Big Ideas for Cities: Key Lessons from the National League of Cities Summit

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By Sean Thornton • May 15, 2014

It’s not breaking news that while American cities have been experiencing an urban renaissance of sorts, pressing challenges remain: infrastructure is aging, budgets and resources are tight, and inequalities in education, safety, and economic opportunity persist.  To address these and other issues, cities need to “think big” and include approaches  that haven’t or couldn’t have been done in the past.        

With this in mind, the National League of Cities (NLC) hosted a summit this April in Chicago that called for urban leaders across the country to share innovative policies and programs in pursuit of a better future.  Co-sponsored by the University of Chicago, Big Ideas for Cities featured talks from nine mayors and others on topics ranging from youth education to modernizing waste management.  Attendees learned firsthand about initiatives in Philadelphia, Oakland, Salt Lake City, Chicago, the Twin Cities, Portland , Columbus , Madison , and Gary , among others.  

While there was no limit on these big ideas in regards to size or topic, all shared a common thread: that fully inclusive, sustainable and equitable growth is not just preferred, but necessary for modern cities to survive and thrive.  Moreover, the responsibility to do so falls not on the shoulders of states or the federal government, but on cities themselves.

“Cities, not states, are the new laboratories for democracy,” Salt Lake City Mayor and NLC Vice President Ralph Becker stated.  His sentiment was echoed in speeches from mayors across the country, who embraced a Bruce Katz-inspired vision that cities have become the drivers of 21st century innovation, jobs, and economic growth. 

In line with that vision, three key lessons for ‘big idea’ success emerged throughout the day:   

Partnerships are pivotal to getting things done. 

Whether the initiative at hand is a new extra-curricular program or a plan to modernize public transit, the project is better off when efforts among companies, nonprofits, and community are aligned and well managed.  For example, Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson discussed how a recent agreement between her city and a consortium of private companies will allow for the underused Gary Airport to help reach its potential.  A key part of the agreement is that the city will retain public control over the airport while bringing in private investment, development and management.

Improved collaboration across city departments can have positive impacts as well.  Madison Mayor Paul Soglin discussed his city’s Neighborhood Resource Teams (NRTs), which are diversely staffed government units that coordinate with residents to develop and enhance city programs, services, and decisions.  NRTs, which are assigned to specific neighborhoods, contain members from 19 city departments, including Community Development, Police, Fire, Information Technology, and Libraries, among others.  Working with nonprofits, community groups, residents, and other stakeholders, NRTs have strengthened cross-community and cross-sector partnerships across the board, enhancing city operations and decision-making in the process.  The model has helped Mayor Soglin improve local transit options, address workforce needs, and manage the city budget.

Urban challenges should be approached systematically, not piecemeal. 

In his speech on education, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman noted that a city’s responsibility is to aid the full development of a child, not cater to individual skills or subjects.  This means that a child’s education isn’t solely the responsibility of teachers—libraries, park districts, the police, and others all play a role in providing for youth. 

Coleman’s systems approach to public education was one of several mayoral addresses that noted how the interconnected nature of most challenges requires systematic and multi-faceted solutions.  For example, in Salt Lake City, urban planners have adopted an inclusive mentality to transit design.  This “complete streets” model has replaced older, car-focused plans with a more comprehensive approach that includes buses, light rail, bikers and pedestrians in its design, as well as considerations for the socioeconomic and environmental impacts of having a more complete transit system.

To achieve real progress, a common goal must be identified and embraced by all. 

It all comes back to our main connecting thread—that leaving residents behind in an increasingly globalized world is not an option, and inequitable growth will only harm the future of cities in the long run.  From Philadelphia to Oakland, cities repeatedly emphasized that creating opportunities for full community input and participation, democratically and economically, make the brightest pathways for future growth. 

Mayor Betsy Hodges of Minneapolis summarized it best when she stated “a rising tide doesn’t lift all boats”—and that post-2008, cities with inclusive growth strategies are recovering faster than cities without them.  Oakland Mayor Jean Quan agreed, consciously channeling Martin Luther King Jr. as she explained that having “oceans of prosperity with pockets of poverty” would undermine her city and region in the long term.

So what does an inclusive growth strategy look like?  In Minneapolis, it means reviewing city codes and regulations that may negatively impact immigrant groups or businesses.  In Portland, it is Mayor Charlie Hales telling all residents openly and honestly that a tax increase is needed to cover meaningful basic services, and that their shared investment will be worth it for the long haul.

And in St. Paul, it means launching Sprockets, an after-school and summer program meant to reach every student.  The program is managed with external partners and geared towards providing accessible learning opportunities.  Sprockets, like Madison’s NRT’s, combines all three of these takeaways to work towards a more inclusive, sustainable future. 

If cities continue to approach difficult issues by challenging traditional practices and adapting to contemporary needs, hopefully more big ideas like these will take hold.