Featured Ideas

  • An Amazing Video on Cities as the Source of Solutions

    The cities of the world are the biggest consumers and often, the biggest source of major challenges in today’s world.  They are also the singular strongest source of their solutions.  “Cities are …vacuum cleaners that suck up human creativity…” Theoretical physicist Geoffrey West and others (Carlo Ratti, MIT SENSEable Labs, Mathieu LefevreNigel Jacobs from the City of Boston, Marie Fossum), through Fast Co-Exist (editor Morgan Clendaniel), make the case for cities as central to solving big problems.   “Visionary mayors and mayors who get it are incredibly enthusiastic about the future of cities.” This video is powerful and startlingly beautiful.  It includes images and examples of urban solutions from across the globe, with narration from many of the thought-leaders and scientists at the forefront of bringing technology to urban challenges and solving global issues through the practical applications innovated within cities. Take the time to watch it and share it.

  • Sharp Corners, Dense and Green Streets Increase ROI

    In all of the talk of urban density and designing cities for people instead of cars (both very much in vogue these days), it is still unusual to hear the term”ROI” (Return on Investment) in a discussion of urban planning.  In this installment of a periodic series on the “The Cost of Sprawl”, Steve Mouzon does a fascinating analysis of comparative street plans between old (read “ancient”) cities and newish (e.g., Atlanta) and between New Urbanist and traditionally dense (but not truly dense) settings.

    Some of the variables Mouzon identifies as contributing to the relative ROI of street development include curves (dictated by speed of traffic), lane widths, medians, shoulders and front foot (“The “front foot,” or length of the front property line is another metric of real estate value that is perhaps more useful than acreage”.).  This becomes important when we analyze the addition of roadways that generate “dead” land: land offering no opportunity to further grren-ways or the addition of property that produces values for citizens. Properties with front foot contrast positively with those that do not, such as the frontage space alongside an expressway where it is neither legal nor desirable to place a retail establishment, which would then increase the value of the property.

  • 20 Global Cities — 10 Growing, 10 Declining

    First published by the Brookings Institution in an article highlighting 200 cities, here is a fascinating assessment of the 10 fastest growing and fastest declining cities in the world.  Of the ten growing cities, only one is Latin American (Santiago, Chile) and none are in the US.  Of the ten fastest declining, 2 are in the US (Richmond, VA and Sacramento, CA).  The majority of growing cities are in Asian and the Middle East. The majority of declining cities are in Western Europe.  The rankings are based on economic strength, “comparing income and job growth, to say nothing of the cultural, societal, and political circumstances which may or may not be contributing [to] the dynamism of each city’s economy” according to Irina Vinitskaya.  For full synopsis with photos, click here.

  • Proximity Matters to Innovation and Economic Development

    In this age of mobility it’s easy to assume that everything can be done virtually, and that face to face interaction is an anachronism. But it turns out that, more than ever, being in an environment where chance meetings, spontaneous conversation and casual over-coffee encounters take place is critical to innovation. Anyone in the economic development world certainly knows that innovation is key to creating new businesses, jobs, and a vibrant community. When we look at communities that have successfully cultivated industry clusters, they often have a setting that encourages the kind of cross-pollination that leads to start-ups and kindred spirits meeting and collaborating.  ““It’s just the nature of life,” said John Sarkisian, a board member of the nonprofit and the chief executive of a sports training equipment manufacturer. “It’s those chance encounters that don’t happen over Skype.”

    In this first part of its Mobility Series, SmartPlanet‘s Christina Hernandez Sherwood explores the importance of proximity in building San Diego’s industry cluster of sports inventors.  This same tendency of like businesses to grow up near each other is seen in cities across the country.  In fact, there is more than just anecdotal evidence of the importance of clusters in growing cities and regions — industry clusters are a key tactic in the Obama administration’s job growth plan.  According to Mark Muro of the Brooking Institution, the 2011 budget “treat[ed] regional industry networks as more of an operating paradigm for multiple activities, and as more a means to the important end of linking and aligning multiple federal interventions to maximize their impact in support of regional prosperity.” There are innumerable examples of State and regional efforts to build and sustain clusters.  You can find several examples by clicking here.  But one thing is clear, clusters rarely emerge without opportunities for personal interaction between entrepreneurs and innovators.  And creating that environment is something that every city can embrace and undertake as a key initiative.

  • Urban Romance: A Valentine from S4C

    Where does the spark of love best ignite?  Well, in cities, it is most likely to thrive where there is beauty, walkability, the opportunity to have a chance encounter or a spontaneous coffee stop — in open-air markets, gardens, museums or public squares.  Kaid Benfield offers a Valentine’s Day bouquet of images. These are perfect scenes captured within city settings from around the world, where love might bloom.  Whether your idea of romance is a nightclub in South Beach, the wafting aromas of a Portland, Maine street market; a bike ride through a leafy section of Rockville, Maryland;  a gelato enjoyed on a fountain’s edge in Florence or a stroll through the Serpentine area of Hyde Park in London, you will find romance somewhere in this wonderful album of photos and descriptions.  The S4C team wishes you a love-filled Valentine’s Day, spent enjoying your city with those who mean most to you!

