Otis White is president of Civic Strategies Inc., an Atlanta-based firm that does collaborative and strategic planning for local governments and civic organizations. He also writes frequently about civic leadership and change, in his blog at and in national publications such as the New York Times. He originated the Urban Notebook feature on in 2002, posting daily for five years.

In 2012, White published a multimedia book, "The Great Project: How a Single Civic Project Changed a City," for reading on an iPad. He hosts podcasts about civic leadership and is helping to create an annual event called the Civic Exchange to explore urban successes and how they come about. You can learn more about him at the Civic Strategies website.

August 7, 2019

A Reservoir for Civic Progress

How can a community learn from its civic projects and build on them? There are lessons in Baton Rouge's years-long effort to establish a center for people suffering from mental illness or substance abuse.
April 3, 2019

The Teamwork That Drives a Great Civic Project

As Buffalo's former mayor demonstrated, to bring the right people together you have to know what it takes to make a project succeed.
December 12, 2018

How a Smart Mayor Can Harness the Strength of a Nonprofit

The turnaround of Central Park is more than an urban success story. It's about shared responsibility and trading power for results.
August 29, 2018

How Communities Can Thrive in a Post-Newspaper World

As a suburb of Atlanta has shown, the key is creating an army of informed and engaged citizens.
May 9, 2018

7 Elements of Great Civic Projects

Progress comes two ways to cities: in inches or in great leaps. Both are needed, but they follow different paths.
February 7, 2018

Want to Fix State Government? Ask the Experts.

Cities have learned a lot from convening citizens and listening to them. States should give it a try.
October 18, 2017

The New York Marathon Grew Out of an Odd Relationship, Creativity and a Little Luck. Cities, Take Note.

The story of the iconic race offers a good lesson in how to make room for grand civic ideas.
July 20, 2017

A Better Way to Teach Civic Leadership

The programs we have are pretty good, but they need to keep graduates engaged and deepen their learning.
April 12, 2017

The Worst Idea in Government Management: Pay for Performance

It hasn't worked that well in business. In the public sector, it has sometimes been disastrous.
January 11, 2017

Civic Collaboration’s Essential Elements

Governments are good at a lot of things, but innovation isn't one of them. That's where partners come in.
September 14, 2016

Are You a Micromanager? Get Over It.

Fiorello La Guardia, New York's legendary mayor, ran every aspect of the city from his desk. That's nothing to emulate.
June 8, 2016

The Loneliness of the Courageous Leader

Courage provides the strength to say and do the right things. It's also what separates the best of us from the crowd.
March 9, 2016

Civic Leaders and the ‘Why’ of Change

It's not enough to come up with a good idea. You need figure out how to build an army of supporters.
November 11, 2015

The Temperament of a Great Leader

How do you handle the insults that come with public life? Techniques can help, but the best leaders draw on something deeper.
August 5, 2015

The Long, Long Haul of Civic Progress

Projects that define cities are complex, difficult undertakings. We need a template for putting these efforts together.
May 13, 2015

Leadership as ‘a Kind of Genius’

What the best public-sector leaders do doesn't sound very exciting. It helps to be great at chess.
February 11, 2015

A Mayor’s Test for Good Decisions

Four questions are all you need. They're simple, but they're not easy.
October 21, 2014

Managing a Crisis Before It Happens

As a public leader, what you do before a calamity strikes is just as important as what you do once you're in the middle of it.
July 22, 2014

Why Blame Is the Death of Reform

Turning a governmental organization around requires a combination of partnership and trust. That can't happen as long as everybody is pointing fingers.
April 23, 2014

Leadership and the Tricky Politics of Public Opinion

Getting the public behind you is critical, but it isn't easy. Nobody did it better than Franklin D. Roosevelt.
January 29, 2014

Public Leaders and the Art of the Ask

Big problems are solved by collaboration. Asking people to do things is a skill every leader needs.
October 16, 2013

What's New in Cities ... and What's Truly New

Some of the changes we are seeing just make the old more efficient. But some will have a much deeper impact, and governments that apply old ways of thinking to them will be making a big mistake.
July 17, 2013

Managing the Visionistas

People who look at their cities and see extraordinary possibilities are a precious resource. Cultivating and handling them can be tricky.
April 24, 2013

Leadership and the Power of Killer Bees

Attacking a problem with a single masterstroke is appealing. But sometimes the best approach is swarming it from all directions.

Parking is Getting Smarter

Mike Langberg, a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, dropped by a conference on "smart parking" recently. What he found was mind-boggling. Among the big ideas: You'll be able to use the Internet to reserve a parking meter before leaving home. Even if you forget to make a reservation, a navigation screen in your dashboard will direct you to a vacant spot.

Do Cameras Prevent Crime?

