Where Are The Hardest Places To Live In The U.S.?

July 7, 2014

By: Alan Flippen
Via: The New York Times

Click for interactive version

Click for interactive version

Annie Lowrey writes in the Times Magazine this week about the troubles of Clay County, Ky., which by several measures is the hardest place in America to live.

The Upshot came to this conclusion by looking at six data points for each county in the United States: education (percentage of residents with at least a bachelor’s degree), median household income, unemployment rate, disability rate, life expectancy and obesity. We then averaged each county’s relative rank in these categories to create an overall ranking.

(We tried to include other factors, including income mobility and measures of environmental quality, but we were not able to find data sets covering all counties in the United States.)

The 10 lowest counties in the country, by this ranking, include a cluster of six in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky (Breathitt, Clay, Jackson, Lee, Leslie and Magoffin), along with four others in various parts of the rural South: Humphreys County, Miss.; East Carroll Parish, La.; Jefferson County, Ga.; and Lee County, Ark.

We used disability — the percentage of the population collecting federal disability benefits but not also collecting Social Security retirement benefits — as a proxy for the number of working-age people who don’t have jobs but are not counted as unemployed. Appalachian Kentucky scores especially badly on this count; in four counties in the region, more than 10 percent of the total population is on disability, a phenomenon seen nowhere else except nearby McDowell County, W.Va.

Remove disability from the equation, though, and eastern Kentucky would still fare badly in the overall rankings. The same is true for most of the other six factors.

The exception is education. If you exclude educational attainment, or lack of it, in measuring disadvantage, five counties in Mississippi and one in Louisiana rank lower than anywhere in Kentucky. This suggests that while more people in the lower Mississippi River basin have a college degree than do their counterparts in Appalachian Kentucky, that education hasn’t improved other aspects of their well-being.

As Ms. Lowrey writes, this combination of problems is an overwhelmingly rural phenomenon. Not a single major urban county ranks in the bottom 20 percent or so on this scale, and when you do get to one — Wayne County, Mich., which includes Detroit — there are some significant differences. While Wayne County’s unemployment rate (11.7 percent) is almost as high as Clay County’s, and its life expectancy (75.1 years) and obesity rate (41.3 percent) are also similar, almost three times as many residents (20.8 percent) have at least a bachelor’s degree, and median household income ($41,504) is almost twice as high.

America’s New Industrial Boomtowns

July 2, 2014

By: Joel Kotkin and Michael Shires
Via: Forbes

David Peebles works in a glass tower across from Houston’s Galleria mall, a cathedral of consumption, but his attention is focused on the city’s highly industrialized ship channel 30 miles away. “Houston is the Chicago of this era,” says Peebles, who runs the Texas office of Odebrecht, a $45 billion engineering firm based in Brazil. “In the sixties you had to go to Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit. Now Houston is the place for new industry.”

With upward of $35 billion of new refineries, chemical plants and factories planned through 2015 for Houston and the surrounding Gulf Coast, companies like Odebrecht, which runs chemical plants and is working on a new freeway in the area, have converged on the nation’s oil and gas capital. They are part of the reason why the Texas metropolis ranks first on our list of the best large cities for manufacturing.

Houston, with 255,000 manufacturing jobs, is not yet the country’s largest industrial center; it still lags behind the longtime leaders Los Angeles, with 360,000 manufacturing jobs, and Chicago, home to 314,000. But it is clearly on a stronger trajectory. Since 2008, Houston’s manufacturing workforce has expanded 5% while Los Angeles has lost 13% of its industrial jobs and Chicago’s factory workforce has shrunk 11%.

Why Manufacturing Matters

Whether America is on the path to a sustainable industrial expansion or is just seeing a weak bounce back has been widely debated, but the recent numbers are impressive. Since 2010 the U.S. has added 647,000 manufacturing jobs. New energy finds have led to the construction and expansion of pipelines and refineries, and has sparked foreign industrial investment reflecting electricity costs that are now well below those in Europe or East Asia. Besides Houston, also ranking high on our big cities list are two other energy towns, No. 5 Oklahoma City and No. 10 Ft. Worth, Texas. Our mid-sized cities list is led by Lafayette, La., with nearby Baton Rouge in 11th place.

