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“If You Want to Change the World, You Want to Be In Cities”

Written by Amanda Maher

“If you want to change the world, you want to be in cities.” -Mayor Kasim Reed of Atlanta, Georgia.

In the 21st century, it’s become ever so clear that cities are the vanguard of America’s economy. Young and old, people are moving back to the urban core, opting for an environment where they can live, work and play in close proximity. Businesses want to be a part of all this action, so they’re moving back into cities and drawing their workforce from the talented workers who live there.

But as the shift in favor of cities continues, there’s growing concern about gentrification and the impact it will have on lower-income residents and their neighborhoods. On February 11th, Governing convened a panel of four city leaders – Mayor Greg Fischer from Louisville, Mayor Karl Dean of Nashville, Mayor Betsy Hodges of Minneapolis and Mayor Kasim Reed of Atlanta – called “Cities as Change Makers – Panel of Mayors” as part of their “Summit on Government Performance & Innovation 2015” in Louisville, KY, and posed a simple question that led to a spirited debate: How do we make sure we reduce inequalities for the future of our cities?

Four mayors, four approaches – and one thing they all agree upon.

Mayor Fischer tackled the question by diving into the importance of education. “If you get education right, you get everything else right,” he said, before describing Louisville’s four-pillar approach. First, cities must invest in early education and Pre-K. Studies show that Pre-K programs provide the greatest return on investment, but still the country seems paralyzed when it comes to making these investments. Second, cities must improve K-12 education; urban school districts have notoriously underperformed, which is one of the reasons so many people fled to the suburbs in decades past. Louisville’s third focus is on post-secondary education. One such effort is “55,000 Degrees,” a multi-stakeholder movement to help Louisville residents attain 55,000 college degrees by 2020. The effort, funded by the Lumina Foundation, has received national attention. All of this leads to the fourth pillar: the creation of a 21st century workforce. The City’s goal is to have a lower-than-average unemployment rate and higher median wages versus its peer cities; as the city tries to attract employers within the innovation economy, it will require the city have a well-qualified workforce to fill these positions. The key to that, says Fischer, is investment in lifelong learning for all residents.

Mayor Hodges, for her part, instead discussed how Minneapolis is investing in data analytics in order to deliver services more equitably across racial and demographic divides. The City is doing so in large part thanks to the support of Bloomberg Philanthropies, which selected Minneapolis as one of its “Innovation Teams.” The $900,000 grant will allow Minneapolis to utilize data in new ways, and where the City finds inequitable service delivery or outcomes, it will work across departments to identify and address the disparity, explained Hodges.

In Music City, the honky-tonks only tell part of the story. Health care is actually Nashville’s #1 industry, with many of the larger companies spinning out startups left and right. That said, Mayor Karl Dean said it’s important to play off the city’s strengths—and music is one of those strengths. In addition to country music, Nashville also draws its fair share of rock and roll. The City is trying to grow its competitive advantage in the music industry using approaches such as affordable housing for artists.

But for all the good efforts by the public sector, there must be significant investment by the private sector, noted Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. Two of Atlanta’s most impoverished neighborhoods, for instance, overlook the new $1.4 billion sports stadium. How can the city leverage private sector support to ensure that residents of these neighborhoods reap some of that benefit? The Mayor began by taking the CEO of Home Depot and leaders at other organizations on a tour of the area, and then laid the challenges out in a data-driven way. The future of politics and public service, Kasim notes, will rely on transparency and performance. Cities must give the private sector a vehicle to deal with problems in an efficient way. The resulting “Westside Future Fund” taps into private sector and philanthropic support in order to drive significant change in an otherwise underserved community. Involvement of CEOs is critical, he explains, because it adds a layer of accountability that is often missing in neighborhood-based economic development projects.

While each of the four mayors discussed their various approaches, other mayors often chimed in to support these efforts during the event. For instance, Mayor Dean also spoke at length about investment in early education in Nashville and called it a “no-brainer” for the country, let alone his city. Meanwhile, Mayor Fischer talked about “Bourbonism” in Louisville and how the City was finding creative ways to leverage Louisville’s authenticity. Since launching a 52-week tourist program around Kentucky bourbon, Louisville has 7 new hotels either being build or in the pipeline and the convention center is expanding – representing a portion of the $1 billion in new investment that is largely attributed to the Bourbonism brand.

But when it comes to really addressing issues of inequality and urban revitalization, all four Mayors could agree upon one critical factor—public transportation.

Transit is key, says Mayor Hodges, because it provides people with the ability to move to and from and within cities. Minneapolis, for instance, cannot consider itself without thinking about the other half of the Twin Cities—Saint Paul. Together, these cities drive a tight-knit regional economy. At the center of that economy is the public transportation system.

Mayor Fischer offered the primary takeaway from Vision Louisville, the city’s latest comprehensive plan, was that residents wanted more connectivity, including traditional light rail and bus rapid transit, but also 21st century connectivity such as broadband. With access to state and federal dollars declining, the City is searching for alternative funding mechanisms, including the ability to put these projects on the state ballot.

Despite its traditionally poor reputation, Atlanta is finding more and more businesses are moving to the City because of the access to this system, not in spite of it. “The business community will weigh in with its feet,” says Mayor Reem. Mercedes recently moved from New Jersey, and State Farm followed suit. These relocation decisions were made, at least in part, because employees would have access to public transportation. Atlanta’s most recent infrastructure improvements include a $100 million, 2.7 mile street car system paid for using Tiger II grants. Since it opened in December 2014, it has had more than 70,000 riders. Within four miles of that streetcar, there have been $400-$500 million worth of new projects, including a $93 million new apartment complex, boasts Mayor Reem. “If you want to be in the future business, you have to be in the transit business,” he says, as all panelists nod in agreement.

As cities evolve, so too will their demographics. Mayors must be able to address tough questions about racial and economic inequality without further dividing the city, which these Mayors acknowledged is tough to do. But the best hopes of doing so are by bringing all residents along on the journey and solving the challenges together.

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