Using guidance from municipal leaders across the United States, the National League of Cities (NLC) has released a report titled The 10 Critical Imperatives Facing America’s Cities. The report proposes strategies to address these challenges, which include a shrinking middle class, climate change, a deteriorating transportation infrastructure, and a lack of trust in government.
“When our cities are strong, our nation’s families prosper, our economy thrives, and our environment grows healthier,” said Chris Coleman, NLC president and mayor of St. Paul, Minnesota. “But we still face some monumental challenges that will require us to take decisive action now and work together to make cities strong, vibrant, and sustainable.”
The report identifies the following ten critical imperatives facing cities:
- Fragile fiscal health: Cities report that their fiscal health is improving, but they continue to confront the prolonged effects of the Great Recession and remain vulnerable to federal spending cuts. Among the solutions: Cities require new tools in their revenue-generating toolboxes, such as laws allowing them to collect taxes already owed to them from remote online purchases.
- A deteriorating transportation infrastructure: Traffic congestion continues to worsen, polluting the air and costing commuters millions of dollars in wasted gas and thousands of hours in lost time every year. Among the solutions: Cities must have new ways to pay for roads and explore new modes of transportation such as water ferries, light rail, bus rapid transit, and bicycle pathways.
- A shrinking middle class: Over the past decade, middle-class families saw their median incomes decline by nearly 30 percent. Among the solutions: Cities should develop strategies to connect eligible residents with state and federal work support and public benefits, expand opportunities to save and build financial assets, and help hard-to-employ residents overcome barriers to work.
- Inadequate access to higher education: Higher education brings better-paying jobs, grows tax revenues, enhances public safety, and allows for a better quality of life. Yet only 40 percent of American adults hold postsecondary degrees, and this rate is significantly lower for underserved minorities. Among the solutions: Cities can partner with K–12 schools and other community stakeholders to ensure that more high school students graduate and go on to obtain college degrees.
- The need for affordable housing: Foreclosures and vacant houses have destabilized neighborhoods across the country, resulting in increased crime, blight, shrinking local tax bases, and more demand for social services. Among the solutions: To stabilize neighborhoods, cities can help provide mediation between lenders and borrowers, prevent vacant property deterioration, and rehabilitate properties for resale or rental.
- A less-than-welcoming return for veterans: Service members coming home from combat zones face a higher risk for unemployment, homelessness, and family problems. Among the solutions: Local governments should work with nonprofit and veterans groups to determine what service members need, create affordable housing for them, and partner with businesses to provide jobs.
- Gang violence: Gangs bring crime, injuries, and death, threatening the social fabric of city neighborhoods and triggering social, economic, and physical decay in affected neighborhoods. Among the solutions: Cities need to create opportunities for young people, support families, and build communities that do not produce gangs in the first place. This can include partnering with school, neighborhood, and church leaders; offering drug-prevention programs; and supporting efforts to help young people finish school and stay away from gang activity.
- A broken immigration system: Millions of immigrants continue to arrive each year, generating substantial economic growth, revitalizing communities, and stabilizing neighborhoods. Yet Congress remains unable to fix the nation’s broken immigration system. Among the solutions: Cities need a federal solution that secures the nation’s borders while providing a path to citizenship for the millions of immigrants contributing to the nation’s vitality.
- Climate change and extreme weather: Catastrophic storms, droughts, heat waves, and rising sea levels will increasingly affect cities, harming citizens, destroying property, disrupting local economies, and wiping out infrastructure. Among the solutions: Communities must take a number of important steps now, including upgrading facilities and infrastructure to weather storms and partnering with the private sector to help finance improvements.
- A lack of public trust in government: City leaders need citizens’ input and cooperation more than ever before, yet recent surveys show that public trust in government is falling. Among the solutions: Municipal leaders must reach out—using new social media and engagement tools, among other tools—to involve citizens in important decision making.
Ralph Becker, Salt Lake City’s mayor and NLC’s first vice president, said these problems aren’t confined to just small cities or large metropolises.
“These are problems that all cities are facing—big and small, from coast to coast,” Mayor Becker said. “All of these imperatives require innovative and comprehensive solutions. We need the help of citizens, businesses, nonprofit groups, schools, and state and federal leaders. I’m confident that by working together we can take on these challenges and improve communities across the country.”
Melodee Colbert Kean, mayor of Joplin, Missouri, and NLC’s second vice president, said there’s good reason to be optimistic, however.
“Cities are truly the heart of America—they are where citizens live, work, and play. They are where government is closest to the people and where real change can happen,” Mayor Kean said. “Working together, we can tackle these challenges, alleviate these threats, and improve the lives of all those living and working in our nation’s cities.”