Evangelists of the “information economy” may think that industrial jobs are passé, as epitomized by a recent Slate article that recommended that working-class people from places like Detroit should move to areas like Silicon Valley or Boston where they can make money cutting the hair and walking the dogs of high-tech magnates. But the notion that U.S. manufacturing is doomed, and that the jobs are of lower quality than those in high-tech centers, is largely bogus; even in Silicon Valley the majority of new projected jobs are expected to pay under $50,000 annually. In contrast manufacturers pay above-average wages, in some cases due to unionization, but in many others because of the increasing sophisticated skills required by today’s factories.

Although we will likely never see a boom in factory employment on the scale experienced in the last century, the demand for blue-collar skills is projected to increase in future years. Among all professions for non-college graduates, manufacturing skills are most in demand, according to a study by Express Employment Professionals. By 2020, according to BCG and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the nation could face a shortfall of around 875,000 machinists, welders, industrial-machinery operators, and other highly skilled manufacturing professionals.

Southern Comfort

Our research suggests that much of this growth will be in metro areas in the South and the Great Plains that are known for friendly business climates. New industrial investment is tending to go to places that are largely non-union, and feature lower taxes and light regulation. Epitomizing this trend is the No. 2 city on our large metro area list, Nashville-Murfreesboro-Franklin, Tenn., where manufacturing employment is up 6% since 2008. Nashville has become a hotbed for foreign investment in manufacturing, with the expansion of the Nissan facilities in nearby Smyrna, as well as a host of suppliers.

This is occurring, in part, because some large companies are shifting production to America from China in response to rising Chinese wages as well as sometimes unpredictable business conditions there.

Investment inflows, both from overseas and domestic companies, have boosted other standout southern industrial hubs, as well as the smaller metro areas on our mid-sized city list, notably Mobile, Ala. (third place), with its expanding industrially oriented port, and No. 14 Charleston-North Charleston-Summerville, S.C., which has been a beneficiary of major new foreign investment as well as the expanded presence of U.S. aerospace giant Boeing. The South also is home to our No. 1 small manufacturing city, Florence-Muscle Shoals, Ala.

The Resurgence of the Rust Belt

The progress is not confined to the Sun Belt. The resurgence of the U.S. auto industry has revived the economy of Warren-Troy-Farmington Hills, Mich., also known as “automation alley.” The home to many parts suppliers, engineering and tech support for the car industry, this area has enjoyed an impressive 12.7 percent growth in manufacturing jobs since 2008, placing it third on our big cities list.

Detroit, the center of the auto industry, ranks a respectable 16th on our big city list, but the big improvements in the Rust Belt are occurring in mid-sized cities such as Lansing-East Lansing, Mich. (eighth), Grand Rapids (ninth) and Ft. Wayne, Ind. (10th).

But arguably the strongest Rust Belt recovery has occurred in Elkhart-Goshen, Ind., third on our small cities list. Since 2008 Elkhart’s industrial employment — much of it in the recreational vehicle industry — has expanded 30%, one of the most dramatic employment turnarounds of any place in America. Unemployment has fallen to 5% from a recession high of 20.2%.

Western Exposure

The South and the Great Lakes may be America’s industrial heartland, but there are several strong pockets in the West. One region that is doing particularly well is the Pacific Northwest, led by Seattle-Bellevue-Everett, which has experienced 11% manufacturing employment growth since 2010.

Boeing is key here, but the Pacific Northwest’s industrial expansion has also been fueled by low electricity rates, largely due to the area’s strength in hydroelectricity. Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro OR-WA (11th) is usually associated more with hipsters, but manufacturing growth has taken off, particularly with the expansion of Intel’s large semiconductor facility in suburban Hillsboro.

Another Western industrial hotspot is Utah, a state with low energy costs and business friendly regulation. Salt Lake City, 12th on our large metro area list, has enjoyed a 5.7% increase in industrial jobs since 2010. Growth has been even stronger in two other Utah cities, Provo -Orem and Ogden-Clearfield, which rank fifth and seventh, respectively, on our mid-sized cities list.

