Minneapolis mayor RT Rybak has a unique brand of governing. Reelected to his third term last year, he’s marketing the city’s tap water, pushing farm-to-plate food initiatives and is a believer in people doing their civic duty. Is this the model for America’s urban renaissance?
Name: RT Rybak
Job: Mayor of Minneapolis
Raymond Thomas (known simply as RT) Rybak won his first election on September 11, 2001 for the Democratic mayoral nomination in Minneapolis. The timing gave him an education in how to govern in tough times. A former journalist and alternative-newspaper publisher, Rybak credits Minnesota’s civic-minded goodheartedness for the fact that the city continues to bloom despite tight budgets.
A Minneapolis native, Rybak has received a boost from outsiders drawn to the city straddling the Upper Mississippi River. The historically Nordic immigrant city has seen its population grow, to around 400,000, thanks to the arrival of new immigrants, most visibly Somali and Hmong refugees. Downtown is thriving, home to corporate headquarters such as Target and US Bancorp, and new cultural institutions (including the Jean Nouvel-designed Guthrie Theater) that’s at the forefront of a lively citywide arts scene.
Rybak, 54, was an early Iraq war critic, involved in organising fellow mayors against global warming, a leading pro-immigration advocate and Barack Obama’s first big-city mayoral backer. But mostly he finds ways to act locally. On 10 June the Nice Ride Minnesota bike-share was launched, the latest in a series of bike-friendly moves that the cycling mayor has made to expand local transit options. (His car of choice is a Prius.) The Hiawatha light-rail line from the airport to downtown opened in 2004, with passenger numbers exceeding all projections. Rybak is now working on another line to connect Minneapolis to its Minnesota twin city St Paul, and with less success lobbying Washington to back a high-speed rail link to Milwaukee and Chicago.
Rybak was reelected overwhelmingly to a third term last year and much of his recent attention has turned to food and drink. His Homegrown Minneapolis programme pushes urban agriculture and farm-to-table initiatives. Rybak has also made a priority out of marketing the city’s tap water – through restaurant promotions and decorative fountains designed by local artists – as a competitor to bottled water. The money Rybak’s government spent promoting free water was one of the issues opponents used against him during his failed bid this year to be Minnesota’s governor. Rybak withdrew from the race in April but says he looks forward to having more time to travel. Shanghai is on his itinerary, he hopes to get a closer look at some Scandinavian cities he considers peers – “walkable, bikeable, people are into nature” – and wants to find a way to get to Mogadishu.
Monocle: Minneapolis has become a more cosmopolitan city on your watch. Has it been hard to maintain its “Minnesota Nice” charm?
RT Rybak: Minneapolis is in the fascinating middle ground between being small enough to be friendly and sophisticated enough to have a lot to do. We don’t aspire to be Paris. This is a place where somebody can live an extraordinarily full and complex life without a lot of hassle.
M: How much is that by design?
RTR: It’s embarrassing for a politician to say that great cities are often not built by a single leader but by a civic infrastructure. Change here often starts from the bottom up, at the community level, where someone in a neighbourhood with a great idea sparks a citywide movement.
M: Has that changed your agenda?
RTR: I got an idea to do the first urban cross-country ski race but that was grabbed by a group of activists who created the City of Lakes Loppet. It’s now this amazing event that is powered by hundreds of citizens. Being mayor here is different than in other places because your job is to inspire a community that has been able to nurture one great idea after another.
M: Is that true in this economic climate?
RTR: People realise right now that they need to do more. We’ve redefined the role of a resident. I come out of business, where “customer” is a good word. But the citizens of Minneapolis are not my customers. They’re my partners. That huge difference means we don’t expect people to sit on the couch and consume city services. They’re expected to be part of it.
M: How does that work?
RTR: One of the most basic things a city does is to fill a pothole. The old way was for us to send crews out to find out where they were. The new way is we ask people to call and report potholes and map them on a GIS system. Everything we do now we ask the question: how do we make the people more active?
M: Would that translate elsewhere or is this a Minnesota ethic at work?
RTR: It comes in part from having a large number of people in an urban setting who have roots in rural America. People are one or two or three generations separated from life in a farming community where everyone had to do their part.
M: Many new immigrants arrive as refugees. Does that pose special challenges?
