4 Ways Cities are Putting Innovative Ideas into Action

September 9, 2013

By Emily Pickren

At NLC, we come across innovative city programs, initiatives and ideas every day. Some thrive and serve as models for cities across the country, while others fall short of reaching their intended outcome. A common thread throughout these efforts, however, is a commitment among city leaders to make their communities better for residents. The following four initiatives highlight how small and large cities throughout the U.S. are taking creative steps to solve local problems.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-BlakeImplementing Healthy Food Policies 

Cities and towns are increasingly recognizing the far-reaching impacts and opportunities of implementing food policies and programs to help residents make healthy lifestyle choices. Food systems directly connect to public health goals such as reducing hunger or obesity; they can also support and facilitate local economic growth. The Baltimore Food Policy Initiative (BFPI) is a national model for city leadership in increasing access to healthy, affordable foods. A key component of BFPI is the Food Policy Advisory Committee (Food PAC), which consists of over 45 member organizations that represent stakeholders in Baltimore’s food production, distribution and consumption system. 

The BFPI has established Baltimore as a leader in sustainable local food systems as a way to increase communitywide access to healthy food. BFPI supports programs that engage the community and address food access issues through policy change, healthy food retail, urban agriculture and partnerships with local schools.

NLC’s Sustainable Cities Institute published a case study on Baltimore’s Food Policy Initiative.  

Encouraging Financial Empowerment through “Bank On”

First started in San Francisco, "Bank On" programs involves partnerships among local government officials, financial institutions and community-based organizations to develop pathways for residents to access basic, low-cost financial services and financial education. Bank On San Francisco was started by City Treasurer José Cisneros to help the city’s 50,000 “unbanked” residents access safe and affordable financial services. It was designed to create an infrastructure within the community – of resources, partner relationships and consumer financial products – that local leaders can leverage to reach new populations. San Francisco’s Bank On program is targeted toward those who lack bank accounts and includes a free or low-cost checking account, protection from overdraft or other bank fees, no monthly minimum balance requirement, and financial education. The program has been replicated in cities across the country from Boston to Bryan, Texas, with many offering additional services that mimic aspects of popular alternative financial products, such as payday loans and money orders, but at a lower cost.

In Bryan, Texas, Councilmember Ann Horton, city staff and the local United Way have been working since 2009 to increase the financial security of their residents through access to safe, affordable products. In 2011, the community launched Bank On Brazos Valley, opening 1,500 accounts for financially underserved residents in the first quarter. Later that year, four financial institutions participating in Bank On began offering small-dollar, credit-builder loans of up to $1,000 with a 4-6 month loan repayment period (for comparison, payday loans often require the repayment within one pay period or about two weeks). 

To help other cities start their own programs, the National League of Cities created the “Bank on Cities Campaign.”

Promoting Early Childhood Education 

Key Initiatives to Early Education (KITE) is a local coalition in Enfield, Connecticut that works to ensure that all families with young children in the community have knowledge of and access to quality early care and educational opportunities both in and outside of the home. Town officials, along with leaders from the school district and United Way, child care and health care providers meet regularly with parents to promote an ongoing dialogue about the importance of early childhood development.

KITE partners provide parents and other caregivers with developmentally appropriate educational materials for children and support several initiatives to prepare young children for kindergarten. Projects include a community-wide Early Learning Matters campaign, an annual preschool fair, outreach to faith based community and area pediatricians, collaboration among early education providers and schools to support smooth transitions to kindergarten, and a parent leadership academy. Parents that participate in the academy learn leadership skills to help them become more effective advocates for their children. 

Enfield’s KITE initiative is featured in NLC’s report, Municipal Leadership for Children and Families in Small and Mid-Sized Cities.  

Leading by Example with Green Buildings

Seattle is a national leader in the development of standard practices for green buildings, and has chosen to lead by example by ensuring that, to the extent possible, new construction and retrofits/redevelopment of public buildings are green. Over the last decade, almost 30 of Seattle’s public buildings have been certified LEED silver or gold. These LEED gold buildings are 15 percent beyond code in energy reduction, 30 percent beyond code in water reduction and have a 90 percent waste diversion rate.

Seattle facilitates green building policies and programs in the private sector as well. The city works with developers and building professionals to incorporate green strategies into new construction and redevelopment efforts, and works to educate stakeholders on the benefits of green buildings. Benefits include increases in a project’s market value, lower operating costs over the life of a building and a healthier and more productive work environment. The city also has a robust set of financial, permitting and code-based incentives to encourage the integration of green building practices in the local building and construction industry. 

Seattle’s green building program was highlighted in NLC’s Earth Month webinar series.  

How is your city leading?

Is your city innovating to resolve local issues? Tell us (@leagueofcities) how your city is making a difference with #CitiesLead in your tweet.