While the national presidential election stumbles forward with a disheartening level of acrimony and insults, in cities, mayors are focused on lifting people up and achieving real results for their communities. Cities are where we come together to live, work, and play. There isn’t the luxury of vacillation or empty rhetoric—mayors fill the potholes, provide needed services to people, and grow the economy.
It is in our cities where what’s best about our country—innovative ideas, entrepreneurship, and social dynamism—are incubated, implemented, and elevated to the broader national consciousness. From New York to San Francisco, and small- and mid-size cities in between, the future is being forged by the thinkers and doers congregating in our city centers.
Mayors focus on the issues that matter. While cities are the nation’s laboratories for innovation and the economic engines that bring all the pieces together, there are at times challenging fractures in the larger civic puzzle, from affordable housing to racial equity to gun violence. The national political conversation—on the right and the left—is rightly wrestling with these fractures, but for many communities, now is the time for action.
In reviewing mayors’ State of the City speeches for our National League of Cities’ annual report, we find proactive policy prescriptions to alleviate these challenges and elevate opportunities at the local level that our nation’s leaders can learn from. State of the Cities examines what is happening right now on the ground in cities. These top 10 issues are critical for the nuts and bolts operations of cities, community and economic development, and all around livability.
We examined 100 State of the City addresses in cities large and small—these are the top issues that matter to cities:
10. Health Care (mentioned in 18% of speeches)
"I have personally seen the devastation that heroin addiction brings to a family." — Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
Policies addressing substance abuse, fueled by an increase in opioid addiction, represented much of the coverage of health related topics in this year’s State of the City speeches. Every day, 78 Americans die from an opioid overdose. Mayors are on the front line of this crisis—it affects their residents, and even their own family, on a daily basis.
9. Technology and Data (mentioned in 20% of speeches)
"We need to focus on new technologies, because the solutions we envision today may be obsolete 10 years from now." — Nashville Mayor Megan Barry.
Cities are using data and technology to make themselves smarter, more effective, and enhance service delivery. In this year’s speeches, a range of cities committed to becoming smart cities, with classrooms, neighborhoods and businesses leveraging technology to become better connected and more productive.
8. Demographics, Diversity, and Inclusiveness (mentioned in 22% of speeches)
"We are focused on fostering greater diversity and inclusiveness. We know our diversity is one of our great strengths, which is why we have been recognized nationwide as one of the best cities for women, for African Americans, for new Americans and for the LGBT community." — Columbus, Ohio, Mayor Andrew Ginther.
America is a diverse society, and discussions of inclusion were prevalent in a number of mayors’ speeches this year. Increasingly, cities have sought to broaden opportunity and human rights, and in response have faced opposition and pre-emptive policies from their state governments. Mayors view opportunity and inclusiveness as critical benchmarks of a successful community—and we find that they are putting up a fight for these values.
7. Energy/Environment (mentioned in 28% of speeches)
"We’re doing our part here at home to answer our moral obligation and build the clean energy economy that is necessary to cool our planet." — Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.
Mayors continue to be focused on the impact of climate change and developing innovative policies for greater environmental and energy sustainability. Last year was a monumental one for mayoral climate leaders both at home and abroad. Last year, 510 global mayors traveled to the COP-21 conference in Paris to be a part of the historic agreement and advocate for sound environmental policy for cities throughout the world.
6. Housing (mentioned in 40% of speeches)
"[The city] will work through the Housing Authority and with the private sector to incentivize the creation of more workforce and affordable housing where it's needed most." — Charleston, S.C., Mayor John Tecklenburg.
Housing issues are always critical for mayors. In this year’s survey, blight was a widely discussed topic among mayors—with affordable housing and homelessness continuing to be top issues for cities. Many mayors across the country announced plans to alleviate the housing burden that exists for many, especially for seniors and veterans.
5. Education (mentioned in 42% of speeches)
"The impact of this skills gap is particularly harsh on low-income communities—especially for our young adults." — San Diego, Calif., Mayor Kevin Faulconer
As the conversation about inequality and opportunity gets louder across the country, a growing body of research acknowledges the power of education and youth focused programs to foster upward mobility. Many mayors announced policies aimed at closing the educational achievement gap between groups defined by socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, and gender.
4. Infrastructure (mentioned in 48% of speeches)
"Our Vision Zero Action Plan made 2015 the safest year on New York City roads for everyone—pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists—since 1910." — New York Mayor Bill De Blasio.
From bike paths to sewer systems, infrastructure is a wide ranging topic that receives top billing in Mayoral addresses year after year. The lead crisis in Flint demonstrated the vast effect infrastructure decisions can have on the lives of our most vulnerable residents. Mayors are also taking steps across the board to improve health outcomes by linking elements of infrastructure to public health. Our city leaders also stressed the importance of active and safe transportation to the vitality of their cities.
3. Budgets (mentioned in 52% of speeches)
"[This year’s budget] supports our neighborhoods and our young people. We’ll be able to demolish dangerous buildings and invest more in summer youth employment." — Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Sly James
Mayors noted the relative strength of their cities’ finances. Many cities are returning to pre-recession levels of fiscal health, and numerous mayors are committed to raising the level of service their cities’ provide without raising taxes. Fiscal discipline continues to be a primary goal for leaders as they chart the path forward.
2. Public Safety (mentioned in 70% of speeches)
"[The murder rate], which had dropped significantly in 2013 and 2014 has followed the national trend and is back up again." — Oklahoma City, Okla., Mayor Mick Cornett (though the city saw its overall crime rate decrease 10% from last year.)
Public safety is always a top priority of city leaders. Mayors see the alleviation of crime and keeping community members safe as one of the most critical components of their jobs. Many mayors reported an uptick in crime within their cities and this trend, noticeable across the country, was particularly alarming for homicide. However, even though the short-term homicide trend is pointed in the wrong direction, crime is still at the lowest point in decades.
1. Economic Development (75% of speeches)
"Small, independent businesses from craft brewers to design firms, bakeries, and salons are popping up all along our streets and in our squares. So just like our thriving maker community, we're working to handcraft our future." — Somerville, Mass., Mayor Joseph Curtatone
Economic development is once again the most discussed topic in mayors’ addresses. Mayors touted the many gains in business and job growth in their cities. More and more cities are making it easier for entrepreneurs to start or grow a business. And, still a growing number of cities are working to unleash the creative potential of small-scale manufacturing and the maker movement—an ever growing group ranging from hobbyists and tinkerers to independent inventors and designers.
Our city leaders are at the front line of innovation, working with people across the spectrum to create more inclusive, economically strong cities. Mayors are working to overcome challenges, grab opportunities, and make the future a brighter place. To forge a shared inclusive path forward, it’s time to look local.
related video: New York's Chief Digital Officer talks about combining technology and government to create change
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