5 Outside-The-Box Ideas To Change U.S. Cities For The Better

The Mayor’s Challenge is a contest run by Bloomberg Philanthropies to find the best ideas bubbling out of our cities–from data mining to turning foreclosed houses into urban farms.

5 Outside-The-Box Ideas To Change U.S. Cities For The Better
Chicago via Shutterstock

It’s a theme that we’ve touched on over and over at Co.Exist: Cities are in a better position to enact real change than a stagnant federal government. Across the U.S., cities are coming up with replicable ideas that can change the way we all live for the better.


Bloomberg Philanthropies, a philanthropic organization created by New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg, is fueling 20 of the best ideas with the Mayor’s Challenge, a competition for local governments to improve the way their cities work by taking on social and economic problems, improving customer service, enhancing accountability to the public, and making government work more effectively.

The competition, which was open to all U.S. cities with at least 30,000 residents, saw 305 applications pour in.” We wanted to see ideas that were bold and visionary, had a meaningful implementation plan, the potential for breadth or depth of impact, replicability, and were responsive to issues many cities face,” explains James Anderson, the head of the Government Innovation program at Bloomberg Philanthropies. The 20 finalists that were ultimately chosen came from cities as diverse as Houston, Texas; Phoenix, Arizona; and Santa Monica, California.

Chicago’s Bloomberg-worthy idea: creating an open-source analytics program for the city’s numerous data sources. “At a real high level, the idea is that the city has enormous amounts of data, and lots of systems ranging from 311 to licensing to 911. Historically they have remained quite siloed. What we’ve been doing over the past year is starting to bring all this data together,” says Brett Goldstein, Chicago’s first chief data officer.

That sounds at first blush like what a lot of cities are trying to do with their data. But Chicago’s open-source idea has a twist–it will be the first system that can conduct real-time pattern detection using data that comes in from disparate data sources. Most municipalities have all sorts of different legacy systems (like 911 and 311), and typically, governments try to standardize them across the enterprise. That’s a pricey way to go, though. Instead, says Goldstein, Chicago is taking a big data platform, putting it in the middle of all these legacy systems, and extracting data rapidly from the different sources. “It’s the idea of creating a platform with data of all shapes and sizes,” explains Goldstein.

Chicago has already built much of the foundation for the platform already. “We found one real localized area in the city that when the alley lights go out, garbage cans disappear. That’s kind of interesting because in that part of the city there’s an opportunity to start preventing that sort of behavior. [The system] allows you to start being preventative. You find a pattern, prevent it, and change outcomes,” says Goldstein.

And that’s just the beginning. Chicago, which has a number of ongoing open-data programs, will continue to work on the platform over the next couple years, potentially with some cash from Bloomberg. The winner of the Mayor’s Challenge will take home $5 million and four runners-up will get $1 million.


Chicago has some worthy challengers. Here are our favorites:

  • Phoenix, Arizona, wants to create “smart energy districts” in 15 urban communities that will work on integrating smart grids, renewable energy, cool roofs, urban agriculture, and other sustainable projects into their plans. The goal: to turn Phoenix into the Smartest Energy City in the World. The city has a long way to go; it has in the past been called the world’s least sustainable city.
  • Hillsboro, Oregon, plans to build transportation hubs in the city that aim to increase bikesharing, ridesharing, carsharing, vanpools, and use of electric vehicles. The GoPoint Hillsboro program would, for example, push public transportation riders to use shared bikes to complete their journeys instead of bringing bikes with them.
  • Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s, HOME GR/OWN program will make use of the city’s almost 4,000 foreclosed homes and vacant lots by dedicating them to urban farming and homesteading.
  • Houston, Texas, plans to build the first total material resource recovery facility in the U.S., allowing it to divert 75% of its waste stream while still having residents put all their trash in a single bin. The city believes that its system will “divert more municipal solid waste than any other large city in the nation, improve air quality, save money, change the way citizens think about materials, reduce extraction of raw materials, and influence other cities to embrace this transformation.”

Bloomberg Philanthropies will announce the winners in Spring 2013.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.