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the urban planner
Aftab Pureval


Cincinnati could easily be overlooked as just another Midwestern city. But an enviable stock of historic buildings, a lovely riverfront park and a clutch of downtown cultural institutions are drawing new residents to this affordable alternative to New York and Chicago. As a result, Cincinnati is seeing its population grow for the first time in 70 years.

Its mayor Aftab Pureval’s job is to make sure that this influx is accompanied by more housing. And, particularly, quality housing that isn’t built by bad actors looking to make a quick buck. Pureval is the son of Indian and Tibetan immigrants and, since his election in 2021, has been grappling with an important question: how do you grow after so many decades of decline? The 41-year-old Democrat is unafraid to seek advice. “When I ask mayors from cities I admire, such as Denver and Nashville, what they wish they had done prior to their growth, they say: investment in diverse transportation and zoning,” he says.

To that end, Pureval is working to expand the city’s streetcar network, establish a bike trail connecting all of its 52 neighbourhoods and change zoning rules to allow new types of housing on lots previously restricted to detached houses. 

But there is a dark side to Cincinnati’s newfound spotlight. Investors have been buying up housing stock that serves lower-income residents and raising rents without making improvements. But the mayor’s office enforces an aggressive building code and isn’t afraid to take negligent property owners to court. In May it filed its latest lawsuit against an out-of-state property firm whose apartment buildings are plagued with rats and lacked clean water. “These are not developers; these are predatory landlords,” Pureval tells monocle

The city also leverages its financial muscle. In 2021 the port authority purchased 194 rental homes for $14.5m (€13.4m), began fixing them up and now sells them to first-time homeowners, many from minority ethnic communities, in partnership with a black-led real estate organisation. “If you are a good-faith investor, we want you here in Cincinnati,” says Pureval. “If you are a bad-faith investor, you are not welcome.”

In May, Cincinnati dazzled 1,400 top attendees at the Congress for the New Urbanism summit. Delegates were surprised to discover the historic Over-the-Rhine district, home to the largest concentration of 19th-century Italianate architecture in the US, and the Zaha Hadid-designed Contemporary Arts Centre. Cincinnati is also home to several headquarters, including consumer products giant Procter & Gamble, conglomerate Kroger and contractor GE Aerospace. Intel is building a $28bn (€25.9bn) semiconductor plant in central Ohio that will keep University of Cincinnati graduates in the state. With that hi-tech manufacturing in mind, Pureval bristles at any mention of “Rust Belt” in the same sentence as his city. “It is an inaccurate, offensive term that has no place in modern Cincinnati,” he says. “We are the very future of this country.”

the people person
Elke Kahr


Elke Kahr is a busy woman. But once she starts talking to somebody in need of help, any sense of time pressure quickly dissipates. Indeed, help-seekers occupy the bulk of Kahr’s in-tray. At any given moment there are two or three people waiting outside her office on the second floor of Graz’s city hall – a late 19th-century affair consisting of turrets and marble floors. “Hundreds of people call my office every day with all sorts of problems: apartment searches, marriage breakdowns, problems with children,” Kahr tells monocle from behind her overflowing desk. To her left is a play area for visitors with children; behind her, two tall doors lead onto a balcony that faces Graz’s busy main square. “There are also many people who come simply for my advice because some problem areas lie outside the city government’s authority,” says Kahr.

It is this devotion to her electorate (there is, of course, a German word for this, Bürgernähe, which literally means “citizen closeness”) that won Kahr the 2023 World Mayor Prize from a London-based think-tank called City Mayors. In its award citation, the jury also commended Kahr’s generosity: of her monthly €9,400 after-tax salary she keeps just €2,000, giving almost 80 per cent away to people in need. Kahr recognises how this might seem unusual to some (though many of her city hall colleagues are now doing the same) but for her this sort of top-down wealth redistribution has always been part of her public and moral duty as one of the more prominent members of the Communist Party of Austria, or kpö.

Kahr joined as an idealistic student in 1983, at a difficult time for the kpö – the world’s third-oldest communist party after those in Russia and Finland. Ronald Reagan had just called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and any association with communism was highly suspect. “When people did speak to us, they didn’t say very nice things,” says Kahr with a smile. But after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, the kpö steadily gained ground, especially in Styria, the southern Austrian province, of which Graz is the capital. In many ways, Kahr’s triumph in the city’s mayoral elections in late 2021 was a natural consequence of this (though this didn’t take away from the sense of excitement, among Kahr and her supporters, that Graz was now the largest EU city to be run by a communist). 

