Few public officials are as close to the ground as America’s mayors and, in general, they seem to agree on what needs fixing in the country today.
Not surprisingly, economic development and infrastructure top the list. Downtown development is a consistent theme across U.S. cities, big and small, with an eye toward people-based strategies.
“Primarily targeting the people who live in cities and leveraging them as an asset for economic growth,” says Christiana McFarland, research director at the National League of Cities (NLC). “So thinking about arts and culture, whether it's new art installations that can bring additional quality of life to the city that helps attract and retain trained people who want to live in the city and then also become the workforce for the city.”
Each year, the NLC analyzes examines speeches given by the nation’s mayors in order to gain insight into the state of American cities. This year, NLC says it looked at 153 speeches given by mayors of cities and towns nationwide between January 2019 and April 2019.
Mayors in the American Midwest, hard hit by the decline of manufacturing industries, are rethinking their economic development strategies as larger industries potentially leave their communities.
“What assets do they have currently in their community? How can they continue to grow the businesses that have been there for a long time that want to invest in the community?” McFarland says. “How can they think about what's next on the horizon in terms of new business creation as well. So we're seeing mayors, in particular in the Midwest, think about economic development in a new way.”
Parks and recreation is important to mayors, who are looking to enhance the quality of life for residents. Forty-six percent of mayors discussed the issue at length in 2019, compared to 34% last year. Their focus is on expanding parks, recreation facilities and related activities. That could include anything from more sports programs, farmers markets, and playgrounds that encourage developmental play.
The environment is an emerging trend on the list of priorities for the nation’s mayors. In 2019, 41% of U.S. mayors discussed the environment, up from 25% last year. They are looking at issues related to recycling, trash and sustainability.
There is renewed focus on the issue now that China — which used to recycle half the world’s waste plastic, paper and metals — has banned the import of several categories of solid waste, including plastics and unsorted scrap paper.
This year, America’s mayors continue to talk about housing.
“We're seeing issues around blight and fair housing as well as eviction prevention and tenant protection,” McFarland says. “There's some emerging issues in the housing space when it comes to affordable housing.”
When it comes to the opioid crisis, McFarland says there’s been a big transition in how mayors approach the epidemic. One hundred and thirty people die each day in the United States from opioid-related drug overdoses, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“We've noticed that mayors began talking more about longer term solutions, understanding that this isn't just an immediate drug problem, but there are a whole host of issues involved in making this the crisis that it is today,” McFarland says.