  • Preventing Stormwater Run-Off in Philly

    The NRDC has launched an experimental project in Philadelphia that incentivizes residents for keeping the first inch of stormwater on their property, rather than allowing it to run off into stormwater drains.  Stormwater is a major pollutant of lakes, rivers and streams, and preventing the water from fouling those bodies of water can reap huge benefits.  In the report accompanying the experiment, they spell out a great deal of the problem, the opportunity and the hope for the Philly project. The conventional way to address this issue has been to install every more and bigger pipes, dig up streets and land to ensure sufficient “highway” through which the water can flow into natural bodies of water.  But there are significant alternative and sustainable ways to approach this challenge:

    “[G]reen infrastructure manages stormwater onsite through installation of permeable pavement, green roofs, parks, roadside plantings, rain barrels, and other mechanisms that mimic natural hydrologic functions, such as infiltration into soil and evapo-transpiration into the air, or otherwise capture runoff onsite for productive use. These smarter water practices also yield many important co-benefits, such as beautifying neighborhoods, cooling and cleansing the air, reducing asthma and heat-related illnesses, lowering heating and cooling energy costs, and creating jobs.”  Although they work and contribute immensely to preserving the pristine state of naturally occurring water repositories, these all are expensive infrastructure improvements.  But they also allow for significant investment opportunities with real pay-back.  In Philadelphia, they have been quite ambitious, “establishing a parcel-based stormwater billing structure that provides a very significant credit (up to nearly 100 percent) for non-residential owners who can demonstrate onsite management of the first inch of rainfall over their entire parcel.”  Read the full NRDC report here.

  • How Cities Can Preserve Their Ecosystems

    Given the influx of people to cities around the world, there is bound to be a backlash against the natural environments in which they exist. “[T]hese large concentrations of people can pose a risk to the planet by contributing to overcrowding, excessive carbon emissions and waste, and high consumption of non-renewable resources.”We often think of this as “environmental stewardship”, but even that is a less-than-clear term.  Recently, a study was done by the USDA Forest Service, finding that environmental stewardship is a multifaceted concept and can range  “from environmental improvement to community building, from actions to outcomes.”

    If our planet and the cities we live in, and the human communities that reside there are to flourish over the long term, we must plan for it and take appropriate actions. Amongst the recommended action cities can take are:

    • “Encourage and develop new forms of leadership and governance structures.
    • Align and engage all relevant stakeholders.
    • Assemble the capabilities to drive an open, intelligent infrastructure.
    • Extend managers’ capabilities in program management and delivery.
    • Create financial models that are up to the challenges and opportunities ahead.” (Accenture)

    In this video from Accenture, there are several examples of cities taking action to preserve their waterways, soil, native plants and more.  View the video to learn more!

  • Eco-Friendly Cities of the Future

    Perhaps your city is at work on sustainability.  Well, unless your city is Paris or perhaps, Tiajin City in China, the odds are you will not be in the running for this short-list of pioneers.  This Power to the People article highlights some of the truly cutting edge efforts by several cities to become more environmentally friendly — in the extreme.  We’re talking zero carbon footprint! Amongst the top contenders is Masdar, “Masdar (Arabic for source) City is a brand new city designed from Day One to be totally eco-friendly and have a zero carbon footprint.[emphasis added]”.  Which city in the US, or even in North America has even considered this possibility.  Accomplishing this level of greenness has required a massive investment in both innovating and manufacturing the solar power infrastructure necessary to provide energy.  The city will not even permit cars to operate within its borders.

    Paris is more focused on containing the traffic and adding transit routes that will allow for the greening of both the inner city and the outlying neighborhoods or “banlieues”. “[T]he new plan is going to massively upgrade the road and bridge infrastructure and build in plenty of public transport routes. There will be links to the airports and an automatic super metro some 130km in length.”

    One of the most interesting projects outlined in the article is the Ziggurat in Dubai.  The video below provides a fascinating overview of this pyramid-embracing, sustainable venture! To learn more about all of these efforts and several more cities, click here.

  • Social Media as Public Safety Tools!

    Is tweeting anything more than a personal and social tool?  Could texting actually save lives?  There is evidence that these social activities that many still associate with their tween-age children may be the public safety tools of the fast-approaching future. In this very interesting article, Todd Piett makes the connection between some of the unusual, globally significant applications of social media that we’ve seen, and the world of urban services. ” Take, for instance, the Twitter user who unknowingly tweeted in real-time about the Osama Bin Laden raid, or the Florida deputy who used Facebook to negotiate a standoff, or the kidnapper who found time to update his Facebook friends.”