The London bombings show the promise and limitations of surveillance cameras. In the July bombings, the cameras were extremely valuable as investigative tools, capturing the bombers and an accomplice on tape, but did nothing to deter the crime itself.

Paying to Parade

Last time you saw a parade, probably there were politicians perched on the back seats of convertibles or marching along, with supporters holding signs identifying them by name and office. If the parade was in Boston, then you can be sure that the grinning politicians paid for their places in the procession. It's a tradition, the Boston Globe reported recently.

We Buy, You Fly

When American Airlines pulled 200 daily flights out of St. Louis's Lambert Field airport in 2003, it wrecked the airport's finances. As you might have guessed, airports are weighted down with fixed costs-- things they must pay for regardless of how many people they serve, such as runways, terminals and baggage systems.

Don't Forget Philanthropists

Corporate leadership of cities is at an all-time low. Business consolidations swallowed many of the local banks and newspapers that once called the shots in cities, and globalization has broadened the horizons of surviving companies. But as CEOs step back, others are stepping forward, including philanthropists.

Creatures of the State

Mayor Bill White's efforts to speed traffic on Houston's freeways spawned the "Safe Clear" program, under which any car stalled on a city highway would immediately be towed away, even if it were in an emergency lane and the driver could fix the problem. Cost of the tows: $75. The public response was overwhelmingly negative. After a few weeks, White softened the program, directing that people with flat tires would be towed for free.

Developers (Heart) NY

In the future, we'll study different cities for how they managed the great urban turnaround at the end of the 20th century. We'll go to Philadelphia to learn how to revive a downtown and manage homelessness. We'll study Chicago for urban vision and street beautification.

Freeways (For a Fee)

Mark this in your diary: The great American free ride is fast coming to an end. In the years ahead, the solution to traffic congestion will be toll roads. From San Francisco to Houston, Washington, D.C. to Atlanta, transportation officials have decided that the next great wave of highway construction will come with an explicit price--and sometimes not a cheap one.
December 1, 2004

Drive-By Neighbors

The 18th-century historic district in Charleston, South Carolina, has become so popular that very wealthy people are buying homes there to live in for a few weeks a year. What's wrong with that? It makes the area more like a museum than a real neighborhood.
November 1, 2004

Artistic License?

Public art is a great thing, not least because of its ability to communicate complex ideas through symbolism. That was on the minds of city officials in the San Francisco suburb of Livermore, California, when they completed a new public library a few years ago and commissioned a $40,000 mural near the entrance to portray the tree of knowledge, with small portraits in its branches of great artists, writers, scientists and other historic figures.
October 1, 2004

Flipping Land, Not Flapjacks

How nutty is the housing market today? In Los Angeles, people with no background in real estate are buying empty lots, plunking down a house real quick and selling for big profits.
September 1, 2004

A Garden On Steroids

Three things about Chicago's new downtown Millennium Park are well known: It's spectacular, way over budget (original estimate: $150 million, final cost: $475 million) and four years overdue.
August 1, 2004

Sip, Don't Gulp, Your Water

It's a funny time to talk about this (it has been raining a lot in Texas lately), but Dallas is running out of water, and the problem is one of its own making.
July 1, 2004

Can't Buy Me Love

Sometimes love can't be easily explained. Take the affection that skateboarders have for Philadelphia's John F. Kennedy Plaza--better known as LOVE Park. This small park, just across from city hall and home of the bright-red sculpture with four letters--L-O-V-E--stacked in two rows, is the most popular site in all of urban skateboarding.
June 1, 2004

Game Over

In some parts of the country, playing sports in the street is part of the urban culture, like stickball in New York. Generations of suburban kids have grown up, too, with a basketball hoop on the cul-de-sac and after-school games.
May 1, 2004

Who Are You Calling a Hick?

Calvin Trillin, the New Yorker magazine writer, used to say that most cities not located on either coast suffered from "hickophobia," which was not the fear of hicks but the fear of being thought of as hicks. Imagine, then, the fears of Fargo, North Dakota.
April 1, 2004

Close, But Not Too Close

Shopping malls have a complicated relationship with public transit. Mall managers want buses to bring in shoppers and workers but don't want them to pull up too close to the door. Why? Various reasons are given, most having to do with safety, but class almost certainly plays a role.
March 1, 2004

A Touch of Soho in the 'Burbs

What's the big deal about living in a loft? The classic New York lofts of the 1970s, which were illegally converted factory spaces in a neighborhood called SoHo, were dingy, drafty and cheap. But sometime in the late 1980s, the idea of living in big undivided spaces with brick walls and exposed heating ducts overhead caught on.
February 1, 2004

A Team Grows in Brooklyn

What's the worst calamity ever to befall New York's borough of Brooklyn? Easy answer: losing the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team to Los Angeles in 1957. But now there's a serious effort to bring a big- time sports franchise to the borough.
January 1, 2004

Attention, Ken Lay

This sounds like something Enron would have dreamed up. Cities across the country are being visited by financiers with a startling offer: Lease us your sewer systems, transit lines or civic centers, and we'll give you a pot of money.
December 1, 2003

Stop That Infernal Quacking!