The kpö’s ascendancy over the past 30 years has been largely due to affable personalities such as Kahr but also to its focus on a particular issue: affordable housing. Kahr’s administration has so far built about 300 council flats and plans to create at least 285 more. The party is now expected to enter Austria’s federal parliament this autumn for the first time since 1959. Kahr says that the “national stage” is not for her, however; she’s happy right where she is. “Questions of foreign policy, social politics, property politics or climate politics need the involvement of the kpö on a national level but in my current role I still have a lot to do. This is a gift and a privilege.”

the reluctant reformer
Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr


“It was in May 2017,” says Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr. “A friend said to me, ‘You really should run for mayor.’ My initial reaction was, ‘Absolutely not, are you joking?’ But the next day, as I drove to work, I kept looking around me and thinking, ‘I fix this, I fix that’. By the time I got to the office, I was like, ‘I’m going to run for mayor.’” 

Aki-Sawyerr is the mayor of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. She was born in the city but spent most of her adult life in the UK, building a career in financial services as an accountant, consultant and project manager. Her return to Freetown was initially inspired by an Ebola outbreak that gripped Sierra Leone in 2014. She signed up for a three-month volunteering programme to help manage the country’s response but was swiftly appointed director of planning at the National Ebola Research Centre. The outbreak was declared over in late 2015 and, shortly afterwards, she was asked to lead the team that delivered Sierra Leone’s Ebola recovery project.

Two years later, in 2018, Aki-Sawyerr won Freetown’s mayoral election, securing 59.9 per cent of the vote. In 2023 she was re-elected. The extent to which she won is disputed, however. Her party, the All People’s Congress (apc), doesn’t see eye to eye with president Julius Maada Bio’s Sierra Leone People’s Party. This has led to the two parties acknowledging different figures. Aki-Sawyerr claims that she received 66 per cent of the vote, while the official results grudgingly credit her with only 51 per cent. Many independent observers have condemned how the election was conducted and the counting procedures that were in place. It was also marred by violence: in one bizarre incident, a campaign volunteer was killed when police and presidential guards fired at the apc Freetown headquarters while Aki-Sawyerr was present.

“I don’t want to be in a state of disagreement with the national government,” she says. “I’m trying very hard to ensure that there is effective collaboration. I have a very good relationship with the minister of local government in this administration. We started off by saying, ‘Let’s work together in the interests of the people.’ And we’re sticking to that.”

For all the difficulties and dangers of her role, Aki-Sawyerr clearly remains excited by the big changes that can be instigated by initiatives that require relatively little investment. This is an important consideration: without the international funding that Aki-Sawyerr solicits on her frequent travels, her annual budget would be €1.6m (approximately €1.50 per Freetowner). Aki-Sawyerr’s signature policy is a tree-planting programme, which has already furnished Freetown with more than 600,000 trees. There are hopes that, by 2030, five million more will have been planted. She also enthuses about Freetown’s first wastewater treatment plant, which turns the sludge that used to be dumped out in the open into compost and cooking briquettes.

And while she understands that Freetown is not a name that immediately springs to mind as a holiday destination, Aki-Sawyerr thinks that could, and should, change. “I’ve been to many cities,” she says. “We do not have the best infrastructure. We do not have the best roads. But we have beautiful beaches, beautiful people and sunsets like you have never seen before.”

the change maker
Rafał Trzaskowski


“Running a city is a very hands-on job and you can immediately see the results of your actions,” Rafał Trzaskowski tells monocle. “The real challenge, after I got elected, was that I simply didn’t expect so many crises to happen on my watch.” In 2018 the now 52-year-old won a landslide first-round victory, securing 56 per cent of the vote. Poland’s capital has always been a bastion of liberal politics and Trzaskowski’s victory ushered in five more years of progressive rule. But his success had a far greater significance. At the time, the country was profoundly divided. Its populist government, led by the Law and Justice party, was severing ties with Europe and pushing a more conservative political agenda. Against that backdrop, Trzaskowski became a beacon of hope for Poles who were uncomfortable with their domestic political reality and were seeking change.

