Independent Coalition for Our Neighborhoods

Cities that Succeed

Thanks to Jill for forwarding this article, which I’ve extracted and summarized here.
Read the full story at
Read about Cities of Service…

Many cities are very much like a legacy company—rich in history and earned reputation, but sometimes a little beholden to traditional processes and points of view. Progress can be problematic. How do local leaders and agencies keep up with today’s rapid change? With new technology and new problems? Citizens may be a source of power and promise, but they have little influence beyond election time to help their city make progress.

Cities of Service, a New York City–based independent nonprofit, sees a pattern for cities that are succeeding. They not only address their citizens’ changing needs, but also engage them to work closely with elected officials toward common goals. Founded in 2009, the coalition has grown to 235 cities across the U.S. and U.K.

Last November, Cities of Service announced its first Engaged Cities Award, created to recognize places that have implemented especially noteworthy approaches to solving local problems by working together with their citizens. Entries came from all over the world, with 10 finalists recently announced: Boston; Fort Collins, Colorado; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Huntington, West Virginia; and San Jose from the U.S., and Hamm, Germany; Helsinki, Mexico City, Santiago de Cali, Colombia; and Bologna, Italy from overseas. In May, a grand-prize-winning city will earn $100,000 and two additional winners will claim $50,000 each.

The work being done in these cities closely mirrors trends seen in the most progressive modern companies. These cities, in fact, function like urban think tanks where collaboration is often facilitated by technology and rooted in the belief that a good idea can come from anywhere.

3 Examples of Cities Making Progress

A fallacy of progress is that it’s possible to go from problem to solution in one giant leap. The reality is that even though it can be achieved rapidly, often because of technology, the path forward must still follow a necessary progression of steps.

  • Huntington worked on obesity,  creating a nonprofit to reduce barriers to healthy food and create a healthy food farmers market, economic development in a distressed area, job training, and neighborhood stabilization. Less than 10 years later, the metro area’s obesity rate has dropped to 35%. The strategy of centrally supporting community-driven initiatives through the mayor’s office is considered a model that can be replicated for urban gardens, job initiatives for troubled youths, and other challenges.
  • In 2016, newly elected Tulsa mayor G.T. Bynum decided that barriers to access to municipal data needed to be removed. Once Bynum opened access, the challenge became finding skilled data analysts without a budget to pay for them. Tulsa tapped into the community for volunteers—both citizens and city staffers – more than 60 people turn out for the kickoff meeting. They were briefed on key priorities and divided into five working teams assigned to specific projects. The Urban Data Pioneers program has since doubled, and about a third of those 120 people are unpaid volunteers. Their work includes finding ways to increase the city’s per capita income and optimize its capital improvements budget. “We recognized that there are people who know a tremendous amount more than we do about how to analyze an issue or problem,” says Bynum. “We’ve been able to harness the collective knowledge that’s beyond the doors of city hall.” The fact that Tulsa was able to tap citizen volunteers without creating additional budget underscores the value of progressive, out-of-the-box thinking.
  • The Fort Collins budgeting process didn’t allow citizens to easily comprehend how budget decisions were made.  “I refer to our old budgeting system as ‘Whining for Dollars,’ ” says city manager Darin Atteberry. “People would come in and give us a list of things they needed. We’d go back, turn the crank, and say ‘Okay, of your 22 items, three are going to get funded.’ It was mostly about inputs and outputs, not outcomes and results.” Fort Collins decided to approach its budget in a new way. The result was a program called Budgeting for Outcomes (BFO) that reached out to the community at large and invited them to become active participants in building the budget. Through civic board meetings and wide-reaching communication efforts, the Fort Collins budget process became transparent. It’s now open to anyone. “It was this new idea of cocreating a community,” says Atteberry. Highly organized and mobile-device-friendly materials included an interactive budgeting tool. The BFO process established the expectation of community involvement—whole community involvement. This led to clear parallels between community priorities and budget allocation.

The Bottom Line

[emphasis mine] In an era of rapid disruption, cities can easily lose their edge—and their human capital—if they aren’t aggressive about staying relevant. Conversely, even cities that have faced decades of hardship can suddenly rise to renewed prominence if they empower their citizens toward progress.

The most competitive cities moving forward are going to be the ones having rich and authentic conversations with their residents,” says Fort Collins’s Atteberry. “Telling citizens to just ‘trust us’ doesn’t really work anymore.”

If the old organizational model relied on centralizing power with a leader and hoping for the best, the new model of success is about sharing power with the people and working together toward what’s best for all. That’s the dynamic that Cities of Service is fostering.

“If you create partnerships,” says Huntington’s Williams, “you establish trust and create hope.”