    For example, 911 emergency call centers could use twitter as a means to notify public safety officers or a population of citizen deputies about an imminent danger — a weather disaster, bomb threat or fugitive report.  In one incident that Piett cites,  “[w]hile police units established a perimeter around the mall … A 911 dispatcher jumped on Twitter and Flickr, and was actually able to obtain photos of the shooter.”  It goes without saying that those images would have been tremendously helpful to the officers on the ground.

    Of course, the very nature of social media makes it a sort of “crap shoot” with regard to who will pick up what communication, when, and if the audience will take appropriate action.  So in order to use it as a tool, there needs to be structure and purpose, and perhaps a technological solution to bring predictability and accountability to the process.  There are steps being taken to at least make it possible for public safety institutions to harness the utility of social media.  For example, Next Generation 9-1-1 aims to equip 911 centers to receive more than just caller ID and GIS data.  Of course, that is just about adding functionality.  Still, the evolution seems well afoot, and able ultimately to make a huge difference in the world of public safety. For more, click here.

  • Super Bowl City: The Bottom Line

    On the one hand, hosting the Super Bowl seems like such great exposure and such a massive influx of money, that it’s hard to resist.  But maybe that is exactly what your city should do — resist.  What are the benefits and the costs of being a host city?  Is it all it’s cracked up to be?  Here are two great resources on the subject.  First, in a Planet Money podcast , Holy Cross Economist Victor Matheson explains to Mike Pesca his anti-hosting arithmetic.  Amongst his arguments is that the Super Bowl weekend, while generating a certain amount of economic activity, also displaces normal weekend spending by locals — cultural institutions (museums, theaters, amusement parks, etc.) are closed, and the dollars that would have been spent there are not.  Further, the extra money spent in hotels and car rental typically go in large part to multi-national comapnies, not tolocal businesses.  So the dollars are spent, but they immediately fly out of town to the coffers of some chain business.

    The second interesting resource is Diana Lind’s article in The next American City.  She explores the Indianapolis road to the “Big Game” – the cost of the stadium, the jobs created (or not) and more.  One key measure is a discrepency between NFL claims and the real net gain expected by Indianapolis for 2012’s game. “While the NFL claims that hosting the Super Bowl brings in $300 to $500 million to its host city, Indianapolis only expects to bring in about $150 million.”  This is an excellent resource for Sunbelt city leaders who think they may want to go for the hosting crown…  Read it all here.

     

  • Reclaiming a Historic Brewery in Baltimore

    The American Beer Company brewery had been in disrepair for a long time. In fact, since Baltimore’s loss of its industrial leadership in the 1970s, it had been empty and languishing — adding to the overall decay of the blighted neighborhood.  But the bones of the 1887 building were strong — strong enough that architect  George Holback apparently broke in and wandered the burnt out and stripped interior long before getting the opportunity to do anything about it. But great minds think alike, and Henry Posko, Jr. also saw potential in the great, old building as he pondered the formulation of his non-profit, Humanim, in 2005.  So, with the help of Holback and contractor Struever Brothers Eccles & Rouse (SBER), they transformed this wreck into a wonder.  To fully appreciate the renovation, you simply must see the pictures! Go here to read more.

  • Learning From the World’s Great Cycling Cities.

    When we consider what it means to be a “great cycling city” some of the attributes and benefits are obvious: safety, fitness, sustainability.  Many cities have really turned toward cycling as a way of life — and of course, some cities never turned fully toward the automobile.    Christine Grant, a Seattle suburb native, loves cycling. So she married her love of the sport to her work as a local journalist by winning a fellowship to spend six months in the world’s most bike-friendly cities — and was tasked with bringing home the lessons they could provide.  The countries she visited as part of the project are, not surprisingly, topped by The Netherlands and Japan.  Her insights are fascinating in that they point to a whole range of phenomena that add up to a “virtuous cycle” with cycling for transportation as the flywheel.  The lessons relate to subject matters as diverse as public health and optimizing use of public property, reducing the need for public parking (a very expensive and under-priced commodity), to the influence of infrastructure on behavior and the conclusion that there is no need for bike-specific clothing.  The full post on this has amazing photos from around the world, as well as far more depth on Christine’s observations. Read the whole report here.