Trzaskowski is a former government minister and member of the European Parliament.He had no difficulty transitioning to city politics, even though he never really left the national scene. “I know that every mayor of a capital city is a national figure,” he says. “But handling the coronavirus pandemic, co-ordinating the influx of Ukrainian refugees, defending the rule of law and, at the same time, managing one of the most dynamic cities in Europe was a lot to handle at once.” 

Nothing defined his first term in office, which ran from 2018 to 2024, more than the Ukrainian refugee crisis. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion, more than 1.1 million displaced Ukrainians have passed through Warsaw and, in the first few months of the war, as many as 300,000 were residing in the city. When asked about how their successful integration was achieved, Trzaskowski points to ordinary Varsovians who opened their doors to welcome refugees into their homes. Elsewhere, decisions made by the mayor’s office have led the way for Warsaw to rapidly transform into a model 21st-century metropolis. Under Trzaskowski’s stewardship the city has inaugurated 11 metro stations, new tram lines that connect the rapidly expanding south with downtown, a new footbridge over the Vistula, more than a dozen schools and a free public kindergarten programme. The goodwill this generated directly contributed to his re-election in April with 57 per cent of the vote. 

“We shouldn’t have a complex,” says Trzaskowski, sitting in front of his office’s giant bookshelves. “We are experiencing the best moment of our history. Warsaw is almost as rich as Vienna and Berlin. We might not have the recognition of the Western capitals but we are not set in our ways. The sky truly is the limit.” It might be an apt metaphor for his own political ambitions, as he is widely rumoured to be the frontrunner in next year’s presidential election. When asked about his plans, he gives the consummate politician’s answer. “I want to focus on delivering on my promises to the people of Warsaw. There is a lot here that I’ve begun and I would like to finish it. Then we will see what happens.”

the forward thinker
Belit Onay


It was a simple promise that got Belit Onay elected in 2019: make Hanover’s city centre car-free by 2030. Onay is the son of Turkish immigrants and, as a Green Party politician, becoming the city’s mayor was no mean feat. Since the Second World War all of the city’s mayors had been from the centre-left Social Democratic Party (spd). Hanover is also the capital of Lower Saxony – a state that is home to a number of automotive giants, including Volkswagen and Continental. “That influenced the city’s postwar reconstruction,” says Onay as he welcomes monocle to his office in Hanover’s New Town Hall. The grand Wilhelminian building dates from 1913 and sits on the edge of a sprawling park, just off the town’s central ring road. “The city planning officer was inspired by the wide motorway lanes of places such as Detroit,” says Onay. “That was the zeitgeist. But today it’s becoming a real burden.”

Under Onay’s plans, parking within the ring road will be largely eliminated. “We’re not closing streets; we’re opening them up for different uses,” says the mayor. Taxis and delivery vans will still be able to get through, and parking facilities for the disabled will be improved. Hanover’s public transport provision is already the best in Germany, according to some surveys, but Onay’s plans will expand it further. Most traffic lights will be removed to avoid any disruption to pedestrian and cycle routes. “For many people, it’s still a car issue. But we are focusing on another question: what do we do with the space? How can we use it to improve life in the city?”

Onay’s infrastructure shake-up is likely to attract attention, and opprobrium, from far beyond the region but mobility isn’t the only issue that he’s tackling. The mayor has filled a funding gap in the state’s housing programme to support mid-range rents. He has accelerated decarbonisation programmes by aiming to phase out coal by 2026 and plans to supply most of the city with district heating. All of these efforts have been introduced to improve the quality of life in Hanover, a city that is a byword in Germany for the drab and joyless. But, as elsewhere, political polarisation makes his job harder. “People are much more short-tempered than they were a few years ago,” says Onay. “But we still have to push on with major changes to the way we live.” He calls the 2020s “the decade of transformation” and wants to see better equipped municipalities. “Climate, social and mobility issues will not be decided at federal level. It’s important that local authorities get the chance to take more things into their own hands.”

But even at the municipal level, policies can get waylaid. Last November, Onay’s coalition partner, the spd, brought down the administration, citing “difficulties in co-operation”. It is argued by some that the party wants to deny the mayor his flagship car-free project at all costs. Onay remains undeterred and is determined to avoid inertia. “Hanover’s society is much more progressive than some council politicians.”

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