Some cities are shedding unwanted legacies while others cater to 18 million visitors per year, only to see some of the income generated by tourists ending up elsewhere. We meet five mayors facing the challenges – and making the tough decisions – that will define the future of their cities.
Since coming to power in 2015 the Law and Justice party (pis) has moved Poland dramatically to the right. Backed by the Catholic Church, it has championed a nationalist vision that is centred on the “traditional family”. In local elections last year, Poles pushed back by voting in mayors from the centrist opposition party or, failing that, independents.
In Warsaw, Rafal Trzaskowski of the Civic Platform (PO) party crushed the pis candidate and set out to make the capital more welcoming. monocle met him in his office at Warsaw’s City Hall.
MONOCLE: What is your biggest challenge as mayor?
Rafal Trzaskowski: Warsaw has undergone incredible change over the past 10 years, mostly centred on infrastructure. Now we need to focus on quality of life. My priority is the environment; smog is a huge problem. We want to get rid of coal furnaces, connect buildings to heating systems, save energy and prioritise public transport. At least 40 per cent of emissions in Warsaw come from transport.
M: How has urbanism changed here since the fall of communism?
RT: In the 1990s any investment was welcome, regardless of style; this resulted in urban sprawl. Now we want multifunctional, well-designed projects. Warsaw was almost destroyed in the Second World War so we want to recreate the feel of a real city with green spaces and social utilities.
M: How are you attracting talent?
RT: Warsaw is an open city that craves talent. People with an idea can achieve it more quickly here than in other cities. We’ve become pickier though: we want the projects and services that come here to be more sophisticated.
M: Why did you decide to sign an LGBT charter earlier this year?
RT: I ran my mayoral campaign under the slogan, “Warsaw for everyone”. The national government is marginalising various groups in society. My role is to stand by those minorities and support them.
M: How can mayors push back against government illiberalism?
RT: It’s difficult to compete with populists. Our role is to educate and show that the more tolerant and European we are, the stronger we become.
M: How can Warsaw be used as a platform?
RT: One of the secrets of Poland’s success is strong local government. We devolve power more than many other countries in the area. Local politicians are closer to the people.
M: Are you considering a run to be president in 2020?
RT: For now, the challenge is to make a change in Warsaw.
Monocle comment: Mayors can be a counterpoint to national governments – and it’s refreshing to see city leaders supporting everything from freedom of the press to equal rights and openness.
When LaToya Cantrell became the first woman mayor of New Orleans last year, she wasted no time shaking things up. For the millions who flock to the city every year, it promises a magical escape – and that goes well beyond the French Quarter and Mardi Gras. But it’s also a place that Cantrell has been fighting for since Nola became her adopted home in 1990. The Los Angeles native has spent the better part of 20 years as a champion for the people of New Orleans, especially in the years following Hurricane Katrina.
Though the city is opening a new airport and seeing consistent visitor growth thanks to its reputation as one of the coolest cities in the US, it has its problems: inequality, ageing infrastructure and the effects of climate change are chief among them. Mayor Cantrell is optimistic that she can take them on.
MONOCLE: Many cities are wrestling with tourism: they want visitors but they have to contend with the challenges they bring. Is that something you’re dealing with?
LaToya Cantrell: I absolutely believe that as a city we need to play to our strengths; one of them is hospitality. We welcomed 18 million visitors in 2018; that’s 48 visitors per resident. When you compare that to New York – the destination capital in this country – they receive seven visitors per resident. My biggest concern right now is the added burden that 18 million visitors place on the residents of New Orleans. The city only retains a small amount of the revenue that’s generated from this industry. The infrastructure needs to be sound and adequate so that we can handle 18 million people. Due to the lack of revenue that the city receives from the industry, there is a dual system where our residents are second-class. We need to improve the quality of life for our people. This city receives $20m [€17.9m] per year from an industry that generates more than $200m [€179m]. That is a problem.
M: Where does the rest of that revenue go?
LC: To the state of Louisiana. And we have four entities that receive 70 per cent of the money: the Superdome Commission, the Convention Centre and the two agencies that market the city [New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, and New Orleans and Co]. These agencies are not accountable in any way to elected local leadership. They have separate boards, no one is elected; they’re appointed by the governor and others. But they get to determine where our public money goes. We have a 1 per cent tax on hotel rooms that is supposed to go towards transportation. For decades that money has been split with a marketing agency that’s already getting our revenue from other sources. So I’m saying, “No more.” I’m not sending a dollar to the marketing agencies any more because we need quality transportation options for our people. I’m making some headway but it’s been a fight every step of the way.
