15 trailblazing urban innovations

A Chicago program that recruits diverse groups of citizens to test the usability of city websites and mobile apps is one of 15 programs cited in a recent report on urban innovations. (Daniel X. O'Neil/flickr)

Fueled by explosive urban expansion, mayors and city managers are on the vanguard of government innovation.

A recent report, Innovation and the City, profiles 15 of the most notable city-driven concepts of the past decade. The initiatives range from Malang, Indonesia’s funding of healthcare for low-income residents with revenue from garbage and recycling collection to Chicago’s efforts to recruit diverse groups of citizens to test the usability of city websites and mobile apps.

The report was published in November by the Center for an Urban Future and New York University’s Wagner School of Public Policy & Service.

The featured urban policies share some common themes. They are all proven successes that have been deployed citywide in their respective municipalities. Each offers the opportunity to substantially improve public services and quality of life for residents.

“The ideas profiled here are broadly applicable to a range of municipalities throughout the United States and around the world,” write Tom Hilliard and Neil Kleiman, authors of the 35-page report.

Among the key takeaways:

  • ‘Buy-in’ from local officials and city employees is essential: Disruptive ideas can spark resistance from bureaucrats not accustomed to change. Winning the early support of city administrators and front-line government workers is critical to gaining trust and understanding for novel approaches.
  • Involve communities and the private sector: Initiatives focused on community improvement should engage civic groups in planning, or let them take the lead. Businesses must have a pivotal role in any efforts that impact the private sector. By partnering with these constituencies, cities can ensure their needs are met, strengthening local support.
  • Poor cities can be incubators too: Economically disadvantaged cities are just as creative as affluent ones at launching innovative urban initiatives. That may be partly due to the reality that cash-strapped cities have to accomplish goals with fewer resources.

The other cities profiled are San Francisco and Los Angeles; Chicago; Seattle and Tacoma, Washington; Barcelona and Valencia, Spain; New York; São Paulo; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Gwangju, South Korea.

São Paulo is recognized for its policy of “value capture,” which essentially turns development opportunities for builders into local revenue to fund infrastructure.  Under the policy, developers bid on city-issued bonds that allow them to build bigger than the law would otherwise allow. The bond sales finance housing, roads and other amenities for the area.

[Read: How São Paulo uses ‘value capture’ to raise billions for infrastructure]

The sprawling Kibera slum in Nairobi wins plaudits for allowing residents to update a digital neighborhood map in real-time. Citizens can point out service gaps, crime and accidents, the report says.

San Francisco is highlighted for two projects. The Five Keys Charter School helps inmates at the county jail to earn high school diplomas, boosting their employment prospects. It is the only charter school in the U. S. operated by a sheriff’s department.

San Francisco also teams with community groups that immigrants trust to enforce minimum-wage requirements in ethnic communities. In such areas, workers who don’t speak English and are desperate for jobs are sometimes paid less than the law requires.

Gwangju is a pioneer on carbon emissions reduction. Residents are issued “carbon green cards” that track their energy use with sensors. Participating households can redeem the cards for rewards, such as discounts on household goods or admission at national parks, if they reduce energy consumption by 5 percent over six months. The initiative relies on financial incentives to alter behavior, but officials emphasize that citizens also are motivated by a desire to help their community.  

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David Hatch is a correspondent for Citiscope.  Full bio

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