One surprising place where manufacturing is making a mild comeback is in the Bay Area, which for years has exported high-tech manufacturing jobs to places like Utah as well as the rest of the world. Despite ultra-expensive electricity, high labor costs and some of the world’s most demanding environmental laws, San Jose (13th on our big metros list) San Francisco-San Mateo-Redwood (15th) have posted solid industrial growth after years of decline. Yet both remain below their 2008 levels, and may find new growth difficult once the current tech bubble collapses.


Two of the worst performers on this list are the big metro areas that have for decades been the country’s largest industrial hubs, Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale (55th) and Chicago-Joliet-Naperville (56th). It appears they lack the cost competitiveness and specialized focus of America’s ascendant industrial regions.

Another clear loser is the Northeast, which accounts for seven of the eight lowest ranked big metro areas. Since 2008, Philadelphia (62nd) has lost 21% of its once-large industrial job base, while New York City, which has been losing industrial jobs for decades, ranks 45th. Here, too, high costs and regulation are a factor, as well as the loss of industrial know-how resulting from long-term erosion of their manufacturing bases.

Of course, some information age enthusiasts may argue that losing such jobs is something of a badge of honor, since “smart” regions do not focus on the gritty business of making things. Yet if you look across the country, you can see that many of the strongest local economies, from Houston and Nashville to Seattle, have taken part in the U.S. industrial resurgence. It seems this is one party more worth joining than avoiding.

Full List: The Big Cities Leading A U.S. Manufacturing Revival

Cities In South, West To Grow Faster

July 1, 2014

By: Kathleen Madigan
Via: The New York Times

Slow economic growth is projected for Binghamton, N.Y. Heather Ainsworth for The Wall Street Journal

The U.S. economy seems headed to a long-run growth rate well below 3%, but some metropolitan areas will see their economies surge above 4% annually for the rest of this decade, according to a study released by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Metro areas—which include cities along with surrounding suburbs—are already doing better than smaller nonmetro areas, according to the study, compiled by economists at IHS Global Insight.

Last year, metro areas saw better economic growth and hiring than smaller regional areas. Looking at 2014, the IHS economists forecast payrolls in metro areas will rise 2.0% versus 1.6% in nonmetro areas, according to the report, released Friday in conjunction with the mayoral group’s annual meeting in Dallas.

The employment gains will allow almost half of all metro areas to return to their prerecession employment levels by the end of this year. The report also projects 20% of metro areas will have unemployment rates below 5% by the end of 2014. The U.S. jobless rate stood at 6.3% last month.

Looking further ahead, metro economies will be where the growth is.

While the Federal Reserve last week projected the U.S. economy’s long-run growth at 2.1% to 2.3%, the mayors’ report says 21 metro areas will post growth averaging more than 4% from now through 2020. Heading the list is Midland, Texas, with growth projected at 5.8%. The study says agriculture, construction and mining industries will boost Midland’s expansion.

In fact, almost all the big-growth areas are in the South and West. Of the 21 growth-leading metro regions, six are in Texas and four in Florida. Construction, energy, computer jobs and professional business services will be major sources of the growth, the study says.

But the report warns that when it comes to job gains, “the low paying administrative and support-services division is expected to be the fastest grower, significantly outpacing the more lucrative management and technical sectors.”

The influx of residents into the Southwest isn’t without problems. A 2013 study by the University of Arizona showed the area lacks sufficient water to meet the needs of all its citizens, businesses and agriculture.

The biggest loser will be upstate New York. In the IHS forecast, five of the 10 slowest economies will be in New York state. At the very bottom, Utica-Rome and Binghamton will grow just 1% a year through 2020.

The concentration of U.S. economic growth in larger metro areas is causing a shift in the population. A study released in March by the U.S. Census Bureau showed that larger metro areas, along with areas rich in oil and gas, gained population last year, while nonmetropolitan areas lost residents on net.

The mayors’ report predicts that shift will continue. From 2013 through 2014, it says, “population growth in metros will dwarf that of nonmetros, averaging a 0.9% compound annual gain compared to 0.3% for nonmetros.”