M: Are there other pressing issues that you’re working on?
LC: The top priority is infrastructure: sewerage, water, drainage, roads, streets, bridges, transportation, accessibility and affordable housing. It’s all rooted in infrastructure. And then, of course public safety, which infrastructure is tied to as well. When you have infrastructure that is not sustainable, that cuts into every aspect of having a city that’s liveable and workable.
M: Why has the infrastructure issue been put aside for so long?
lc: Because it’s a fight. I’m not willing to give up on that fight because the future of this city is at stake. Now we’re at the end of the line; we don’t have a choice at this point. I want this city to be sound so that our people can face climate change; we’re a coastal community and we have to get serious about it. On top of that, our economy is driven by tourism. It’s common sense but it’s also good business sense.
M: What is it about New Orleans that’s so attractive to people?
LC: The spirit of New Orleans is rooted in the people of this city. These are people who are non-judgmental, who embrace that spirit of openness and that spirit of humility, that you can touch, see, taste and feel any time you set foot in the city of New Orleans. Visitors often come back and, when they do, we always show the love.
Monocle comment: By welcoming visitors while fighting to put the income from tourism towards improving the city for residents, Cantrell is ensuring that everyone wins.
Park Won-soon, the 63-year-old mayor of Seoul, is up for a laugh. When monocle meets the former human-rights lawyer on a sunny morning in London, he’s quick to crack jokes and share anecdotes despite being in the midst of a gruelling tour across Europe and the Middle East. He’s also happy to ham it up for the photographer; posing with the red bull was his idea, not ours.
It’s likely that part of his easygoing attitude is down to the time he’s spent in office: first elected in 2011, Park is now in his third term as mayor of South Korea’s capital. “It’s important for the mayor to have some time in his term to make sure that the philosophy of the era that we are living in is rooted in his policies,” he says of his tenure, the longest of any mayor of Seoul. And what is the philosophy of Park’s era? “I want to focus on making the lives of the citizens happier.”
Park has focused on tangible urban improvements to his city that residents can recognise and appreciate immediately. It’s a logical strategy: too many mayors fall into the trap of investing in headline-making vanity projects rather than tackling the basics, from more housing to better public transport. “Citizens don’t want large-scale civil engineering projects,” says Park. “And they’re not interested in high-speed growth. They want the city government to focus on creating more green parks, pedestrian-friendly areas and bicycle-friendly areas. They prefer projects that can contribute to a balance between work and life; they want to lead happy lives.”
Park makes his role sound modest – and relatively simple – but his urban-regeneration initiatives have been ambitious. The most famous is Seoullo 7017, a 1km-long park on a disused overpass that has earned rave reviews at home and internationally; it’s South Korea’s answer to New York’s High Line. But that’s not all: city hall has pledged to plant 30 million trees across the city and has introduced regeneration projects in an attempt to improve infrastructure and safety in undesirable areas.
Park is especially known for bold schemes aimed at pedestrianising central areas, in an effort to counter Seoul’s car-dependent culture and tackle one of the city’s biggest hurdles to everyday quality of life: air pollution. Earlier this year record levels of fine dust particles descended upon the city. As a result, diesel cars are now banned from the centre.
But is it really possible to transform the culture of a city that has been car-centric for so long? “There is some opposition to these initiatives,” says Park. “However, the response has been, overall, positive because it not only reduces fine dust in the air, it encourages citizens to walk more so that they can lead healthier lives. At the same time it encourages the shopping areas and the traditional market areas nearby – so it revitalises the local economy. We are achieving three things with one hand.”
Park has taken many cues from international counterparts in other major cities. He cites counsel he received from Paris’s Anne Hidalgo in persevering with projects that might meet initial opposition and, on this trip to London, he discussed initiatives to cut carbon emissions with Sadiq Khan. The day after meeting monocle he’s off to Tel Aviv to see mayor Ron Huldai in the hope of improving co-operation between the two cities. Park sees his role as mayor as being an increasingly international one. “Over the years we have experienced trial and error and a lot of accomplishments as well,” he says. “We want to share these with cities around the world.”
Could this international focus be a signal of his intentions to run for higher office in the future? Considering Park’s knack for winning elections – and the fact that Seoul’s mayoral office has been used as a stepping-stone to the presidency in the past – it’s not difficult to picture him running for the top job in 2022, when his current term ends. He smiles at the suggestion. “The person in the position of mayor of Seoul is responsible for the life and destiny of more than 10 million citizens,” he says firmly. “I believe that this is not a light task.”
