Brooks Rainwater is the Senior Executive and Director of the Center for City Solutions at the National League of Cities.
At the National League of Cities conference, parks and recreation was the priority for mayors. And for mayors in most of the U.S., housing is key, too.
The state of America’s cities is not uniform, but rather reflects the patchwork quilt of innovation and excitement that makes our country succeed. Cities large and small, from coast to coast, care about building better places for people—places with thriving economies, clean environments, and safe streets. However, the prioritization and the allocation of resources are dependent on a range of factors.
Every year, mayors across the nation communicate achievements, discuss challenges, and provide a vision for the future through their state of the city addresses. The National League of Cities’s annual “State of the Cities” report analyzes these speeches, providing an in-depth analysis on what is happening in cities.
Economic development continues to be the number one issue for city leaders. It has maintained top billing for the entire six-year history of the report, with infrastructure and health and human services rounding out the top three. Not only has economic development maintained its dominance, but the level of focus has actually increased year over year, with 74 percent of speeches covering it in 2019 compared to 58 percent in 2018.
In order to ascertain how and where these differences show up, it’s worth taking a journey across America to spatially discover these local priorities.
While the top-line issues are important, what we find even more valuable are the subtopics within larger issues. These include economic development, infrastructure, health, budget, energy, and housing. Dissecting these subtopics regionally creates a clear perspective of what matters most, where.
In 2019, parks and recreation was the number one subtopic across the country, with nearly 63 percent of mayors discussing it. No matter the region, mayors provided an increased focus on expanding parks, and recreation-related facilities and activities this year. But that’s where regional similarities mostly end and issues specific to geographic location begin to emerge:
In the northeast, roads edged out downtown development as the number two issue. The ever-problematic pothole surfaced in state of the city speeches given by the mayors of Hartford and Syracuse.
Housing was also popular in this region, with three of the top ten subtopics—blight, housing supply, and zoning—clocking in as critical issues.
Infrastructure is another clear priority for mayors across the country. In this region, water, sewer, and waste rose to the top, with mayors identifying needs critical needs like schools and better storm drainage to prepare their communities both for flood events. And many cities also discussed the installation of new streetlights, four-way stops, and roundabouts.
These cities are additionally focused on technology to keep officers and residents safe, as well as to map out crime and crash scenes. Cities like Albany and Amsterdam in New York, are deploying new systems to help keep community members safe.
Southern mayors also spoke most about parks and recreation issues as well as roads, streets, and signs. However, that’s where similarities between their and other mayors’ priorities end.
Unlike their northern counterparts, southern mayors are prioritizing increasing their police forces to improve response times and accommodate population growth. Some cities, like Huntington, West Virginia, are raising the starting salaries of new recruits. Police and community relations are also important for these cities, which are engaging residents in active shooter programs, suicide prevention plans, and neighborhood watches.
Unlike mayors in other regions of the country, for mayors in the South, housing doesn’t appear as a top ten issue. This year, for them, pedestrian infrastructure was a top 10 issue, with many focused on enhancing their city sidewalks.
As the breadbasket of the country, the importance of the Midwest can’t be overstated. However, many midwestern cities are experiencing declining populations. This year, their priorities reflect this.
Mayors in the Midwest prioritized downtown development over roads. Policing ranks higher in this region than in many others as well. While midwestern mayors prioritized housing, it ranks lower than in the northeast and west. Meanwhile, new business and business expansion made it into the top ten only in the Midwest.
Additionally, Midwest mayors prioritized infrastructure funding and passionately discussed the need to work with federal partners to rebuild and reimagine our nation’s streets, bridges, and tunnels.
With some of the highest housing costs in the country, as well as the strongest job growth, it’s no surprise that housing is such a primary focal point for western mayors.
Housing supply and development is a critical issue for cities across the country, but western cities appear to prioritize these issues more than most with housing showing up as the third, fifth, and sixth most important issues. Cities are working to construct new housing units that include workforce housing and renovating neglected properties to accommodate mixed-income households.
Western cities like Fremont, California; Beaverton, Oregon; and Kirkland, Washington, are developing transit- and job-oriented housing options. Additionally, many of these cities are prioritizing providing improved mental health services to the homeless.
Out west, the top 10 subtopics in 2019 are:
Ultimately, America is a collection of cities, but where those cities are located on the map in this vast country can create significant variance in what matters most. Regardless of whether communities are focused on housing, public health and safety, infrastructure or recycling, America’s mayors are providing real leadership, and getting the job done for the people in our nation’s cities.