Partner Spotlight: ICMA
Founded in 1914, ICMA, the International City/County Management Association, advances professional local government worldwide. The organization’s mission is to create excellence in local governance by developing and fostering professional management to build sustainable communities that improve quality of life.
ICMA provides services, research, publications, data and information, peer and results-oriented assistance, training and professional development to thousands of city, town and county leaders around the world.
ICMA works in a variety of practice areas, and has focused on sustainability in recent years. ICMA recently released two reports, Evaluating the Role of Local Government and Project Stakeholder Engagement in Choice Neighborhoods Transformation Planning and Implementation and the Local Government Sustainability Survey, and plays a leading role in the Strong Cities, Strong Communities National Resource Network.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Choice Neighborhoods program supports locally driven strategies to address struggling neighborhoods with distressed public or HUD-assisted housing through a comprehensive approach to neighborhood transformation.
In 2012, ICMA won a small research grant from HUD to evaluate Choice Neighborhoods program outcomes. ICMA selected three cities as their subjects: Salisbury, North Carolina (population 33,710); Suffolk, Virginia (population 86,806); and Norfolk, Virginia (population 245,428).
The goal was to see how far the cities had come from the initial planning process in 2013 to the start of the implementation project in 2015. ICMA gathered information by interviewing local government and stakeholders on what factors lead to success, and what the role of local government and community engagement is.
Three themes emerged from this research: the importance of citizen engagement, the strength of collective impact and the importance of performance metrics and neighborhood indicators. These themes were explored deeper in the report.
One key finding is that the social and economic needs of public housing residents must be addressed.
“Traditional neighborhood planning has really focused on the physical environment of the neighborhood,” said Cory Fleming, Senior Technical Specialist at ICMA. “The Broken Windows Theory says that if you can stop vandalism and abandoned buildings, then you can keep the neighborhood safe.”
ICMA found that you have to go beyond the physical environment, and look at the economic and social services for neighborhood residents in order to improve safety there.
To find out what services residents actually need, you must engage neighborhood residents in the planning process.
Also of interest, ICMA found that generating excitement in a neighborhood helps create a network to invest in plans. In small communities, connections are essential, as is building trust between local government and the community.
Working directly with community members is essential to overcoming barriers to successful neighborhood transformation plans.
ICMA’s Survey Research team collects data from local governments on common practices, policies, motivators and barriers to success on a variety of topics, with the intent of using that information to increase knowledge and inform the practice of local government management globally.
The 2015 Sustainability Survey was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and implemented in partnership with Cornell University, Binghamton University and the American Planning Association. The survey was sent to 8,500 local government officials from cities and counties of all sizes. A response rate of 22% gave researchers nearly 2,000 cases to examine.
Findings show that 31 percent of those communities had implemented sustainability plans.
“That seems like a relatively small amount,” said Jelani Newton, Director of Survey Research at ICMA. “But when you compare that to the 18% that responded affirmatively in 2010, it shows a large increase.”
Larger cities are more likely to focus on sustainability, and there are regional differences in how high of a priority it is for local government, survey data shows.
“We know that the issue is gaining attention and we know that it is becoming a priority for more communities,” Newton said.
Another key finding is that economic development was a high priority for local governments and was a prime motivator behind sustainability efforts.
“Governments are realizing the impact that sustainability has on their economic strength and we believe that’s a driving factor toward the increased focus on sustainability,” Newton said.
Data also revealed an opportunity for greater public engagement around sustainability. The majority of responding jurisdictions stated that public participation has had little or no impact in shaping sustainability plans and strategies.
“We see this as a critical need to make sure that the public is informed and engaged, because public engagement is critical to communities’ ability to address sustainability goals,” Newton said.
While the survey report highlights initial findings, ICMA continues to work with Cornell University and Binghamton University to dive deeper into the survey data, exploring trends and opportunities in different regions.
“We want to distill from the survey data what communities are identifying as best practices, and we want to share that broadly, nationally, internationally, and where we can find specific opportunities in each region, regionally,” Newton said.
Sustainability has been a focus area at ICMA for several years, and the 2015 Sustainability Survey is a follow-up to an original initiative launched in 2010. ICMA hopes to continue this research over time to develop a strong base of longitudinal data that can be used to inform practice.
National Resource Network
ICMA is a founding member of the National Resource Network, a HUD-funded consortium of five organizations united with the mission to support economically challenged cities across the country in achieving economic recovery and growth.
The Network provides a service called 311 For Cities, a resource line through which cities can ask questions about their major challenges and receive a quick response offering resources and information.
Since its inception in 2014, the Network has directly engaged with over 50 cities across the country, with ICMA leading networking activities.
Each year, ICMA organizes a national convening that brings distressed communities together to discuss strategies for addressing high-priority issues facing them, like economic development, neighborhood revitalization and housing affordability. The network supports discussions with research and policy information.
The convening grew from a dozen cities in 2014 to 40 cities in 2015. Now in its third year, the Network is expanding the conversation beyond the annual national convenings to include small group discussions between communities via webinars and city exchanges throughout the year.
One peer-to-peer activity that ICMA is leading on behalf of the Network is a topic group focused on broadband access and digital inclusion in communities. Driven by seven cities that identified this as a priority, the group is collaborating to develop a resource guide for other cities that are interested in expanding digital inclusion and digital access for their communities.
The network is also working to strengthen partnerships and cooperation between cities and states, as state policies and funding have a significant impact on a city’s economic competitiveness.
Recently, the Network won the support of Mass Development to launch the first state-specific resource network: The Massachusetts State Resource Network. The state now works directly with distressed cities to help them achieve their goals.
ICMA is hoping this will be a model that gains traction and gets utilized in states across the country.
Moving Smart Growth Forward
By focusing on sustainability, ICMA is moving smart growth forward beyond the ten smart growth principles.
ICMA’s sustainability survey research provides evidence that sustainability is becoming a concern for more communities over time, and ICMA is leading the way in determining best practices for implementing sustainability plans.
ICMA has taken smart growth strategies like encouraging community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions, and applied them beyond the ten smart growth principles, to include areas like sustainability.
ICMA demonstrates a clear understanding that the needs of every community are best defined by the people who live and work there, and they strive to make those needs heard through convenings and collaboration.
By bringing information and best practices to the forefront and encouraging discussion among local governments across the nation, ICMA is encouraging its 10,000 members to make smart leadership decisions that will affect tens of millions of individuals from small towns to big cities.