The 10 biggest issues U.S. mayors say they’re tackling in 2019

A survey of State of the City speeches from across the country finds better-paying jobs are at the top of the minds of our urban leaders.

The 10 biggest issues U.S. mayors say they’re tackling in 2019
[Source Image: brichuas/iStock]

From housing and economic development, to the environment and demographics, mayors are focused on the issues that matter to people. In 2019, more mayors are discussing fair housing protection, pre-arrest diversion, immigration, and the Census.


Cities are the places where the big issues of our time are being debated and addressed. From Mayor Jacob Frey in Minneapolis who is reshaping the local housing landscape by ending single-family zoning, to Mayors Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles, Jean Stothert in Omaha, and Michael Hancock in Denver who are championing greater investment in public transit, our local leaders are providing leadership and getting the job done.

Every year, mayors discuss issues that are critical to their communities, and provide a vision for the future in their state of the city addresses. At the National League of Cities, we analyze more than 150 of these speeches each year, and lay out the results in our annual State of the Cities report. The report provides an in-depth analysis of what is happening in cities now, and highlights trends by region and for the country as a whole.

[Source Image: brichuas/iStock]

Below are the top 10 issues that matter to cities in 2019:

10. Government data and technology (mentioned in 11% of speeches)

I want the city—council and staff—to make effective use of online survey tools to inform the choices before council. More agile, timely, and accessible digital outreach will help the community be directly engaged in our decisions.—Mayor Lucy Vinis, Eugene, Oregon

Cities are focused on streamlining processes and creating data-driven solutions for residents. In order to get information to residents quickly and improve overall transparency and engagement, cities are broadly improving communications among municipal agencies. Additionally, more and more places are using machine-learning techniques to monitor and repair infrastructure, and of course, to fill the eponymous pothole.


9. Education (mentioned in 20% of speeches)

And as an educator, I know the best economic development and anti-poverty tool is access to a quality education.—Mayor Robert Garcia, Long Beach, California

Mayors and city leaders are working together to not only provide youth with access to a high-quality education, but also to consider how educational institutions can be utilized for community-wide initiatives. Libraries remain essential, and in many communities, mayors are championing libraries as a tool to help community members engage with the ever-growing digital world.

8. Demographics (mentioned in 32% of speeches)

Eliminating economic and racial inequities leads to positive outcomes, including better educational achievement, improved public health, and reduced violence.—Mayor Tom Barrett, Milwaukee

Mayors are advancing racial equity through concerted efforts to be inclusive of all people by including the stories of and creating accessible services and amenities to their city residents. And despite the polarized discourse surrounding immigration at the national level, mayors spoke about it positively in 2019. The upcoming 2020 Census, and specifically the added question on immigration, was top of mind in many mayoral speeches this year, and being a “welcoming city” for all was a common refrain in state of the city addresses.

7. Public safety (mentioned in 37% of speeches)

Providing for public safety is perhaps the most important function of any city government. Looking forward, we need to focus on retaining our current police department staff, and we have a clear need to put more police officers on the streets.—Mayor Bruce Fraley, Berea, Kentucky

Local leaders are starting to use pre-arrest diversion—the deterrence of individuals away from the criminal justice system and toward community-based services—as a public safety strategy. This challenges the more traditional “tough on crime” approaches of the past, and is a growing trend in medium and large cities across the U.S.


6. Housing (mentioned in 38% of speeches)

Affordable housing isn’t just a problem for our most vulnerable residents, though—it affects our entire community.—Mayor Muriel Bowser, Washington, D.C.

The cost of housing in many cities is leading to high levels of displacement, and local leaders are seeking innovative solutions with a special focus on equity. The historical inequities of redlining and other housing policies that have disadvantaged people of color still echo through many communities, and this year’s speeches have highlighted these inequities, as well as fair housing protection for tenants.

[Source Image: brichuas/iStock]

5. Energy and environment (mentioned in 41% of speeches) 

We are laying the foundation to transform the way we power municipal operations through renewable energy. Our Division of Power has committed to purchase at least 50% renewable energy to power city facilities by 2020.—Mayor Andrew Ginther, Columbus, Ohio

Local leaders are continuously championing sustainability initiatives and environmental awareness. For instance, there’s been increased interest in urban forestry programs because they focus on environmental justice, equity, and public safety, and ultimately increase liveability. Additionally, local officials are focusing more on recycling in response to new Chinese policies that have upended global recycling markets.

4. Budgets and management (mentioned in 41% of speeches)

In my first year as mayor, one of my top priorities was the completion and passage of the City of Tacoma’s 2019-2020 biennial budget, a budget that guides the way the city aligns its resources to support council priorities and best meets our community’s needs.—Mayor Victoria Woodards, Tacoma, Washington

Mayors are planning for the future by engaging with their constituents on budgets, managing relationships with state governments, and rebuilding reserves. A major theme has been communities looking to the state and federal levels to help invest in infrastructure improvements. Multiple localities are currently exploring participatory budgeting to get a broader cross-section of the community involved in the process and create equitable outcomes.


3. Health and human services (mentioned in 46% of speeches)

I want to start with the battle against opioid addiction. It is literally a matter of life and death, and it affects everyone . . . all demographics. It touches our businesses, schools, churches, families . . . everyone. It’s detrimental to our labor force, diverts funding from much-needed initiatives, and has stolen the future from many talented Lexingtonians.—Mayor Linda Gorton, Lexington, Kentucky

Health and human services jumped in the rankings this year, largely due to an increased focus on parks and recreation. However, mental health and opioids continue to have a significant place in speeches. For instance, there has been an increasing number of mental health emergencies, and local governments are developing crisis intervention and diversion programs to address them. Meanwhile, in 2019, leaders are taking a solutions-based approach to addressing the opioid crisis.

2. Infrastructure (mentioned in 57% of speeches)

Infrastructure improvements are often not all that visible to the general public. They don’t typically garner a great deal of attention—though their failure certainly does. Nonetheless, they are essential to preserve our assets and ensure the continued reliability of services and quality of life to our residents.—Mayor Patrick Madden, Troy, New York

Mayors developed a myriad of technology-driven solutions that bolstered pedestrian infrastructure and calmed traffic. Many cities, towns, and villages are improving walkways, pedestrian bridges, and street furniture to make cities more livable, ultimately giving residents better access to amenities and improving safety for walkers, bikers, and drivers.

1. Economic development (mentioned in 74% of speeches)

We know that one of the immediate ways to address poverty, our economy, to stabilize families, and even reduce crime is to make sure people have access to good paying jobs.—Mayor Ras Baraka, Newark, New Jersey

Economic development maintained its dominance as the top issue again this year. City leaders are focused on job creation and developing vibrant downtowns that can address community needs and grow local economies. Many cities, towns, and villages are not only looking to invest in local job creation, but are also focusing on increasing opportunities for youth and communities of color. Communities nationwide are revitalizing downtowns by promoting tourism, creating mixed-use development, and activating public spaces.


As I’ve seen from my years working with cities, mayors are inherently solutions-oriented. Local government is a unique fixture in our U.S. experiment, wisely built on a federal structure. For this structure to work best, we need to all work together—at the federal, state, and local levels—to ensure that this great country better reflects that America is a nation of cities.

Brooks Rainwater is the senior executive and director of the National League of Cities’ (NLC) Center for City Solutions. 


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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