Better Progress: Bettering Cities by Community

Progress through Partnership & Cooperation.

There’s renewed argument about cities taking up the mantle of governance and nation states becoming obsolete. (Take this recent article by Jamie Bartlett published on Aeon.) Why? Consider this quote in the article from Bruce Katz, Centennial Scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC:

“Cities are not subordinate to nation-states, they are powerful networks of institutions and actors that co-produce the economy. Power in the 21st century belongs to the problem-solvers. National governments debate and mostly dither. Cities act, cities do. Power increasingly comes from the cities up, not handed down from the nation-state.”

It’s as if the world has gotten too complex for solutions to be brokered on a grander scale. The U.S. national government was originated to have specific central functions, and many of our current challenges require local community management to ensure better progress and advancement. There’s also the reality that community challenges are not homogeneous across the country and the world; rather their heterogeneity requires that we revert to practices from older times when the world was managed on a smaller scale between communities, villages, and individuals where common problems and intent can be formed. To be sure, there are areas that are best managed at the national level (e.g., national defense, national debt) or even on a global, centralized level (e.g., disaster relief as managed by the Red Cross), but in this time of complexity it may require working collaboratively on a smaller scale to develop solutions that meet more specific needs and can be enacted.

Here are examples where strong communities are bonding together in partnership and cooperation to make Better Progress on a local level.

Thomas Friedman wrote a great New York Times article in May that speaks to how strong communities and those working on the local level are making Better Progress. He shares several examples in the article bringing this concept to life from Indiana, Kentucky, Appalachia, and Tennessee, Friedman writes:

“What is wrong with America is that too many communities, rural and urban, have broken down. What is right with America is the many communities and regions that are coming together to help their citizens acquire the skills and opportunities to own their own futures. We need to share and scale these success stories.”

It’s a powerful and hopeful read and one to share of examples that bring together civic organizations, educational institutions, and businesses for better progress in their communities.

Copenhagen is a city heralded for its redevelopment over the last 30 years. Several factors have led to the city’s rise and Denmark’s overall well-deserved attention for its level of citizenry happiness and the culture’s hygge-factor. The Brookings Institute reports on how the city helped fund some of this redevelopment through a public/private financial model. Jan Gehl, the Danish architect and city planner who champions putting humans at the center of city design and designing from the bottom up, considering citizens needs first, is credited for guiding the city’s re-development, including minimizing cars, focusing on bicycle riding, and creating shared community spaces. The new Nordic food scene led by Noma had a strong impact, bringing world attention. It even helped fuel revitalization of specific neighborhoods and streets. For example, Jægersborggade, a street in the Norrebro neighborhood of Copenhagen, was brought back to life when Relæ, a now Michelin-star restaurant started by Noma alum Christian Puglisi, moved in. As is often the case, other businesses followed the restaurant onto the street, which is now full of local, creative businesses that bring freshness and vibrancy to this part of the city. The once unsafe, riot-ridden area was changed with the eviction of squatters at Ungdomshuset, The Youth House, and its destruction, which apparently caused its own controversy. Yet, this revived area now serves as a gathering point next to a park, which brings the community together.

Matt Bergheiser, president of University City District in Philadelphia wrote this great article, “Inclusive Prosperity in an Age of Local Action,” in Stanford Social Innovation Review, in which he makes the argument that progress is not going to be made on the national scale, because the government doesn’t have the resources to invest in widespread national economic programs to benefit the bottom and middle classes. He also almost suggests that the challenging macro-forces we face, such as globalization and automation, get overly complicated and solutions clouded when thought of on a national scale. Instead, he encourages local businesses and civic organizations to work together to find solutions. He promotes key factors for success, including building upon existing organizations, finding solutions by focusing on the real problems of employers, and bringing those solutions down to a neighborhood level. Bergheiser’s University City District is experiencing success with its West Philadelphia Skills Program, putting the underprivileged and unemployed back to work in solid jobs with better pay, benefits, and opportunity for advancement. He features other success stories, as well:

“Philadelphia is not alone. In Cleveland, anchor institutions and philanthropists—with the aim of creating wealth at scale for the working poor—have ambitiously seeded employee-owned businesses using local purchasing power. In Milwaukee, employers and labor unions have partnered to launch hundreds of construction careers within previously disconnected neighborhoods.”

