It’s the end of the year, so I’m taking some time to do a little inventory of the projects highlighted by the finalist communities in the All-American City Award. The award is given to communities for outstanding civic accomplishments. Each finalist community gives a description of three projects in their applications. Counting and categorizing the different projects gives me a unique perspective on the issues that are reoccupying American communities in any given year.
Obviously, it’s not a scientific survey, and there are certain factors that may skew the results. For instance, most of these projects are at least five years old, so it may reflect a lag effect. Also, we have to factor in the not-always-so-subtle clues the National Civic League gives to communities based on our organizational priorities in a given year.
In 2011, the third year of a serious economic crisis, one might expect the finalist communities to be focused laser-like on job creation and economic development. Indeed, there were a large number of community projects in this year’s competition related to jobs and the economy, there always are, but surprisingly the largest number of any category among the 2011 finalists was environmental sustainability, of which there were 14 projects.
In fact, one community, Kenai, Alaska, focused all of its projects on the environment. Lakeview, Oregon, had two projects in the alternative energy area. This focus on the environment may reflect the National Civic League’s recent emphasis on environmental sustainability as a community engagement goal, or it could reflect the fact that communities feel they may have more control over their local environments these days than over jobs and the economy - very much influenced these days by national and even global trends. The emphasis on environmental sustainability at the local levels seems to be a long-term trend that bodes well for the health of the planet.
The next highest number of projects was in the area of neighborhood and commercial revitalization. This is always a popular area among All-America Cities. Revitalizing a once neglected neighborhood or commercial area is a tangible way of improving the quality of life in communities, and it is something for which city councils and city managers are held accountable. There were eight of these projects. (Admittedly, the commercial revitalization projects in most instances could have fallen into the jobs and economic development area).
There were seven community projects to improve educational outcomes, a number that probably reflects NCL’s instruction in the applications form to list at least one project that is youth led or youth serving. But it is also increasingly clear to local officials and civic activists that entire communities should take a more active role in improving educational outcomes, not just parents, students, teachers and school districts.
There were six projects related to jobs and the economy or economic development. Again, my only surprise there was that were not more of them. The surprise—or trend—that I see is that there were also six projects related to health and wellness, a growing area of activity by many communities.
More and more local officials and civic groups are seeing the health of community members as an indicator of the desirability and strength of the community. I’ve already blogged about Ann Arbor’s standout farmers’ market and its efforts to get low income residents and food stamps recipients to eat healthier. Another interesting project is in Beloit, Wisconsin.
Rock County Youth2Youth is an initiative consisting of 200 seventh to twelfth grade students who get training on the harmful effects of tobacco and go around to schools and city leaders to give presentations. According to the Beloit All-America City applications, there was a 38 percent reduction in the number of Rock County high school smokers in eight years, a 53 percent reduction in middle school smokers, a 19 percent reduction in adult smokers, and a 12 percent drop in cigarette sales.
The Smoke-Free Air project engaged 400-500 young people who worked closely with Beloit over eight years to make the city smoke-free. They petitioned and talked to community and city council members about the advantage of being a smoke-free city. Four yeasts ago, Beloit became one of thirty-seven cities in Wisconsin to go smoke-free thanks to the partnership between Y2Y, city council, and the city staff of Beloit.
Going back over these projects reminds me what an impressive groups of finalist communities we had in 2011. The jury of civic experts who selected the ten winners had a tough time eliminating some of these contenders from the final ten. Maybe we should come up with an official All-America City calendar with big glossy photos of award-winning community projects. Something to consider for New Year’s resolutions in 2012.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.