  • Two Cities, Two Start-Up Accelerators

    If jobs growth comes from small business, then it is in the interest of every city and every city leader to help businesses start and to help them grow to the point of hiring — preferably hiring hand over fist! Well, the first step in citified business instigation was the incubator.  These, like the warm, hatching enclosures of their namesake, are intended to foster and cultivate a sapling entrepreneur’s vision, and allow it to develop the basic structure with which it can grow.  Now that business incubators are an “of course” in most cities, the next step is to ramp up the growth and maturing process for start-up businesses.  The process of accelerating growth is being performed through a number of different approaches and finance models, all of which fall under the general heading “accelerator”.  An accelerator is “a kind of incubator on steroids that provides access to a wider range of start-up services, including networking with peers and investors, and connecting businesses to university technology transfer offices and the like. The idea is not just to get businesses going, but also to speed their growth. Some accelerators are private, some are public, and some are attached to universities or other nonprofit entities.”  In his very interesting article, William Fulton contrasts  different examples of accelerators, from different cities:  Two have been established under Mayor Menino in Boston and another under the auspices of Skysong at Arizona State University in Scottsdale. Read more by clicking here.

  • What’s New in Open Gov Plus

    In the video below, Walter Schwabe, CEO of FusedLogic joins Alex Howard on his “open government dispatch”, to discuss the changes in the open government evolution.  In the course of the conversation they also address SOPA and the global resistance to its passing; included in that is the blackout of Wikipedia and other key websites in protest.  But their fundamental interest is in the increasing push for transparency in government and the growing availability of once-hoarded and secret data to the public, even going so far as discussing a video conference that allows for direct audience involvement and real-time commenting by audience members.

  • Smart Cities Alter Everything in the Urban Paradigm

    In the future envisioned by the notion of “smart cities” a city has its own “operating system” so to speak.  But the OS isn’t the only aspect of life in the urban environment that changes.  People change, as do the ways that they do ordinary things and their very relationship to city-sourced services.  For example, in the smart city of the future, people become the energy producers, not just consumers of a utility’s output. “The ability to generate and distribute power will shift from being the exclusive domain of governments and corporations, to one where households and communities can contribute, as they become increasingly equipped with solar panels and wind turbines..”  This “democratization of energy is a major shift in the over-arching paradigm of urban life.  Another big shift in the smartening of cities will be the open-sourcing of solutions — and the primary sources of those solutions will be the general public, producing applications, software, and other ways to harness the power of government and other data. There is so much we have to learn and embrace in the shifting reality — and perhaps  Read the entire article here.

  • Using Twitter-Fed Usage Maps to Design Transit

    Typically, transit design is determined by experts armed with traffic counts and eminent domain.  Sometimes that works out in a way that provides customers with the ideal arteries for traversing a city; More often, the transit routes themselves drive traffic by virtue of their very existence.  But what if transit designers had access to the actual data of where people go, how often and in what volume — over time — before plotting the route?  For example, routes could be dynamic, and change from year to year or even month to month based on updated data from usage.  In a fascinating experiment, Eric Fischer collected tens of thousands of geo-tagged tweets and mapped them onto the streets of New York, Chicago and San Francisco. ” The maps amount to something close to a desire path on a macro scale: The maps show where our buses and subways should be, if they conformed to the way we actually move and live.”   The maps look a lot like angiograms (used to plot blood flow through the human body — see image at right), in which high-traffic shows up as thinker lines, and lighter traffic shows up more faintly.  How could your city planners use this kind of data to re-conceptualize transit?  At the very least, it could be helpful for non-permanent infrastructure, like bus-routes, trolleys and more. Read the original article here.

  • IBM Uses Analysis to Help Cities Fight Crime

    Somewhere between today’s methods and those of Tom Cruise in Minority Report is a really interesting application of technology to crime-fighting.  IBM has been working with several cities on mining the data that they already possess to better solve  and prevent crime.  Currently there is a program called Coplink in Las Vegas that sorts crime data and generates new connections that haven’t been obvious before.  One could say that all new ideas are simply a function of that very thing — finding new connections between old thoughts.  And so it is in Coplink.  In Los Angeles County, the City of Lancaster has added a Crime Prevention and Prediction solution,also based on IBM’s analytical software.  Other parts of the country employing similar techniques include Rochester, Minnesota and Memphis, Tennessee.   This kind of data mining finds its routes largely in retail and in high-level intelligence gathering and analysis — but for most people, safety is fundamental to quality of life.  So using the same kinds of tools to fight crime in cities can only be a good thing.  read more here.

  • What Trends Will Most Effect Urban Planning, Economic Development in 2012?

    In this age of super-fast technological change, a single year can make a real difference.  That’s a big departure from most of modern history in which the pace of change was slower, and the shift in paradigm or trend took place over decades and sometimes whole generations.  All of that sets the stage for asking trends or technology will be most critical and relevant to urban planning and economic development in this year, 2012.  Most of the trends discussed here are more like “considerations” than trends.  But that doesn’t make them less germane to city builders and leaders.  These are the guideposts for planning: jobs creation, efficiency, service provision and more.  Read the whole article here.

