Local governors often face different challenges to their national counterparts. Smaller budgets can mean fewer choices. But thinking differently can achieve big results, as our selection of inspiring local legislators proves.
In the past decade, Kabul’s population has exploded. Yearly, the mayor’s office estimates that over 350,000 new residents settle into the Afghan capital – many of whom are returning refugees – putting huge pressure on the city’s damaged infrastructure. This alone would be enough to make most shy away from heading up city hall.
Instead, mayor Mohammad Yunus Nawandish, appointed in 2010, takes great pride in his city. “I’m living as a normal citizen. We want Kabul to be a modern, green, clean city – as well as the nation’s capital.”
His working day is 17 hours long, some of which he spends on long walks through the city, sometimes up to 18km. Nawandish knows that rebuilding Kabul is just as much about repairing its sense of community as paving roads, so spending time with residents is vital.
Still, trained as an engineer, Nawandish isn’t one to neglect Kabul’s need for a serious physical overhaul. The city’s master plan dates from 1978, and Nawandish is working with the Japanese International Cooperation Agency on a new blueprint for Kabul that should go into action this year. A new generation of Afghan engineers and planners are being sent to Japan for training. Fighting corruption, hosting women’s rights parades, boosting private sector investment and even planting 2.5 million trees, Nawandish is breathing new life into the still-troubled capital.
The streets of Obuse, in Japan’s mountainous Nagano region, display an almost unreal level of perfection. The man behind the scenes of harmony? Mayor Ryozo Ichimura. Improving the quality of life in Obuse has long topped the town’s policy agenda, with priority given not only to the beautification, but also the health and well-being of residents.
His current projects include “flower training”, complete with community gardening school, and a chrysanthemum project to encourage cultivation of the flower, which has long historical ties to the town. Another of his initiatives is Obuse’s Walking Summit, planned for next November, aiming to improve the health of residents and enhance community spirit by encouraging walking tours throughout the town.
A typical day for the mayor – who can often be seen driving through Obuse, waving at residents as he goes about his business – involves meetings at the town hall mixed with local events – most recently including a lily festival and an Eiji Mitooka exhibition. The mayor emphasises the importance of “pride” among locals – as well as his desire to attract young residents, an ambitious goal in ageing rural Japan.
“Our aim is to create a charming living environment and a beautiful town. It is also to encourage further exchanges among residents and attract people to settle, including entrepreneurs and farmers,” he says. “These policies make the town move forward, but also value its traditions and cultures.”
In her aviator sunglasses, Chhavi Rajawat cuts a curious figure in her ancestral village in rural Rajasthan. After all, it’s not common for a young, MBA-educated single woman to give up a highly paid private sector job to become an official village head, or “sarpanch”. But that is exactly what Rajawat did two years ago.
Now, instead of preparing marketing reports, she spends her days doing paperwork in her two-room office building or interacting with the locals in Soda village, 60km from Jaipur.
“I get satisfaction from being in a position where I can bring about a real difference in the lives of 10,000 people,” says Rajawat of her decision.
The village might look like a rural idyll, but beyond the sunlight and haystacks it is in woeful need of development. Chief among the problems is a lack of toilets and drinking water.
“Our water has been deemed unsuitable even for agriculture,” says Rajawat, deftly steering her SUV down a muddy track leading to one of the town’s silted reservoirs. Rajawat’s goal is to have all of the town’s water supply desilted and desalinated – a vital plan that will cost $550,000 (€440,000).
When Ron Huldai, a former fighter pilot, stepped into office in 1998, Tel Aviv was nearly bankrupt. Inheriting a crumbling infrastructure, with businesses packing up and moving out, Huldai’s three terms as mayor are the urban equivalent of alchemy.
Israel’s second most populous city (after Jerusalem) is now a major tourist destination. Known for its thriving nightlife (there are 1,748 bars, or one for every 220 residents), Huldai has built sports and cultural centres, libraries, and improved the city’s beaches and promenades.
The culture has made the city a magnet for young tech entrepreneurs – the city’s next big focus. “It’s a holistic approach, to encourage people to live and to enjoy their lives. If you want creative people, they want to have fun.” But it is not just about nightclubs. Huldai has the goal of making the city one big Wi-Fi hotspot, which began there last year with Ben-Gurion Boulevard.
Huldai knows that to become an international business hub, he also has to tackle Israel’s restrictive working visa policies. He’s petitioning Jerusalem to have them changed. “What’s good for Tel Aviv is good for the nation,” he says. His key words: equality and accessibility.
Home to Mercedes, Porsche, Bosch, Stihl and Kärcher, Stuttgart is Germany’s economic fulcrum. And as Lord Mayor of Baden-Württemberg’s wealthy capital, it’s Wolfgang Schuster’s job to provide a civic framework.
With over 15 years in the job, he knows the importance of civic stability. “Political and administrative reliability provides confidence,” he tells Monocle, “Ultimately it contributes to long-term investments in research, development and production in Stuttgart.”
While he is host to the world’s industrial giants, his focus is on making Stuttgart green – his aim is to become Europe’s first carbon neutral city. The plan is to make the city a centre of technological and social innovation.
Ironically his pet project – the city’s new subterranean train station, Stuttgart 21 – caused major public protests. Despite this, he insists it will enhance the quality of life in the city. “A good infrastructure is central for an economy,” he says. “Stuttgart 21 will safeguard jobs for the future – and the jobs of our children. At the same time, we will have the chance to develop an area of 100 hectares in the heart of Stuttgart with our citizens. The goal is to produce an ecologically valuable project.”
