Whether hosting the Olympics or overhauling a public-transport system, running a city is a daunting task. So who would take it on? We meet seven mayors willing to bear the weight of a city upon their shoulders.
Women are more prominent than ever in Polish politics yet few have proven as resilient as Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, Warsaw’s veteran mayor whose public career began shortly after the fall of communism in 1989. After serving as governor of the National Bank of Poland from 1992 to 2001, she was named vice-president of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development in London. She has been mayor of her native Warsaw since 2006, surviving political rivals’ attempt to oust her in a referendum in 2013 and winning a third term the following year.
The 63-year-old also serves as the deputy leader of the centrist Civic Platform party, which governed the country for eight years before being ousted last autumn by the right-wing Law and Justice party. As the divisive antics of the new government have pushed Poland into the international spotlight, Gronkiewicz-Waltz has remained steady at the helm of the capital. In an interview at her city hall office she is careful in her criticisms of the new government, which has eroded press freedom and packed the supreme court with loyalists. “One must always distinguish between the Polish government and Poland itself,” she says.
Monocle: What have been the biggest changes in Warsaw since you became mayor in 2006?
Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz: The north-south metro line has been completed as well as high-rise buildings and a pedestrian boulevard along the River Vistula. And then there are the things that are harder to see, such as new preschools and nurseries.
M: Warsaw was heavily damaged during the Second World War. How has the city dealt with this legacy?
HGW: Firstly, some prewar designs have been returned to, like the north-south metro line, which was mapped out in the 1920s but not begun until the mid-1990s. Secondly, we are taking better care of what we do have. So much was destroyed that we are trying to preserve the old but valuable elements that remain.
M: What draws people to Warsaw?
HGW: Warsaw has been through a lot but it has an unbreakable spirit. The city has a certain magnetism, perhaps because it is right in the middle of Poland, perhaps because of its history. It also has an openness towards Poles from other regions and people from abroad.
M: Do you see a political gulf between Warsaw and other parts of Poland? Law and Justice did less well at the ballot box in the capital than overall.
HGW: Big cities such as Warsaw have more of a spirit of freedom. Their inhabitants want to make their own decisions and are less subject to political management from above. People in smaller towns have fewer choices so are more subject to protective authorities.
M: As deputy leader of the opposition Civic Platform party, to what extent does your job as mayor play into national politics?
HGW: I am a child of the Solidarity trade union that stood up to communism so I have always been political and opposed to the non-democratic system in place then. Above all I try to be oriented towards local government, acting on residents’ behalf rather than for the sake of political capital.
M: What does Warsaw have to offer those who live in the city?
HGW: Good transport, education and culture. Residents can decide how the city is run through social consultations. The city is safe and full of greenery; people are often reluctant to leave.
M: And what can it offer the world?
HGW: A bridge between east and west, with good human potential.
Soichiro Takashima was just 36 when he became Fukuoka’s mayor six years ago. A former TV newsreader, he inherited a mid-sized city in southwestern Japan. It didn’t take him long to show that he had the ideas, energy and political chops to prepare Fukuoka for a better future.
Today the country’s seventh-largest metropolis – with a population of 1.5 million – is growing at a faster rate than any other Japanese city. Tourism and business are booming and every day nearly 50,000 visitors arrive aboard cruise ships, planes and Shinkansen trains.
Takashima is busy championing start-ups and electric cars, adding more buses and subway stations and modernising the city’s commercial centre and waterfront. Now in his second term, he has plans to upgrade the city’s airport and harbour as he tries to raise Fukuoka’s profile in Asia. monocle met the mayor to hear how the city is coping with these opportunities and challenges.
Monocle: The influx of visitors and new residents is straining Fukuoka’s infrastructure. How will you fix this?
Soichiro Takashima: We need to transform the city and do it quickly. Developers are offered incentives to put up bigger office buildings, widen walkways, plant trees and install benches in public areas. To upgrade the docks, we are covering investment costs by bringing in businesses that can profit from the projects. Having a deadline is important. To speed up rebuilding in the central Tenjin district we offer developers benefits but only until 2034; we expect 30 new buildings by then. As Japan’s population declines it gets harder to invest in infrastructure projects so this is our last chance to make big investments in the city over the next half century.
