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A Modest Proposal For Saving America’s Cities

“I could clone myself—or we could learn how to do a better job of sharing.”

A Modest Proposal For Saving America’s Cities
[Illustration: Kirsten Ulve]

New York City dwellers love to proclaim that we live in “the greatest city in the world!” But is that really true? There’s no way the world’s “greatest” city would have a median home purchase price of $1.7 million and yet still smell like urine on so many street corners. That said, N.Y.C. is great at a lot of things—and could be­c­ome even greater if it could learn from other cities. Given travel, data sharing, and connectivity, there’s no excuse for all of our cities not to pool their knowledge and become better than they are.

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Here are some examples of regional excellence, provided in part by a super-scientific survey of my Facebook community. And by “scientific” I mean I adhered to the principles of physics when I posted my query:

Austin integrates bus and bicycle transit better than most. Gaithersburg, Maryland, has a killer book festival. Chicago’s waterfront, parks, and activities are top-notch. Somerville, Massachusetts, has a Fluff Festival (look it up!). Atlanta encourages civic engagement through Neighborhood Planning Units. San Francisco has incredible recycling and composting. The public transportation in pretty much any Japanese city runs carbon-efficient circles around U.S. equivalents. And Curitiba, Brazil, uses parks rather than concrete canals to combat flooding.

There’s really no excuse for any city not to improve. They’ve got the data, processes, and ability to share. Los Angeles’s success at smog reduction could be implemented in Beijing. Lynn, Massachusetts’s skill at repurposing old build­ings could help save what’s left of Kansas City’s structures. Some of this communication does happen at mayoral forums, summits, and conferences, but these are tepid accelerators for this information age. Here are some creative ways cities can learn from each other.


  • Slack Teams.

    Slack is all the rage as a collaboration platform for teams. I’m not just saying that because they sponsor my company’s Comedy Hack Day series (but, disclosure and all that, they do). Let’s get Slack Teams for DOT officials in various cities. They could share ideas, answer questions, and post animated GIFs in their free time.


  • Prizes!

    I still remember the “green challenges” between dormitories at college, with the prize going to whichever used the least amount of energy in a semester. Cities with the best community-police relationship or availability of fresh produce could win trophies, cash, prestige, and pizza parties.


  • Rotating bureaucrats.

    Sometimes it comes down to really good people. There’s already a competitive market for exceptional public officials. Heads of police departments get poached by other cities, on the assumption that their expertise is rare and portable. Can’t we share these experts more regularly? If someone has really figured out how to encourage development without having five coffee shops at every intersection, the rest of us should benefit. Stop being selfish!


  • Betting.

    Every year, mayors place meaningless wagers on sporting events. Let’s up the stakes. For every intercity sports battle, the losing city must loan out the departments, processes, data sets, and designs for whatever it does best. Next time the 49ers throttle the Eagles, Philadelphia has to implement San Francisco’s recycling and waste composting system for a year, and applaud the city of San Francisco for the improvements.
    With the right mix of data, technology, competition, and sensible betting, we can make every city more livable.