UChicago joins National League of Cities to host U.S. mayors

'Big Ideas for Cities' offers workable solutions for urban challenges

Nine U.S. mayors gathered in Chicago earlier this month to share innovative solutions to the toughest problems facing their cities. The University of Chicago’s Office of Civic Engagement and the Institute of Politics, in collaboration with the National League of Cities, hosted the daylong event titled “Big Ideas for Cities.”

“We created this idea around mayors sharing their successes and challenges and the big ideas around the passions that they have,” said Clarence Anthony, executive director of the National League of Cities, a 90-year-old organization that lobbies on behalf of cities and provides training and education about best practices.

“As an urban research institution, the University of Chicago is committed to better understanding the challenges cities face across a range of areas, and finding evidence-based solutions to those challenges,” said Derek Douglas, vice president for civic engagement at the University of Chicago. “This convening provided an important opportunity for urban mayors to share their accomplishments in addressing common challenges so that those accomplishments can be replicated.”

Forging innovative partnerships

In looking for an institution to partner with for the Big Ideas event, Anthony said the University of Chicago was a natural fit. “We needed an institution with strong programs and student interest in cities and public policy,” he said. “There was no question the University of Chicago had all of those things.”

Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson of Gary, Ind., has firsthand knowledge of how UChicago impacts public policy in cities. Freeman-Wilson spoke about forging productive partnerships between the city and entities such as state and federal government, foundations and universities. “Some people come in saying they want to help, but they end up spectators more than active partners,” Freeman-Wilson said.

Her partnership with the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy has been anything but that, she said. Specifically, she referred to a class taught by former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, a distinguished senior fellow at Chicago Harris. Daley’s students brought to Gary a digital toolkit called LocalData, developed in Detroit to electronically survey abandoned buildings and communicate that data to the state. They also analyzed and advised Freeman-Wilson on the city budget.

But perhaps the biggest contribution has been the 5X5X5 Neighborhood Revitalization Cleanup program, which marshals neighborhood residents and city departments in local building demolition cleanup efforts. “Harris students not only came up with the idea, but they brought it to us and implemented it,” Freeman-Wilson said. “That’s a successful partnership.”

Challenges call for solutions

Each of the city leaders presented an urban problem they faced and then touted their successful solutions. In Columbus, Ohio, for example, Mayor Michael Coleman’s Blue Print Columbus program aims to creatively deal with the problem of sewage overflow. Heavy rainfall can overwhelm city sewer systems, sometimes causing sanitary sewage to flow into lakes and streams.

“The EPA has ordered us to deal with this problem,” Coleman said. Instead of building costly underground tunnels, Coleman’s project will divert storm water from sewers, converting thousands of abandoned properties into parks and rain gardens that will double as water treatment facilities. “This program will make the city cleaner and greener, and create more jobs and opportunities,” Coleman said.

To combat pollution and increasing traffic congestion in Salt Lake City, Mayor Ralph Becker has taken giant steps toward creating sustainable urban transit, adding more than 140 miles of new rail and seven commuter train lines in recent years to create “the largest rail system project in the country,” Becker said.

The city also has invested heavily in bikeways and pedestrian walkways with the goal of creating “complete streets” that allow for all forms of transportation but lessen dependence on automobiles. Becker said the city’s message is “drive if you want or if you must, but let’s not make that the best way to get around.”

Mayor of Philadelphia Michael Nutter discussed the intersection of education and crime, citing national statistics that demonstrate low high school graduation rates and high homicide rates among African Americans. Of the 247 homicides in Philadelphia last year, he said, 191 were African-American and disproportionately male. “The No. 1 cause of death of black men and boys between ages 10 and 24 is homicide,” Nutter said. “This is a public health epidemic.”

In 2011, Nutter and Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans launched Cities United, a nationwide initiative to reduce violence-related deaths among young, African-American males through advocacy, research and education. The initiative now boasts 56 member cities.

Comcast and Google sponsored the “Big Ideas for Cities event, which also included talks by the mayors of Oakland, Calif., Minneapolis, Minn., St. Paul, Minn., Portland, Ore., and Madison, Wis.