What Do the World’s Most Engaged Cities Have in Common?

What We Learned in the First Year of the Engaged Cities Award

By Myung Lee, Executive Director, Cities of Service

Community member paints mural as part of Santiago de Cali’s efforts to create safer neighborhoods. Credit: City of Santiago de Cali, Colombia

When the Cities of Service team first set out to create the Engaged Cities Award, we wanted to unearth and lift up the powerful work that cities around the world are doing to solve critical public problems. We had learned a lot in in our partnerships with cities all over the U.S. and several in the U.K., but we knew that there was more for us to learn and share with others — in hopes of inspiring cities around the world to tackle their own challenges in new and collaborative ways.

We received more than 100 applications from cities throughout the Americas and Europe and each one reinforced the importance of mayors and city leaders engaging citizens in effective leadership. These dynamic leaders were interested in collapsing barriers to citizen participation and building trust between leaders and citizens. But they didn’t want relationships in name only; they needed citizens to be engaged in order to develop the best solutions to shared challenges. And the relationships they forged have sustained their shared success. Most cities face a varied spectrum of challenges — and limited resources to tackle them. The ingenuity that comes with collaborative decision making was key in every instance.

The cities that were most successful in their efforts knew that they had to make real and lasting efforts to engage their citizens. They needed to think about — and ask citizens directly — what they needed and wanted in order to sustain their engagement. In many cases, these incentives, involved simply making sure their voices were heard, going into the communities to gather input, and communicating about challenges, expectations, and outcomes.

While the winning cities’ projects were very different, all of the mayors and city leaders operated from a similar belief set in terms of the importance of citizen engagement. They involved citizens as partners, and this partnership was critical to their success. Below are snapshots of collaborative problem solving processes from our three inaugural winning cities.

Enacting Legislation Empowers Citizens

In Bologna, Italy, it all started with a bench that some citizens wanted to repaint. The mayor and his team realized they needed to get five different authorizations just to approve this simple act of engagement, a process that made it infinitely more difficult than it should be for citizens to effect change in their communities. As a result, the city passed a regulation to streamline civic engagement, allowing citizens and local organizations to sign collaboration pacts — agreed upon interventions to improve public spaces — with the city.

“I didn’t expect to be a leader, but now I’m a leader in my community.”

About 480 collaboration pacts have been implemented to date. The city also created labs in its six districts to serve as hubs of innovation and collaboration with citizens with regular and ongoing opportunities for engagement. As a result, citizens feel more connected and are taking action in their community. Virginia Farina, a mother of a young girl, submitted a proposal during the city’s first-ever participatory budgeting process to make the area between the street and sidewalk in her neighborhood a garden where children could play. Her proposal was a winner (more than 14,000 people voted in total) and the garden is on its way to becoming a reality. “I didn’t expect to be a leader,” she says, “but now I’m a leader in my community.” For a video chronicling Bologna’s process, click here.

Model of public space co-designed by the city and community members. Credit: Cities of Service

Impact Volunteering Boosts City’s Capacity

Impact volunteering programs — through which cities asks their citizens for help in solving a significant problem by adding capacity, expertise, or both — are core to the work of Cities of Service and provided the basis for almost all of our early programming. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, constrained by a limited budget, Mayor Bynum’s election had galvanized local interest in civic participation. “There was tremendous interest communicated to me from throughout the community. People wanted to know how they could help and didn’t have a clear way to work with us,” Mayor Bynum said. At the same time, the city had a wealth of data on hand, but lacked the budget or staff capacity to fully explore it. The mayor hoped they could use the data to improve the lives of Tulsa’s citizens, and proposed a working group called Urban Data Pioneers.

The program engages teams of city employees and community members who volunteer their time to explore problems the city is facing through data analysis. An early cohort of Pioneers used city data to develop a model that helps the city determine how to prioritize street repairs. The model is now employed by the city and factors in pavement condition — the traditional benchmark for street projects — along with issues like traffic crashes, sidewalk gaps, ADA accessibility, bicycle infrastructure, and storm sewer overflow. One of the cohorts this fall focused on data such as water bills and prior evictions — both for landlords and tenants — that could help them identify new ways to lower eviction rates in Tulsa, a city that has faced has some of the highest eviction rates in the country.

