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March 23, 2015 – Governing (City Accelerator), By Ron Littlefield

While Minneapolis and Seattle both have lengthy and proud histories of innovation, the new focus on civic engagement in Cohort II of the City Accelerator offers each an expanded opportunity to tap the collective minds and talents of the people who comprise the resident population. Toward this end, it is desirable to engage the broadest possible cross section of the community in an effort to rekindle citizen interest and to generate creative sparks toward achieving an even more inviting and successful future.

While both cities have histories of innovation and progress, they also have notable deficiencies and significant challenges that must be effectively addressed if the communities and the people who live there are to achieve desired goals and secure an improved quality of life. For example, even though Seattle and Minneapolis have traditionally experienced rather high voter turnout, recent trends have registered a decline in citizen interest and participation in elections – much like many other cities across the nation. Additionally, both communities are faced with growing disparities in income between their richest and poorest citizens.

Minneapolis

In the 1970s, the long-running Mary Tyler Moore Show showcased Minneapolis as a city of opportunity. As Mary Richards tossed her hat in the air and “Love is all Around” played in the background, the show’s vast viewing audience knew Mary was “gonna make it after all.”

Around the same time, Minneapolis also benefitted from the presence and intense digital aura of Control Data Corporation – a major player in the newly emerging computer age. Other locally inspired and related innovative efforts helped create a fertile environment for entrepreneurial activities. The business incubator – now a staple in most cities’ economic development efforts – was essentially invented in Minneapolis. Minneapolis and the Twin City region undoubtedly has a long history as dynamic and progressive.

However, as with many cities across the country, Minneapolis may not hold the same opportunities for everyone – it has some of the greatest income disparities in the country.

Minneapolis is a racially and culturally diverse community that expects to become “majority minority” (with a total population comprising more than 50 percent of minority individuals) by 2040 or 2050. To become a successful majority minority community, Mayor Betsy Hodges says the city must address income equality because growth is not possible without equity.

The income gap is particularly significant between minorities and whites. For example, the overall poverty rate for the Twin Cities is 10.8 percent, but the rate for African Americans is 37.8 percent, for American Indians it is 31.9 percent and for Hispanics it’s 25.7 percent. As summarized by Cristina Wessel, deputy director of Minnesota Budget Project, “The success of the white population masks what is happening in the diverse population."

As economic disparities increase, it seems that many people are losing interest in the very process where their voices might be heard. An editorial in the Minneapolis Star Tribune cites “worrisome trends in Minnesota voter turnout,” and details how normally high voter participation has slipped. Only through “intense, door-to-door voter turnout effort” in the most recent elections was Minneapolis able to hold the voter turnout reduction to 1 percent. In St. Paul, it fell by 4 percent.

To counter these trends, Minneapolis city leadership has determined that a broader civic engagement strategy is needed to effectively attack disparities. In this undertaking, they have acknowledged that an inherent level of distrust in current systems exists among those citizens most affected by circumstances, so new creative methods will be needed to achieve better participation. The City Accelerator is seen as a way to learn from other cities and benchmark the most effective methods.

You can help Minneapolis’ efforts to enter the Accelerator by viewing and reviewing its pitch video here.

Seattle

It’s the city that turned a common cup of strong coffee into a worldwide obsession and a different way to sell books into a new retail paradigm. Starbucks and Amazon are two of the most successful companies in the history of the U.S. – and they both began and are headquartered in Seattle.

Seattle is clearly a center of innovation. Now among the fastest-growing cities in the U.S., Seattle expects to add 120,000 new residents and 115,000 new jobs over the next 20 years. As the city considers its future, it is preparing to undertake a lengthy and elaborate process to draft a comprehensive growth plan. Instead of simply relying on the old system of citizen engagement (i.e. public meetings), the city plans to blend traditional methods with new technology.

“It’s time we implement the new social media tools and strategies of today – many developed in our backyard,” says Seattle Mayor Ed Murray.

As is the case of Minneapolis and many other cities, Seattle’s efforts to engage its citizenry are complicated by the fact that its population is highly diverse and experiencing increasing economic disparity. As The Seattle Times notes, “As Seattle incomes soar, gap grows between rich and poor.” Statistics show that between 2013 and 2013, average incomes for the top 20 percent increased approximately $15,000 per year while incomes remained static at around $13,000 per year for the bottom 20 percent. The Seattle Times article observes: “A rising tide didn’t lift all boats. You might say that it only lifted the yachts. When did Seattle become a city for rich people?”

Similar to Minneapolis, Seattle has experienced a decline in voter interest and participation. In the August 2014 primary, despite the fact that ballots were mailed to voters, only 29 percent returned them. Even a hot political issue involving the creation of a new park district only resulted in 33.6 percent participation. Perhaps the lack of citizen interest and erratic involvement in the political process is partly responsible for the fact that Seattle voters have turned out three incumbent mayors in a row.

You can help Seattle’s efforts to enter the Accelerator by viewing and reviewing its pitch video here.

Meanwhile … Everywhere Else

Looking beyond the current Cohort and anticipating a broader application of lessons learned, let me add that my own community, Chattanooga, was an early adopter of the “visioning" process back in the 1980s. That process was an exercise in intense public involvement. Over a period of 26 weeks the community engaged in dozens of public meetings and eventually involved a total of some 3,000 citizens in the process. It was a very successful civic engagement exercise and is widely credited with helping to change public attitudes and transform the city. It became a trendy thing to do and was replicated by cities across the country. Even so, it is generally acknowledged that such an undertaking today would be difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish with the same degree of success. Times are different. People are different and different methods of civic engagement are needed. And so, it is likely that communities all over the U.S. are experiencing the same need as Minneapolis and Seattle for more effective and up-to-date methods of engaging the community.

Lessons learned in Cohort II of City Accelerator will have the potential for broad and immediate application. This singular effort will be both instructive and critically practical in taking our cities to their next level of successful development.

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Related Governing article: Reinvigorating Local Democracy

 

The information above is for general awareness only and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Office of Economic Adjustment or the Department of Defense as a whole.

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