M: Fukuoka is betting its economic future on start-ups. What’s the plan?
ST: In Japan big businesses usually come first. University graduates want to work for major companies. Someone in my position would normally work closely with powerful business lobby groups. But I want to build momentum behind our start-up community. We offer tax breaks and create programmes such as the Start-up Café so young people will be inspired to go into business for themselves.
M: How does the Start-up Café work?
ST: It’s a one-stop resource for entrepreneurs. We organise sessions at a downtown bookshop. Anyone can come and learn how to make a business plan, get legal advice and attend lectures. In the past year the programme produced 50 new start-ups.
M: You star in many of city hall’s online videos talking directly to constituents. Does this build support for your ideas?
ST: Fukuoka has to be clear about what sets it apart from other cities. It’s important to let young people know that we are planning for the future and that city hall is constantly trying new things.
Earlier this year a reporter asked Donald Trump to name the most dangerous place he’d visited. “There are places in America that are among the most dangerous in the world,” Trump replied, citing Oakland, California. A few days later, Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf had this to say: “The most dangerous place in America is Donald Trump’s mouth.”
Schaaf admits that crime is a major problem in Oakland. The city is also facing an affordability crisis, echoing the situation across the bay in San Francisco. But Schaaf touts some positive shifts. Technology companies are increasingly turning to Oakland and Uber recently announced it was expanding into an old Sears department store.
An Oakland native, Schaaf previously served on the city council and under former mayor (and current California governor) Jerry Brown. Her city boasts a downtown that is sleepy but architecturally pleasing, a Mediterranean climate and a diverse, engaged population. It is up to Schaaf to usher it into a safer and more prosperous future while ensuring it remains welcoming to all.
Monocle: What’s the biggest challenge when it comes to quality of life in Oakland?
Libby Schaaf: Between 2000 and 2014, the Bay Area added half a million jobs but only built 54,000 new units of housing. Oakland has the fastest-rising rents relative to income of any city in the US. What has always made Oakland special is its diversity: racial, ethnic and economic.
M: In April the city council approved a 90-day moratorium on rent increases. The sense of emergency here is real.
LS: The moratorium is a way of pressing pause while we work on the legislative solutions we’re going to put in place. With regard to housing we’re looking at two things: one is strengthening the protections to help keep families here and the other is building more so we can accommodate those who want to move here.
M: You’re courting technology as well as other industries – but as we’ve seen in San Francisco, isn’t that a double-edged sword?
LS: The good news is that Oakland is larger than San Francisco and we’re starting out with half the population so we have room to grow, room to welcome new residents and businesses to the city without displacing those who are already here.
M: When did you first get wind of the Uber expansion?
LS: I think it’s important people know that Uber did not ask for a tax break. I found out about Uber moving here just days before it was announced. I was excited because it is a compliment when a large company comes to your city but I also sent Uber a letter that put forward my expectations of how it could become a positive member of the community and ways it could help us fight displacement and celebrate diversity.
M: Crime is a persistent issue. What are you doing about it?
LS: I’ve committed to growing our police force to 800 officers during the next year. We need to do more community-based policing and integrate it with social services. We work with community groups to send a very clear message to the people who are most involved with violent crime that this is not something we tolerate. We try to figure out who is most likely to be involved with violent crime and we contact them one by one. So far this year we’ve seen a 43 per cent reduction in homicides. Oakland is getting significantly safer.
Ken Hasebe and Shibuya are a good fit. The district is home to 221,800 residents and is famous for being a centre for creativity and youth culture. Hasebe used to work for advertising agency Hakuhodo and was born and brought up here.
His political career has focused on quality of life. When he was a city councillor he set up two charities: Green Bird to keep the streets of Omotesando litter-free, and Shibuya University, which hosts classes and community events. Hasebe is also a champion of LGBT rights. Last year Shibuya became the first place in Japan to recognise same-sex partnerships, which gives same-sex couples in the city municipal rights.