As reported in 2016 by Politico, Des Moines, Iowa is a prime example of a city that revitalized its urban core by having a strong city planning vision backed by partnership and cooperation between government and business that prioritized their interest in creating a strong city for the community.

As shared by Mary Sellers, president of the local United Way chapter: “I’ve lived in a few different cities, but Des Moines is really amazing in this regard…. People come to the table and they leave their ego and logo at the door, and they focus on what’s good for the community.”

Leaders from these sectors put their city into city planner Mario Gandelsonas’ hands. Gandelsonas’ approach was to create anchor developments, “moments,” across the city. With the right funding and broad support, development started and once these various attractions were open the new vibrancy seemed to fuel more, better development. People started coming back to downtown both for recreation and to live. With the city coming alive, the creative class and entrepreneurs were attracted to the area. Further, businesses have used the downtown and new spaces as a recruiting tool to attract talent.

Pittsburgh is a similar city that used the arts as a catalyst to revive its city center. John Tierney wrote an article for The Atlantic in 2014 acknowledging that many communities put the arts at the center of their development, yet he focused on what made Pittsburgh unique in its success and articulated the lessons learned. A few points to callout are the civic-minded leaders who had a strong vision and the foundations that invested behind the revival. They created the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust to guide and lead the development and focused on developing a cultural downtown district stretching blocks rather than just creating a “center,” one area alone. Their work carries on today in many different forms.

Atlanta is transforming the city with its BeltLine project masterminded by urban planner Ryan Gravel back in 2001. Championed by himself and the city council and with investment from foundations, private donors, and the private sector, his vision is slowly but surely being realized. Making use of abandoned railroad tracks that circle the city for 22 miles, the BeltLine has been designed and is being built with the community in mind, creating new spaces including walking and bike paths, parks, performance areas, and affordable housing.

Hear more from Ryan Gravel in his TED talk.

With more national dollars going to entitlements in the U.S., there is less national investment being made in youth. This article from the Brookings Institute highlights the fact that there are cities and metropolitan areas picking up the mantel by bringing together multiple players—non-profits, businesses, and philanthropies—to create solutions to invest in young Americans to help them achieve future success.

These examples can encourage us to believe that Better Progress will be made as challenges get taken on at a city and community level and as organizations work in collaboration and partnership to make solutions work for the good of the people.

Have a good example of Better Progress? Share it with us. Use our contact form.


Bartlett, Jamie. “Return of the city-state,” Aeon, September 5, 2017.

Bergheiser, Matt. “Inclusive Prosperity in an Age of Local Action,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, June 13, 2017.

Davidson, Justin. “Copenhagen’s Waterfront Development,” Travel+Leisure, April 30, 2012.

Fausset, Richard. “A Glorified Sidewalk, and the Path to Transform Atlanta,” The New York Times, September 11, 2016.

Friedman, Thomas L. “A Road Trip Through Rusting and Rising America,” The New York Times, May 24, 2017.

Fausset, Richard. “A Glorified Sidewalk, and the Path to Transform Atlanta,” The New York Times, September 11, 2016.

Felsenthal, Julia. “To the Beat,” Vogue, August 2017, p. 86.

Katz, Bruce and Tilchin, Ross. “Investing in the next generation: A bottom-up approach to creating better outcomes for children and youth,” The Brookings Institute, August 15, 2017.

Lewis, Victoria. “All of the Coolest Spots in Copenhagen Are on This Street,” Vogue, July 29, 2016.

Katz, Bruce and Noring, Luise. “The Copenhagen City and Port Development Corporation: A model for regenerating cities,” The Brookings Institution, June 1, 2017.

Tierney, John. “How the Arts Drove Pittsburgh’s Revitalization,” The Atlantic, December 11, 2014.

Woodard, Colin. “How America’s Dullest City Got Cool,” Politico, January 21, 2016.


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