As the gears of federal government have ground to a halt, a new energy has been rocking the foundations of our urban centers. From Atlanta to Seattle and points in between, cities have begun seizing the initiative, transforming themselves into laboratories for progressive innovation. Cities Rising is The Nation’s chronicle of those urban experiments.
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It’s become all-too-fashionable in recent years to say that American politics is “broken,” to throw one’s hands up in horror and mutter about stalemate, paralysis, the outsize influence of Big Money and all the other demons of Washington, DC. And, federally, that may well be the case. Yet, at the city level, politics is a whole different ballgame, with a generation of progressive mayors pushing big-picture reforms on a scale not seen in years. As a result, many regions are being remade for the better around creative approaches to the environment, mixed-income housing, transport, employment, schooling, health and food.
Seattle has garnered international attention with its move to increase the citywide minimum wage to $15 an hour, achieved after socialist Councilwoman Kshama Sawant pushed the issue to the fore during her 2013 campaign, and after her victory convinced Mayor Ed Murray of the electoral benefits of embracing the higher wage. In its wake, San Diego, San Francisco and many other cities have moved toward far higher minimum wages than those guaranteed both federally and at the state level.
Portland, Oregon, meanwhile, has long been renowned for pioneering investments in public transport, creating near-total access to buses and light rail, and helping secure its place as one of the country’s most livable cities. And in New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio has pioneered a universal prekindergarten program, offering a preschool place to any child whose parents want it. In September 2014, more than 50,000 kids began attending city-run and city-funded prekindergartens, and the number is expected to rise next year to more than 70,000. Many of America’s other large cities, including Seattle, Denver, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and DC, are also moving toward universal preschool access.
But the city-level changes in America go far beyond these headline-generating moves. Often out of the public spotlight, hundreds, if not thousands, of creative programs and policy experiments are being pushed in cities from Honolulu to Miami, Chicago to Houston. Ideas range from the distribution of free laptops to kids in poor neighborhoods, as in parts of Miami, to innovative public-health strategies to contain the spread of hepatitis and HIV among intravenous drug users in Albuquerque, to Cleveland’s well-publicized support for the worker-owned Evergreen Cooperative.
Here are ten urban experiments that have resulted in major changes in the lives of residents. While not generating the headlines of Seattle’s minimum-wage increase or New York’s preschool guarantee, they nonetheless merit attention, both for their stand-alone promise and their potential to inspire copycat programs that shift the terrain across the country. “It’s like turning a paddle ship,” says John Duda of the Democracy Collaborative, which has been working with the city of Jacksonville, Florida, to forge a Community Wealth Building Roundtable. “You do it slowly, but if it works, the results will be very important.”