  • When Public Toilets Are a Source of Civic Pride

    Many big cities attempt to accommodate their customers with public toilets that allow for comfort breaks while roaming downtown streets. Public toilets are significant enough of an issue that there is an entire workforce of “reviewers” posting updates on their adequacy!  And for economic development professionals and city leaders,  providing public toilets makes sense.  After all, if a city hopes to make its street-life attractive to citizens, and if it wants to keep those strollers out, visiting shops and spending money — it needs to provide a comfie, safe, private facility so that bladders full from purchased beverages can be emptied.  But for many cities, these facilities are less than a source of pride — they are more often seen as a blight.  San Francisco, Seattle and New York have all suffered the scorn of the public for their efforts.  Not true for Portland, Oregon, where their “Portland Loos” provide convenience without so many of the problems plaguing other public toilets.  The Portland facilities have a number of unique features — which, when explained, make an inordinate amount of sense.  They lack inside running water, an attractant for homeless grooming; they are graffiti proof; without mirrors, there is one less thing to break… and more.  read the full article by clicking here.

  • Grapes of Wrath In Reverse: Oklahoma City as Land of Opportunity

    I recently had the opportunity to spend some time interviewing Mayor Mick Cornett of Oklahoma City about the huge transformation of his city, both in terms of how it’s perceived and its real economic results.  As an aside, my plan had been not only to provide you with a written summary of our conversation, but to post an audio file so that the entire interview would be available.  Alas, the technology gods were frowning, and when I hit “play back” on my (allegedly) state-of-the-art audio system, the hour-long recording was empty – yes, completely empty.  So, for this first issue of Cities at Work, only a written record is available.  However, I have the assurance of Mayor Cornett, that if clarity is lacking due to the author’s poor recollection of detail, he will respond to any questions or points of clarification you make.  So send your questions to me (see end of article for email link) and I will be delighted to pass them on to the Mayor. 

    -Amie Devero-

    If you happened not to hear the laudatory news of Oklahoma City’s (OKC) growth and vitality, then it could only have been because you haven’t paid attention.  Amongst some of the recent accomplishments by this capital of the great State of Oklahoma have been:

    • Kaufmann Foundation Names OKC  “#1 City in America to Launch a Business” in (Oct., 2011 ).
    • Oklahoma City Named One of the Nation’s 100 Best Communities for Young Peopleby America’s Promise Alliance and ING (Oct. 2011).  Along with this ranking comes the   information that OKC has more start-ups per capita than any other city in the US.
    • Devon Energy commits to building a 50 story skyscraper in downtown OKC, the first skyscraper to begin construction in the US since 9/11 – and further promises to stay in OKC and continue to build their workforce of 2000 plus high-wage employees.
    • The Boeing Company moved over 250 high-paying jobs from Long Beach, California to Tinker Air Force Base in OKC.  Just two weeks ago Boeing announced a closing in Wichita, from which they are moving a further 800 engineering jobs to OKC.
    • Continental  resources announced a move of 250 workers from Enid to OKC.

    These are just the most public and visible items coming across the transom.  In fact, there is a ton of activity going on, and much of it has been funded through municipal tax-dollars, and supported through the ensuing private sector activity.  So how is it possible that in a national economy with 8% unemployment, a widening income gap, lack of affordable housing and a foreclosure bust, OKC has bucked the trend on all counts?

    Well, as you might imagine, some of it is luck – or at least conditions that no one can take direct credit for producing; some of it is geography; and some of it is culture, a culture of good planning and a strong cohesiveness between the city’s leadership in all factions and its citizens.

    Geography is a plus for OKC, lying as it does at the crossroads of three major Interstate highways – I-35, I-40 and I-44.  That makes getting there pretty easy.  And while it might not seem obvious, one great result of that positioning is a steady flow of tourists and their dollars into OKC – as even in the midst of a recession, a weekend away by car is still a popular choice for a family getaway.

    Another fateful historic OKC  fact was that it never had a 1990s property boom.  Well, the upside of no boom is that there is no bust.  As a result, property prices are stable, and foreclosures are at predictable levels for normal economic times , not astronomically high as they are in so many other parts of the country.  Without the pressure of a property bust, construction activity has been stable and now, as a result of the huge amount of growth in downtown, really strong.
    By strong, I mean, construction is hopping. The downtown is growing.  There are so many projects underway that a sea of cranes hovers within the skyline.  Amongst the projects are the Devon Energy Center skyscraper, a redesign and rebuilding of the entire downtown street grid including the addition of a boulevard and narrowing of most surface streets and the construction of several hotels.  Plus, there is much more on the drawing board.

