Maria Popova | Report

CEOs for Cities Community Challenge: Robust Public Life

Poster for CEOs for Cities' US Initiative in Detroit

For the past decade, CEOs for Cities has been building a national network of urban leaders working to define and catalyze the next generation of great American cities. The nonprofit, best described as a civic lab for urban innovation, is working to foster and amplify four factors its leaders have identified as most critical to the success of cities: talent, with a focus on how to develop, maximize, attract and retain it; connections, or how people with ideas can be linked to talent, capital and markets; innovation, addressing the need to create a culture of entrepreneurship; and distinctiveness, the notion of making local differences a point of appeal and capitalizing on unique economic opportunities.

CEOs for Cities' latest project, The Us Initiative, aims to redefine the American Dream by exploring five key elements of it in a series of five multiday challenge events. Each event teams up national thought leaders in urbanity with local stakeholders to identify a set of principles that can be applied to all cities and can be implemented locally through practical quick-start strategies. The series kicked off in Indianapolis in October, where the  Livability Challenge tackled how green space, art and architecture can be harnessed to increase a city's "quality of place" quotient. The second event was held in Detroit last week. Entitled The Community Challenge, it focused on the notion of "robust public life" in the American city. For two days, a roomful of experts in civic engagement, activism, public policy, journalism, government, volunteerism, technology and other facets of citizenship set out to define and dissect "robust public life" — what does its contemporary conception look like? How can it be measured? How can communities use it to attract and retain talent. In less abstract terms, part of the challenge was to generate ideas for investing $75,000 provided by the Knight Foundation in the form of grants funding progressive projects to drive community attachment.

The event kicked off with a presentation by Dr. Katherine Luflin, lead consultant for the Knight Foundation, who shared the latest findings from Soul of the Community — a three-year study by Knight and The Gallup Organization. The project, modeled on Gallup's longtime research into how employees' attachment to their jobs makes them more productive, aims to understand "resident attachment to place" — what drives us and what matters to us, from economic development to community vitality to talent recruitment and retention — in 26 U.S. communities. Essentially, it's an effort to measure loyalty and passion for place, then discover the characteristics of place that drive those feelings, measure them, and ultimately make the data actionable in a way that maximizes a city's' appeal.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, high community attachment correlated with high local GDP. Evidence from CEOs for Cities' own research identified openness (how welcoming a community is to diverse groups, a more evolved term than "tolerance"), social offerings (lifestyle and entertainment options) and aesthetics (architecture, green spaces, cleanliness) as the three most important factors in attachment, which were consistent across all communities. 

Ultimately, Soul of the Community offers quantitative validation for what we intuitively and qualitatively believe: Places matter.

Following Loflin's presentation, participants showcased some of their own projects. Among the highlights were CreateHere, a Chattanooga nonprofit co-founded by Josh McManus and Helen Johnson, igniting a number of "civic interventions" that offer economic, environmental and quality-of-life enhancements for the city. In one, Chattanooga replaced all downtown light bulbs with LEDs, which, despite the higher net cost of the bulbs themselves, now save the city $7,000 a month in electricity costs. In another, CreateHere tackled residents' perception that "Chattanooga is not a 24-hour city" by initiating an open-source 24-hour festival. The plan is now available under a Creative Commons license that anyone can implement in their own communities. Justin Bibb presented his work on the Civic Health Index, a metric for urban prosperity based on five key factors — political action, social connectedness, service, group participation and connectedness to information and current events — demonstrating once again the need to quantify "robust public life" before we can qualify it. Bill Hosinger-Robinson shared his work on ArtPrize — a $450,000 award granted to artists every year based on an open public vote. Open government advocate Clay Johnson, former director of Sunlight Foundation's Sunlight Labs, spoke about people's relationship with government and the tendency for the government's physical assets to become "background noise" to citizens. He shared insights from his work on recovery.gov, the government's open-source data platform, for which he and his team created an augmented reality layer mapping the exact locations of recovery grants in order to place that "background noise" within a context of civic awareness.

