Why you should care
Five smallish municipalities are solving urban problems with strategies that any big metropolis can learn from.
Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
When it comes to municipal innovation, the Big Apple, the City of Angels and the 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 smaller municipalities — where the 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, tackled the scourge of single-use water bottles this year. We mean the Atlantas and Pittsburghs of the world. Even the Phoenixes.
Such less renowned cities took a big hit during the recession as state and federal funding for cities dried up, as it did for nearly everything else. The housing crash stumped cities in particular because most depend on local property tax. Even though some housing prices have rebounded, the municipal revenue hangover has been long — there’s a lag of about 18 months before higher prices translate into assessments and revenues. Worse, many small cities are subject to revenue caps that prevent them from raising taxes.
There’s never been a better time to come up with solutions to big issues like climate change and aging populations
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, which then demands more maintenance. And the more concrete and asphalt there is, the greater the fallout from climate change.
But things may be starting to improve. Finance officers recently surveyed by the National League of Cities expect property tax collections to tick up for the first time in five years. After years of cutbacks, more cities are increasing rather than decreasing the size of their municipal workforces. There’s never been a better time to come up with solutions to big issues like climate change and aging populations. “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.:
Early Childhood Education: Park City, Utah
Let’s assume you can’t persuade 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 a “social impact bond,” Goldman is loaning some $2.5 million to the United Way of Salt Lake, which oversees implementation and manages repayments. The investors will be repaid through anticipated savings down the line: $2,700 per year per child who won’t need remedial education in the future. In March, Utah’s state legislature approved repaying the investors from the state treasury. However, the program, now in its second year, has its critics, who argue that Utah should have already funded universal early education — especially given the state’s high birthrate.
Cities for Life: Charlotte, North Carolina
The massive retirement of the baby boomer generation has already started, and it affects midsize cities in two ways, says Rhodes-Conway: First, boomers are retiring out of city management, taking a lot of institutional knowledge with them; second, they’re 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 smarter use of community resources. One ideal, low-cost solution would involve using school infrastructure for the rest of the community during nonschool hours, says Cornell University 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 Charlotte and New York, have experimented with using school buses to transport senior citizens to and from grocery stores during the midmorning.
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 stormwater 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 who have a large amount of “impervious surface” — such as concrete driveways and parking lots — an extra fee. Owners with rain barrels or other systems to collect stormwater, like green roofs, don’t have to pay. Another perk: more jobs, through rain-barrel manufacturing in Philadelphia.
Handing Homelessness: Phoenix, Arizona
Evidence shows that homelessness costs the government more than it would cost to get homeless people into permanent housing. That’s because homeless people often turn up in emergency rooms and in jail. In 2009, the Obama administration pledged to end veteran homelessness by 2015 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 housing. People who have a stable home have an easier time overcoming some of the issues that would otherwise keep them homeless, such as addiction and joblessness.
Waste Not, Want Not: Madison, Wisconsin
You may have heard about municipal compost collection programs in San Francisco and other California cities, or even in New York, which is piloting one now. But Madison is ahead of them all. Not only did it begin collecting compost in 1989, but now it’s also expanding a pilot program that turns food scraps into energy. This past year, it expanded from five businesses to 35, mostly restaurants, and it’s looking to scale up to household collections, too, 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 Madison doesn’t have its own landfill or recycling processing facility, but instead contracts with outside providers, the scraps program is expected to help stabilize city expenses.
Participants are so far enthusiastic, but they’re also very much self-selected. Others might be a little squeamish about keeping food scraps in a bin in their garage. “That’s been one of the concerns — maggots,” Dreckmann says. Understandable, but when didn’t progress require a bit of squirming?
This OZY encore was originally published May 22, 2014, and has been updated to reflect recent developments.