many children, youth and adults. For example:

Local elected officials, their staff and community partners know all too well the responsibilities of enforcing local building codes and inspecting properties for health-related code violations to create safe, hazard-free housing. Although cities have been engaged in this work for decades, new opportunities exist to further strengthen efforts to ensure all residents live in housing that promotes health and well-being.

A recent, deeper exploration of city models by the National League of Cities (NLC), illuminates that healthy housing strategies are most effective when there is an intentional commitment by city leaders to the “Three E’s:” Equity, Engagement and Enforcement.

  • Equity – To ensure improved health, academic and economic outcomes in cities, it is critical to use data to understand disparities in life expectancy across different geographical boundaries within a city. Understanding both the differences present and the root causes of these differences will allow cities to better tailor and target interventions to communities experiencing the poorest housing and health outcomes. By leading with a commitment to equity, city leaders can move beyond “services” and focus on changing policies, institutions and structures that contribute to poor housing.
  • Engagement – Shared buy-in and ownership among city residents builds trust. Deeper engagement of diverse voices can lead to healthy housing policies and interventions that better meets the needs of residents and ultimately advance sustainable outcomes.
  • Enforcement – Enforcement is one of the most powerful tools city leaders have to hold landlords accountable for poor housing conditions. Compliance with housing codes and standards is critical to protecting the health and safety of children and families as well as maintaining the appearance and functioning of neighborhoods.

A commitment to the Three E’s can equip city leaders with the information they need to adopt an integrated approach to healthy housing efforts that is driven by data, informed by the community, and addresses housing code violations.

Spotlight: Advancing Outcomes Through Equity in Kansas City, Missouri

Tackling disparities head-on is critical to improving health outcomes for vulnerable residents and advancing more equitable health outcomes. To ensure Kansas City’s healthy housing efforts are reaching communities experiencing the poorest housing conditions and health outcomes, city leaders prioritize the following strategies:

  • Collecting data on housing quality, health outcomes and the social determinants of health (i.e., the conditions where we live, learn, work and play) and disaggregating it by race, income, zip code and neighborhood
  • Engaging residents and other stakeholders most affected by poor housing in discussions about root causes as well as solutions
  • Establishing a citywide commitment to, and objectives for, addressing unhealthy housing conditions and reducing health inequities in the Kansas City business plan, one of the major guiding documents for city operations, resulting in shared ownership and a commitment to improvement

Spotlight: Building Trust Through Engagement in Greensboro, North Carolina

Meaningful, outcome-oriented resident engagement is critical to ensure that city efforts are responding to local needs and minimize resistance to proposed policies or interventions. According to Brett Byerly, executive director for the Greensboro Housing Coalition (GHC), “communities have real issues with broken promises, and many times do not trust outsiders.” In order to build trust, the GHC prioritizes the following strategies:

  • Developing a community engagement and community building plan before creating new programs, policies or housing interventions
  • Getting buy-in for the plan by creating shared ownership in the community and ensuring that the community sees itself in the plan
  • Hiring community members as community health workers to collect information on housing needs and concerns

Spotlight on Enforcement in Rochester, New York

Effective enforcement efforts leverage data sharing and collaboration between those entities that have data on hazards, those who enforce code violations, and those who prosecute cases. According to Gary Kirkmire, director of inspection and compliance services for the city of Rochester, “effective housing policies to reduce lead hazards should prioritize access, training, quality assurance/accountability and reporting.” Specifically:

  • Access – ability to gain access to housing units
  • Training – internal training of inspectors, supervisors and support staff and external training of landlords and other property agents and third party lead clearance providers
  • Quality assurance/accountability – internal and external audits of inspection staff, third party lead clearance providers, and landlords
  • Efficient means of statistical reporting – collecting and sharing data with partners (such as the health department, local schools and health providers) on the number of units inspected and the areas of the city with high numbers of properties that fail interior paint inspections, dust wipe tests, or exterior inspections

Housing matters to individuals, families, communities and cities – and where you live should not determine your access to safe and healthy housing and, ultimately, your ability to thrive. When city leaders work to align their resources and partners, residents – regardless of race, the neighborhood they live in, or their financial status – can better access housing environments that promote healthy growth and development.