    As the Mayor spoke, mentioning project after project – most funded by the City—one couldn’t fail to wonder how they are paying for all that.   Cities across the country are broke and finding it impossible to maintain services and necessary infrastructure upkeep, and OKC is pouring dollars into development.  The answer may begin to reveal the distinct culture that seems to be unique to OKC.  It’s a contradictory reality in a city in the most conservative and Republican state in the nation:  Taxes are the source of the funds.

    So how did the OKC city leaders successfully levy taxes to the tune of approximately $90 million dollars a year over the last fifteen years in a conservative, Republican stronghold?  Well, this may be, at least in part, a function of the very special culture and sense of unity that OKC has.  “People in Oklahoma City put the city first”, says Cornett.  He adds that the sense of strength and city loyalty may have been deepened by the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.  But that “all for one” culture didn’t start there, because the project-funding taxation began before 1995.

    One clear symptom of that unity is a truly cohesive city government.  While so many American cities are subject to untold municipal shenanigans, from public shaming to Mayor versus City Manager infighting, corruption and embezzlement and frequently  dysfunctional City Commissions and Councils, OKC’s government works together.  The last several Mayoral contests featured easily reelected incumbents. But even in open elections (1987, 1998 and 2004), despite highly contested races, the adversarial campaigns do not translate into adversarial administrations. The City Manager (who actually holds most of the decision-making authority) has been the same person for 11 years.   Further, each new Mayor has embraced the projects that were begun by the previous Mayor, allowing an extraordinary and rare continuity that makes for substantial productivity.
    But such a strong culture can’t build a city on its own.  It took a unique set of projects and associated taxes to get things going and some strong and persuasive skills to get everyone on board.  After all, even in OKC, retired suburbanites are liable to balk at being asked to fund inner city school development.  So, one piece of the puzzle was the Mayor, City leaders and Chamber of Commerce being able to speak to suburbanites and retirees in a way that made sense and resonated with their priorities.  That evangelism started a long time ago, and spoke to the focus of every grandma and grandpa’s greatest concerns – being close to their grandchildren.    Clearly, if there are no lucrative jobs for young people in the city, then homegrown talent will leave, and they will not come home except on the rarest of occasions to visit.  It seems that an OKC brain drain would have touched grandparents where it hurts most, in their hearts.

    The funding projects themselves were accomplished through a series of phased and goal-based initiatives called MAPS(Metropolitan Area Projects).  There were three projects, each one limited and paid for with a $.01 sales tax.  The unique aspect of these taxes was that they had the following qualities in both conception and practice:

    • Closed-end duration
    • Intended to fund specific projects and ONLY those projects
    • No budget over-run funding

    These programs generated a huge amount of funds, and because the funds were earmarked for long-term projects, they also grew in interest as the projects they were meant to fund came to fruition.  Each MAPS project was specific and themed.  The first MAPS project started in 1993 and during the 66 months it was in effect raised $309 million in tax revenue.  In addition, the tax revenue earned interest of about $54 million, also used for the MAPS projects.  In an unusual move, the program was extended by six months so as to “finish MAPS right” – hence its additional six month duration.

    MAPS 2 was primarily used to fund school improvements so that the educational environment would be raised to the standards expected of a growing city that planned to be home to lots of high-paid workers.  MAPS 3, currently underway, is focused on an anticipated huge increase in population by 2030, many of whom will be over 60 years of age.  So the goal is to create a “senior-friendly” city, where all of the lifestyle conditions and services are available for an aging population.  The specific areas of work for the dedicated tax revenue and interest from MAPS 3 will be Community Centers, improved transit (street cars), enhanced and added sidewalks and finally, trails for biking, walking and jogging.   Amongst the great outcomes of MAPS 3 will be senior wellness centers throughout the city that provide swimming pools, fitness classes, libraries, crafts studios and social areas for residents at very low fees.  The total projected revenue (not yet complete) was expected to be raised over the 7 years and 9 months of the MAPS 3 tax period is $775 million  To date, it is ahead of target.

    It hasn’t all been good news – there have been significant hurdles.  In 2008 General Motors closed a manufacturing plant that employed 2300 people.  The loss of the plant was at the source of as many as 4700 job losses, putting suppliers and vendors out of work as well as auto-workers.  But in a fascinating bit of creativity, the county went to its hometown Air Force base and to the Pentagon, to offer the building to the military, tax-free, for its use.  The military was delighted at being able to add to its infrastructure with no investment, and at not having instantly to address its own aging facilities.  This served the county and its incorporated cities despite the expected cost, by avoiding the blight of a disused plant, deepening its ties to the military and the base, and ensuring that jobs in the re-purposed GM plant would eventually come back as jobs for the military.  To accomplish this, the county went hat in hand to the citizens – albeit buoyed up by chamber financial support.   Despite the potential added burden and risk, the county voters, including those in the city of OKC, approved the expenditure of $50 million to purchase the plant and lease it to the military for $1.00 a year – on the condition of the military creating jobs.