Austin Vs. Seattle: Talent, Innovation, And Place

June 30, 2014

By: John Karras, Consultant, TIP Strategies & Jeff Marcell, Senior Partner, TIP Strategies

The View from the Austonian by Todd Dwyer Via Flickr
Seattle Space Needle by David Lee Via Flickr

Now that TIP Strategies has a permanent presence in both Austin, Texas and Seattle, Washington we’ve been having fun comparing and contrasting the two regions. One feature the two share: momentous growth. According to two recent articles, Austin’s metro area is the “fastest growing large metro area” and the City of Seattle is the “fastest growing large city.” This growth is a direct result of another commonality between Austin and Seattle, a cool factor that generates a gravitational pull of people, investment, and attention.

Speaking of cool, Seattle was recently named America’s Most Hipster City by “Thrillist” …Austin came in at #3. And between the two cities, you have a long list of internationally recognized events and festivals: South by Southwest, the Austin City Limits Music Festival, the Formula 1 U.S. Grand Prix, Bumbershoot, the Seattle International Film Festival, Seafair, and many others. If you want to define cool, you can’t get closer than Austin and Seattle. The evidence is substantial:

While the competition for cool is a fun conversation, we at TIP Strategies do take successful economies very seriously. There is much more than the entertaining buzz of oddball rankings that drives the success of these regions. Our firm has identified the formula to economic success as Talent, Innovation, and Place. Austin and Seattle have tapped into this formula and are benefiting from job growth and investment because they deliver on these critical components of a successful economy.

The regions are similar in a number of important ways:

  • The Austin and Seattle metros are national leaders in population growth as evidenced by the latest Census data.
  • Both cities also lead the nation in job growth. In fact, the U.S. News & World Report recently included Austin and Seattle in its list of “The 10 Best Cities to Find Jobs” (Austin is #5, Seattle is #6).
  • The Austin and Seattle regions contain the most significant concentrations of high-tech companies in the country outside of Silicon Valley and Boston, thanks to headquarters and major facilities of tech companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Dell, Apple, Samsung, and many others.
  • Both cities have high levels of educational attainment (44.8% of Austin residents age 25 and older hold a bachelor’s degree and 56.5% of Seattle residents age 25 and older hold a bachelor’s degree, compared to a U.S. average of 28.5%).

But each region meets the Talent, Innovation, and Place formula in its own unique way. Let’s briefly explore how the regional economies of Seattle and Austin are leading the pack:


Austin and Seattle are both magnets for talented professionals and entrepreneurs. The talent pool in each metro area is the basic building block of each region’s economy. Of course, the cool factor in both cities helps to attract talent from across the country. But each city also has a strong pool of locally grown talent thanks in large part to the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Washington, two of the top public universities in the world. As economic development professionals, we understand that access to talent is the number one issue for both companies and communities. Here’s how Austin and Seattle compare in the competition for talent:

  • A recent study by the Milken Institute ranked the Austin and Seattle metro areas as two of the “Top 10 Best-Performing Cities” (Austin is #1, Seattle is #6). The study analyzed the 200 largest metro areas based on job, wage, and technology growth.


There’s a special kind of energy in Austin and Seattle that you just don’t feel in most cities. Both places are hotbeds of creativity and innovation. This is partly due to the influx of people moving to these cities each day, but it’s also due to the level of growth taking place in locally based start-ups and small businesses. Austin and Seattle are among an elite group of cities that are on the cutting edge of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Here are a few examples of how the economies of Austin and Seattle are driving innovation:


The level of growth (population, jobs, investment) taking place in the regional economies of Austin and Seattle is strong evidence of each metro area’s quality of place. You can experience this first-hand simply by seeing the amount of construction cranes towering over each city’s urban core. Yet even if you’ve never visited either city, chances are you have a good impression of them. Each city has its own unique brand, but they are both vibrant cities with strong identities.

If a quick look at the population and job growth data (or construction cranes) isn’t enough to convince you that Austin and Seattle are two of the most appealing places in the U.S., here are a few more examples that might do the trick:

  • Jones Lang Lasalle recently named Austin and Seattle among the “World’s 20 Most Dynamic Cities” as part of its proprietary City Momentum Index (Austin is #7, Seattle is #18).
  • Austin and Seattle both rank highly on the “City Energy Efficiency Scorecard” LINK http://aceee.org/local-policy/city-scorecard from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (Austin is #6, Seattle is #5).

