Erratic leadership by national governments emphasises the need for a safe pair of hands at city hall. We meet four mayors winning approval by knowing what makes their cities tick.
Surabaya lies in the east of Java, on the opposite end of the main Indonesian island to the capital, Jakarta. During the past 10 years, this often overlooked second city has become an opposite to the capital in other respects – starting with stable leadership. Jakarta has churned through six governors in that time but Surabaya has had one: its first female mayor, Tri Rismaharini.
Commonly known as Risma, the 58-year-old has dedicated her life to improving her hometown. “I dreamt of having a beautiful city,” she says. A trained architect and urban planner, she was a civil servant for 20 years before being elected to city hall in 2010. Serving under many mayors, Risma learned the importance of community behaviour. “I’ve tried to catch the energy of the citizens to collaborate with the government and build the city together,” she says, while seated in a colourful reception annexe near city hall, wearing gold-rimmed glasses and an orange headscarf.
Risma has overseen a change that elicits glowing reports from those familiar with Surabaya before her two terms in office, the second of which finishes in January. While greenery has replaced garbage, other changes extend to lessening the impact of traffic jams and doubling the number of hotels. Her administration has piloted several green schemes, including waste-generated electricity and allowing bus users to pay fares with plastic bottles.
Success has earned Risma awards and seen her become a regular speaker on the world stage; it has also attracted attention from the government in Jakarta. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, a fellow pdi-p party member, has twice offered her a cabinet post. For now she is determined to see out her term in Surabaya and she continues to manage crises – most recently coronavirus. City hall started stockpiling protective equipment in January as soon as the mayor got wind of the outbreak in Wuhan.
Adoration for Risma and her maternal style comes thick and fast from her constituents; she was mobbed by a group of children and their mothers during a visit to an abandoned mall that she turned into a co-working space and museum. Families are central to her projects and policies. She broke ground in Indonesia by providing free education and healthcare for children, as well as plenty of room to play: more than 100 new parks have opened in the city during her tenure. Her bold decision to close down the city’s notorious red-light districts was targeted at ending child trafficking, she says, rather than any moral or religious crusade. Critics of the policy say that the problem has just been pushed to surrounding areas. And some supporters do admit to a broader messaging issue. “Political communication is rather poor,” says Eta Pandia of national newspaper Kompas, during an otherwise glowing report.
During a walk around a former red-light district, where erstwhile sex-workers now make slippers and brothels have become classrooms, Risma is incensed by a car ignoring a no-parking sign; she calls it in on her walkie-talkie. Unafraid to get her hands dirty, the diminutive mayor wakes up at 05.00 and tours Surabaya four times a day. “Being mayor is not easy,” she says, without any hint of complaint.
What problems will she leave her successor? “Mass transit,” says Pandia. Plans to build a monorail and tram system have for now been shelved without Jakarta’s backing. And what’s next for Risma? She refuses to be drawn yet hasn’t ruled out running for higher office. Her party wants her to follow in the footsteps of Jokowi; a former small-city mayor who went on to govern Jakarta. Governor Risma could be the lift that the Indonesian capital needs.
When Bogotá’s newly elected mayor, Claudia López Hernández, arrived at her inauguration in January, she did so by bicycle. So it was no surprise that when coronavirus struck, Bogotá was among the first cities to shut its streets to cars, unveiling 76km of new cycle lanes for residents to use rather than packing onto cramped buses.
As a member of the progressive Green Alliance party, López Hernández is considered something of a symbol of change in Colombia – and for more than just her pedalling prowess. A former journalist, she once exposed ties between paramilitary death squads and high-ranking politicians, before going on to become a senator and vice-presidential candidate. Not only is López Hernández the first woman to be elected Bogotá’s mayor – often considered the second-most important elected office in the country – she is also the first to be openly gay.
A city of nearly eight million people, Bogotá has long struggled with its lack of an urban rail network – a factor that contributes to the capital’s notorious smog and pollution. In the years to come, López Hernández will be tasked with seeing through development of the city’s first metro system. Also en route: the Medio Milenio Bikeway, a 25km cycle highway. López Hernández’s ability to usher in a new era of sustainable transit is worth watching.
London Breed is no stranger to hardship; San Francisco’s mayor has spoken often about her family’s troubling experiences with law enforcement. In early June, at the height of nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd, she declared: “Yes, I’m the mayor but I’m a black woman first.” Her words struck a chord, exhibiting an “authenticity that we hope to see in all our women candidates,” says Melanie Ramil of Emerge California, a group that trains women (including Breed) to run for office.
Yet Breed is also a moderating voice. Rather than disbanding the city police force, she has proposed shifting its responsibilities to fighting actual crime, while letting other civic groups handle non-violent callouts over homelessness, neighbourhood disturbances or mental illness.
Also on her to-do list: the city has already closed one of its main thoroughfares to cars but civic groups want more such permanent steps. Breed protected the city’s homeless during the pandemic, setting up sites with tents at safe distances. But she needs to find more permanent solutions .
It will help that she has shown a co-operative side: a business task force created during the pandemic is now looking at deeper improvements, such as allowing restaurants to use outdoor spaces. This has been a “huge lift,” says Laurie Thomas, who heads the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. “The good news is people are working together like they’ve never worked together before,” she says.
One year into the job and José Luis Martínez-Almeida has finally found his groove. A conservative mayor, who had been struggling to connect with constituents, Martínez-Almeida recently drew bipartisan praise from Madrid’s residents and cross-party pledges of collaboration to restart the city after the pandemic. “I think all political groups are aware that we can differ [over] the occasional but not the essential,” he tells monocle. “When citizens respond in such an exemplary way, with exorbitant sacrifice, we must put our political squabbles aside.”
Madrid is one of Europe’s most high-density urban centres – and one of its most festive. That side was shown in how quickly Madrileños celebrated having a drink on the city’s terraces as soon as Spain’s coronavirus lockdown eased. “Terraces are part of who we are: a Mediterranean-styled city that looks outward,” says Martínez-Almeida. The mayor is also quick to point out the importance of cultural festivities, including a pared-down outdoor version of the municipal summer festival Veranos de la Villa. “Culture has always been one of the best ways to create a better society,” he says.
Madrid is also known for its narrow streets, which present a challenge when trying to keep your distance. While the city closed 36 major roads to cars during the pandemic, Martínez-Almeida says that there’s a longer-term rethink underway, including how to encourage alternative forms of transport. But his key lesson? “We won’t allow this pandemic to dampen our joyful spirit, openness to outsiders, or the dynamism of daily life.”
PHOTOGRAPHY: Gianfranco Tripodo IMAGES: Getty Images, Reuters