How this year’s Mayors Challenge winners rose to the top

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This year’s Mayors Challenge generated more excitement and game-changing ideas than ever before — including more than 320 applications and the challenge’s first-ever “Test and Learn” phase, where 35 finalists were given six months and $100,000 to test and refine their ideas before submitting a final proposal. That’s precisely why the 13-member Mayors Challenge selection committee, co-chaired by former U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy and former Xerox Chairman and CEO Ursula Burns, was so important. By bringing their diversity in experience and expertise to the table, they ensured this year’s winners represent the best that U.S. cities have to offer. After the committee selected the winners, Bloomberg Cities spoke with them to learn more about how these cities rose to the top.

Denver

Denver’s air quality is among the worst in the country. Yet only half of the people who live there say they understand the health impacts — or the fact that children are most susceptible to its effects. The city’s plan, to install air sensors at public schools, was initially designed to give parents, principals, students, and policymakers data they could use to reduce exposure to harmful air. But “Denver made the most of the Mayors Challenge ‘Test & Learn’ phase and realized the monitoring network could also play a critical role in promoting policy change,” explained Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, Vice Dean for Public Health Practice and Community Engagement at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “This could become a very powerful way for people to better understand air quality — and make a difference in their own neighborhoods.”

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Durham, N.C.

Durham is growing faster than its infrastructure can keep up. More than 90 percent of car commuters travel alone and, as a result, they face daily gridlock into downtown and a lack of parking when they get there. Rather than figure out how to make room for more automobiles, “Durham is taking an innovative approach on mobility options, involving efforts around commuter behavior, digital planning, and private-sector employer participation,” said John Minor, President and Chief Investment Officer at JobsOhio. “And they’re already showing results that could make a big difference in Durham and similar-sized cities without extensive mass-transit alternatives.”

Fort Collins, Colo.

Nearly one-third of the people in Fort Collins, most of them low- to moderate-income renters, live in energy-inefficient housing. “What excites me the most about the city’s idea to incentivize landlords to improve their properties is the plan’s multiple impacts: energy savings, improved housing, better health, and lower utility bills,” said Ursula Burns, Executive Chairman of Veon Ltd and former Chairman and CEO of Xerox. “If it works, it’s a win-win-win-win.”

Georgetown, Texas

This small city of 60,000 has already proven it can punch above its weight in the renewable-energy ring. It is the first and largest city in Texas to secure 100 percent of its purchased power from renewable sources. Now, Georgetown plans to engage nearly half of the city’s households to install solar panels on roofs and batteries in backyards to create microgrids to power the entire city. “It could make Georgetown the first energy self-sufficient city in the country and change the role mid-size municipalities play in fighting climate change,” said Shaun Donovan, former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Huntington, W.Va.

This town of fewer than 50,000 is ground zero for the opioid epidemic, with overdoes peaking last year at more than five a day. And it’s taking a terrible toll on first-responders. Huntington’s plan, which is to provide health and wellness support to fight “compassion fatigue” among EMS and firefighter teams, “follows the same principle as the direction we get before every flight: ‘Put your own oxygen mask on before helping others,’” said Arianna Huffington, Founder of HuffPost and Founder and CEO of Thrive Global. “But it goes deeper than that. By strengthening the well-being of first-responders, the plan empowers them to provide even better care.” That could work wonders in Huntington and, importantly, could be easily replicated in many other cities.

Los Angeles

Homelessness is a concern everywhere, but especially in Los Angeles, where every night more than 30,000 people go to sleep without a roof over their heads. “What’s most innovative about this Mayors Challenge idea is that it takes something that’s already happening in the marketplace — homeowners are already building accessory dwelling units in their backyards in response to an incredible demand for affordable rental housing — and leveraging it to help tackle homelessness,” explained Rosanne Haggerty, President and CEO of Community Solutions. The city will streamline the permit process for homeowners who can then be matched with homeless individuals or couples who can lease the backyard units. It’s not going to solve homelessness, but it could be an important step in the right direction.

New Rochelle, N.Y.

An important consideration as the committee evaluated applications was how well a city engaged its residents. New Rochelle excelled at this. And its idea, using virtual-reality and augmented-reality technology to help the public envision city development plans and provide right-timed feedback, has the potential to revolutionize how citizens connect with city halls. “Where, today, resident feedback often comes too late to make changes in plans for a city park or a commercial development, New Rochelle is leveraging existing and proven technology to bring people in early enough to make a difference,” said Vijay Kumar, professor at the IIT Institute of Design.

Philadelphia

“The projects that moved me the most were the ones committed to helping kids,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy. “When I went to Philadelphia and saw young people’s incredible response to the city’s prototype, I was inspired and impressed.” Currently, when youth are arrested in Philadelphia, even for low-level offenses, they’re put in the same concrete cells as adults. Now, the city is creating a child-centered, trauma-informed Juvenile Justice Hub, where arrested youth will meet with social service workers instead of police officers and, as often as possible, be directed into social services rather than the juvenile justice system.

South Bend, Ind.

“I know from my time as CEO at Xerox how hard it can be for late-night and shift workers to get to work, especially in small or mid-size cities with fewer mass-transit options,” Ursula Burns said in describing the merits of South Bend’s winning idea, which is to connect employers with ride-share companies to help their employees get to and from work. “Success will mean helping these people keep their jobs, and that, in itself, could make all the difference in the world.”

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Celebrating public sector progress and innovation in cities around the world. Run by @BloombergDotOrg’s Government Innovation program. bloombergcities.org

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