State of the City from Living Cities

Living Cities has published a new report on the state of cities in the USA, it’s a worthwhile read if you’re already reading my blog. It’s not that long, really. It lays out a number of key struggles our cities are facing and suggests some innovative practices that show promise, but mostly paints a very daunting picture of our country’s future.  I just bought a home, for the first time, and that process of viewing, inspection and bidding highlighted the poor condition of so much of our housing stock built in the 1950-1954 boom.  We have an aging population and high unemployment and it seems to me that much of the housing stock in the east bay has some serious deferred maintenance. We don’t seem to be able to maintain our own homes to a high standard, just like we don’t seem to be able to maintain our cities, infrastructure and schools. 

the community development sector has failed to keep up with these enormous changes. Our systems for supporting national prosperity and individual economic opportunity were built for different times on outdated assumptions. Place-based efforts, while beneficial to some, are not sufficient to reaching the scale necessary to fix these broken systems. We cannot simply manage decline in cities – we must be on the cutting edge of these economic and social shifts and change how cities operate.

This paragraph stood out to me- the idea that we are managing decline in our cities rather than rebuilding our infrastructure for the future- take Oakland’s 84 year road paving cycle for example.

Isolated approaches to fixing our most intractable problems have not worked. There needs to be new, local, ‘civic infrastructure’ built around one table where cross-sector decision-makers come together to set ambitious goals, use data to transform systems and achieve better outcomes.

Having worked in a cross sector organization that does excellent work in forming and sustaining collaborations I see the focus on breaking down decision making silos as a key way to improve our government functioning and our community development efforts.  We’ve seen so many isolated efforts fail because the department only considered their own jurisdiction and mandate and failed to connect their work to those of connected agencies.  You don’t fix urban schools without improving safety and you don’t fund that without good businesses and housing as a base for your community- it all fits together and all must be tackled  together. Get better teachers and schools but don’t fix the juvenile justice system? Nice try. We need more cross sector and inter-agency collaboration and serious planning efforts that accept risks and support innovations that are not comfortable but work to improve our common good.

It is imperative that we build a new civic infrastructure that supports collaboration; that we develop a high performing public sector that provides leadership and resources more strategically

This is something I’m very focused on and feel constant frustration at the pace of this change- we need leaders in our cities who get these new issues, who understand the scale of change needed and who embrace better practice.  We need them to share lessons and failures while being more open to implementing good practices from other cities without feeling the need to reinvent the wheel on every issue in every city. We cannot afford to do things the old way- making unique programs and policies and systems that do the same thing in every city- we need to think more like the open source software community and copy and redeploy as much as we can- we can all build on what others have done and then give back into the pool of ideas, policies and tools to allow others to build on our work. Collaboratively as a country, working together to solve our big problems at a scale that we can fund.

View the full report on Living Cities website here.

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