Map It: State of the Cities 2015

August 19, 2015 12:00 pm PST | Data as a Service
New York Skyline

The nation’s mayors face intense problems in shepherding their cities, from job shortages to emergency management. Mayors often lead the country’s efforts to tackle its most pressing issues, including racial equity, climate change, and poverty.

The National League of Cities (NLC) reveals these city-level challenges and associated national trends in its annual “State of the Cities” report, which analyzes the content of mayors’ annual State of the City speeches. The report comes from 100 cities representing “a diverse cross section of population sizes and geographic regions.” Size of city affected what mayors talked about: Big cities heard more about the economy and jobs, while midsized towns got more coverage about infrastructure and budget, and small cities addressed public safety.

In partnership with Socrata, the NLC put its findings into a searchable dataset, topped with mapping visualization. As well as pinpointing the geographic location of cities included in the report, with clusters along the eastern seaboard, Midwest, and in California, clicking on individual cities gives you access to a link to the mayor’s speech (when available) and relevant quotes, as well as a detailed breakdown of the percent of the speech devoted to each of the 10 major issues.

Economic Development

Of the top 10 issues on mayors’ watchlist of concerns, economic development came in a clear first. Seventy-five percent of the mayoral speeches devoted significant coverage to the topic, compared to second-place infrastructure receiving high coverage in just 57 percent of speeches.

Minimum wage got renewed attention from mayors, including NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio who notes, “Nothing does more to address income equality than actually raising people’s incomes.” Other top economic concerns included revitalizing downtown cores, “which add greatly to the long-term economic and social viability of their cities.”

The hot-button economic development subtopic, though, was jobs: Seventy-three percent of speeches gave notable talk time to unemployment and jobs creation. Cities are still recovering from the 2008 recession, and people need work.

Tier-Two Concerns

Infrastructure, public safety, budgets, and education all received strong attention in 40 to 60 percent of State of the City speeches.

Top infrastructure subtopics across the country were drinking water and roads, though others varied by region: bike lanes are big in the west, while aging sewer systems are worrying mayors in the Midwest.

In the wake of multiple horrifying reports of citizens being harmed or killed by law enforcement, “many mayors discussed public safety in the context of the relationship between police and the community,” with an emphasis on racial equity. Other key public safety issues included fire department challenges, and city crime rates.

Budget problems crashed down on cities with the 2008 recession, but mayors “are expressing renewed optimism about their cities’ fiscal health,” noting the financial stabilizing of day-to-day operations and the successful refinancing of many cities’ debt loads.

Education concerns were broad, with a near-even spread of attention across several subtopics. School funding, building conditions and maintenance, and the racial achievement gap were some of the many problems mayors discussed. “Nothing will define a city more than the quality of the school system that services that community,” declared Mayor William Healy of Canton, Ohio.

Open Data: The Future for Cities

Data and technology ranked seventh in the top ten issues addressed by the mayors. Open data got a lot of attention, including from open data champion Sly James, mayor of Kansas City, Missouri. Mayor James noted the ease with which citizens can now find the public data they need: “An information search that used to mean a trip to City Hall is now available online from anywhere in the world, virtually instantly.” He also celebrated the transparency gained from cities’ open data portals, pointing to the increased efficiency of democracy and greater citizen engagement.

Mayors also called out data-driven performance management as a key win for cities and citizens. Setti Warren, mayor of Newton, Massachusetts, explained how his town received and resolved over 32,000 requests for preventative infrastructure maintenance since launching a data-driven, web-based system in 2010. Warren said the system enabled Newton “to keep all of our buildings open and operational throughout this historic winter.”

Brooks Rainwater, NLC’s Director of its City Solutions and Applied Research Center, takes the view a step further, stating in an article for that “data is the building block of cities of the future.” Cities nationwide are moving in that direction, with the hiring of chief data officers, and the opening of data portals — including the new portal announced by Mayor Tom Tait of Anaheim, California, in his State of the City address.

In his speech, Mayor Jim Ardis of Peoria, Illinois, reflected the views of many mayors of midsized towns looking to help their cities transition to 21st century economic models and create jobs: “In today’s globalized and high-tech world, innovation will decide the winners and losers in many different fields and industries.”


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