For now Park’s focused on his city. But, tellingly, he doesn’t rule out the idea either. “I believe that the next path as a politician will open naturally,” he says.
Monocle comment: City leaders should be global diplomats. Every city faces unique challenges but others are universal. Meeting with counterparts from around the world is a smart move.
In a seismic political shake-up last year, the ruling Democratic Progressive party (dpp) lost control of Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second city, after 20 years. Outsider Han Kuo-yu, a former national legislator from Taipei, won a landslide victory on the back of a campaign in which he pledged to make the indebted city rich again. “The Dpp built a lot of hardware,” says Han, referring to the previous administration’s cultural infrastructure projects. “But why is the city’s economy still depressed? People’s lives have not improved.”
Han wants to create an “investment-friendly city”. He is pushing ambitious policies, such as creating Taiwan’s first free-trade zone, but also sensible ones: he plans to introduce bilingual education, in English and Mandarin. Through the power of his personality he has put the city on the map. “Previously Taipei was Taiwan and Taiwan was Taipei,” says Han. He cites a return of pride in Kaohsiung as his biggest achievement in his first 100 days as mayor.
One of his election slogans focused on “importing” more visitors to Kaohsiung and “exporting” more Taiwanese goods. Han believes that a mayor should be a “super salesman” so he travelled around Asia during his first months in office; in Macau he sold flowers from Kaohsiung to a casino. Han’s popularity in China – he was fêted on a trip around several Chinese cities – unnerves the Dpp leadership. His own party, Kuomintang (KMT), want him to be their candidate in January’s presidential elections.
For the time being though, Han is focused on Kaohsiung: every month he spends a night with a voter, from living in a factory worker’s dormitory to staying with a binman. “This is the new way of connecting with people,” says Han. His main challenge will be to live up to his ambitions.
Monocle comment: Too many mayors prioritise attention-grabbing projects over improving residents’ quality of life. Boosting a city’s economy is a worthy goal, as long as the mayor sticks around.
Bratislava’s new mayor completed a unique hat-trick last year: the former architect won office, was awarded three of Slovakia’s top architectural prizes and saw the latest record by his rock band named album of the year.
His election followed an inspired campaign built around Plan Bratislava, a book-length manifesto he co-wrote with 76 architects, urban planners, experts and researchers, many of whom now work in his administration. Vallo aims to address congestion, a lack of quality public space and the city’s crumbling architecture.
MONOCLE: What was your first order of business when you took office in December?
Matus Vallo: Snow. It was a very cold winter and the city’s contract with the snow-removal companies wasn’t viable. There was about one million sq m of pavement to be cleared. Then two large construction companies needed to close parts of several important roads. So we put all our efforts into ensuring that public transport on those routes was reliable. We closed one lane on one of those roads to cars, making it just for public transport, lorries and motorcycles. It now takes a bus just 10 minutes to cover that route, down from half an hour. We have also managed to put 38 per cent more people on public transport on this route.
M: Were any of these contingencies described in ‘Plan Bratislava’?
MV: They weren’t but I still think that Plan Bratislava is the smartest thing I’ve ever accomplished. We are lucky to have this resource at our disposal because our city is in very bad shape; it gives us a sense of direction. We have a lot of instructions in it that we want to put into practice, such as making sure that there is enough street furniture. We also need to sort parking regulations and touch up our pavements and façades. Public spaces define how people live and work together.
M: Is your background in architecture useful in your new role?
MV: It helps. Architecture is about reconciling different opinions. Let’s say I want to build a house. I cannot do it on my own; I need another 20 people. Architects have an ability to harmonise disparate parts, to listen to criticism, which is what I try to do every day. Under previous administrations, city hall didn’t communicate well with its citizens. We are trying to fix this.
M: Are the city’s communist buildings a sore point for Bratislavans?
MV: Some of them are vital to the city, such as the snp bridge over the Danube. As for other structures, even though cities are always in a state of flux, Bratislava cannot afford to lose any more of its history. After the socialist period, everybody wanted to erase the past. In the 1990s there was a drive to build new architecture in place of the old and we lost a lot. I think that we have to save whatever we can. That’s not easy because it’s not just about preserving architecture, it’s about preserving continuity. In order to build a future for our city, we need to save its past.
Monocle comment: A mayor is only as good as his team. Matus Vallo was smart to rely on architects, urban planners and experts to craft his campaign vision and become advisers.