As soon as we stepped out of the airport and onto the nearby platform for MAX Rail, my colleague Sarah Craft and I knew we weren’t in Detroit anymore. For only $2.50, this clean, quick, quiet light rail system whisked us to downtown Portland, where we got off just a block from our hotel – and the site of the National League of Cities State League Staff Workshop.

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Live music at Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland

Along the ride, several locals noticed our suitcases and engaged us in friendly conversation, asking us where we were from, where we were going, and pointing out local landmarks. We passed a farmer’s market, gatherings of food trucks, public plazas designed for concerts and other fun community activities, and walkable streets filled with people streaming in and out of stores, restaurants and offices. In short, we saw placemaking in action.

All of this set the stage for the State League Staff Workshop, the reason for our visit to Portland. We were part of a large contingent of league staffers from around the country who had come to learn and share their knowledge. As a first-timer, I discovered that state leagues come in all sizes – some as small as 2 or 3 staff members – but we all have the same dedication to the cities and towns we represent.

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Right off the bat, I was impressed with the generosity of my fellow workshop participants. At the Communications Networking Roundtable, everyone chimed in with questions and suggestions on everything from convention and video apps to social media strategies. When we broke into sessions, league staffers shared successes and lessons learned on a number of topics. One of my favorite sessions was on PR. The League of Arizona Cities and Towns showcased their Arizona Cities @ Work PR campaign, designed to highlight the great work being done in their cities. Samantha Womer and Rene Guillen brought plenty of campaign “bling” – mugs, tote bags, lanyards and more – which they gladly offered to everyone in the room.

My other favorite session was Don’t Reinvent Content … Reuse, Recycle, Reformat for Maximum Impact. Mary Brantner of the Municipal Association of South Carolina and Jennifer Stamps of the Texas Municipal League made the point that people generally need to see or hear something seven times to really get the message. They then shared ideas on how to publish content in a variety of formats on different platforms to meaningfully reach your members.

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Voodoo Doughnut

When I wasn’t engaged in a session, I took the opportunity to explore a little of downtown Portland. Just a block away was Pioneer Courthouse Square, affectionately known as Portland’s Living Room. This urban park hosts events almost every day of the year. I was lucky enough to enjoy live lunchtime music one day and sand sculptures the next day. Since there is no sales tax in Oregon, I made a quick dash into Macy’s and snapped up some summer bargains. I relished the local cuisine at Bottle & Kitchen and Clarklewis Restaurant. And, oh yeah, I definitely made a side trip to Portland’s infamous Voodoo Doughnut. At the 3rd Avenue location, placemaking had turned the alley alongside the shop into an inviting space with picnic tables and attractive landscaping. I soaked up the morning sun at one of those tables as I munched on a yummy chocolate-glazed old fashioned doughnut.

Strava's heat map of bike/walk activity in Midland shows the popularity of that city's recreational trails--but surprisingly little bike/walk access to the major employment center.

Strava’s heat map of bike/walk activity in Midland shows the popularity of that city’s recreational trails–but surprisingly little bike/walk access to the major employment center.

Fitness tracking app Strava recently began offering its data—millions of walking, jogging, and cycling trips around the world—to cities and transportation agencies. For a price, of course: this is a revenue stream for the app developers…so what’s in it for the public agencies? As Gizmodo explains, bike/walk traffic data is traditionally much harder for agencies to collect than traffic data, but, with apps like this, “we’re all walking sensors now:”

Strava’s first customer, Oregon’s Department of Transportation, paid $20,000 for data from nearly 20,000 cyclists in hopes that it might help them figure out how to handle the steadily increasing bike traffic in cities like Portland. “Right now, there’s no data. We don’t know where people ride bikes,” Jennifer Dill, a professor and urban planner at Portland State University, told The Wall Street Journal. “Just knowing where the cyclists are is a start.”