His advertising background has made its mark on Shibuya-ku News: the free newspaper has been given a redesign and fresh content. The mayor is also working with FM station Shibuya-no-Rajio to spread the word about news and events; he even has his own slot, “The Mayor’s Room”, on Fridays. A lean triathlete, he has run the Tokyo Marathon in an impressive 3 hours and 6 minutes.
Monocle: Why did you enter politics?
Ken Hasebe: I never thought of becoming a politician. I was working for an ad agency and was keen to leave the life of a salaryman but still wasn’t thinking about politics. Others encouraged me to run. I served as a councillor for 12 years and then last year the [outgoing] mayor suggested I run for office. I was surprised but stood anyway and here I am.
M: Was it important to you to stand as an independent candidate?
KH: Very important. Party affiliations won’t make Shibuya a better place. If you’re independent you don’t get entangled in conflicts between political parties. I can be neutral and fair and get along with everyone. It helps.
M: You were born and raised here. Does that bring a personal perspective to the role?
KH: I’m 44 and have been living here for 44 years – I’m a veteran. During that time Shibuya has changed dramatically. I’ve lived through it all. I’m not a specialist in politics but I am a specialist in Shibuya.
M: How much autonomy do you have from the city government?
KH: In Tokyo we talk about the 23 special wards and Shibuya is one of them. The police and fire department are run by the city but we look after other areas, such as education, welfare and environmental policy.
M: What makes Shibuya different from other areas of Tokyo?
KH: Shibuya has many different sides. It has a city face: Harajuku with its pop culture or Ebisu, now ranked the top place to live in Tokyo. There are expensive neighbourhoods, such as Hiroo and Shoto, while Sasazuka, Honmachi and Hatsudai feel more downtown. The selling point of Shibuya is that it is always changing. We need to keep that creative buzz.
M: What are the challenges for Shibuya?
KH: The big issues here are waiting lists in nurseries and how to support working women. We have a lot of seniors as well so we have to think about how everyone, from children to pensioners, can have a great life in the centre of the city.
M: Why was the pursuit of recognition for same-sex partnerships important to you?
KH: It wasn’t something I thought about when I was younger but a trip to the US in my twenties opened my eyes. I feel that for Shibuya to be a truly international place we should embrace the lgbt community.
M: What will the 2020 Tokyo Olympics bring to Shibuya?
KH: We have a number of venues: the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium and Yoyogi National Gymnasium are in Shibuya. The National Stadium is on our doorstep. Infrastructure will be developed and Shibuya will benefit. The Paralympics are just as important, particularly from an education and welfare perspective.
M: Do you have any unusual plans for Shibuya that you want to share with us?
KH: We have a famous crossing here in Shibuya. People congregate there on Halloween and New Year’s Eve – with no advertising – and we need to make some regulations. I want to turn it into more of an event. Since I became mayor I have been saying – somewhat ambitiously – “London, Paris, New York and Shibuya.” I want Shibuya to be up there but I don’t just want to copy other cities. I want to do something unique to Japan.
Paul Magnette has a message for Giovanni Troilo, the Italian photographer stripped of his World Press Photo award last year. Troilo’s pictures of Charleroi residents engaged in salacious and illegal activities turned out to have been staged, and the controversy thrust the Belgian city into global headlines.
“I would like to thank Mr Troilo for his photojournalism; it attracted a lot of attention,” says Magnette in his office on the second floor of Charleroi’s art deco town hall. “We got people from the New York Times, Svenska Dagbladet, Le Monde and El País.”
A few years earlier Magnette may not have welcomed the attention. He recalls the final weeks of 2013 when he was about to become mayor of the depressed former coal-mining and steel-industry city 60km south of Brussels. “I was on the main boulevard, it was close to Christmas but there was nobody in the streets,” he says. “There was a tumbleweed – it was like a western. I thought, ‘My god, I’m going to become the mayor of this dead city.’”
Such was the notoriety of Charleroi that an enterprising art student attracted international media coverage in 2010 with his urban safaris of the “ugliest city in the world”, which included a climb up one of the many slag heaps that still smoulder on the edge of town. By the time the World Press Photo controversy had catapulted Charleroi back into the public eye, Magnette had cleared away the tumbleweeds and embarked on his ambitious plan to revive the city.
