Creating Mayoral Vision, Part III: The Risk of Mayoral Mistakes

Source: Center for American Progress Action Fund/ flickr

Former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner. Source: Center for American Progress Action Fund/ flickr

Previously: Part I & Part II

by Andres Torres

Part III: The Risk of Mayoral Mistakes

As an American, I confess a slight bias towards the mayoral system as a vehicle that can effect spectacular and comprehensive change in an urban environment. But investing so much power in one person and one office can also come at a cost, especially to the built environment. At times a mayor might advance destructive building programs, directly because he/she believes in them or indirectly, through his/her personal ambivalence or poor professional understanding of a situation. We need only think of Robert Moses’ controversial legacy in New York City and ask where was the mayor who could have questioned Moses’ tactics. Or we might wonder how Mayor Richard C. Lee could have believed that he was serving the city of New Haven by tearing up its urban fabric in one of the U.S.’s earliest and most expensive urban renewal initiatives?

A recent spate of scandals illustrates another danger of investing the authority, the attention, and the vision-making power of a whole city in one person. If that person acts in some way that puts him/herself before the mayoralty and the official vision for the city, his/her act can taint all the ideas he/she had championed, irrespective of their independent value. Ironically, as a the wave of U.S. cities were preparing for a fresh start on election day last week, Toronto sank back into a drug-induced scandal when Mayor Rob Ford admitted to using crack cocaine. Not that the UK is without scandal, but distributing authority amongst a cabinet or council can diffuse attention and avoid situations like that of San Diego earlier this year, when mayor Bob Filner’s sexual harassment scandal left his city in “civic turmoil.” Filner’s and Ford’s are not the first or last mayoral mistakes that have usurped the local agenda, but it does effectively illustrate a more unseemly aspect of people, as opposed to party, politics.

Rereading coverage of these two most recent scandals, not to mention remembering what it was like to live in the endless cycles of politicking as mayoral hopefuls jockey for public favour, continually one-upping each other’s promises in order to curry the approval of unions, businessmen and civic leaders, I can sympathise with British reticence to embrace the mayoral system. But as someone who also worked in urban government and experienced what a strong motivator a mayor’s personal urban vision could be and admired how effectively it could unite departments as disparate as cultural affairs, consumer affairs, licensing, transportation and economic development all towards one aim, I believe in the transformative potential of strong urban leadership and so I hope the UK’s mayoral experiment isn’t quite over, just taking a breather. Perhaps for my next trick, I can draft a short convincing list of reasons why, despite the potential for scandal, giving mayors a chance is worth a try, beyond the obvious potential benefits for advancing a coordinated and comprehensive design-oriented, place-making agenda.