City leaders are uniquely positioned to leverage their bully pulpit to convene stakeholders to develop comprehensive solutions that increase opportunities for low- to moderate-income residents who are disproportionately affected by the consequences of unhealthy housing. Alleviating the economic, health and socio-emotional problems associated with poor housing can improve health outcomes and help children and families succeed in school and work and contribute to the economic prosperity and vibrancy of cities.

About the authors:

Michelle Miller is the Deputy Director of the Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.


Alyia Gaskins is a Senior Associate on the Health and Wellness team at the NLC Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.


City Leaders Get Things Done. So Do National Service Programs.

In this guest post celebrating Mayor and County Recognition Day for National Service, Commissioner Gil Ziffer explains how the proposed federal budget cuts to service programs like AmeriCorps will have a significant impact on cities.

Americorps is a national program of civil service supported by the federal government, foundations, corporations and others with the goal of “helping others and meeting the needs in the community.” In this photo, Americorps members work with an Associate Director of Habitat for Humanity on a building used to house volunteers assisting with disaster recovery efforts in the Gulf Coast in 2006. (Wikimedia Commons)

This is a guest post by Commissioner Gil Ziffer. This is the first post in a series on the programs eliminated in the Trump Administration’s FY 2018 budget proposal.

Five years ago, the National League of Cities (NLC) joined city leaders across the nation to participate in the first-ever Mayor’s Day of Recognition for National Service. What began as a collection of just a few hundred mayors to highlight the impact of national service in their cities has grown to include more than 3,500 local leaders – mayors, councilmembers, county officials and tribal leaders – and is a true testament to the power of citizen service.

But the connections between city leaders and national service don’t stop there.

Local leaders are all about getting things done. They’re focused on solving problems for their communities. That’s a mission shared with the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the federal agency in charge of the nation’s national service programs like AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and other volunteer initiatives. Before they are able to begin their service, each AmeriCorps and Senior Corps member must raise their hand and recite a pledge committing to ‘get things done’ for America.

That’s exactly what they’re doing in more than 50,000 locations across the nation – in our biggest cities and smallest towns. Dedicated Americans, young, old and in-between, tackling the tough challenges facing our communities. Bringing forgotten neighborhoods back to life. Restoring city parks. Ending veteran homelessness. Strengthening schools and boosting graduation rates. Preparing youth and adults for 21st century jobs.

We don’t have to look far to find powerful examples of national service members getting things done. In my own city of Tallahassee, Florida, AmeriCorps members are tutoring and mentoring students in low-performing schools, helping to improve student performance and attendance and reduce disciplinary actions. Our homeless receive job training, resource connections, financial literacy and housing assistance. And our Alzheimer’s Project provides families respite care, allowing caregivers a much needed break. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, Senior Corps volunteers are ensuring that more than 150 home-bound seniors every year are able to live independently. And from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to Richwood, West Virginia, national service members are helping communities impacted by devastating disasters recover and rebuild.

In every challenge, there is an opportunity. Programs like AmeriCorps and Senior Corps build upon that opportunity to make communities a better place to live, work and raise a family. National service is a solution for cities that need to do more with less by harnessing the ingenuity and “can-do” American spirit of the citizens within their community.

In his proposed budget, President Donald Trump eliminates funding for various independent agencies, including CNCS – and this will have a direct impact on the Americans working with us and showing that it does, in fact, take cities to move America forward. I hope you will join me in fighting to ensure that CNCS remains an agency dedicated to service by sharing with our members of Congress how this funding is critical to communities across the nation.

City leaders can also celebrate the impact of national service in our communities by participating in this year’s Mayor and County Recognition Day for National Service on April 4, 2017. Signing up is easy! Click here to learn more.

About the author: Gil Ziffer is the commissioner of Tallahassee, Florida, and the chair of the HD Committee.