Meet the five mayors and city governors, from Nairobi to Seoul, whose vision, strategies and commitment should inspire us all to demand better leaders (or stand for elections).
Key challenge: Nairobi’s first representative governor is putting transparency and accountability at the heart of his plans to re-invigorate the Kenyan capital.
Nairobi’s first popularly elected city leader was voted into the newly created post of governor in March this year, replacing the old mayoral system. Dr Evans Kidero takes the helm of a capital whose crumbling infrastructure struggles to keep up with an ever-growing population and a city administration known more for corruption than service delivery. As one of the most powerful men in Kenyan politics, Dr Kidero is responsible for the heartbeat of the national and regional economies. The task ahead is formidable; he tells monocle what he intends to achieve.
Monocle: Many of Nairobi’s previous city administrations had reputations for profligacy and graft. Will yours be any different?
Evans Kidero: Up to 30 per cent of city revenue has been pilfered over the years and we have to put a stop to that by promoting a culture of good governance and accountability. At the moment the accounts have not been audited for the last three years! When people are caught they must be punished. I have fired 19 people and 11 of them are in court.
M: What else needs to change?
EK: A culture of performance and service doesn’t exist. Citizens are given service as if they are being done a favour but it is a right and the citizens pay for it. People who are not willing to serve citizens well have no business being in public office.
M: Nairobi used to deserve its nickname ‘Nairobbery’ and although security has improved it remains a serious concern for residents. How will you allay their fears?
EK: We must increase police numbers. Currently the ratio of police to people in Nairobi is one to 1,150, which is way too low. The international average is one to 450. But it is not just about numbers, it is also getting police who are dedicated and willing to render service. We are putting cctv cameras all over the city and forming community policing groups.
M: Another concern is the terrible traffic.
EK: We are diverting non-city traffic through the new northern and southern bypasses so all the [heavy trucks] that come from Mombasa will be diverted away from the city centre. Nairobi has one of the highest numbers of single car occupancies in the world so we are going to develop comfortable, convenient public transport systems.
M: You were born in Nairobi. Tell me about the city you came to know growing up.
EK: The Nairobi I grew up in was organised: rubbish was collected, public transport was on time, education worked, our hospitals had drugs. That’s the Nairobi I’d like to see again. The rot started in the 1980s and the city has never recovered.
M: Your career so far has been in the business world, so what do you bring from that to the job of Governor?
EK: A culture of service and value for money. I’ll run Nairobi like a business. We have revenue from the people and we use that to provide services. For every dollar a Nairobian pays they will get the equivalent, if not more, in service. Nairobi has been like a failing business that needs a turnaround manager. It’s the gateway to a market of close to a billion people in East, Central and Southern Africa.
Key challenge: The mining boom has brought major problems, from soaring house prices to shifting ambitions for schoolchildren
When Lisa Scaffidi became Lord Mayor of Perth in 2007, it was a city in the grip of change. The capital of Western Australia, thousands of kilometres from its closest city neighbours, has traditionally lived a relaxed life defined by Indian Ocean sunsets on perfect beaches. But a resources boom in the state’s north west brought unprecedented wealth to a city long mocked for its lack of cultural and creative life. As the country weathered the global economic collapse, it was the fortress that kept Australia safe.
A former air hostess and marketer with a stint managing the Australian business of a Bahrainian sheikh on her CV, Scaffidi is a legendary charmer. She recently came second in the 2012 World Mayor Awards, run by the City Mayors Association, which cited her raising of Perth’s international profile while focusing on “bread and butter” local issues.
Her Perth is a changed one and not just because of the fresh money or the new airport terminal dedicated to fly-in-fly-out workers in high-visibility vests. Its inner city feels renewed, full of unfamiliar creative energy. As the boom shows its first signs of weakening, she is preparing for the time when the resources and the money dry up, and this most isolated city on the far side of this most isolated continent must stand on its own.
Monocle: What got you into this game?