This type of data can support placemaking efforts, especially as we look to support walkability and offer residents a range of transportation options: knowing where people choose to walk, jog, and bike—and where they don’t—helps us diagnose our community’s streets and target improvements.

Know your data’s limits—and leverage them

This can’t be done without some caution, though. As many commenters on the Gizmodo piece point out, the Strava dataset includes two biases that we need to consider in our planning.

The first issue is a self-selection bias: since the data is collected by smartphone users using the app, it only measures the habits of people whose income, age, and comfort with technology lead them to seek out and use smartphone apps to track their travel. Also, as the app is targeted at “fitness” users, it will likely be skewed to those trips, and include a smaller sample of people who are walking or biking to work, school, shopping districts, or other destinations. Even those app users who are tracking their bicycling commute are likely to be biking by choice—rather than being forced to because they lack access to an automobile. The app data will be less useful in identifying the travel patterns and needs of low-income residents and others who walk and bike out of necessity.

The second concern is a confirmation bias: because of that skew in who the users are and why they are traveling, they are more likely to have the luxury of choosing routes that already work well for biking and walking. This data will point to heavy activity on the scenic rail trails and state park trail loops, while overlooking the people who brave dangerous freeway interchanges on foot to get to work, or the road that could deliver recreational cyclists into downtown, if only it had a bike lane.

Strava's walking heat map shows the already high-quality rail trail near EMU's campus, while completely overlooking the more hostile, but still heavily used, Huron Street / I-94 interchange.

Strava’s walking heat map shows the already high-quality rail trail near EMU’s campus, while completely overlooking the more hostile, but still heavily used, Huron Street / I-94 interchange.

Because of these, planners should therefore be double-checking the Strava data against conditions on the ground. While the data might point to highly-traveled routes that need some improvements, in many cases, the outcome should actually be to improve the biking and walking experience on routes that Strava users are NOT recording.

If on-site observations or neighborhood engagement show that certain streets are critical walking and biking routes for day-to-day essential travel, but the travelers using fitness apps are avoiding those routes, then planners should be asking why: what’s wrong with those routes that causes travelers with choices to avoid the, and how can they be made better for those travelers with no choice? Not only will this use of the data serve a broader segment of additional residents, it will also help extend the attraction of a community’s downtown districts and other major nodes by bridging current barriers.

Share and share alike: supporting virtuous cycles

In many cases, privately developed apps rely on the availability of public data to function, either directly or implicitly. Transit app Ototo, for example, wants to tell transit planners what people are searching for, so they know where people want to go, but it can only serve metro areas where the transit agencies have published open data sets. By providing ready access to public datasets, local communities (and state agencies) can support the private development of apps, which can then feed data back to the communities on how people are using the apps—and, by extension, how people are interacting with the places around them.

Several efforts try to help public bodies shorten this cycle even further: organizations like Code For America, or events like the National Day of Civic Hacking (coming up May 31-June 1!) bring motivated software developers together to design, prototype, and build new applications for public data. In order to have the greatest benefit for communities, though, these efforts need access to both data and the public sector staffers who know the subject matter.

As mobile apps continue to grow in popularity and capabilities, cities should continue to look for ways to leverage the data generated—and to support the process with data of their own. Even though the field of mobile apps is only a few years old, cities and states that have engaged effectively are already benefiting.

When I think of Europe, I think of castles, fountains, sculptures, and people sitting at charming outdoor cafes on cobblestone streets sipping coffee or an aperitif. (What is an aperitif? I don’t know–but it fits in with my image). One thing I never would have associated with Europe is lack of reasons for people to visit or move there.

U.S. McCloy Fellows and hosts at Puckler's Castle in Cottbus

U.S. McCloy Fellows and hosts at Puckler’s Castle in Cottbus

Imagine my surprise when I was in the German city of Oldenburg in September, to hear the mayor voice his concerns over attracting talent to his city.