TIP Strategies is linked to each of these metropolitan economies like no other economic strategy firm. Our approach is grounded in understanding these economies, taking what we know to be their successful components, and applying and leveraging these lessons for the benefit of the communities we work with across the country. Being connected to and engaged in the two capitals of Talent, Innovation, and Place is our strategic advantage.

While our staff will continue to have fun debating which TIP location is cooler, we will always place serious emphasis on the lessons we can take from each of these metropolitan economies, lessons we can bring to our clients to help them build their own unique brands through Talent, Innovation, and place.

Finally, Clear Performance Data for Comparing the World’s Cities

June 24, 2014

By: Neal Pierce
Via: Citiscope

A new international standard known as “ISO 37120” lays out 46 measures that cities on any continent can measure their performance by. (Dabarti CGI/ Shutterstock)

The phrase “ISO standard” is something you might find on the base of a light bulb, under your computer keyboard or in the owner’s manual for your refrigerator. It means that these products are made in a way that complies with international standards of quality and compatibility. There are ISOs for financial management, electrical engineering, chemical technology—you name it.

But now, the first-ever set of ISO standards for world cities has been created. And the implications are dramatic. City policymakers will have objective standards to compare their services and performance with other cities around the world. And just as significant, the people of cities—civic, business organizations, ordinary citizens—will be able to access the same new global standards. This means they can ask city leaders tough questions, stoking debate about their own city’s performance on the basis of verified measures ranging from education to public safety to water and sanitation.

The late May start-up list of city indicators by the Geneva-based International Organization for Standardization seems, at a glance, straightforward enough. What’s the particulate matter in a city’s air? Debt service as a percentage of the city’s own revenue? Average life expectancy? Green area per 100,000 residents? The percentage of the city population with regular solid waste collection? The share of the city population that lives in slums?

But many cities, up to now, haven’t recorded data on all those indicators. Or if they did, they were inconsistent in their precise definitions, making it difficult to make apples-to-apples comparisons of cities across continents and diverse societies. Many organizations, in independent media and special interest groups, issue rankings of cities. But in 2008, when the Global Cities Indicators Facility at the University of Toronto compared rankings that had been applied to seven prominent world cities, it turned out that only six of the 1,200 indicators being applied were exactly the same.

Now, cities everywhere will have an internationally agreed upon set of standards indicating data that should be collected, and the definitions and criteria to use in collecting it. They won’t be legally required to do so, but they’re likely to be under pressure from citizen, business, academic and other groups insisting they use the ISO standards so that their performance can be benchmarked clearly against peer cities, both in-country and—in today’s increasingly globalized economy—across the globe.

“It’s a potential game changer for world cities and everyone who works for cities, for journalists evaluating city performance, for the World Bank in determining grants and more,” notes Dan Hoornweg, a former World Bank official, professor at the University of Toronto and an early proponent of world city standard setting.

Global game changer

The goal, say Hoornweg and other supporters, is to encourage higher levels of city service delivery by making the data open and transparent. The need to collect and verify data could improve cities’ credit and bond ratings, appealing to investment decision-makers. Cities that show high performance will be able to argue more forcefully for higher national government assistance and tax sharing.

Conversely, the system could make politically motivated manipulation of data tougher and inefficiencies in city policies and administration more difficult to hide.

The ISO organization is hailing the new standards as a significant breakthrough. Cities, notes ISO Deputy Secretary General Kevin McKinley, share many patterns of behavior “regardless of geography, politics or economic model.” He contends that the new standard, officially known as ISO 37120, establishes a uniform approach to what’s measured and how— “a cornerstone of needed consistency and confidence to improve our cities.” But, he adds, “the standard doesn’t spit out a value judgment on what a particular city should choose as targets. Instead the standard helps provide more consistent expressions of city performance and quality of life.”

Initial city response to the new standards for cities seems positive. “There’s never been a time where it’s been more important to understand how we as a global city compare with other cities,” says Andrew Collinge, assistant director for intelligence and analysis at the Greater London Authority. “We can learn from them and actually use data so we can address challenges facing all of our cities.”

Another city that is excited about the news of the ISO standard is Minna, Nigeria. “To us in Minna, this is an important milestone in city management,” says Abdul Husaini, a town planner and geospatial analyst in Minna. “The presence or absence of information on an indicator is in itself an indication of the adequacy of basic services in a city.”