Lisa Scaffidi: I love planning, I love city-making, I love place-making. I would have liked to have been born in a bigger city but Perth is my home. Four months out from the mayoral election of 2007 there were four guys standing as candidates. I wasn’t desperately thinking about it but a friend of mine said, “You’re the only person with a real point of difference, these guys are more of the same.”
M: What are the elements of a good city?
LS: For me it is about the engagement of the citizens. We’ve rolled out a lot of projects, which have hopefully enabled people who might have been reticent about my capability, or my view of the world, to have greater faith. I still need to finish off the fine embroidery around the edge of the vision. We’ve made people confident by beautifying the city and they’re not so inclined to knock it. They used to call it “Dullsville”. We’re past that but there’s still a way to go before there’s the level of sophistication that I would like to see.
M: The Lord Mayor is obviously a very prominent role but at the same time, you’re just local government in a three-tiered political system. How much can you achieve?
LS: I have absolutely zero power, but that’s fine – you don’t need it. What you need is to be a persuasive person who can use the influence of the office to charm people, to know that what you’re espousing is for the greater good of the city. My other passion in this role is economic development. As I like to keep reminding people, we’re only 1.9 million people in Greater Perth. That’s nothing. You’re not going to make billions of dollars out of 1.9 million people, you need to connect with other global cities.
M: Are there limits to what kind of city Perth can be?
LS: You’ve got to be strategic about how you want the city to grow. You don’t want to be random, because things are expensive to provide. The resources will run out. We need to be very carefully transitioning to creative industry sectors, things like medical research, and focussing on how we can then balance that and transition over time. A city is like a human being, we have life stages and cycles that we go through. You’ve just got to do the best you can while you’re there.
M: Were there things you set out to achieve that you just realised couldn’t be done politically?
LS: You know, I’ve thought a lot about that. When I came in I had all those ideals, I had no proof that I could achieve any of them. Sitting in this position six years down the track, I’m more idealistic than I was coming in, because we’ve achieved it. We are sequentially growing Perth. At the moment you’ve got a lot of people knocking traffic congestion and complaining about the cost of living and such. If you try and get the level of conversation to a more intellectual level and ask, do you actually like where your city is going, I think most people do. That’s a damned nice conversation to be having.
Key challenge: Turning one of Asia’s biggest capitals into a liveable city, while dealing with a large legacy of debt.
One of the first things Park Won-Soon sees when he enters his office at Seoul’s city hall is a patchwork of Post-it notes. There are hundreds stuck to the wall, each bearing a handwritten plea from a resident of South Korea’s largest city. Create more jobs. Build more playgrounds. Improve healthcare for women. Make us dream. Together, they act as a reminder of the endless to-do list for the 57-year-old mayor. “Every day I’m reading this and deciding what policies I should carry out and how to meet the demands of citizens,” he says.
Before becoming mayor of Seoul in late 2011, Park had never held political office. For three decades his specialities were human rights law and grassroots activism – it was impossible for South Koreans to talk about the two without mentioning Park’s name. He went after corrupt politicians and corporate executives and coached local governments to work with community organisations.
Park has shunned big public works in favour of community-based projects and social welfare programmes designed to make Seoul more liveable. He has invested in historically underfunded areas: libraries, solar energy, support for startups, urban farms, bicycle lanes and pedestrian-friendly streets. All this while chipping away at the city’s €14bn of debt.
Park the activist was outspoken about government disregard for public opinion in policymaking. Since becoming mayor, he has enthusiastically used social media to solicit feedback from voters, responding daily to hundreds of messages. His staff have orders to make all of city hall’s documents and databases available to the public. “As an activist, I used to feel that the bureaucracy had been corrupted by a culture of non-transparency,” he says. “I think transparency and accountability are the most important agenda in our society and in our times.”
Park is blunt in his assessment of what needs to be fixed in Seoul. “There are many social issues – crime, suicide. These are the result of our rapid economic development and destruction of our communities. So the building and rehabilitating of our communities are our urgent goals,” he says. His prescription: encourage community groups to take the lead and residents to join local cooperatives and he’s backing that up with millions of won from public coffers. A decade from now he thinks cooperatives could account for 8 per cent of the city’s jobs and a sizeable chunk of its economy. In a corner of his office, Park has a wooden planter where he grows chicory, lettuce, aubergines and herbs. It’s easy enough to replicate on rooftops, in schools or inside an apartment. Locals could organise themselves into cooperatives to share the harvest, he says. “Even with a small space anyone can cultivate and harvest. It can reduce the stress of Seoul’s citizens.”