Schuster hopes his balance between industrial might, eco-town planning, localism and international breadth will inspire others. Meanwhile, he’s happy with his city’s development. “We are doing well,” he tells Monocle.
Ek Sonn Chan presents every visitor with a crystal glass of water straight from the mains – quaffing one himself in case the guest has any qualms. There is substance to this piece of theatre: Chan is known as “Mr Clean Water”. As director general of Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority (PPWSA) he spent years working towards every gulp. “They called me the Water Devil,” he chuckles.
After two decades at the helm of PPWSA, he is looking back on the early days, when Cambodia was emerging from decades of war with its infrastructure in tatters. Chan’s initial efforts to transform the water utility were not appreciated.
“We disconnected all the people if they didn’t pay; we had to be fair,” he says. “They were very angry with me. They wrote to the media.” Friends warned he risked assassination.
Now things are different. Chan was hailed as the “Clean Water Hero” when PPWSA became the first company to list on Cambodia’s stock exchange in April. But he insists satisfaction comes from the product.
“Clean water helps poor families. If you have to boil the water you risk burning down your house. Now they can spend less time and money on doctors.”
The PPWSA now relies on efficient revenue collection to maintain its system. At this, Chan permits himself a little patriotic pride.
“Compared to our neighbours – Vietnam, Thailand – we look like a poor kid.”
The director general’s journey shows the poor kid is growing up.
In 2010, Len Brown was elected mayor of the new Auckland Council, the government’s solution to decades of infighting between seven rival civic councils. A former lawyer, he had been the mayor of Manukau where he led the fight against graffiti with a paintbrush.
In just 18 months he has made the fractured city buzz. “The uniting of Auckland has really delivered an opportunity to uncork our potential,” he says.
Importantly, Aucklanders have stopped saying “if” about projects like the NZ$2.8bn (€1.7bn) Central Rail Tunnel, predicted to revolutionise the city’s railways. The Council recently voted to implement the first 10 years of the 30-year Auckland plan, costing €35bn.
Now he has to pay for it. Previously an opponent of road user charges, a few months sitting in gridlock was enough to convince him of the need for change. Other options include the tolling of Auckland’s motorways, infrastructure bonds and private investment. “I’m challenging the city to step up and be prepared to go with whatever it takes,” he says. “But I’m also challenging myself.”
At an age when most Canadians are working their way through college, Luke Strimbold was running for mayor of his hometown of Burns Lake, British Columbia. Just 21 years old, there were sceptics who questioned whether Strimbold had the experience to lead a town of 2,700, especially given the need to diversify its economy away from a declining forestry industry.
It helped that Luke had a history of community service, including a city council stint and work with local aboriginal groups. In the end, he thinks his age was actually an asset. “People saw my ability to connect with young people, who are the future of the town,” Strimbold says. His victory last November made him the second-youngest mayor in Canadian history.
The town is comparatively well served by transport links, with a small airport and railway station. “We’re looking at a ‘live here, work anywhere’ model,” he says. “Burns Lake has clean air and water and lots of recreational opportunities. It’s a very comfortable place to live.”
This village, with medieval lanes, ancient olive trees near a Roman bridge and a view over Provence, has kept its character since forever. Pierre Jugy, the reluctant mayor, means to keep it that way. “I didn’t want to be a politician,” he says. “But we have to save this beautiful place.”
Jugy, 48 and handsome, is an innkeeper who loves flying and taking guests on Mediterranean cruises in his boat. Villagers demanded that he run when their old mayor retired in 2008.
He quickly put Tourtour’s budget into surplus, while extending services to its 750 villagers and the extra 3,000 people who swarm in each summer. Now, from his aerie between Nice and Marseille, he leads a battle against companies trying to frack all across France, as they drill in search of gas pockets. For this, he is seeking a second job: National Assemblyman. As a rebel independent, he has amassed wide support. He even got ecologists to join with their old foes, the hunters. Each commune has vigilantes to report on anyone fracking.
“At first, I had a one per cent chance,” he said. “Now all parties come to me for support, even the [far-right] National Front. They told me, ‘You know, you’re a good guy.’ I said, ‘Yes, but you’re not.’”
Still, Jugy focuses on his hometown, where he built his father’s restaurant into the 11-room La Petite Auberge. He piped water to the village’s far reaches, expanded the school and spurred business. Last year’s budget surplus was €200,000. “It was easy. We cut out what we didn’t need and focused on what we did,” Jugy says.
Since 2010, Kasim Reed has grown Atlanta’s financial reserves from $7.4m (€5.8m) to $100m (€78m). He saw the completion of a new $1.4bn international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson airport, home to $10m worth of public art. He helped build a partnership between Atlanta’s Woodruff Arts Centre and the Louvre that has raised its profile to international levels. And under Reed’s leadership, film production in the city now pulls in $1bn of revenue annually. Not bad for two and a half years in office. All this while keeping Atlanta’s budget balanced, partly by diplomatically tackling the city’s runaway pensions.
It has given Reed a reputation for being able to make hard decisions but with a bit of heart. Reed has a simple philosophy: “What part of the city touches the lives of people? How it feels when you walk around, whether you feel safe, and whether you can pursue your career. You need to improve this part of people’s lives.”
Rumour has it that Reed is up for a cabinet post if Obama is re-elected this year. Smart move.