9 Ideas that Can Create Equitable Cities

Mayors from around the U.S. weigh in on one of today's important issues

By Matt Carmichael on November 12, 2014 at 9:00 am CST
CEOs for Cities, Nashville meeting

People who love living in a city are the best advocates for your brand.

Andrew Wilson, chief marketing officer for Atlanta’s Convention and Visitors Bureau

“The most precious commodity in a knowledge and service economy is time.” That quote comes to us from Vishaan Chakrabarti, architect, professor and author of A Country of Cities. He brought a well-traveled perspective to Nashville last week during the annual conference put on by CEOs for Cities.

Several hundred people – busy executives and city leaders – gave two or three days worth of this precious commodity to attend. In Chakrabarti’s morning keynote he talked about urbanism the world-over. He noted things like farmers outside the U.S. don’t typically live isolated on their farms but rather in clusters. He noted that much of the world, especially in wealthier regions experiencing great growth like the Middle East, isn’t urbanizing so much as suburbanizing.

Most importantly, he noted that design is critical to cities, and bad ideas and poor designs can’t win over the hearts of the NIMBYists. To do that, you need bold designs that take into account the existing character of an area and expand upon it. He cited examples from his firm’s work with a revitalized Domino’s Sugar plant in New York City and also plans for building in Portland Ore., that focus not so much on the height of the building as on what happens in the first 30 feet. He said that city’s Mayor told him that you can build a taller building with less resistance if you incorporate public uses and public places where they count – on the ground.

Over the course of the two days of speakers, mayors and leaders from the civic and business community repeated calls for bold plans – both large and small. The theme for the conference was “The Dividend City,” and was meant to focus on the outcomes of investing in urban projects that address connectivity, innovation, talent and uniqueness. One theme that emerged, however, was more like the divided city. If cities are our nation’s best asset, we’re increasingly seeing that asset split between those taking part in the success and those left behind.

For Kansas City’s Mayor Sly James, that divide happens in the digital world, exacerbated by the incredible Google Fiber infrastructure being installed in some neighborhoods. In the physical world, however, Troost Ave. is a very real dividing line between those who have the resources to take full advantage of this service and those who don’t. Those who don’t risk falling further and further behind those with the digital skills to compete in today’s workforce.

For Teresa Lynch, a principal with Mass Economics, economic development priorities risk further division. By focusing on certain high-skill, high-education industries like biomed and technology, we are framing who gets included in our progress.

For consultant Robert Weissbourd, people in poverty need training for the job sectors that are growing. Training them for jobs that used to be solid, middle-class careers but are now fading away (read: manufacturing) means they will have new skills that still aren’t valued in the economy. Companies need talent, the unemployed need jobs, but too often those dots aren’t well connected.

For Ned Hill, a professor at Cleveland State University, inequality can sometimes be a good sign because it can be a byproduct of successful cities luring immigrants (domestic and foreign) in search of opportunities. We just need to make sure the opportunities continue to exist.

Those are just some takes on the problems. It’s always important to frame the problems as part of a discussion on solutions, and this conference was full of examples of solutions to our cities' problems.

One of the most interesting panels was a lightning round of eight mayors (including four from our Top 100 Best Places to Live) who were each given six minutes to discuss one major success in their cities.

  • Shane Bemis (Gresham, Ore.) talked about a program in his city to clear the red tape and pay or waive new business fees for companies that opened or expanded in certain districts. In three years, it yielded 144 new business and 226,000 square feet of space rented.
  • Denny Doyle (Beaverton, Ore.) talked about connecting small local businesses with new markets overseas. By helping even small businesses become global in scope, they can compete on a bigger stage while still living, working and investing in their community.
  • Karen Freeman-Wilson (Gary, Ind.) spoke of recruiting the best and brightest talent who left Gary, encouraging them to return, serve in her administration, and make a difference in their hometown.
  • Nancy Vaughan (Greensboro, N.C.) also focused on economic development and how to use those dollars and programs more equitably. It can’t all go to attracting the big fish, she says. Economic development also has to invest in communities' existing assets.
  • Nan Whaley (Dayton, Ohio) is laser-focused on early childhood education. As Kansas City’s mayor pointed out 3rd grade reading levels are such a predictor of adult success that prisons use them to forecast demand. She wants to make sure her city’s youngest asset is groomed for a brighter future.
  • Knox White (Greenville, S.C.) told a story of taking advantage of a bad situation. In the 1980s, parts of his downtown were so emptied out by businesses moving to suburban malls that there was no one left to complain as they set about making the changes that have paid off so well in his currently thriving downtown. It takes carrots and sticks, he says, and when the sticks don’t work, use a sledge hammer.
  • Madeline Rogero (Knoxville, Tenn.) used the excitement in her community to redevelop vacant wooded land ringing the city into acres of parks, trails and open space. Then they branded the experience as the “urban wilderness” because marketing matters, too.
  • Andy Berke (Chattanooga, Tenn.) used the city’s partnership with Code for America to create apps and services beloved by residents on no budget almost overnight. His comments about the value of open data (ChattaData) echoed those of an earlier speaker, Mayor Greg Fischer (Louisville).
  • Mayor Fischer talked about his city’s program of LouieStat. He says the data the city generates allows him to find areas of weakness and address them – from improving live-release rates from his city’s Animal Control division (“Animal people in any city are very passionate. I didn’t know that before I took office, but I sure do now.”) to proactively monitoring senior citizen health in at-risk neighborhoods, to getting city workers to be more active and therefore reduce sick time.

While they didn’t frame the discussion in these terms, all of those ideas really come down to creating more equity and opportunity in their cities.

The final panel focused on the uniqueness of cities and how they can best sell that. Steven Pedigo, the Director of NYU’s Initiative for Creative and Innovative Cities, talked about quality of place. Community engagement should come first, he says. If you build a great place to live, the rest will follow. Place branding is a natural marketing extension of those efforts, he says, but it shouldn’t come first.

That discussion lead into one of my favorite quotes from the sessions, and the one which I’ll close with. Andrew Wilson, chief marketing officer for Atlanta’s Convention and Visitors Bureau says, “People who love living in a city are the best advocates for your brand.”

We see that every day at Livability.com as people defend their towns, debate our rankings, and argue the naysayers about their communities in our comments and social feeds.

Cities and their leaders have their work cut out for them in addressing issues of equity. But with smart ideas and smart people executing them, maybe, just maybe, we’ve got a shot at solving these issues one town at a time.

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