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Introducing the City Accelerator's Third Cohort

Four municipalities will focus on innovative ways to finance infrastructure.

They want to fortify, scale and sustain. From seawalls to stairs, streetlights to stormwater, Pittsburgh, Saint Paul, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., are setting ambitious targets as they join the City Accelerator’s Infrastructure Finance cohort.

In December 2015, the Citi Foundation and Living Cities invited approximately 40 of the nation’s largest cities for an opportunity to explore a new set of financing options to help address the funding gaps for high priority capital projects. Chiefs of staff and senior policy advisors to mayors, who form the Project on Municipal Innovation, submitted data-rich presentations in their applications to the City Accelerator. The desire for cities to build, maintain and repair infrastructure that protects the future and the past was palpable and the need to fund projects differently is urgent.

Acknowledging their budget constraints, limited means of additional revenue creation and other challenges, the four cities selected for the Infrastructure Finance cohort are representative of cities throughout the country. Municipal leaders are searching for immediate and multi-generational strategies -- that is, ways the significant investment of previous centuries can be preserved and upgraded to make their cities thriving 21st-century urban markets. Most of all, local governmental leaders want to increase equity by managing public assets and dollars more effectively so that low-income residents are beneficiaries of the built environment.

This is the third cohort of the City Accelerator and it is designed to bring cross-departmental city teams together who are seeking to be at the cutting-edge of financing capital projects but have formidable obstacles to making their initiatives a reality. With expertise provided by an infrastructure finance expert and an 18-month timeframe, city teams will be able to speed their discovery, implementation, and adoption of financing mechanisms that will allow them to flex creatively with existing resources and attract new investments. Through collective ideation and exposure to best-in-class models, cities will be able to try new financing tools and policy levers, taking what works and applying it to scale on the priority projects in their infrastructure pipeline.

We chose the four cities because they correlate their success on closing budget gaps in their capital plans to expanded physical and economic mobility, reactivated land for affordable housing and jobs, and increased public safety. In short, they want to make their cities a better place for all residents. A summary of their challenges are:

The city of Pittsburgh needs a financing package to systematically repair hundreds of municipally-owned assets including 700+ sets of public stairways that provide safe passage to main roads and transit. Lessons from Pittsburgh’s efforts to maintain and finance a highly visible, heavily relied upon, and non-revenue generating public infrastructure resource will be invaluable. The city has already engaged thousands of city residents on a major step inventory/step count as part of its comprehensive approach to infrastructure planning.

Saint Paul
will navigate a balancing act between environmental sustainability and economic growth—a challenge many other cities can relate to and learn from. The city wants to help offset the high upfront costs of addressing stormwater management issues that are stifling the progress of three large-scale brownfield (vacant industrial sites) redevelopment projects.  Saint Paul hopes to create a shared stormwater district that will realign roles, responsibilities, and management practices across many city agencies involved in capital project finance and implementation.

A long-term municipal financing plan is necessary for San Francisco’s coastal seawall, which protects vital public transportation assets and land designated for affordable housing on a parcel adjacent to the Port of San Francisco. The city’s resiliency efforts rely on determining avenues that would allow for upgrades now and ongoing maintenance costs over several decades. San Francisco’s focus, which combines the challenge of maintaining a non-revenue generating public infrastructure resource and the environmental sustainability component with social equity and disaster mitigation, will provide insight into coordinating competing factors.

Washington, D.C., launched one of the only Offices of Public-Private Partnerships at the city level. Responsible for identifying private sector partnerships to finance projects on infrastructure in low-income neighborhoods — including streetlights, school facilities, public-housing units, and homeless and emergency shelters — Washington, D.C.’s new office will serve as a model for other cities across the country.

If these descriptions are not compelling enough to bend collective will towards better financing of public works, then perhaps their “story maps” will. In partnership with Esri, a company focused on bringing meaning to maps and data through GIS technology, we asked the cities to translate their applications to a visual representation of their challenges. From residents to policy makers, finance professionals and environmental activists, the Story Maps of five cities seen here compelled commenters during the public viewing period to wax poetic about what urban infrastructure means. We are excited to continue to explore how data visualization will spur new ways of making critical decisions about how we plan, prioritize and devote resources to public assets that contribute to increasing economic opportunity for low-income people.

The demand for improved infrastructure financing and planning is clear. As a nation, we have fallen way out of pace with other countries. China is devoting 9 percent of their GDP to infrastructure, Japan 6 percent, Europe 5 percent, and the U.S. only 1.5 percent. The responsibility is being taken up by local governments and they need support to identify mechanisms that work and a vehicle for exchanging ideas with other cities around the country and the world. So we are thrilled to bring together city teams who are dedicating the time of directors across four city departments: economic development, planning and public works, economic development, and the mayor’s office for a year-and-a-half to come up with solutions for their cities and that cities outside the cohort can learn from and adopt.

It is estimated that every dollar invested into our national infrastructure increases economic output by at least two dollars; this creates jobs upfront – and then provides economic dividends for decades. Living Cities and the Citi Foundation invite you to follow the work of the Infrastructure Finance cohort, contribute ideas from your city, and support innovation by local governments now that will result in public works that benefit generations of Americans to come.    

Senior Vice President for Financial Inclusion and Sustainable Cities at Citi Foundation
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