Towards Building a New Urban Practice

There is a movement brewing in cities around the country. Perhaps it is in response to a growing recognition that inequality of income, wealth and access to opportunity is the issue of our time, posing a serious threat our place in the world, as well as our economy, democracy and way of life. Perhaps it is a broad acknowledgement that, today, when we talk about race as a long-acknowledged barrier to opportunity, we are talking about it as a barrier for a soon-to-be majority of our citizens. Perhaps it is that as gridlock proliferates at the federal level, cities are increasingly becoming the places where change really happens.

What we are seeing is public, private, philanthropic and non-profit sectors coming together in new ways to take on our most wicked problems, and holding themselves accountable for large-scale results. We are seeing a growing conversation and encouraging action to overhaul outdated bureaucratic structures and models of citizen engagement. And, we are seeing experimentation and innovation to harness both philanthropic and private capital to make a material difference in underserved communities and to invest not just in physical infrastructure, but also in human capital. We believe that these trends, and the fact that disruptive technologies can accelerate the spread of promising solutions, are the foundation for a new urban practice aimed at dramatically improving the economic well-being of low-income people.

This new urban practice builds on the successes achieved by the community development industry since the 1960s: billions of dollars in private capital invested; millions of affordable housing units built; the development of an extraordinary number of high-performing local, regional and national nonprofit organizations; and the creation of the most successful private-public partnership the nation has ever seen, the Low Income Housing Tax Credit.

The time is now to focus on ushering change…

But, the world has changed, and we must change with it. Once-in-a-lifetime developments such as the internet and globalization, fundamentally have transformed the way people live and how the world works. And, despite the heady successes in this sector, our work has not had the effect that many of us intended: a material impact on the number of Americans living in poverty. The time is now to focus on ushering change in new collaborative ways of working, disrupting obsolete and fragmented systems, keeping an eye on underinvested places and connecting low-income people to economic opportunities wherever they exist in this hyperconnected world.

At Living Cities, our vision for a new urban practice is one that:

  • Engages local, cross-sector leaders to work together over the long-term towards measurable, ambitious results to dramatically improve the economic well-being of low-income people. We must ensure that people are prepared to compete in today’s globalized world; and are connected to the essential things they need to take advantage of opportunity and to jobs that provide increasing wages and chances to build wealth;
  • Redirects existing resources away from broken systems towards what works;
  • Better equips local government to invest wisely in people and places and to meet the needs of citizens;
  • Harnesses more private sector investment towards these ends; and
  • Grows virally – where more places adopt these impactful strategies faster due to real-time knowledge sharing and networking.

It is clear that this is not a vision that any one individual, organization, or sector can achieve on their own. As a collaborative of 22 of the world’s largest foundations and financial institutions, and as a funder and partner in efforts around the country that are working to re-engineer systems for the future, we are committed to working with leaders at the cutting edge of innovation for enduring change. From the viral, StriveTogether Network that is re-imagining cradle to career education; to our nine-city Integration Initiative that is supporting cities that are reshaping programs, policies and resource allocation to achieve enduring change that benefits low-income people; to a network of 35 mayoral chiefs of staff working to advance transformative change through innovation in city government, we are learning a great deal about how change happens in cities. And, we know that many others are doing great work as well, and that they might have other important ideas about what a new urban practice should look like. We want to hear about it, and we want to work together to grow and nurture this promising movement.

What do you think it will take to build a new type of urban practice? Add your thoughts 

With the launch of our new website, we have set out to create a hub for shared learning towards articulating, testing, adopting and applying the elements of the new urban practice – from building the capacity to collect, analyze and use data for decision making to re-engineering specific systems like workforce or education. We invite you to engage with this new platform not just as a visitor, but also as an innovation partner. Share your ideas and resources with us on the site’s discussion boards and on Twitter using @Living_Cities and #NewUrbanPractice. We will be posting questions and curating conversations on a regular basis. And, on October 1st, join me for a Twitter chat about what it will take to build a new urban practice, and what other key elements of it could be. You can suggest questions for this chat in the comments section of this post.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Image Credit: Flickr user Marcin Wichary under a Creative Commons License.