If you don't live in a city where they have duck tours, this may be a little hard to grasp, but duck tours are a big hit with tourists.
November 1, 2003

Thar She Blows!

Some homeowners in Miami are getting the shocks of their lives: toilets that erupt with sewage shooting two feet in the air--with all the unpleasantness you might imagine.
October 1, 2003

Secrets of A Turnaround

Can you turn around a place whose name is synonymous with urban blight? Surprisingly, yes. Example: Camden, New Jersey, the played-out factory town across the river from Philadelphia.
September 1, 2003

To Smell A Thief

Somebody keeps stealing garbage cans in Dallas, and it's causing a stink. Reason: These aren't your usual Rubbermaid trash cans; they're official City of Dallas receptacles, 90-gallon cans with wheels known as roll carts that are designed to work with automated garbage trucks.
August 1, 2003

Yes, We're Rich, But Please Don't Remind Us

Which city of 100,000 or more population has the greatest concentration of million-dollar homes? Star-studded Los Angeles? Nope. Chicago and its famous Gold Coast? Nah. Swanky New York? Not even close.
July 1, 2003

Dream Town Houses

The New Urbanist dream goes something like this: People will give up their sprawling, inefficient suburban homes on half-acres of land and embrace the joys of compact living in places served by public transit and convenient walkways to schools, parks and stores.
June 1, 2003

Five Feet Under

Life is tough in city halls across the country, with tax revenues declining and expenses rising. And, as it turns out, death isn't much better. In Danville, Virginia, the city council recently was struggling with how to hold down costs at the city's cemeteries when one council member made an interesting suggestion: Why not bury people five feet deep rather than six feet?
May 1, 2003

Change The Locks!

Guess who once was given a key to the city of Detroit: Saddam Hussein. The Detroit News discovered recently that in 1980 the Iraqi president was awarded a ceremonial key by a pastor of Detroit's Chaldean Christian community.
April 1, 2003

The Celebrity Shortage

If your community doesn't already have enough worries, here's one: You may be up against a celebrity gap. This is a particular problem for charities, which use movie stars, pop singers, athletic heroes, former presidents and big-time authors to draw donors to their fund-raising events. Clearly this isn't a problem in places such as Los Angeles or New York.
March 1, 2003

Birds of A Feather

One of the handiest concepts for understanding how cities develop is the notion of "clustering," developed by Harvard business professor Michael Porter. Simple concept: It holds that, in some highly developed industries, leading practitioners need to be near one another, even when logic and high land costs might suggest that it's better to disperse.
February 1, 2003

Dumb, Dumber, Dumbest

What is the dumbest local government in America? Hard to say, but at least until recently New York's affluent suburb of Nassau County would have to be a contender. How dumb was Nassau's government? So dumb that it bought 1,200 computers a few years ago as backups for the Y2K problem, then left them in boxes for three years as employees begged for upgrades.
January 1, 2003

Is Bigger Better?

Some cities have long had an appealingly simple answer to urban problems: annex their way out of them. The problem of cities, they say, is that affluent suburbs have surrounded them, so the secret is to annex those areas before they can incorporate.
December 1, 2002

Featured Foul-Ups

This is every public official's nightmare: The San Francisco Chronicle has started running daily photos and brief articles about government foul-ups. The first was a picture of graffiti defacing a city park's murals.
November 1, 2002

Mother Nature's Drainage Ditch

OK, so Houston's Buffalo Bayou isn't exactly the Seine. In fact, among urban rivers, it's one of the ugliest, a big, muddy stream that floods regularly.
October 1, 2002

Stay in School Forever

Something funny is happening to Atlanta's old school buildings. People are living in them. Already three public schools have been recycled into loft apartments, another is being developed and a fifth is up for sale and may join the trend.
September 1, 2002

No Mint on the Pillow?

Hotel owners and managers are usually the biggest boosters of their cities. Stands to reason: If outsiders want to visit a place, the hoteliers are the beneficiaries.
August 1, 2002

Trust Me

Los Angeles' subway system is installing turnstiles on one of its three lines. No, not new turnstiles. First-ever turnstiles. Incredibly, L.A.'s rail system has operated since 1993 without turnstiles.
July 1, 2002

Cowboy Diplomacy

It doesn't rank with Anwar Sadat's journey to Jerusalem, but it's close. The mayor of Dallas and four council members recently visited Fort Worth to ask for advice about reviving their downtown.