Rotterdam, notes Nico Tillie, an indicators expert there, strives to be an attractive, resilient, economically successful city. But, he adds, “How do we perform? If we want to improve, we need to know why we rank 3 or 50. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” But in a study Tillie worked on with the Delft University of Technology, the researchers found that verified and standardized third-party data not only was missing from the rankings but in many cases the entire ranking process was performed in “a black box” without clear definitions. This made it totally impossible to analyze the data outcomes.

New World Council on City Data

London, Minna and Rotterdam, plus a dozen other cities including Shanghai, Dubai, Chicago, Johannesburg and Buenos Aires, are inaugural members of a body called the World Council on City Data. Launched at a Global Cities Summit in Toronto in late May, the council will play the important role of verifying that cities are collecting the right data the right way. The council intends to be “a global hub for cities, international organizations, corporations and academia,” sharing ideas for city performance improvement broadly.

The path to an ISO standard aimed at broad global city buy-in was not an easy one. Supporters acknowledge a heroine behind the story—Patricia McCarney, director of the University of Toronto’s Global Cities Indicators Facility, who has made creation of good global data on cities an all-consuming goal for close to a decade.

Patricia McCarney, director of the University of Toronto’s Global Cities Indicators Facility, who has made creation of good global data on cities an all-consuming goal for close to a decade.

The project began in 2008, McCarney relates, when Hoornweg and his World Bank colleagues approached her to start working on a uniform set of indicators for cities. Nine pilot cities, including Bogotá, Toronto, São Paulo and Belo Horizonte helped to devise a list of some 115 initial indicators. Over time the number of participating cities would rise to 258 across 82 countries.

But as McCarney and her allies pushed forward on the project, it became clear that independent audits including ISO-like third-party verification of the data would be critical to its acceptance. ISO central in Geneva was approached in 2011 and initially seemed lukewarm to the idea. But as French, Japanese and Canadian bodies showed interest in some form of city standards management, that changed.

A technical committee was formed. With McCarney’s institute acting as a de facto secretariat, meetings were held in urban centers from Japan to France and Britain to Canada. Comments were received from cities worldwide— “fantastic for us, really strengthening the set of indicators we started with back in 2008,” notes McCarney. The analysis winnowed down and rejuggled the list to 100 candidate indicators. Finally, 46 (see them all here) were selected as well-tested core measures that cities must report to prove they’re in conformance with the new ISO 37210 standard.

“Now Geneva is fully behind us,” says McCarney. “Usually an ISO process takes six years. We did it in two. They took a big leap of faith with us.”

And, she notes, there’s been a big change in cities’ attitudes about releasing data on their performance indicators. “In the early days when we were testing and fine-tuning,” she notes, “cities were willing to give us data confidentially and share it with other cities. But they were very uncomfortable releasing it to the public.” But, she notes, cities seem more comfortable opening up this sort of data now and making it public, as it will be under the ISO standard.

Plus, McCarney observes, “researchers in universities and international agencies can now access the data—for analytics, for visualization, for performance analysis,” in a way never before possible.

Looking forward, the ISO city crafters are considering new measures focused on risk and resilience for cities. Indicators might include such things as the presence of early warning systems focused on such threats as stormwater surges and tornados, or seismic preparedness in cities prone to earthquakes. Both for the initial and added measures, auditors in each case will check the data to ensure that the definitions and methodologies in the formal ISO 37210 standard are being followed.

Special cases

Most of the new city ISO standards apply all across the globe—for example the number of police officers or firefighters per 100,000 population are equally applicable in a Toronto or a Bogotá. But developed-world city standards, for such services as fresh water supply and sanitation services, are tough for developing-world cities of Asia, Africa and Latin America that have fast-filling slums triggered by cascading levels of immigration from poor rural migrants.

European and North American cities did, McCarney notes, “have a strong voice” in planning sessions for the new standards. But “we were very careful,” she asserts, to include special recognition of the conditions developing-world cities face in many of their poorest neighborhoods— “what’s possible for them, what they can report on.”

Another concept the process is encouraging is a focus on “peer” cities. London, New York and Tokyo, for example, may be in a class to themselves, notwithstanding their geographic separation. Toronto’s best global match may be halfway across the globe in Melbourne.

