Saving Our Communities and the Nation Starts from the Ground Up

I help lead one of America's cities -- Portland, Oregon. It is known for being a well-planned city. It's not. At least, not as well as we want it to be. And not as well planned as every American city must be.

Our challenges? Our economic and academic disparities between white and non-white Portlanders have widened. Until recently, only 54 percent of our high school students graduated on time. And increasingly, global and national decisions impact our main streets as much or more than local City Council decisions. Your city likely faces these challenges, too.

On its own, the federal government cannot move cities forward at the necessary rate of reform. It's not the federal government's fault: The kind of strategic change this nation needs must start at the local level, but cities must figure out how to do this work in an era of shrinking budgets.

Meaningful statewide strategic planning is rare, prevented by lobbyists and politicos who too often gain advantage by stoking our real and perceived societal, partisan and geographic divides. Local governments are closer to our nation's residents and businesses than state and federal governments, and better positioned to understand and address their unique challenges.

We need plans based less on politics and more on the facts; plans with integrated strategies and a short list of specific measures to provide public accountability for real results.

Can local government strategic planning really make a difference? Absolutely. When we plan well, we make progress on some of society's toughest problems.

For example, Portland's last city plan, developed over 30 years ago, focused on limiting sprawl, urban renewal, light rail (instead of highways) and helped to inspire new business sectors, including clean-tech. As a result, we have lowered total carbon emissions 6 percent while the rest of the U.S. has increased more than 10 percent. And, we've done it while growing our population and jobs.

When I became mayor of Portland, we began the process of creating a new kind of strategic plan that adds a critical element: a new focus on the success of our people.

We've just completed what we call "The Portland Plan," the result of more than two years of research, over 300 public events and 20,000 comments from residents, academics, youth, workers, businesses and nonprofits. It's not just a plan from city government. More than 20 public agencies that spend an estimated $8 billion annually inside the boundaries of Portland shaped the plan's direction and its actions. By sharing the responsibility, they also share the savings and efficiencies that flow from the plan. This week our City Council adopted the plan.
Our new plan integrates actions to make Portland prosperous, educated, healthy and equitable.

I am encouraged when I see how far we've come, particularly in the areas of prosperity and education. It's still early, but we're seeing promising results: We exceeded our goal of creating 10,000 net new jobs with Portland's first economic development strategy in 16 years. We launched the first Metro Export Initiative in the country in conjunction with the Brookings Institution, and we now have a coordinated, regional strategy that calls on us to double our exports in five years.

For the first time in decades, we are seeing increased high school graduation rates. We convened a partnership called Cradle to Career, which has mobilized the community into a regional support network for education. We invested in innovative programs including Ninth Grade Counts, which serves as an 8th grade summer school. Another program, SummerYouth Connect, reaches the kids who are most at-risk of dropping out of high school. And, our local Future Connect Scholarships come with academic supports to help students earn a college degree.

Since all the areas in the Portland Plan are interconnected, success in one area is designed to improve them all. For example, increasing graduation rates also benefit the economy -- that stabilizes our community and helps to level the playing field. Similarly, building sidewalks and bike lanes in underserved neighborhoods helps promote physical activity and provides better access to schools and local businesses.

Implementing this plan may sound expensive, but it's not: it is first and foremost about doing more and better with the dollars we already have and by taking single actions that have multiple benefits. Instead, by working across agencies, we can better leverage limited resources.

A plan such as this certainly helps its own community, but it can also inform the state and the nation. If more locales had integrated strategic plans, they would use resources more efficiently; in turn, that might inspire state and federal governments that are more grounded, realistic and effective.

Prosperous, educated, healthy, equitable. Taken together, these four interlocking goals of our Portland Plan are the building blocks of a self-reliant city, a Portland where people truly thrive. I hope local governments in all metropolitan regions will join us.