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Small Cities, Big Ideas

Source: Corbis

Charlotte, North Carolina

Tale of Five Cities

How These 5 Cities are Solving Big Problems

Why you should care

Sometimes necessity is the mother of invention. Five smallish municipalities are solving urban problems with long-range strategies that any big metropolis can learn from.

When it comes to municipal innovation, the Big Apple, City of Angels and Windy City seem to get all the glory along with the memorable nicknames. They roll out municipal ID programs, fight climate change with new types of trees and hip new building codes, and set about tackling thorny national issues like economic inequality. But look a little closer at the smaller municipalities where the vast majority of Americans live and you might be surprised at how many of them are trying some crazy project or another.

And we’re not even talking about Portland — or Austin, or Seattle, or San Francisco, which, by God, just banned single-use water bottles. We mean the Charlottes, Atlantas, Pittsburghs of the world. Even the Phoenixes.

Urban centers have long been bellwethers for all sorts of problems.

Less renowned cities like these have been financially strapped since the recession. State and federal funding for cities has dried up, as it has for nearly everything else. But the housing crash stumped cities in particular because most of them depend on local property tax. The revenue hangover has been long. Even though property prices have begun to rebound in many cities, there’s a lag of 18 months to a year before prices result in higher assessments and higher revenues.

Worse, many small cities are subject to revenue caps that prevent them from raising taxes. Finance officers surveyed by the National League of Cities expected property tax collections to decline for the fourth straight year in 2013. General revenues were expected to tick up, by a slight 0.1 percent. If they do — and it’s a big if — it’ll be the first year in seven they’ve gone up instead of down.

At the same time, cities deal with a slew of problems. With higher population densities, urban centers have long been bellwethers for all sorts of issues. They have higher concentrations of wealth and poverty. They demand more infrastructure, and that infrastructure demands more maintenance. And the more concrete and asphalt, the greater the fallout from climate change.

The good news is that these cities are coming up with solutions to big issues like climate change and aging populations — and we’re not talking only about the 40 percent of cities that raised fees as a way of circumventing revenue caps, according to the NLC. “No question that some of the biggest cities are doing interesting things, but when I look across the country, they’re not alone,” says Satya Rhodes Conway, the executive director of the Mayors Innovation Network.

Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say — and maybe of Madison, Wisconsin’s biodigester, too. Take a look at these five novel solutions from cities across the U.S.:

Asian boy looking at ipad in classroom

Source: Getty

A second-grader does his classroom work at Park Lane Elementary School in Sandy, Utah.

Early Childhood Education: Park City, Utah

Let’s assume you can’t your convince your state legislature to fund early childhood education. Here, Salt Lake County and Park City, Utah have come up with an interesting idea: Get Goldman Sachs to underwrite it. Through “social-impact bonds,” Goldman will loan up to $4.6 million to the United Way of Salt Lake, which will oversee implementation and manage repayments. The investors will be repaid through anticipated savings further down the line: $2,600 per year per child who won’t need remedial education in the future.

The program has its critics, who argue the state should have already gone and funded universal early education — especially given its high birth rate. And yet, the social impact bond is not meant to be permanent. The United Way isn’t obliged to repay the loan if the preschool program doesn’t yield the intended financial results, and only the first year of the deal was finalized, says Bill Crim of the United Way. The deal provided impetus for Utah’s state legislature that will offer the same “pay-for-success” deal to all of Utah’s school districts.

Cities for Life: Charlotte, North Carolina

The massive retirement of the baby boomer generation has already started, and it affects mid-sized cities in two ways, says Rhodes Conway: Boomers are retiring out of city management, taking a lot of institutional knowledge with them. Retirees are also challenging a city infrastructure that was meant for cars. Now some cities are trying to be explicitly multigenerational, honing themselves into “cities for life.”

What does that mean? Good public transportation for starters, and then smart use of community resources. One ideal, low-cost solution would involve using school infrastructure for the rest of the community during non-school hours, says Cornell professor Mildred Warner. Schools can function as senior centers at night or on weekends. School playgrounds can become public parks on the weekends, as those in Phoenix do. Some cities, like New York and Charlotte, have experimented with transporting senior citizens to and from the grocery store mid-morning — on school buses.

Climate Change and Aging Infrastructure: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Before climate change, the rain came in moderation, but now when it rains, it tends to pour — leaving cities more flood-prone than before. The result has not been pretty in Philadelphia, whose sewer system has one set of pipes for both storm water and sewage. Flooding causes “combined sewer overflow” as waste treatment plants can’t keep up with the volume and end up dumping untreated sewage into the nearest body of water. Ugh.

Rather than build new waste treatment plants or widen hundreds of miles of sewer pipes, Philadelphia is looking to the source of the overflow: rainwater. Since 2011, its Green City, Clean Waters program has charged property owners with lots of “water impervious surface” — think concrete driveways and parking lots — an extra fee. Owners with rain barrels or other systems to collect storm water, like green roofs, don’t have to pay. Added perk: More jobs through rain barrel manufacturing in Philadelphia.

1 man on left giving some supplies to man on right

Source: Corbis

A U.S. Army veteran of the Korean and Vietnam Wars helps a homeless Army vet pick out some clean clothes at the Arizona StandDown.

Homelessness: Phoenix, Arizona

Evidence shows that homelessness costs the government more than it would to put homeless people in permanent housing. That’s because the homeless often turn up in emergency rooms and in jail. In 2009, the Obama administration pledged to end veteran homelessness by 2015 and homelessness overall — through block grants to cities. And in January, Phoenix announced that it had succeeded.

The numbers are not huge — some 222 chronically homeless vets lived in Phoenix in 2011 – but its success points up the utility of an approach called Housing First. Instead of treating housing as a reward for good behavior, helping the homeless starts with the housing. With a stable home, people have an easier time overcoming some of the issues that keep them homeless, such as addiction and joblessness.

Waste Not Want Not: Madison, Wisconsin

You may have heard about municipal compost collection programs in California cities like San Francisco or in New York, which is piloting one now. But Madison is way ahead of them all. Not only did it begin collecting compost in 1989, it’s now expanding a pilot program that turns food scraps into energy. This year, they’ll expand the project from 500 households and five businesses to 1,600 households and 20 to 25 businesses, says George Dreckmann, the city’s recycling coordinator.

The program is key to the lefty city’s “zero waste” goal, as food scraps and paper comprise some 25 to 30 percent of its landfill waste. And because the city of Madison doesn’t have its own landfill or recycling processing facility, but instead contracts with outside providers, the scraps program is expected to make city expenses more stable.

Participants are so far enthusiastic, but they’re very much self selected. Others might get squeamish about keeping scraps in a bin in their garage because of pests. “That’s been one of the concerns — maggots,” Dreckmann says. Understandable — but when didn’t progress require a bit of squirming?

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Meet The Author Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia writes about justice, policy and many other things for Ozy…AND makes an exception for oysters.

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