This is city-building on a micro level, and it reflects Park’s faith in the power of change on a small scale. “By becoming a model I can ask citizens to do something. Saving energy equivalent to the electricity generated by one nuclear power plant is my main pledge. But without the participation of citizens it’s impossible,” he says.
Last year, Park was unanimously chosen to lead the World Council of Mayors on Climate Change, which aims to create sustainable cities. In March, at Park’s invitation, Citynet, a loose network of Asian municipal governments, moved its base to Seoul, from Yokohama, Japan. He is inviting mid-level officials from other cities – about 100 a year – to the city-run University of Seoul, which he is trying to develop into a hub for urban planning ideas. “We grew into a modern, prosperous city and did many things by trial and error. We have the problems of developing countries and modernised cities. So we are in a good position to share our experience.”
Key challenge: meeting a pledge to make Vancouver the world’s greenest city.
Too few politicians boast a CV as delightfully bizarre as that of Gregor Robertson, the 47-year-old mayor of Vancouver. Before politics he worked as a cowboy, sailed the Pacific and farmed in New Zealand. Returning to his hometown, he started the ultimate Vancouver business: an organic juice company. (Canada’s West Coast metropolis has a groovy bohemian reputation, object of both envy and irritation elsewhere in the country.)
Green ideals led to politics. After a spell in British Columbia’s provincial parliament, in 2008 Robertson won the top job in this port city of 600,000 on a platform of eco-minded change. His mismatched background gave him a very particular outlook on the post.
“I’m an entrepreneur,” Robertson says. “We can be creative while managing risk, and that’s what you do in business: you push things, but you also make sure the bottom line works.”
Indeed, Robertson has pursued a bold ambition – making Vancouver the world’s greenest city by 2020 – with a moderate, pragmatic approach. He’s also steered the city through a tumultuous but decisive step into the global eye, presiding over both the 2010 Winter Olympics and the 2012 Cities Summit, a rendezvous of ambitious local leaders and urban thinkers.
The public transport overhaul for the Olympics was predictably controversial. The city’s image suffered when yobbish hockey fans rioted in 2011. But short-term crises aside, Robertson views Vancouver’s ascension to the first rank of global cities as something like destiny.
“We’re uniquely positioned to lead,” he says. “We’re a young city that has a history of very smart planning. That really sets us up for green transport and development that might be harder in older cities. We can demonstrate the next wave of change.”
In that vein, Robertson rattles off accomplishments. Vancouver’s longterm policy of preserving farmland has fostered plans for 15 new neighbourhood gardens and three new farms within the “city” boundaries. The construction code, already considered North America’s most eco-conscious when he took office, now demands that all new buildings be 20 per cent more energy efficient than previously. Transport policy enshrines walking and cycling as the preferred modes, so any new development must be planned for pedestrians and bicycles.
In pursuing these ambitions, Robertson keenly borrows from other cities. “Every mayor does that now,” he says. “Cities don’t directly compete with each other, really, so we can copy and paste the best ideas.” He fluently skims various inspirations: Latin American plazas, Scandinavian cycle paths, “cool” microhousing in Hong Kong. Those eclectic reference points perhaps provide relief from domestic politics.
“A major challenge is lack of support from the federal and provincial governments,” he says. “Cities have no status under the constitution: our powers are ad hoc and we only collect 8 per cent of tax revenue. On federal and provincial levels problems are abstract and long-term. We have to solve problems right now, because we deliver services every day.”
