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 Our systems for supporting national prosperity and individual economic opportunity were built for different times on outdated assumptions.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.

The Value of Networks: NNIP

When we face change it’s a great time to step back and be reflective about the thing we’re struggling to change or the thing that has been changed for us.  It’s hard to abstract while we’re in the middle of things, when things are moving along nicely, our instinct is to just keep at “the work”.  This year a network I’ve been closely involved with changed significantly and it forced me to think about what matters, its value to me and it’s purpose more broadly.

 

Every year the members of the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP: neighborhoodindicators.org) gather twice in different cities to share, learn, reconnect and struggle together with the tough issues of running community data organizations.  Almost twenty years old, this network is now 36 cities strong and boast university departments, think tanks, nonprofits, government agencies and collaborative mixes of these in each city.  I love the people who attend, their varied perspectives and the great work that inspires me to do better, do more and to implement good practices successful elsewhere in my work and my city.  To be honest these meetings (the conferences are self run and rather informal, and feature NO vendors anywhere!) are the highlight of my year, every year.

 

In 2013, due to a few factors we are only convening once. This is a major change from the seven years I’ve been involved and comes after I leave my three year term sitting on the national executive committee that helps to govern the network.  I’ve struggled with this departure from the norm and it has caused me to think a lot about what NNIP really is to me.  I’ve talked with others about these ideas but they do not represent a surveyed perspective nor broad agreement that I’m aware of.

 

Thinking over what is truly unique or valuable about NNIP yields this list for me:

·      No fluff sharing of projects, tech, failures and successes in other cities.

·      A dynamic mix of execs, researchers, technologists and academics.

·      Honest discussions about the pros and cons of systems, software, products and approaches.

·      Very honest discussions and thinking through business sustainability amongst peers who face similar struggles in other cities- providing a safe place given the lack of ‘competitors’ in the room.

·      A chance for junior staff to begin presenting their work, learning to communicate issues and data in public.

·      Broad awareness of who is an expert in certain issues nationally and a relationship that ensures they will respond to you when needed.

·      Connections in many cities to allow for effective referrals of inquiries that should be met by local experts.

·      Social connections to people you respect and appreciate who inspire you and also learn from your work.  Lots of humility.

 

Putting all of this together and stepping back from who we are and what we do as a network I’m faced with some discoveries.  Our network is a face to face entity. It exists almost entirely in person, in the same place at the same time.  The strong bonds that form are sustained on the sidelines between convenings but are really nurtured in person.  The attempts to foster online webinars and workgroups have come and gone every couple of years and always have flopped.  I think there are three reasons for this- firstly the fact that we all have other learning networks and webinar type options in our work. Secondly, we are very much a personal network that relies on good relationships, not remote web based presentations. Lastly I think this is because of the style of network support offered by the Urban Institute staff who do a great job running the convenings and supporting the network broadly.  When I consider the networks and collaborations that Urban Strategies Council supports, such as our Alameda County Community Asset Network, we put a huge amount of resources into staffing and supporting this kind of network.  The fact that our UI team have other, very demanding roles within their jobs suggests that our network would likely benefit from a configuration in which there are one or two dedicated people managing and supporting the NNIP network.  I don’t offer this as a criticism, but as a reflection on who we are, how we function, our value and our needs, painted against the competing obligations of regular researcher roles in a major institution.  It’s time for the NNIP to fully staff its coordination (with more great leadership from Kathy Pettit I hope!) and to ensure we understand our value to our members and support that to the fullest.

 

After abstracting our activities into a set of valued components and priorities it’s important to think through what you (or we) can do to ensure those strengths are sustained, our weaknesses either tackled or discarded and our network operates as best it can.  Moving to a single meeting per year has the very unfortunate effect of destabilizing the single biggest advantage of our network- the strong relationships within this field. In our twice yearly format you can miss one (say you have a baby, it happens) and only have a year gap between reconnecting with your peers and plugging back into the sharing and learning network.  In a yearly format, miss just one conference and you face a two year gap with no formal connection. It’s next to impossible to build up the typically strong relationships we see within NNIP in a yearly interaction and such a large gap ensures all newcomers will stay outsiders and strangers to the vast majority of seasoned members.

 

This is a serious weakness for us and my suggestion is that those budgeting and managing our network should do all they can to maintain our twice yearly format. It works. It has been successful in so many ways and the cost of cutting back is far greater than the savings of one less event to fund.  Sustaining a core and building networks is valuable work, we’ve exhibited this remarkably well and must continue this aspect of our work together.  I’m looking forward to our network assessment and the chance to objectively consider our future together, NNIP is a rare and wonderful thing and we need to be serious in maintaining and improving it!