44 ways to make it work:
Secrets of successful cities

Representatives from 44 cities gathered in Miami last week. Why were so many cities, ranging from the bucolic to the megalopolis, gathered together?

It’s part of a major rethinking of the role of the federal government in the lives of city dwellers. Instead of just giving grants (or taking them away) the federal government and city executives think through their opportunities and implement innovative ideas.

It’s called the National Resource Network.

This gathering is their second annual national gathering of peer cities. As a strategic partner to this White House led initiative, Civic Consulting USA was invited to participate.

I heard 44 different accomplishment and 44 different challenges. Despite the chain-store-suburbinization of many American cities, the diversity of assets was startling:

  • Dearborn Michigan’s home of Ford Motor Company is a regional draw for tourists – and now they’re using that as a magnet for jobs and talent
  • Passaic New Jersey’s growing rapidly, thanks to immigration (as many as a three-quarters were born in other countries) – and now they’re opening several new schools
  • Atlanta Georgia’s made the streetcars free so people can get around easily, making downtown that much more accessible – and now they need more housing downtown

I also heard striking similarities from these leaders: every community in America cares about three or four things: good jobs (or jobs generally), educating kids and families, safe neighborhoods – and how to pay for it all.

Moreover, I heard common answers about how to “make it work.”

First off, it takes a leader bold enough to set a bold goal. In Baltimore, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (newly minted president of US Conference of Mayors) announced that the city aspires to attract 10,000 families to the city within the next 10 years. That takes reversing decades of population decline. Countering the tragedies of recent headlines. Cultivating a team of civil servants willing and able to figure it out. Stimulating a community-wide effort from across sectors to solve nuanced challenges, challenges like food deserts.

Secondly, it takes data and honesty. In the past, when a mayor set a bold goal, data were scarce, so it was easy enough to wait a few months and call it a win. Not anymore. We’re barraged with data from emails to infographics to open data. So city executives like those in Dallas who are willing to confront the brutal facts of sharply declining incomes are a step ahead in finding the answer. They’ve created NeighborhoodPlus a strategic framework to unite efforts across agencies, across sectors, and across the city.

Third, making it work takes allies on the ground. It’s not just press conferences where all the business executives or community leaders can stand by the podium and lend their name and face. It’s pragmatic partnerships where community colleges offer basic computer and customer service classes for city workers, as in Meridian Idaho.  It’s partnerships where business leaders stand up and invest in joint priorities, as in Winston-Salem.

While we’re all different, we’re all the same when it comes to wanting to make it work in the places where all things social, economics and culture connect: our cities. As the chief of staff of – pick your city – said, Let’s do it.