As people increasingly embrace urban life, it’s ever clearer that crowded, complex cities simply must work. Politics and provincialism can’t get in the way of performance.
Now, with the federal government locked in partisan disagreement over how much of a role, if any, it should play in people’s lives, the breakthroughs on many of the most acute civic problems are coming from America’s city halls.
Mayors and other top city officials are the busy urban mechanics charged with ensuring their communities not only function but thrive. Consumed with their daily responsibilities, they have neither time nor teaching to evolve from managers into civic trailblazers. To change that, the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative is working to boost the effectiveness of today’s local leaders while also building a pipeline to train the next generation.
To further that goal, 16 Harvard students embedded themselves for 10 weeks this summer in mayors’ offices around the country in a new fellows program targeting persistent local problems. These efforts ranged from helping officials in Laredo, Texas, understand why a third of households remain in poverty for generations, to developing a comprehensive plan in Charleston, S.C., to confront the shortage of affordable housing, to assisting low-income parents of children up to age 3 in Baton Rouge, La., to ensure they are ready for kindergarten.
The Gazette traveled to those three heartland cities to learn about the fellows’ projects, to see how they were making a difference, and to chronicle how being immersed in cities, working side-by-side with officials and staff, influenced their sense of what government can accomplish. The Gazette also spoke with mayors and city leaders about the impact of the fellows’ work.
Here’s how the program is playing out on the ground.
Mapping patterns of poverty in Laredo, Texas