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Mayors Are Taking Over the World

From Paris to Charleston, South Carolina, local officials are fixing problems and restoring people’s hope in government

by Jay Walljasper

Published in Ode magazine


Bill Clinton, a man whose self-deprecating charm has carried him far in life, 
likes to tell a story about his appearance on a Shanghai radio show. It was a historic event: The president of the United States would field questions from everyday citizens in a nation notorious for its tight lock on information. But to Clinton’s surprise, two-thirds of the calls coming into the station were not directed at him, but to his host, the mayor of Shanghai. “People were more interested in talking to the mayor about potholes and traffic jams,” Clinton laughs.

Actually, when you reflect a moment, this shouldn’t be such a surprise. Mayors, as representatives of the government closest to people, are in a better position to get things done than one of the most powerful men on Earth. National governments, along with state and provincial ones, are distant and abstract entities, with which citizens feel little connection. Local government, personified by the mayor, can be a different story. Mayors operate on the front lines of democracy. If people around the world are ever to regain their trust in government, which has been fading for many years, it will be because of what happens in their hometowns.

Look at Italy, a country where frequent political crises take on comic-opera proportions. Citizens have waved “ciao” to almost 60 different national governments since World War II and many prominent leaders have been put on trial for corruption. Yet Rome’s Mayor Walter Veltroni enjoys approval ratings of 60 to 80 percent—an unheard-of level of popularity in a land where ridiculing politicians is a national pastime. Why? Because “the plumber,” as Romans fondly call him, is dedicated to fixing the city’s problems. Veltroni has enlisted a brigade of 500 young people on scooters who deliver food, medicine and companionship to at-risk elderly people. Meanwhile, 3,000 mostly older citizens have been organized to keep watch on the city’s kids as they walk to school and play in parks and schoolyards.

“There is a crisis of democracy today and local government is the answer—it’s the new game in town,” notes Eric Britton, founder of The Commons: Open Society Sustainability Initiative, a Paris-based organization that’s launched a series of global initiatives on environmental, social and technology issues. He believes that small-scale governance, “where everybody knows somebody who knows the mayor,” is the best approach to untangling problems that so far have proved insurmountable to national governments and the corporate sector. Britton is putting his theory to the test with the Kyoto World Cities 20/20 Challenge, a blueprint to enable individual cities to reduce global warming through ambitious citizen and government action.

“If we want to figure how democracy really works,” Britton says, “the local level is where we can do that.”

Here’s how Joseph Riley Jr.—who has been at the helm in Charleston, South Carolina, for 30 years, making him one of America’s longest-serving mayors—describes the job: “You have a personal relationship with people. You pick up their garbage. You make them feel safe. You try to help them when they are in trouble. It’s a chance to do things directly for people—for the poorest person in town as well as the rich.”

No one would cast Riley, a small, dignified man who speaks with a soft voice, in the role of a political power broker. Yet he has reshaped this city of 105,000 to such an extent that few who knew it in the 1970s— as a poor, racially torn backwater that had lost hope in the future—would recognize it today.

At that point, Charleston’s only claim to fame was Fort Sumter, where the opening shots of the U.S. Civil War were fired by Confederate rebels in 1861. And local African-American leader Rev. Joseph Darby notes that the outcome of the war—the emancipation of black slaves—wasn’t entirely accepted in Charleston until Riley won city hall in 1975, campaigning as a civil-rights advocate. “I know that in some parts of the white community he has been called Little Black Joe,” he says. Darby would like to see more of Charleston’s newfound prosperity make its way to poor neighbourhoods but, “overall,” he says, “Joe has done a very good job.”

While South Carolina is often regarded as America’s most right-wing state, Charleston enjoys a bright national reputation for its progressive policies on economic revitalization and crime prevention. Affordable housing, a pressing problem because the city is now attracting many new residents and developments, is another focus for Riley. Pledging to help people displaced by gentrification buy homes, the city has partnered with non-profit groups to rehabilitate housing for needy families. Orlando Newkirk, who runs P.A.S.T.O.R.S. Inc., a church-based group that fixes up rundown homes provided by the city housing agency, notes, “There is still a lot left to do, but the people we serve would absolutely not have been able to afford a place to live without the mayor’s housing plans.”

Charles Lee, who works two shifts a day as a dishwasher at downtown restaurants, and Ivory Lee, who takes care of their five young kids, recently moved from a one-bedroom apartment into a three-bedroom home on Strawberry Lane, and couldn’t be happier. “Of all the houses on this street, you couldn’t find a nicer one,” Ivory Lee says. “It’s got a yard big enough for the kids to play. There is enough room for them to have a place to do their homework. We have a balcony on the second floor. It’s really changed our lives. It’s where our daughter took her first steps. And we pay about the same we did for the apartment.”

Riley has vigorously preserved the city’s historic qualities, and even improved upon things with charming new parks, developments and attractions that blend in with the classic 18th- and 19th-century architecture everyone loves. Charleston is also known around the world for its springtime Spoleto arts festival, which Riley brought to town in partnership with the famous Italian composer and impresario Gian Carlo Menotti.

For most Charlestonians, however, these accomplishments pale in comparison to Riley’s leadership during the devastating Hurricane Hugo of 1989. Their experience of government help was just the opposite of what New Orleans citizens endured during last year’s Katrina tragedy. After ordering an all-out evacuation, Riley and city staff helped people flee to safety and stayed behind to protect the city. Almost as soon as the winds died, he launched a full-force program to make Charleston “more beautiful and vital than ever.” The triumph of Riley’s rebuilding efforts can be seen in the delighted smiles of tourists who come from all over the U.S. to wander the city’s streets and in the envious looks of other mayors who come to learn Charleston’s secret at the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, which Riley founded in 1986.

