How 3 Mayors Use Data to Improve Land Use in Their Cities

June 12, 2017 12:28 pm PST | Data as a Service

When the Route Fifty Roadshow stopped in Seattle recently Socrata was there to learn what growing cities are doing to tackle land-use issues.

route fifty logoThe forum, hosted by state and local government news outlet Route Fifty, featured three mayors — Ethan Berkowitz of Anchorage, Alaska; Mayor Rosalynn Bliss of Grand Rapids, Michigan; and Mayor Sam Liccardo of San Jose, California — as well as Seattle’s Director for the Department of Neighborhoods, Kathy Nyland. The three mayors partnered with the Rose Center for Public Leadership to measure and evaluate success of their proposed policies around land use. Their conversation during the Route Fifty Roadshow centered around two core questions:

  1. How do cities make sure that land-use decisions keep the city progressing forward without leaving existing citizens behind?
  2. How do we make communities more vibrant in the near-term, as well as sustainable over periods of immense change?


Close Up on the Challenges Facing Anchorage, Grand Rapids, & San Jose

What do cities in Alaska, Michigan, and California have in common when it comes to land use issues? Each city faces unique challenges, but all three are in some sense tackling change, whether due to the environmental, population shifts, or other factors.

To start, Mayor Berkowitz of Anchorage shared how climate change affects the day-to-day life of citizens in Alaska. Dramatic thawing and freezing cycles are impacting the infrastructure at rates not seen before. The changing weather has also made it easier for invasive species to survive where previously it would have been impossible. With so much shifting due to thawing and freezing, the threat of a natural disaster also increases, adding another worry.

Similarly, Mayor Bliss of Grand Rapids described a vibrant growing community that’s trying to maintain its history and historic visage. As Grand Rapids updates aging buildings and infrastructure in its downtown core, residents are being forced to move out due to higher cost of living. The city government is working with local nonprofits to support residents through this change and help them find affordable housing.

As one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States, and the second most expensive city to rent in, affordable housing is also a concern for San Jose Mayor Liccardo. And, while San Jose benefits from hosting tech companies based in Silicon Valley, the city, which is built around corporate campuses, lacks much of the desired culture and amenities that appeal to these companies’ millennial employees.


Selecting a Year-Long Land-Use Project

Each mayor explained the land-use project they have chosen, via the Rose Fellowship, to focus on and evaluate the success of over the course of one year. The Rose Fellowship selects mayors from four major cities and provides them with resources, including peer review, technical support, and access to subject matter experts, to help solve land-use problems they face.

“If you want to lift an entire community up you have to make sure everyone is included.” —Mayor Ethan Berkowitz of Anchorage, Alaska 

The project selected for each city must be small and manageable enough to lasts one year and have an actionable plan that can be put into place in that time frame. Once the year is complete, the next step will be to gather and analyze data on the city’s progress. Here, then, are the three projects:

Connecting a Diverse Community: “Mayors have to get the job done,” says Mayor Berkowitz. “If you want to lift an entire community up you have to make sure everyone is included.” Anchorage is the largest city land-wise in the United States, as well as one of the most diverse. It struggles to keep all sectors of the community connected. Through partnering with the Rose Center, Bloomberg Philanthropy, and local non-profits, the city is using technology to unite the community like never before. Outdated infrastructure is a main challenge facing a city that’s the size of Delaware. The Rose Fellowship will allow Anchorage to put structures in place to break down silos between members of the community allowing all citizens to have a voice in their local government.

Creating Public-Private Partnerships: Mayor Bliss of Grand Rapids wants to improve the connection between the private and public sectors to preserve and improve the city’s historic downtown. “Grand Rapids is the second most philanthropic city behind Salt Lake City,” said Mayor Bliss. Bliss wants that sense of generosity to include helping people who are displaced from previously affordable downtown housing find city housing elsewhere. Creating public-private partnerships to tackle that challenge is Mayor Bliss’ Rose Fellowship focus.

Better City Planning: After the recession in 2008, San Jose was the least-staffed city hall in the United States. In a city of 1 million people, they were only able to employ two planners that were dedicated to long-term goals for the city. That situation has not changed. And, this is where the Rose Fellowship comes in. Being able to work the fellowship’s subject matter experts and get access to peers in similar cities will allow Mayor Liccardo to create new approaches to common issues. As the “capital of Silicon Valley,” San Jose has the rare opportunity be on the forefront of new technology. New street lights, different types of smart asphalt, and even Facebook WiFi Internet are being tested in San Jose. Sharing cutting edge technology and being able to speak with other mayors about urban sprawl are the main goals for Mayor Liccardo.


Future Events

As all the mayors continue their tour with Route Fifty, you can follow their journey here and on Twitter at #RFRoadshow. Each city visited will host a different discussion topic and webcasts of the panels are available to view a day or two after. Events in each city include: workshops, networking events, panel discussions and more. The next stop is New Orleans on June 13 covering the topic, “Responding to Modern Emergencies.” To learn more about the Rose Fellowship visit the Daniel Rose Center website

If you’d like to learn how to start using data to improve your program outcomes, sign up for our free online course on an Introduction to Data Analysis through the Socrata Data Academy.