Published on Sustainable Cities

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Cities

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  1. Number SevenBe Proactive. There’s much any city can do today. Even without sufficient budget or authorization from ‘senior levels’ of government, every city has a full menu of things that can be carried out immediately, generating positive momentum and goodwill. Business rewards the active entrepreneur, and the public desperately wants active cities. The rewards are great.
  2. Plan – Plan Right. All cities carry out master plans for their key services, long-term infrastructure needs, and land use planning. Before starting these plans, the end needs to be clear. They are guidance documents, aspirational, and ways to rally supporters and give fair hearing to opponents. But a plan, no matter how good, can never be seen as a finished product. Before starting the plan an agreement is needed that the city is moving forward on this issue: the plan is the vehicle to bring along as many supporters as possible and identify potential potholes and trouble en route. Like a city, good plans are living documents. 
  3. Put First Things First. How many cities have we visited where they are building a new grand City Hall, yet much of the garbage still isn’t being collected or the water isn’t flowing? A city’s priorities should be basic services, professionalism and quality of staff, clear metrics, a reliable ongoing base budget, and nurturing a respectful two-way conversation with its residents. All great buildings need a solid foundation.
  4. Think Win/Win. Yes, ‘win/win’ is over-used jargon, but for cities it’s true - there’s only one voter and one taxpayer (even in non-democratic countries). A healthy friction between the different levels of government is desirable; so too guarded but respectful caution between the regulator-or-customer city and the private sector. However in all these relationships the city will not win in the long term if the other party loses.
  5. Listen and Learn. Cities are complicated and every one is unique, yet there is great comradery between cities and an unlimited ability to learn from each other. There’s also enormous potential to learn from citizens, suppliers, and academia. A city is always a work in progress, a bit like an ad hoc jazz session where the mayor and senior administration might have an idea for the current score, but the rest of the orchestra and patrons are likely to have useful inputs of their own. They just need to be asked, listened to, and integrated into the new music.
  6. The Sum of the City. Cities are the world’s great integrators: all about synergy and opportunity. Good city managers are aware of just how magical an environment they oversee – and at times, how mysterious and unpredictable. Bureaucracies love to be ‘stove piped’. Cities are no different, but good cities have a way of including many perspectives in the big discussions, and ensuring that many (varied) hands make lighter (and more effective) work.
  7. Little, Little – Big, Big. As a 2008 New Year's Resolution, Mayor Mick Cornett challenged Oklahoma City to go on a diet with him – and lose a million pounds. He - and the city - did it. He did big things as mayor too, but starting with his own ‘little’ goal to get down to 175 pounds grew into an enormous citywide effort. Mayors can accomplish great things, but it’s often easiest to get there through lots of ‘little’ steps. Ask any good city advisor to wait in City Hall for an hour, or drive in from the airport, and they should be able to give you a good sense of the city’s bigger challenges, and a few ideas on what might be done quickly. Little, easy to spot things – both good and bad – have a way of multiplying quickly and in myriad ways. A little momentum can go a long way.

Adapted (sort of) from Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.


Dan Hoornweg

Professor and Jeff Boyce Research Chair, University of Ontario Institute of Technology

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