RTR: Generations have come to Minneapolis as a refuge. We have a disproportionate number of nonprofits involved in relief efforts. So many people got to know Minneapolis because of its humanitarian role in the world. We take pride in the fact that this may be the 16th-largest metropolitan area in the US, but if you walk down the main street of Mogadishu, they would know a lot about this beautiful place.
M: Have the Somalis who have come to the city been difficult to integrate?
RTR: Somalis are a unique group, in part because they came out of a fractured country with a tribal history that makes it more difficult to go to one or two people to “represent” the entire community. Engaging with the Somali community means engaging with hundreds of people at once. That’s good because no one person should speak for one community, but it’s very complicated to convene.
M: Why are you so focused on food?
RTR: This city started because it brought in agricultural products from the farms to become the milling capital of the world. We are surrounded by the breadbasket of America but the great majority of food consumed here comes from elsewhere while family farms are dying. The system is broken. I don’t believe government should spend a lot of time restricting what people eat but we should inspire new partnerships that bring an urban resident closer to the people who grow the food they should be eating.
M: What about the water campaign?
RTR: In city government, we run a huge business called public water but its use has decreased significantly as bottled water rose. There’s something wrong with a system that has people in Minneapolis drinking water bottled in Fiji, which has no public drinking system, and then leaving plastic in a Minnesota landfill. Good, clear, clean public water is almost a miracle – you can turn on your tap and great water comes out.
M: Is that just a marketing challenge?
RTR: I consider myself the chief salesperson for the public water company I run for the citizens of Minneapolis. We don’t need to ban bottled water; we just need to sell our product, which is better – and free.
M: You were the first mayor to endorse Obama for president. How’s he doing?
RTR: America’s role in the world was in deep jeopardy until Obama came into office. The ability of our big corporations to compete in the global economy was deeply challenged by an administration in Washington that was creating enemies faster than we could kill them. Having a president tell the world that we will be a partner has a huge positive implication for someone trying to do business here.
M: Were you disappointed in the White House when it passed over Minnesota for high-speed rail funding?
RTR: The administration is doing its job. Minnesota should have had far more visionary plans in place for high-speed rail, and the failure of the state administration to partner with the Obama administration is appalling to me. People criticised us when we began planning bus rapid transit without any funding strategy. But by being visionary we were able to secure a $133m [€107m] grant that’s remade the two major streets in town. We’re now planning streetcars and other light-rail lines without direct funding. But because now the Obama administration is offering resources for that, the visionary work we’ve done over several years is paying off.
As often as three times a week, Rybak returns to the neighbourhood where his father once owned a pharmacy to visit a place he calls “the best of the new Minneapolis”. Rybak helped open the Midtown Global Market in 2006 at street level of an abandoned office building: a food-centric bazaar of 50 vendors reflecting the city’s changing international character. (Healthcare provider Allina moved its corporate headquarters into the tower above.) On shopping trips, Rybak stops at the Grass Roots Gourmet stall for locally roasted Parkers Farm peanut butter. At mealtime, he is partial to Manny’s Tortas for Mexican sandwiches, La Sirena Gorda for shrimp quesadillas and the East African lunch counter Safari Express for its “veggie delight” dish.
The mix of global flavours and native ingredients reflects a worldly spin on his administration’s eat-local food policy, he says: “Safari Express can make great Somali food but that goat can come from within 100 miles.”
1955: Born Minneapolis
1978: Graduates Boston College and joins Sun Newspapers as a reporter
1986: Development director, Minneapolis Downtown Council
1990: Starts RT Rybak Co. marketing consultancy
1994: Campaign manager for independent governor candidate Tony Bouza
1997: Vice president, Internet Broadcasting Systems online-consulting firm
2001: Elected mayor of Minneapolis
Population: 390,131; greater metropolitan area, 3.27 million.
International flights: 21 destinations, of which five are intercontinental.
Non-private education: As in the rest of the US, free through to 12th grade (up until the age of 17 or 18). Minnesota ranks third among US states in high-school graduation rate (86.1 per cent) but Minneapolis lags behind. The public high-school graduation rate is 72.81 per cent.
Medical care: Health Care State Rankings 2010, which evaluated states on the basis of roughly 500 healthcare factors, ranks Minnesota second in the US, down from first in 2009. MinnesotaCare is available for people who cannot afford health insurance.