Los Angeles’s citywide cleanup in 2016 started with reconnaissance, not immediate trash removal. Before any junk heaps, piles of tires, or illegally dumped furniture got hauled away, officials asked the Bureau of Sanitation to scout and grade each street, in order to highlight the biggest problem areas. The resulting Clean Streets Index is a publicly accessible map that has encouraged the city to stay accountable and make progress. Since then, the frequency of notably littered zones inside city limits, marked red on the map, have dropped 82%, while the amount of yellow-coded areas is down 84%.
Boston’s CityScore system deploys something similar for other quality of life metrics: an online scoreboard (reminiscent of Fenway’s Green Monster) that charts city responses times for fixing potholes and cleaning up graffiti, as well as ambulance response times, and whether the homicide rate is improving. Kansas City, Missouri, meanwhile deploys quarterly public satisfaction surveys that have led the city toward multimillion dollar projects that battle blight and are aiming to fix its roads and bridges.
All of these places are among the first nine cities to earn Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities Certification, a national standard honoring metros that have launched excellent data collection policies and use evidence-backed strategies in governance. The system has three tiers–silver, gold, and platinum–with each weighted according to how much of Bloomberg’s criteria for better city building each place has satisfied.
So far, no city has earned a platinum award. (You can see the specific criteria here.) Los Angeles holds the highest honor with a gold certification. The other eight cities are silver winners. In addition to Boston and Kansas City, that includes Louisville, New Orleans, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. The honor comes with the chance to plug into Bloomberg’s broad community of urban planning, governance, and technology experts to figure out how to improve what’s already working.
“We’re speaking with each of the nine certified cities to see what areas of the work they’d like to expand or deepen, in terms of skill sets and capacity, and connecting them to the right technical experts among our partners; in some cases, we are suggesting practitioners who are excelling in other cities with whom they can connect and learn from,” says Sharman Stein, a What Works Cities spokesperson, in an email to Fast Company.
By grading these cities’ efforts against a set of public and universal standards, Bloomberg is really judging its own success. The funder has worked with several of these spots directly through its What Works Cities program, which since April 2015 has been supplying coaching and resources to metros eager to demonstrate that they’re shifting in toward a more empirical style of management. The What Works Cities ecosystem met its initial goal of 100 participants in January, although the funder has hinted it will be adding more. Many spots are working on the same pressing issues, including affordable housing and homelessness, as well as how to build more trust in their police force.
Bloomberg’s goal has always been for each place to test new theories of better governance, and then share the results with others to speed change. In a way, these certifications highlight places that are emerging as important nodes on that lesson-sharing network. (The examples cited above, and more from each newly certified spot, appear in a related post on Medium.) “The Certified cities . . . serve as examples of what excellent looks like, and the non-certified cities will have opportunities to connect with, and learn from [them]” Stein says.
Data-Smart City Solutions, a Harvard initiative that’s also affiliated with Bloomberg, has also released a case study with more examples of what top achievement should look like. At the same time, the certification program is open to any cities that might be pursuing these goals on their own terms. This year more than 115 applied. The National League of Cities, another urban planning consortium, endorses the process, ensuring it’s not too focused on just the most technologically advanced metros. Bloomberg will award new certifications or upgrades annually, with winners continuously audited to ensure they’re still maintaining standards. Part of tracking change is checking that it sticks.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the case studies were released by Data-Smart City Solutions, not Bloomberg.