Oldenburg Mayor Prof. Dr. Gerd Schwandner

Oldenburg Mayor Prof. Dr. Gerd Schwandner

He is a fan of Richard Florida’s book Rise of the Creative Class on attracting talent, providing technology, and practicing tolerance. He incorporated the three “Ts” (talent, technology, and tolerance) to his vision of the city’s future. It struck me immediately that this mayor was avant garde. He wanted to get rid of the “good ol‘ boys network,” so he eradicated some previous traditions, such as changing the guest list for the opening day of a big market. He passed over mayors and other potentates in his region and in their place invited more women, more young people, and people from a mix of cultural backgrounds.

Town criers with U.S> McCloy Fellows at the opening of Kramermarkt

Town criers with U.S. McCloy Fellows at the opening of Kramermarkt

The mayor is invested in changing things in his city and making it more welcoming to people of different ethnicities. “The idea of tolerance and integration fits in perfectly with our self-conception. Oldenburg regards itself as a modern city in a modern society. We appreciate the communication and mutual exchange with people from all over the world, we seek and keep friendship with them. In return, they contribute new views and insights to our community and make our city a better place.”  The city has developed an integration pamphlet, and has a city department dedicated to integration, “The demographic development of Oldenburg shows that the city is dependent on the immigration of qualified workers from other countries.”

This went over like a ton of bricks. But he was savvy enough to realize that he couldn’t go full throttle with his vision—he needed to gently bring his citizens along with him. So, he added another “T” to the city’s motto: Tradition. The photo of the gentleman in “uniform” should clue you in on the city’s deep sense of tradition. This is the uniform of the town crier—the official who would go to the public square and announce the news of the day (like the town crier in London at the hospital announcing the birth of Prince William’s baby). The tradition is centuries old and people are not ready to chuck tradition yet.

This experience reinforced my belief in need for municipalities to think about their futures and how they are going to remain viable. Will all your young people move away and not come back? When they want to settle down and raise a family, what will draw them back to you? Will you have the amenities they desire? Because they will choose a place that offers what they want, and research shows they want technology, sustainability, walkability, a place that is welcoming to all, with art & culture. If European cities are concerned, Michigan cities should be concerned, too.

At the end of March, the League will be hosting four German fellows (through the McCloy Fellowship for Urban Affairs). Where will we take them? What will we show them? These were the questions that went through our minds. What we came up with is a behind-the scenes look at innovative projects in the city of Detroit. Detroit is crucial to a thriving Michigan, and it is getting a lot of international media coverage, and not the good kind. We are going to take this opportunity to show an international audience the Detroit that induces a passion in the people that love it—the sense of being able to make a difference, the perseverance of dogged individuals to make their city a better place.

starsightImagine a natural disaster knocking out your local power and telephone grids. A city in the Republic of Congo has planned ahead for that potential problem, with a system that combines solar-powered street lighting and internet access in a wireless configuration.

Looking for an inspirational approach to recycling that can generate income for the poor or developmentally disabled? In Cairo, Egypt, local officials have developed innovative partnerships that boost the supply-and-demand for creatively recycled materials. recycling

It used to be common practice to look no farther than our local neighbors for ideas and solutions that could be translated to meet our own community’s challenges. But today’s global economy has transformed our world into a smaller place, where a rapid transit system in Guangzhou, China might be just the ticket to solve our own Complete Streets challenge…or a global village design in Pakistan could provide the perfect low-cost model for emergency housing after a local tornado or flood.

Design With the Other 90%: CITIES is one in a series of themed exhibitions curated by the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, that demonstrate how design can be a dynamic force in transforming lives, by addressing the basic needs of the “other 90%” of the world’s population not typically served by the design community.

But the truly valuable revelation here is how often these “global solutions” can help spark us to reimagine the way we approach our own issues right here at home. Even an exotic innovation in some distant, emerging economy could have a practical application in our local backyard. Check out their website and be prepared to be inspired!