For Milwaukee, losing the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge was still a win

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett used the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge to spark a conversation about growing local food on land that had been foreclosed upon. (REUTERS /DARREN HAUCK /LANDOV)

As Citiscope reported this week, 21 European cities from Athens to York are honing their ideas for improving city services in a quest to win a competition sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies. Five of those cities will win big-time prize money — as much as €5 million ($6.7 million U. S.).

That also means 16 cities will lose. Milwaukee has a message for them: It’s worth going through the competition anyway.

Milwaukee was a finalist in Bloomberg’s first Mayors Challenge, held in the United States in 2012-13. Mayor Tom Barrett saw the competition as a way to spark public debate about, and interest in, an idea — to stimulate urban agriculture in his city and get healthier food into the hands of residents of poor neighborhoods with few fresh food sources.


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For Milwaukee, losing was winning 

But how to do it?  The Bloomberg competition, Barrett calculated, might be a good tool to stimulate public interest in the issue.  So the city inaugurated a “Turnovation” process — inviting residents to propose actual solutions to the food challenge.

Ideas were submitted; the city selected ten from the submissions and asked their proponents to speak for each at a City Hall meeting of roughly 200 people.  A panel of judges heard the presentations and then decided on a preferred approach dubbed “urban homesteading” — to sell inexpensively, or actually give away, city-foreclosed homes with adjacent lots that recipients would agree to turn into community gardens.

The idea was attractive enough to win Milwaukee selection as a finalist in the Bloomberg competition. Milwaukee Sustainability Director Matt Howard led a delegation that traveled to New York to participate in an “ideas camp” with groups from 19 other finalist cities. As our story on this year’s European ideas camp notes, it’s an open process in which rival cities competing for the prize money also help each other to make their ideas better.

In advance of the U. S. ideas camp, Howard acknowledges, Milwaukee team members were “a little apprehensive” about sharing their ideas with their competitors: “Typically, in a competition, you don’t give out your ideas.”  But joining the other finalists, “a collegial, open atmosphere” developed.  “It was difficult to share your idea with your competitor.  But on the flip side, we could critique their ideas.  The playing field was pretty level.  It made our idea even stronger.  We came back home and implemented it.”

A major benefit of the ideas camp discussions, Howard found, was the constant question: Would a proposed idea work in the real world?  Would it succeed in the neighborhoods it was intended to help the most?  How would it look to the average resident who might benefit — people impacted by the need for food or the foreclosure crisis?

Returning to Milwaukee, the team sought to listen more, to create a process in which residents actually helped in the program design — a design “we ultimately made as simple as possible,” Howard says.

A moment of major disappointment came when the Milwaukee idea team found their proposal hadn’t scored high enough — either for the $5 million prize, or runner-up $1 million awards.

But the city was not discouraged, Howard insists.  Having put in the legwork to initiate, develop and get public input around the food plan, officials moved forward with it without the prize money. “We’ve broken ground on our first couple of vacant lot conversions. We’ve updated our ordinance to smooth property transfers.  We’ve hired the city’s first food policy urban agriculture analyst.  The program is real.  We just received a donation of 4,000 trees to plant in our urban orchards.” 

Howard’s bottom line: “Despite not winning the money, which I would have preferred, being in the competition has opened a lot of doors for us.”


Behind the scenes at Bloomberg’s ideas camp for cities

Bloomberg Mayors Challenge: Here are the innovative ideas 21 European cities put forward

For Milwaukee, losing the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge was still a win 

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Neal Peirce is the founder and editor-in-chief of Citiscope. Full bio

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