    It should go without saying that the migration of more and better paying jobs to the region, coupled to the intense investment made by the county, the city and the chamber in its own assets, also attracts investment from the private sector.  Businesses and non-profits have taken note of what is happening in OKC and they have acted on that.  This is where one ends up back at the beginning of this story– OKC has the most start-ups per capita in the US.  Not an accident, a consequence.

    There is much more,  but let me just jump to the end of our conversation.  When asked what the biggest lessons have been of his leadership of Oklahoma City, Mayor Cornett shared some very interesting insights and admonitions.

    • Mine for gold in the city’s most critical resource, its people.  Use focus groups and surveys and whatever other tools are available to really understand what the customers want and care about, and use that information to develop strategy and initiatives.
    • Beware of boom times.  When things are going ridiculously well, stay aware that they can go badly just as easily.
    • Take the steps to ensure “clean” hand-offs.  It takes a long time to learn the job of Mayor (or City Manager), and having to reinvent the wheel can easily use up 75% of a term.  Whenever possible, build from the past, not over it, and keep continuity with the last administration’s focuses, projects and strategy.

    Mayor Cornett isn’t arrogant or willing to rest on his laurels.  There is still more to do, and undoubtedly obstacles ahead.  But right now, Oklahoma City is enjoying the fruits of its labors and its patience.  A city isn’t built in the course of a single Mayor’s administration, but in a succession of strong leaders who can forge a bond with citizens so that the entire city moves forward together, persistently, with discipline and a shared commitment to the future. Oklahoma City, in a fashion reminiscent of the cattlemen and homesteaders of its history, through old-fashioned planning, hard work, and steadiness – an approach that apparently is as effective in the 21st century as it was in the 19th.
    To hear more directly from Mayor Cornett, watch the City of Oklahoma City State of the City address, being aired on CSPAN.  Also, send questions for Mayor Cornett by clicking here.

  • Cities at Work Launches Today

    Watch for the first edition of S4C’s newsletter, Cities at Work — out today.  Mayor Mick Cornett of Oklahoma City shares about his city, and how it has not only survived by thrived through the global economic downturn.  It will be out later today!

  • Top 10 Smart Cities

    Here at S4C we love top ten lists. This one is especially interesting because it is ranking cities for their smartness — not their beauty or tourist assets — or even their basic livability features.  Instead, this top ten grouping looked a t abroad nexus of technology, sustainability and other features, “Smart cities use information and communication technologies (ICT) to be more intelligent and efficient in the use of resources, resulting in cost and energy savings, improved service delivery and quality of life, and reduced environmental footprint–all supporting innovation and the low-carbon economy.”.  You may have some idea which cities will top the list — I know I did — and you are bound to be surprised by some of it.  A hint:  Maybe the birth of Mozart had some relationship to the intelligence of the city in which he was raise!  read the list and see the explanations here.

  • The Accidental Walkable Neighborhood

    The trend toward denser urban centers with multi-use buildings and most destinations within walkable distance is growing stronger everyday.  But that is the province of urban planners.  Here’s a fascinating story by a resident of how a single neighborhood became walkable through happenstance — or was it?  Many of the circumstances of the author’s story are not atypical: A young couple moves to an affordable but sketchy neighborhood.  At first they must find ways to make ends meet and so they don’t own a car.  Soon, other young couples move in for similar reasons, and as they all begin to have young children, schools are built, and to support these new families, so are parks.  Soon, investment dollars roll in too as well as small business owners who launch restaurants, shops, cafes and so forth.  Of course, this is the abbreviated (and probably, less illuminating) version.  But even in capsule form,  it’s interesting to consider how this process could be accelerated, and what cities could do to support that transformation.  Read the full story here.

  • A Different View of Food Deserts

    Recently, there has been a fair amount of discussion amongst city leaders and activists about “Food Deserts”, parts of cities or regions where residents simply cannot easily get to fresh food.  This phenomenon arises from lack of supermarkets or fruit stands in poor or under-developed parts of town, and helps to contribute to the less-than-nutritious diet so many Americans consume.  That dietary deficiency leads to obesity and all that it is responsible for in the matter of public health: diabetes, heart disease, cancer, disability and more.  Chicago has been quite proactive in addressing the issue, both from a grassroots level, by initiating urban farming projects and at an institutionalized level, in which Mayor Emanuel has spearheaded negotiations with supermarkets to open locations in the inner city in exchange for advantageous zoning.  The solution that Mayor Emanuel has embraced, the zoning/food swap idea, is a popular one, and is gaining traction amongst other cities. But it is only a solution for some of the cities, some of the time.