And the expanding data collection possibilities may, over time, identify more global peers—and exchanges—between cities. Potential advocates range from business and citizen groups within individual cities to globally active consulting groups and NGOs, all debating and pushing for expanded standards that correspond to their missions.

“With the initial ISOs, the city-standards issue has made a big leap forward,” says Hoornweg. “But now that the process is launched, it’s sure to spread widely.”

MORE: Here are the 46 performance measures the world’s cities will be judged by.

Pay For Your City: Crowdfunding For Civic Projects Is Unusually Successful

June 22, 2014

By: Ben Schiller
Via: Fast Company

Citizens can support their cities like never before on platforms like Kickstarter. Here’s a look at what makes a winning civic campaign.

Citizens can support their cities like never before on platforms like Kickstarter. Here’s a look at what makes a winning civic campaign.

While most of the action in crowdfunding has been around private entrepreneurial projects, recently there’s been growing interest in Kickstarter-like campaigns for civic ideas. Sites such as Citizinvestor, Neighbor.ly, and IOBY let governments or individuals propose projects like parks, swimming pools, and festivals and potentially open up whole new sources of investment for public goods.

Rodrigo Davies, a researcher with MIT’s Center for Civic Media, has been tracking civic crowdfunding here in the U.S. and around the world and recently released a 173-page report on his findings. We asked him for his take on these projects so far, and where the field might go in the future.

Civic crowdfunding is small, but successful

Davies focused on seven platforms–four in the U.S and one each in the U.K., Spain, and Brazil–and identified 1,224 civic campaigns between 2010 and March 2014. In total, they raised $10.74 million–$6,357 on average. The projects tended to be small in dollar amounts but successful in meeting their goals compared to other categories. Projects labeled “civic” on Kickstarter were fully funded 81% of the time, for instance.

Parks and gardens the most common projects

Greenspaces were the most common civic projects, a fact Davies puts down to three factors. One, communities are used to volunteering for parks and gardens, so crowdfunding isn’t a big step. Two, greenspace projects (like temporary “parklets”) are quick to execute, unlike real estate projects. And three, greenspaces are uncontroversial: Most people want their neighborhood to be greener.

“People will crowdfund projects that are sexy and eye-catching,” Davies says. “But then there are lots of services that aren’t those things but are still essential. Would we see people crowdfund a drug rehabilitation clinic, for example? It’s hard to believe that someone could pull it off. It’s no coincidence that we’ve started with the uncontroversial projects.”

In the future, Davies expects to see more brick and mortar projects, though. For example, campaigns could try to find new uses for disused buildings, like a campaign in Oregon that sought to re-open an old tavern. (A site in Italy is doing something similar).

It’s a few big cities so far, but that could change

Up to now, civic crowdfunding has been dominated by major cities, such as New York, San Francisco, and London. But Davies sees that changing. Or at least he hopes. “There’s a lot of potential to shake up other types of communities–places that have been overlooked and have found it hard to raise resources,” he says.

Governments have a choice of roles

Perhaps the most interesting question is what role governments will play. Davies sees four possibilities. One, they can champion projects on existing platforms, as the New York City Council does on Kickstarter. Second, they can run their own campaigns or even set up their own platforms (both of which may require more resources). Or, they can play more of a “facilitation” role, helping along citizen financing without being directly responsible for it.

Davies sees the last option as the most useful and feasible. He points, for example, to San Francisco’s Living Innovation Zones initiative, which has identified free space along Market Street and seeks community ideas for what it could be used for. Its first project, co-ordinated by the Exploratorium museum, ran an Indiegogo campaign last year, showing how that could have a role. “It really opens up public-private partnerships to a whole range of people who otherwise wouldn’t participate,” Davies says. “And, from the government’s point of view, they don’t need to take much risk or invest too much money.”

End of government or new type of government?

In theory, crowdfunding takes pressure off governments to come up with project money. But Davies prefers it when citizens initiate ideas, rather than officials. If it’s the latter, people might reasonably ask why they are already paying taxes for public services, and wonder if they should keep paying them.

Similarly, if governments sit back from campaigns, they may be accused of shirking responsibility and letting citizens eat cake. “I hope governments engage and see it as an opportunity to remake towns and cities,” Davies says.