Every four or eight years, when the US presidency changes hands, the United States Conference of Mayors, a bipartisan organisation that lobbies on behalf of US cities with populations of more than 30,000, meets the president-elect. Normally, discussions revolve around plans for how the federal government can support urban infrastructure and green agendas. But late last year, after four years of a president at odds with cities, the tone of the powwow was different. Tom Cochran, the organisation’s CEO, told me that the first words out of his mouth when he met Joe Biden were, “How can we, with the 1,400 US mayors in our organisation, help you?”
The focus this week is on Georgia’s senatorial election and the makeup of Congress in Washington. But the reality is that cities are uniquely positioned to help tackle, in Cochran’s words, the “three black swans” facing the US president (and other world leaders) right now: a struggling economy, civil unrest and a society reeling from the pandemic. For proof of how this can be done, look to city hall in San Diego (population 1.4 million), where zero-interest microloans were immediately offered to businesses affected by lockdowns, or Minneapolis (population 425,000), which has already taken the tentative first steps required to reform its police force.
The suggestion that mayors can do more for the president – in this instance – than the president can do for them, shows city halls’ capacity to have an immediate and meaningful effect on residents’ lives. This year, mayors around the globe should take a leaf out of Cochran’s book. To paraphrase that most famous of inauguration speeches, ask not what your country can do for your city, but what your city can do for your country.