He swiftly ascended the ranks of the Belgian Socialist party after his move into politics in 2007. He was serving as a minister when he decided to return to the city of his childhood and try to haul it out of its prolonged depression.
Magnette lists the city’s problems: the closure mines in the 1950s and 1960s; two economic crises; some of the highest unemployment in Belgium; a previous city administration mired in corruption; and gross mismanagement. With thriving cities such as Mons and Brussels close by, those with desirable skills simply left. “People didn’t believe in anything,” he says. “It was a moral crisis.”
Before embarking on construction and redevelopment, Magnette needed to rebuild trust. A highly visible police operation reassured residents that security would return. His next step was to launch Asphalte, a new festival that used the city’s chimney stacks and disused mines as a canvas for street art. “These were not structural actions,” he says. “What you need to do in the first month is show that there is a capacity for the authority to do things. It gives people hope again.”
Next he commissioned an urban analysis to understand potential areas for development and discovered that more than 50 per cent of the territory was green space. This included the slag heaps, which had long been overgrown with rare flora and fauna that thrived because of the high temperatures. The river had been used as a commercial waterway during the city’s industrial heyday too, then forgotten. Developing the riverfront was the first big project. This ran in tandem with a citywide rebrand, with a new logo and a blueprint stipulating everything down to the style of café awnings.
Magnette is overseeing a transformation. Creatives are coming from elsewhere, attracted by the large work spaces, low rents and unusual landscapes. “Charleroi is a provocative place,” he says. “You cannot create in a perfect city.”
Magnette sees Charleroi’s rebirth as a 25-year project. Meanwhile, his political star continues to rise. He is now also the minister-president of Wallonia but insists Charleroi is his priority. “I’m young enough to make four terms,” he says, before smiling and checking himself. “I’m not saying that I will stay for 25 years – that depends on the citizens who vote for me.”
Nestled on the reception desk at Calgary city hall is a small framed photograph. It shows two women leaning in as if to plant a kiss on the cheeks of the jovial man at the centre of the picture: mayor Naheed Nenshi. In the five-and-a-half years since he took up his post, Nenshi has become one of Canada’s most popular political figures. But cheeky photo ops aside, North America’s first Muslim mayor has balanced a populist touch with an understanding of what makes a growing city successful.
Calgary, the largest city in Alberta, is Canada’s fastest-growing urban centre. Nenshi is credited with overhauling its transport infrastructure while courting investment from sectors that include green technologies, aviation and film production. His efforts were rewarded in 2014 with the World Mayor prize, making him, according to the City Mayors Foundation, the best civic leader in the world. But the plummeting price of oil and gas has hit Alberta hard; it is likely to be the only Canadian province in recession this year, analysts say.
Calgary is thriving nonetheless. A plan to boost the city’s role as Canada’s financial centre, the prospect of a new film-production site southeast of the city and whispers of a bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics will mean Calgary’s fortunes won’t, says Nenshi, be held hostage by the economic troubles on its doorstep.
Monocle: How would you describe the state of Calgary today?
Naheed Nenshi: The first five years of my term were characterised by growth despite the challenging economic conditions. Over the past year, however, we’ve seen an economic downturn caused by a drop in world commodity prices. Our unemployment rate has skyrocketed. That isn’t something we are used to. A lot of our neighbours in the city are hurting; I have to manage that. But the future remains bright. Calgary continues to grow.
M: How is Calgary insulating itself from the economic uncertainty around it?
NN: When I graduated from university some 20 years ago, oil and gas accounted for about 50 per cent of Calgary’s gdp. Since then we’ve had about ca$1trn (€680bn) in investment in the broader energy sector, and oil and gas is now 30 per cent of our economy. It is still important but we’ve diversified. You might think that Calgary is mired in an economic swamp but people are making positive bets on the future of this city.
M: When prime minister Justin Trudeau said Canada’s economy needed to become known for its ‘resourcefulness’ rather than its ‘resources’ you pushed back publicly. Why?