The secret is simple: Riley’s careful attention to the details that distinguish a great city from a merely okay one. Charleston has flourished not just through the power of the mayor’s office, but through the dedication of the man in the mayor’s office.

That’s the case in many places, says Amy Liu of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., who tracks the progress of metropolitan regions across North America and Europe. “Mayors’ best tool is the bully pulpit. Mayors are the face and the voice of the region, even for the suburbs. What they stand up for matters a lot.”

The modern age has raised people’s expectations of elected officials. We’re not content anymore with bland bureaucrats, no matter how brilliant they are. We’re hungry for dynamic leaders who show they care about people like us and who make a difference in the places we call home. No national leaders, even the most powerful or charismatic ones, have the same opportunity to touch people’s lives as a mayor.

I begin to understand the magic of Riley’s leadership as we walk out of city hall, where he has patiently but stiffly answered my questions at his desk, onto the bustling avenue outside. He suddenly seems charged with electricity. My long legs struggle to keep up with his short ones as he bounds down the street, calling hello to nearly everyone we pass—black and white, young and old, rich and poor. We turn up an alley and sneak through someone’s backyard gate so I can see what Riley considers one of the finest flower gardens in town. At one point, he almost knocks me over in his excitement to point out a construction worker eating lunch on a park bench—the man is using a nearby ledge for a footrest, just the way Riley planned for it to be used. Hurrying over to investigate a couple of police cars he sees stopped behind a house, he seems visibly relieved to find that the problem is just a malfunctioning burglar alarm. He thanks each of the officers by name and we continue our stroll.

“See that building there,” he says, stopping abruptly in front of the Old Exchange Building, a historic site once visited by George Washington and now operated by the state of South Carolina. “One day I was walking past, just like we are now, and I saw the stucco was discoloured, so I called up the state authorities right away to tell them about it. They seemed surprised that I noticed, but I told them, ‘that’s my job.’”

Joe Riley is one of a new breed of mayors around the world who see their jobs as nothing less than helping deliver security, opportunity and happiness to residents of their cities. Indeed, we may now be entering a new age in history when mayors play a leading role on the world’s political stage.

Mayors like Ken Livingstone of London (who defied all conventional wisdom by imposing a hefty toll on cars entering central London, which turned out to be hugely popular), Richard M. Daley of Chicago (who turned a gritty town into a top contender for title of world’s greenest city) and Bertrand Delanoë of Paris (who hopes to top Livingstone in his ambitious efforts to reclaim Paris from traffic) are already more influential and well-known internationally than many governors, prime ministers and presidents. This is all the more remarkable because mayors with real, rather than ceremonial, power are a new development in many places. Livingstone is London’s very first mayor elected by the people, and Walter Veltroni only the second in Rome.

Less famous but no less inspiring is Mayor Myung-bak Lee, who has turned Seoul into a model of livability with creative moves like replacing an elevated highway with a riverfront park that winds four miles through the city centre. In honouring him with an award for sustainable policies, U.S. green groups Environmental Defense and the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy declared, “Mayor Lee belongs to a new generation of bold mayors and governors around the world who are tackling seemingly intractable problems like traffic gridlock and air pollution—and winning.” Lee is considered a leading candidate for South Korea’s presidency.

Former Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa also contemplated a run for Colombia’s presidency, but instead devoted his energies to spreading the message that developing-world cities don’t have to imitate Western (especially North American) patterns of urban growth. “In Bogotá, our goal was to make a city for all the children,” he says. “The measure of a good city is one where a child on a tricycle or bicycle can safely go anywhere. If a city is good for children, it will be good for everybody else. Over the last 80 years we have been making cities much more for mobility than for children’s happiness.”

Explaining the details of Bogotá’s policies—many new schools, libraries, parks, the world’s longest pedestrian street, 300 kilometres of bike paths, a greenway winding through the city, restrictions on automobile use and a 21st-century bus system—Peñalosa has persuaded municipal officials in Mexico City, Cape Town, Beijing, Dehli, Jakarta, Dar-es-Salaam and many other spots to think differently about what’s possible for their cities. (See Ode, October 2004, available at www.odemagazine.com.)

While national leaders have gradually been losing power to global corporations and international bodies such as the World Trade Organization and European Union, there are clear signs that mayors are now stepping in to fill the political vacuum. More than 100 mayors from 29 countries in the Pacific region meet regularly to explore new ideas for fighting pollution and rehabilitating slums at the Mayors’ Asia-Pacific Environmental Summit.

Frustrated by America’s rejection of the Kyoto accords on global warming, mayors from more than 200 U.S. cities representing more than 100 million people have pledged to create their own timetables for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. This initiative is a significant example of municipalities taking action when nations refuse. Inspired in part by the environmental accomplishments of Toronto, which under Mayor David Miller was named the world’s “Low Carbon Leader” last year by the UK’s Climate Group, cities are feeling a new sense of global influence.

“Local government is in many ways more nimble than other levels of government,” says Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, who organized the mayors’ global-warming initiative, “so historically one of its roles is to experiment and show that things can work and then have it embraced at state, regional and ultimately national levels.”

Seeing his own efforts as U.S. president to ratify the Kyoto accords fail, Bill Clinton now acknowledges that local government is a growing force around the world. In August, his William J. Clinton Foundation launched a major new initiative to fight global warming. Its first project is a partnership with the Large Cities Climate Leadership Group, a network of local leaders around the world led by London Mayor Ken Livingstone—a move on Clinton’s part which just might have been inspired by his experience back in that Shanghai radio studio.