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The Toughest Fix in Urban America: Transforming Civic Culture

From public health to race relations to infrastructure, city leaders’ best-laid policies won’t amount to much if they haven’t tackled their organizations’ culture.

Culture change is credited with helping to create a more vibrant downtown in Kansas City, Missouri. 

Culture change is credited with helping to create a more vibrant downtown in Kansas City, Missouri. 

Photographer: Fernando Leon/Getty Images North America

When it comes to big urban challenges — coordinating a public health response to the pandemic, combating racism in the police department or rebuilding crumbling infrastructure — the greatest barrier may be the least understood: organizational culture.

Ask any business CEO and they will tell you that culture is everything — it defines the unwritten rules that determine how work gets done. Amazon is cost-conscious, customer-centric innovation; Disney is about storytelling. Each city has its own distinct culture as well, and the culture is what allows certain innovations to flourish while shutting down most other reform efforts.