By Andres Torres of Future London
Part I: Setting a New Agenda
Over 280 American cities elected mayors last week. According to the United States Conference of Mayors’ Mayoral Election Centre, the smallest city is home to just over 10,000 citizens and their mayor ran unopposed. By contrast, the largest city (of over 8 million) has endured almost two years of contentious politicking that included two primaries, one near run-off and its own sex scandal. Though national and international headlines last week may have focused on just a few candidates in select elections, at least 425 cities will have elected or re-elected mayors by the year’s end. This means that right now, or in the very near future, the almost 45 million people who live in these cities should be expecting some form of new or updated agenda from their leaders.
These mayors have the potential to effect significant social, economic and political change and their agendas have been shown to have international consequences in the areas of sustainability and finance. Some, such as Benjamin Barber, believe that given the great potential of their office, mayors should rule the world. While in the UK last week, Barber was joined by Bruce Katz in proclaiming this to be the “Age of Cities.” Both men advance the idea of mayors as Networkers-in-Chief, as the leaders who can forge cross-border coalitions to tackle some of our world’s grittiest and most intractable problems, especially in the face of increasingly fractious national governments and largely absent international cooperation. Katz briefly laid out this vision as a post-election agenda that emphasised his collaborative strategy.
There will be no shortage of advice in the coming months for the United States’ freshest crop of new and returning mayors. The challenge for them and their teams will be how to sort through all the advice and pick whether to be a CEO, CFO, CIO (Information or Innovation) or some other C-suite suit or perhaps choose to be a biker-in-chief, planner-in-chief, greener-in-chief or some other type of advocate. We would hope (perhaps unsurprisingly, given our forum) that new mayors choose to be designers-in-chief and place-making executives. While it might seem we’re just throwing extra fat in the fire, in fact adopting such a stance might actually help untangle the mess of responsibilities, or at the very least not add to them. The reason is that serving as a Designer-in-Chief would not preclude a mayor from also advancing sustainability, economic development, public health or other goals–in fact it might be of great assistance in achieving those goals.
Good design makes economic, social and political sense. Supporting well-designed building refurbishments, such as of the Bankside power station, has the potential to transform a community just as prioritising good infrastructure design, such as of a high street, can regenerate a high street economy. Prioritising design can help mayors unlock incredible economic rewards without sacrificing their other agendas. Whether the goal is to lure professional services firms or tech start-ups, it’s worth considering where to site new offices to create hubs and benefit from agglomeration. Informed design policies can ensure that whether building or refurbishing, development meets the needs of new users and even anticipates the needs of future users. The New York Times recently reported on how London policymakers’ sensitivity to the co-working and multi-use design needs of tech companies when investing $80 million in rejuvenating real estate helped attract major companies like Microsoft and I.B.M.
Designers-in-Chief can very much be Networkers-in-Chief, Builders-in-Chief, Environmentalists-in-Chief–as well as mayors. Attention to design can help correct metropolitan sprawl; socially focused design can build community cohesion; intelligent design can prepare our cities for the future. Conversely, ignoring the effect of political and economic decisions on the built environment can devastate a city (we need only consider the highway bills, home-buying financing, fuel subsidies and other 20th century initiatives that decimated urban cores).
Unfortunately, the design agenda’s unselfish compatibility with other agendas, while enhancing its attractiveness, can also doom it. As mayors pursue various other goals simultaneously, design priorities can be overshadowed or outright shelved. The design agenda must be as zealously guarded as the environmental or financial agenda. In the American office of the mayor, there is the potential to do this. Most American mayors have the legal hard and soft powers to execute their visions. The mayors can appoint key department heads, propose a budget, raise taxes, collect fees and claim a popular mandate by virtue of their direct election by the people. Knowing that they will have these powers, generally for about 4 years, encourages them, in turn, to craft visions, adopt strategies and prioritise goals, such as design-sensitive development.
When there isn’t a mayor, however, instead just a council-leader or cabinet, or when there is a mayor but the office lacks the considerable powers of the American model, namely the power to independently tax and spend, it then becomes questionable whether any agenda can survive. Governing by committee requires painful compromise. Interminable gridlock can condemn even the most inspiring of visions. This becomes of particular interest as the wave of recent American elections throws into sharp relief the distinct political landscape of British urban governance. It will be important to question whether current urban management structures disadvantage British cities and prevent the creation of strong design-oriented urban visions and how this might be impairing the healthy growth of cities.
Coming up: Part II: The Challenge of the British System