Next, the group set out to define just what "robust public life" means. Dr. Mark Drapeau, director of public sector social engagement for Microsoft, pointed to "leveraging relationships to help the community achieve bigger things" as its driving force. Designer and TED fellow Candy Chang defined robust public life as the ability to "work, live and play within a few blocks." Washington-based consultant Tania Jackson spoke of "intentional interaction" — the idea of being intentional about being inclusive, involved and together comfortably. Kip Harkass, director of San Jose’s acclaimed Strong Neighborhoods program, pointed to the need for "low barriers," defining robust public life as something that "strategically informs collective action." Nia Robinson, director of Detroit's Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative, called for "clean, healthy communities as a human right, not a privilege." Josh McManus had the eloquent punchline of the day:
A healthy city is place where it's consistently fashionable for all citizens to give a damn — everything else will work itself out."
By the second day, high-level insights and practical projects began to converge into specific ideas for fostering robust public life.

Candy Chang shared her vision of a "Foursquare for volunteerism" — a platform that allows volunteers to join specific local projects with clear, quantifiable goals and collect badges redeemable for incentives from local vendors. Chang's work on Vendor Power, a project redesigning policy regulation for New York City street vendors in a digestible and visual way, ignited a larger discussion about the role of design in robust public life. The all-out infusion of design into government and civic organizations permeated most of the ideas as a key strategy for encouraging communication, comprehension and participation. 

"Design is not a piece of this pie — it's the pan." — Clay Johnson
Johnson proposed a digital notice board to be placed in a community's informational epicenters. This leveraged a discussion of what successful community event organizing entails, raising ideas for tools that enable people to organize within their communities, from a deck of cards with ideas for various events to a government resource, self-service.gov, hosting helpful information on everything from getting a block party permit to distributing flyers.
"Successful organizing happens when organizations get out of the way and let people be people." — Clay Johnson
The notion of "empowering everyone to be a block mayor" — where we trade the screen for the street and walk down the block to interact with our physical neighbors rather than our virtual Twitter or Facebook communities — emerged as a recurring theme.
"In-field development will be the most important source of investment in the next 10-15 years, period. How people engage around development sites is either going to make cities great places, or not." — Kip Harkass
One of the most compelling insights — of the kind so simple and obvious it's likely to make you roll your eyes at first — came from CEOs for Cities' own Julia Klaiber pointing out the dichotomy between our relationships with the environment and the city. Why is it that when we go to national parks, we tend to act differently, to consider the consequences of our actions more thoroughly, to behave more thoughtfully toward what surrounds us? At some point, Klaiber noted, it "became fashionable" to care about nature in a way that we're yet to see with cities, in both their physical and sociocultural contexts. This is an important insight because the notion of "environment" in its current connotation of natural resources is largely inaccurate. In the age of urbanization, the real "environment" for most of us is the city. And yet the term was coopted by the "environmental" movement, with all its facets of policy, edutainment and greenwashing, from COP15 to An Inconvenient Truth to just about every corporate social responsibility agenda. When it comes to our actual environment, the city, we have consistently failed to foster the same kind of deep respect, the pride we take from caring for it, the badge of honor that comes from being a responsible, engaged civic agent.

Ultimately, the Community Challenge presented "robust public life" as an essential factor in a community's emotional, economic and sociocultural well-being — something to be approached with the same entrepreneurial spirit we bring to matters of local economy, environment and policy. Like these other, tangible domains, it can be addressed with specific strategies for optimization.

Three more challenges will take place over the coming months — Connectivity, to be held December 8–10 in Chicago, will explore strategies to allow people to rid themselves of their cars, an effort inspired by the finding that reducing vehicle miles by just one mile per person per day in the nation's top 51 metro areas would result in a $29 billion "green dividend." The Opportunity Challenge, taking place February 16–18 in Memphis, will seek to devise practical strategies for cities to develop and put to work all of their talent. The date and location for the final challenge, Optimism, are yet to be set.

Posted in: Social Good

Comments [1]

Thanks to the author for a nicely packed review of truly inspiring ideas! I've lived in "places" and "non-places" and know there is a tremendous difference. The ideas for increasing a feeling of community and measuring ownership are useful and can lead to a much better world.

My current place (non-place) is Tampa and its near burbs; its low level of planning and community can be measured in many ways, including the number of pedestrians and bicyclers killed on or even near our roadways (we lead the nation :-( ). I would like to ride my bike to work (one city initiative) but it is just too dangerous here. Hopefully, design-thinking will come to town and eventually my children will be able to ride safely, while loving their community more.
Tom Sanocki

Jobs | June 21