Creating Social Infrastructure to End Violence

In Santiago de Cali, Colombia, the problems were dramatic — violence plagued the city. Drugs and gangs were rampant. Trust in the government was low and trust between neighbors was even lower. In 2016, Mayor Armitage implemented a broad restructuring of city government operations that included establishing the Peace and Civic Culture Secretariat with a mission, according to a government decree, to “design and implement policies, programs, and projects that prevent violence, peacefully resolve conflicts, promote and protect human rights, and foment a culture and pedagogy of peace and reconciliation.”

One of the Secretariat’s main initiatives is the development of mesas de cultura ciudadana, or civic culture councils, which are part of a 25-year effort to de-escalate violent conflict in Cali. Through these councils, neighbors work together on initiatives to build trust and inspire confidence in civic institutions. From massive community cleanups to soccer tournaments between once rival gangs, city staff and neighbors have come together in 15 areas of the city and impacted the lives of more than 15,000 residents of all ages. At one elementary school, where gang and drug activity prevented children from going to school, the local council organized cleanups of the schoolyard and recruited former gang members to paint murals around the sports court. The area is now clean and well lit, making it difficult for drug and gang activity to continue and attendance at the school has doubled.

A central element that all these winning cities shared was their mayor’s commitment to work with the city’s people. Each mayor saw their residents as valuable assets to their communities — and not just as “free labor” but as thought partners and people with skills, knowledge of their own communities and first-hand experience of the needs of those communities. Each of these mayors also opened the doors of city hall to create physical and mental room for collaboration to happen between citizens and city staff and between different departments and agencies within the city. They could not have worked in silos and make these gains.

“The city opened the door. If you want to get engaged, there are so many avenues to get involved.”

These cities are proof that when it comes to engagement, it’s not just about informing the public at town halls or getting input through feedback forms: the successful cities are the ones who continue to work with citizens throughout a problem-solving process and think of them as partners. Doing so has a lasting impact on residents’ investment in the city, reinforcing the importance of their presence, their opinions, and their impact. Fort Collins, one of the ten Engaged Cities Award finalists, is a great example of this. Resident Pat Murphy, a member the city’s participatory budgeting team, said, “The city opened the door. If you want to get engaged, there are so many avenues to get involved. I really did feel I was an engaged partner in this process.”

All three winning cities — and many of our other finalists — are continuing their collaborations with citizens and expanding it — both through the existing programs and the development of new programs. Tulsa has expanded its Urban Data Pioneers program and is using funding from the Engaged Cities Award to implement its new Civic Innovation Fellowship. Bologna is expanding its work with citizens and connecting with other cities in the EU, including Helsinki, another finalist they learned about and connected with at the Engaged Cities Award Summit, to trade ideas and work together on future engagement efforts. Cali is using the positive attention it has received from winning the award as momentum to expand the mesas and other citizen engagement efforts across the city.

We believe these cities, and many others like them, are doing the most important work there is — and when you read about it or see it in a video, it might look easier than it is. In truth, these cities have put forth enormous effort, time, and resources to bring these initiatives to life. It is precisely their recognition that engagement is not a one-time thing — and their willingness to put in the effort and lead their staff and citizens to do the same — that allow them to reap the rewards it offers: stronger communities. We are honored to bear witness to these changes and to help other cities imagine what’s possible by sharing their models and stories with the world.


Myung J. Lee is Executive Director of Cities of Service, a nonprofit that helps mayors build stronger cities by changing the way local government and citizens work together. More than 250 Cities of Service coalition cities in the Americas and Europe tap into the knowledge, creativity, and service of citizens to solve public problems together. Myung previously served as a Deputy Commissioner with the City of New York Administration for Children’s Services, and has led organizations focused on homeless assistance, domestic violence, and early childhood development.