One such problem is the sheer cost of living. Since the 1970s, the price of a modest single-family home in the city has increased five fold. “We have huge demand and limited land,” Robertson says. “So we have some of the highest land prices in North America. Where do students and young families live? Historically, no one has wanted to touch that one.” Thanks to changes pushed by Robertson, the city encourages designs such as dense row houses and “laneway” (or mews) housing not traditionally seen in Vancouver. He proudly (and precisely) notes that he’s just approved 455 new homes on city-owned land. A new incentive programme sparked the first major rental-housing construction in decades.
In Robertson’s office aboriginal art hangs next to an ornate (but non-functional) 19th-century grandfather clock built in London; a blue pennant from fifa marks the city’s designation as a host for the 2015 Women’s World Cup. Vancouver, where the British Empire once met North America’s wild west, has become a global city at dizzying speed. Nearly one in five Vancouverites is of Chinese heritage, thanks to successive waves of immigration that began before 1997’s Hong Kong handover and continue with influxes from mainland China. Longstanding Italian, South Asian, and aboriginal communities all add to the mix.
The resulting local politics can be turbulent. A conservative opponent called Robertson’s green policies “wacky” and he faces challengers from both left and right if he contests the 2014 election. An anarchist group recently torched an upscale construction project. But Robertson projects a low-key calm and charming ease; he’s as happy to discuss a controversial handball in the local football club’s most recent derby as he is housing policy. And this mayor of unusual origins may possess unusual confidence.
“It’s never easy but our agenda has been strongly supported through two elections,” he says. “For every issue we bring together smart people, put all the ideas out for discussion and end up with a clear plan. It works. We can be a city where sustainability, diversity, and quality of life come together. Vancouver has changed radically before. This is where pioneers have always come.”
Key challenges: Cuts from central government, coupled with limits on tax rises, means vital services could suffer.
Sir Richard Leese has been leader of Manchester City Council since 1996, during which time he has overseen the city’s transformation after an ira bomb devastated its centre. Since then, Manchester has become exciting, forward-thinking and outward-looking – and the fastest-growing city in the UK. As if to prove how at ease it feels on the world stage too, this month sees the biggest Manchester International Festival yet, featuring new commissions from the likes of Massive Attack, Kenneth Branagh and Willem Defoe, and 40 per cent funded by the public sector. Leese is comfortable with such investment in a time of consistent recession, believing it crucial to the image of Manchester as a city of significance.
The bike on which he commutes to the dramatic town hall is propped against the wall of the Leader’s Office beneath pictures of his beloved Manchester City FC. Leese is widely admired for his genuine love of the city, his work ethic and his relationship with colleagues. Not everything has gone to plan and cuts have hit hard but recent figures for Manchester show growth in almost every area.
Monocle: You’ve talked before about the “impossibility” of running a city, in terms of balancing the varied demands of citizens with diminishing financial resources. How do you work around that?
Richard Leese: In difficult times you need to have a strategy for how you want to take a city forward and a plan for how you’ll deliver it. We focus on three things. People: how we invest in and support the people of the city. Place: what it’s like to live, do business and enjoy yourself in Manchester as a whole city or a series of neighbourhoods. And finally the factor that underpins everything: the economic activity that will create jobs. These three simple drivers feed into every policy. People ask why we’re spending £19m (€22m) in a recession on a new arts space. But galleries, theatres and orchestras are important because they help create a place that people want to come and live in.
M: How does a leader of a council create an international profile for a city?
RL: For a lot of people, mention Manchester and they will say Manchester United, or The Stone Roses perhaps. But our role is to tease out, assist and project other things of international significance happening here right now. So for some, it will be the incredible work at the university in particle physics by Professor Brian Cox. For others it might be the invention of the Nobel Prize-winning material, graphene. The Manchester International Festival this summer is important not just in terms of what it programmes from around the world, but because it gives a view of a city that is distinct from others.
M: How has Manchester as a brand changed in your time as leader?
RL: We did some fairly deep work after the Commonwealth Games in 2002, not to invent a brand for the city, but to understand what it was. And the values are similar to 150 years ago: economic, scientific, social and cultural radicalism. The recession of the 1980s knocked the stuffing out of the place, it lost self-confidence and attitude, so what we’ve wanted to do, and have done, is give the city back its belief that we can do whatever we want.