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10 Mayors On The Issues Facing Cities

From health care to equality to increasing the minimum wage, here’s what the leaders of our cities say they need to focus on.

10 Mayors On The Issues Facing Cities
[Top Photo: Flickr user Ken Lund]

When I wake up in the morning I am in a city—it is my and so many others’ home. I make my way through the city on the subway and walk on sidewalks, using the infrastructure below and above.

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Cities are diverse places with people from all walks of life, and where folks come from all over the world, rich, poor, black, white, old, young, and everything in between. The tapestry of the city is what makes it so unique, exciting, and vibrant.

Our cities are the nation’s laboratories for innovation, our economic engines, and the places we live, love, and come together in. Cities are our collective community and the lifeblood of our democracy. It is in cities where social movements flourish and where rights have been expanded.

Mayors are the leaders of our cities, working from the bottom-up not the top-down to make things happen. These leaders are bringing people together to create opportunity-filled, socially cohesive, safe places for all, now and into the future.

At the same time, everything isn’t perfect. There are still enormous challenges to overcome. From Ferguson to New York to Baltimore and beyond, long-standing tensions continue to exist. Mayors are focused on addressing these issues though with a solution based approach that helps move our country forward.

Our annual State of the Cities report examines what is happening now in cities. The top 10 issues discussed by mayors in their 2015 State of the City addresses are essential to operations, development, and livability.

The analysis reveals what issues mayors are focused on by measuring the percentage of speeches significantly covering an issue. We examined 100 State of the City speeches in cities large and small, with a regionally diverse sample from across the country. These are the top issues that matter to cities.

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10. Health Care (9% of Speeches)

Healthy cities are successful cities. And, even though the bulk of health care policy is administered at the federal and state level, mayors play a role in improving public health in their communities. From city hospitals to medical institutions—our cities are where people receive medical care. Many mayors are also focused on improving enrollment and compliance with the Affordable Care Act.

“200,000 of our working men and women in South Carolina earning less than 100 percent of the federal poverty level, including tens of thousands in Columbia, have no access to healthcare because our state refused to expand Medicaid.” — Mayor Steve Benjamin of Columbia, SC

9. Demographics (11% of Speeches)

City-related issues involving demographics include race relations, cultural diversity, sexual orientation, and immigration. Mayors see these issues as foundational to our cities, and primarily sought to highlight how they are working to develop more inclusive communities.

“Our great city is driven by a vision, a vision in which the contributions of every member of society irrespective of race, age, disability, gender or sexual orientation is respected.” — Mayor George Hartwell of Grand Rapids, MI

8: Environment/Energy (16% of Speeches)

For mayors, the fight to combat climate change continues apace. American mayors have been at the forefront of these issues and are continuously pushing other levels of government to take action. Cities, by nature, are at the nexus of sustainability initiatives with issues of energy efficiency, water, and climate change rising to the top as our local leaders seek solutions now.

“We know our collective future depends on our ability to have a planet–and a city–that can sustain life with clean air, clean water, nourishing food, and stable weather patterns.” — Mayor Betsy Hodges of Minneapolis, MN

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7: Data/Technology (21% of Speeches)

City leaders are increasingly utilizing data and technology to improve the quality of life for residents in their cities. An emerging trend is the use of open data as well as performance management and data analytics programs that are improving city service delivery. Data is the building block of cities of the future.

“In today’s globalized and high-tech world, innovation will decide the winners and losers in many different fields and industries.” — Mayor Jim Ardis of Peoria, IL

6: Housing (28% of Speeches)

As cities continue to recover from the 2008 crash of the housing market, mayors are using innovative solutions to address housing-related challenges. Affordable housing continues to be top of mind for mayors as they approach housing related efforts in cities.

“Creating opportunities to attain pathways to the middle class means that we have to invest more in affordable housing.” — Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C.

5. Education (41% of Speeches)

Mayors see quality education as the foundation for successful communities. The racial achievement gap continues to be a persistent issue facing cities that mayors highlighted in speeches. Additionally, concerns about universities, school funding, and infrastructure were raised–with overall education quality the primary goal.

“Nothing will define a city more than the quality of the school system that services that community.”— Mayor William Healey of Canton, OH

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5: Budgets (43% of Speeches)

Although city budgets took huge hits as a result of the recession, city leaders are expressing a renewed sense of optimism about city fiscal health. Many indicate that broader economic growth has translated to a stronger tax base, enabling well-functioning government services and operations.

“It is my firm belief that the financial integrity of any organization is the foundation upon which success is built.”— Mayor Adrian Mapp of Plainfield, NJ

3: Public Safety (55% of Speeches)

Many mayors discussed public safety in the context of the relationship between police and the community. Concerns over racial equity, the increased use of body cameras, and gun violence were raised repeatedly in speeches. The idea of public safety as a community wide goal was highlighted as paramount.

“Making our community a safer place to live cannot be accomplished by police alone.” — Mayor Denis Law of Renton, WA

2. Infrastructure (57% of Speeches)

City infrastructure, which includes roads, bridges, broadband, and public transportation, as well as water and sewer systems, is central to the well-being of cities. Mayors widely prioritized infrastructure investments and see it is a foundational piece of city success.

“If we want a city that treats people fairly, we have to make sure there are opportunities for everyone to get around.” — Mayor Ralph Becker of Salt Lake City, UT

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1: Economic Development (75% of Speeches)

Economic development continues to be the most addressed topic in mayoral state of the city addresses. Expanding economic opportunity is at the forefront of many mayors’ agendas, with workforce development and income inequality receiving greater attention this year, a reflection of broader trends taking place in the economy. One issue in particular—minimum wage increases—has been viewed by many as necessary to combat poverty and economic inequality. A strong economy makes a strong community.

“Nothing does more to address income inequality than actually raising people’s incomes.” — Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, NY

Find the full State of the Cities report here.

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About the author

Brooks Rainwater is the senior executive and director of the National League of Cities' (NLC) Center for City Solutions. He drives the organization’s research agenda, community engagement efforts, and leadership education programming to help city leaders create strong local economies, safe and vibrant neighborhoods, world-class infrastructure, and a sustainable environment

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