NN: I suggested he might be missing one word: “also”. We should be known for our resourcefulness as well as our resources. We want a greener future. There’s no reason Calgary can’t be at the centre of that. But we must understand that in Canada we’ve created a system where our single largest export has only one customer: the US. And our single customer has now become our biggest competitor. Reports suggest that the prime minister’s priority is getting pipelines built. I’m happy to hear that because I think he is properly contextualising the issue.
M: How do you balance Calgary’s expansion with the quality of life of those who already live here?
NN: For a long time we had a city that was accommodating more than 100 per cent of its growth in new neighbourhoods. Slowly the city was starting to empty out from the middle. It wasn’t Detroit but the trend was worrisome. When I was first elected we instituted 12 ideas that we felt would make the city better. We focused on public transport, making it a preferred choice for getting around. We also invested in libraries and recreation facilities.
M: Has that approach succeeded?
NN: The new communities being built on the fringe are completely different to the ones built a decade ago. We can build communities now where you don’t need your car to get milk or a loaf of bread. We’ve done a great job of that. So while I talk a good game about the big picture of city-building, this stuff really happens at street level.
M: How would you sum up your approach to leadership?
NN: I’m unable to speak in soundbites. Sometimes I call it “politics in full sentences”. My detractors call it “politics in very, very long paragraphs”. But I realised early on that citizens were sick of being spun. They understand that some issues are complicated and they want to see the nuance in the debate.
M: You are the first Muslim mayor of a major North American city. When you were first elected, how did you feel about the focus on your faith?
NN: People were fascinated by my faith. I was surprised by that: my faith didn’t come up during the election campaign. Voters were more interested in what I was going to do about the city’s transport system than where I went on a Friday night. I could have not discussed it because it was irrelevant to the people of Calgary. But in this time when there is so much xenophobia in so many contexts, I had a good story to tell: a story about a place where pluralism works. And it’s a story I continue to tell.
Eduardo Paes is the picture of laidback Carioca cool: untucked shirt, undone top button, rolled-up sleeves, hands comfortably folded across his stomach. It’s easy to believe him when he says, “I love being the mayor,” a position he’s held since 2009. Yet the 46-year-old’s relaxed manner belies how challenging his position has become in recent months.
It’s not just the stress of preparing his city to host the 2016 Olympics; Brazil has been plagued with not only the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which the World Health Organisation has declared an international public-health emergency, but also an ongoing political corruption scandal that threatens to see president Dilma Rousseff impeached. Factor in a slump in oil and commodity prices, and the country’s economy has fallen from a recession into a depression.
Despite the turmoil Paes is confident that the Olympics will have positive reverberations for Rio long after the closing ceremony. “This is a long-term project,” he says. “It’s still a city with problems but there is a real legacy for the people.”
Not that the Olympic legacy projects haven’t faced their own controversies. In April the Tim Maia cycle lane, a 3.9km coastal stretch connecting Leblon to São Conrado, partially collapsed after a giant wave hit the structure. Two people were killed and three more were injured. Although not directly related to the games themselves, the cycle lane was labelled a legacy project and cost r$44m (€10.9m) to build.
According to Paes, the most significant legacy that the Olympics will leave Rio is improved transport About 20km of subway, 26km of light-railway trains and 150km of express bus lanes are expected to be up and running by the time the Games begin, and will increase the percentage of the city’s population able to use high-capacity transport from 18 per cent to more than 60 per cent.
The Olympics will be Paes’s last big event. During two terms as mayor the 2013 football Confederations Cup, a visit from Pope Francis and the 2014 football World Cup have all rolled through Rio under his watch. The attention has acted as a free campaign for Paes as his image has been blasted around the world, spawning rumours that he could be a presidential candidate for the next election cycle.
But as his term winds down he is only thinking of one thing: “Ferias,” he says. “All I think of is finishing my term, delivering a great Games, changing the city and then spending some time with my family.” But he’s not ruling anything out. Noting that he’d like to one day run for governor of Rio de Janeiro, he says, “I’ll be back. I’m not leaving politics.”
Much will rest on the success – or otherwise – of the Olympics. Paes knows that the blame for any further crises will fall largely on his shoulders and could hurt his future political chances. But he also recognises the flipside. “If it goes well I’m in good shape.”