    Food deserts have largely been discussed as a single, homogenous problem, that exist due to lack of supermarkets in inner cities.  But it is actually more complex and more contextual  — and once the problem is properly complicated, so are the solutions.  Clearly there is a percentage of inner-city residents with both no access to a car and no nearby supermarket.  But food accessibility can also arise for those who are not in inner cities — for those in strewn-out suburban areas or isolated rural areas.  Each location demands its own analysis and its own solution.  For example, the idea is floating around Atlanta to direct the currently trendy food trucks to food deserts;  Or, as in Baltimore’s Baltimarket, delivering food to those in need at no cost.  Baltimarket was launched with a bit of Recovery funding, but is now funded through grants from Wal-Mart and the United Way of Maryland.  There is a great article about the program here.  So there are a huge variety of approaches to the issue of food accessibility, and there is a strong argument to look beyond Chicago Mayor Emanuel’s solution, however efficient it seems, for highly localized ways to meet unique challenges.

  • The state of States’ Competitiveness

    Is your State demonstrating the measurable qualities indicating its growth in competitiveness?  A terrific article by Economic Modeling Specialists, Inc. gives you the answer — not just about your own State, but about every other one too.  If you are anything like me you might ask how in the world they come up with these numbers.  And they answer by outlining their methodology: “[W]e summed the overall competitive effect for each broad 2-digit industry sector (e.g., agriculture, manufacturing, health care, construction, etc.) and added them together to yield a single statewide number that indicates the overall competitiveness of the economy as compared to total economy.”  It continues from there.  You can read it in detail by clicking here.   Here’s a hint, North Dakota is looking good — and for Floridians like me, there is some work to do!

  • Great City Reads from 2011

    For those with a burning interest in cities and how they fare, Nate Berg has curated the best 10 articles from last year.  They range from those showcasing the attraction of Beijing to world travelers to a history of housing density in New York City.  This “Readers Digest” list of summaries also includes a National geographic piece addressing the benefits of city life and one that exposes the Detroit project to destroy foreclosed and abandoned homes.  Whether you use the list as a short-cut to reading each article or as a guide to find them and read them in full, as a resource, this is a great one! Click here for full list with summaries.

  • Brainstorming on Civic Start-Ups

    Brainstorming on Civic Start-Ups

    As cities open their data to the public through programs like Code for America, and hope for smart development of applications that seize upon that data, the question arises of how best to cultivate that activity for the best impact on customers. In the video below is the presentation of a way to find out how cities have effectively accomplished this goal — what have they built, what can they share (and how it’s going) and more:

    CfA Summit: The Civic Commons Marketplace from Code for America on Vimeo.

  • Americas Healthiest Cities to Visit

    America’s Healthiest Cities to Visit

    As the fight against obesity rages around us, many travelers are choosing their destinations by where they can sustain a healthy lifestyle despite being away from home and their gym memberships.  Cities that have great parks, walking trails, hiking, sports activities, clean air and natural settings have a built-in advantage in attracting health-conscious visitors.  Great city leaders are smart to emphasize the cultivation of these resources, whether that means creating pedestrian and bike-friendly streets,  building trail systems for hikers and bird-watchers, or providing bike-sharing programs.  This article lists what it considers to be the healthiest cities to visit; but its emphasis is on travel.  For those cities not on the list, what are the assets you have that make a healthy lifestyle easy to embrace for hometown customers and for business executives considering relocating a company and workforce? Click here for Business Insider‘s list of healthy cities.

  • Architect Frank Gehry Stresses Context in Development


    Urban planners everywhere will feel deeply appreciative of Gehry’s words in this interview, stressing the importance of considering context when designing buildings.  He points out the trend in architecture and urban development to plan with blinders on, taking only the building at-hand into consideration, rather than those beside it, down the street or across the road.  He also suggests that some of this is encouraged by architectural photography, which typically captures only one building, rather than the entire block or cityscape in which that building exists.  To his point, when searching for a photo to accompany this story,  I could find only one photograph of a Gehry building that included any of the adjacent structures (see photo at left).  It is of the Dancing House in Prague.  For Nate Berg’s full interview in Atlantic Cities, click here.

  • Top Clean Energy Stories

    Top Clean Energy Stories

    2011 was a watershed year for the clean energy sector.  The hype that preceded it, including the much-aligned aspect of the Obama administration’s focus on “green jobs” in the Recovery Act,  finally began to approach the reality it suggested.  In the article linked here, The Environmental Defense Fund lists the top 10 developments.  They range from Federal regulations and initiatives,  to jobs created in the energy sector (2.7 million), include the Bloomberg report that investment in clean energy outstripped that in conventional energy source by a significant margin — and much more.  The paradigm for energy investment, interest and market choice has shifted, and green is no longer just for “tree huggers”.  Read more by clicking here.

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