Skip to content
Site search

How to lead a city

Urban centres worldwide are struggling to keep up with rapid growth. We spoke to three experts to find out what leadership qualities are required for cities to avoid disaster.

Christopher Swope
25 September 2017


Diane Davis: Chair, Department of Urban Planning and Design, Harvard University Graduate School of Design, US

Mark Watts : Executive Director, C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, London – a network of more than 80 of the world’s megacities

Nicholas You : Director of Global Partners and Programmes, Guangzhou Institute for Urban Innovation, China

In which cities has effective leadership made them a better place to live?

Nicholas You: Medellín in Colombia was a basket case if there ever was one. And it’s a prime example of a place that has had four or five different mayors from different political parties over a 25-year period, and somehow each one found it in his best interest to build on what previous mayors did, because there was so much buy-in and joint ownership of what the projects were all about.

One of the earliest mayors of Medellín built a metro line that connected richer neighbourhoods to the city centre. Another mayor came along and tied poor neighbourhoods together with a cable-car system. Another built escalators to make it easier to integrate poor neighbourhoods on the slopes of the city. Another mayor built schools and world-class libraries in a slum, and that changed the centre of gravity of the city. So it’s a history of mayors building on each other’s initiatives.

Mark Watts: Copenhagen is the model we talk about for other cities to copy. It’s a place that has systematically applied good governmental leadership over decades. There was no one great individual leader – it’s just been one administration after another that stuck to really good planning rules and followed through on the policy. 

Diane Davis: In Stockholm in 2006, mayor Annika Billström introduced congestion charging at a time of intense political discord. She had originally made campaign promises not to implement the charge, but then, after her election, had to backtrack due to political pressures. She saved face by introducing a trial rather than a full-blown policy, and by strategically timing a referendum so it would follow only after Stockholmers actually experienced the full-scale experiment. 

As the trial unfolded smoothly, with a noticeable decrease in traffic and congestion, most Stockholmers began to change their views. When they subsequently voted in favour of the charge, it was clear that the political balance was shifting. The next administration, led by the Moderate Party, continued with the policy, even though it had originally opposed congestion charging.

Why is continuity so important for cities, and where does it come from?

Diane Davis: One thing that stands out about Stockholm is that the political party system is very strong in Sweden. So the fact that congestion charging stayed on the agenda for so long was a function of the political party apparatus, in which individual leaders were not only able to push ideas but the ideas didn’t die if they didn’t stay in power. That’s something we don’t have in the US. 

Nicholas YouA key ingredient of long-term success stories is always policy continuity – that we don’t have a flip-flop in policy every time you change mayor or political party, but things are able to continue across administrations. You can’t just change direction every four or five years.

One of the guarantees of such continuity is citizens’ engagement. It would be very difficult for a new mayor or political leader to simply ignore a very strong engagement structure, whether that’s participatory budgeting, or participatory planning or contractual arrangements with organised community groups to run certain services.

What are the hallmarks of high quality leadership in well-run cities?

Mark Watts: One important aspect is an ability to think about the real long-term development of the city while also understanding the immediate measures to be taken to solve existing problems and keep the city functioning. That may sound completely obvious, but it’s not a given that political leaders at any level genuinely think about the long-term future.

Second, is an ability to look outwards. Most of the really good leaders we see in C40 are incredibly willing to travel and to learn from other cities, and are not at all worried about copying those great ideas and adapting them to particular conditions in their cities.

Nicholas You: Leadership has to be understood as not just having a mayor who has brilliant ideas and a charismatic personality. Leadership is characterised by political leaders who are able to engage the inhabitants of their cities in planning and decision-making.

Diane Davis: It's about taking risks. Not just politicians – they work best when they have good relationships with technical experts. Often the technical people don’t do that, they just say “this needs to be done”. And that’s part of what’s interesting about how Mexico City replaced minibus taxis with bus rapid transit lines. Mayor Lopez Obrador had amazing technical people working for him.

There was a big political battle but he trusted the people around him and gave them authority to push things forward, to do the research and think about what would need to be done. Once you put your foot in the water and take the risk, you have to follow it through to the end – not knowing what the outcome might be.

Where does good city leadership start? Is it always with a mayor?

Nicholas You: Today, you can’t go forward without engaging business. Businesses are the ones with the solutions of tomorrow. They have technology, and the capital to come up with creative solutions. And most businesses are local, unless we’re talking about those in the Londons and New Yorks of the world. We’ve seen how cities have been able to mobilise business, beginning with simple things like sponsoring a park, and then things start to happen. 

Mark Watts: The strongest powers mayors hold are over land use: planning the spatial development of a city. Typically, mayors have strong powers over the transportation system – in cities such as London, it’s almost absolute. 

Where there’s the most variance is over buildings. About one-quarter of our cities’ mayors have really strong control over building codes – either having the ability to set local building codes themselves, or to greatly strengthen those that are handed down from higher levels of government. And then there’s the power to enforce them, which is actually the most important thing. 

Diane Davis: Some cities don’t have the institutional capacity to do things they might like to do. New York is a good example. Decisions that have to do with the mass-rapid transit system are made in the State of New York at the state assembly. So you have situations such as Michael Bloomberg, who was a strong leader as Mayor, not being able to get congestion pricing approved.

Are there any specific structural limitations on how city leadership can be exercised?

Nicholas You: One of the common stumbling blocks we encounter with sustainable urban development is, in a given metro region, you can have up to two dozen municipalities with different leaders and different political parties in power. And those adjacent jurisdictions are not necessarily working together. It is a major problem.

One way of overcoming it is to depoliticise some critical activities, such as strategic planning, long-term planning, and visioning around questions like: “What does the community want to be in 20 years?” Again, it’s about engaging people. If you involve communities and businesses in these long-term visions, you tend to depoliticise these processes and find common goals that everybody can work toward.

Mark Watts: One of the biggest barriers to mayors achieving ambitious plans around climate change is an inability to work with the next tier of government up – the regional tier – and vice versa. You quite often see incentives working at cross-purposes, and a lack of coordination.

The India smart cities challenge that’s being led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the federal government is interesting, because mayoral power in India is relatively weak and political authority is vested in the states and the federal government. And yet there’s the reality of rapid urbanisation and the need to plan for urban development. So they’re running an initiative that provides significant additional finance to city governments on the basis of projects that will improve sustainability. It’s a good way of working,

What factors are failing cities missing?

Nicholas You: The old management practice of having silos, where every department is on its own, fights for its own budget and doesn’t share information or resources with other departments, has gone forever. Everything we see about “smart” city approaches is about breaking down silos. It’s about making the city work as one. Can we talk about water without talking about energy? Can we talk about energy and not talk about waste? Can we talk waste and not water? Departments have to work together and share everything, and that requires a change in culture. 

Mark Watts: Where we see failure, it is often where an administration starts from apathy or indifference, and think they have nothing to learn from anywhere else. Also, when there’s an unwillingness to plan. Our data at C40 shows that mayors who take the most action are those willing to take time to do a systematic plan for development of the whole city, or a particular aspect such as climate-change policy. They commit the resources to make it a data-driven exercise that analyses the problem, thinks it through in a systematic way and then sets robust targets against which progress can be measured. 

Those cities get more done than those where the mayor says: “I’m not going to waste time with planning and academic study, we’ll just get on and do stuff.” Typically they don’t get on and do stuff, because there’s no organisational clarity about what they’re doing.

How democratic can infrastructure planning be without losing direction?

Nicholas You: The more that you engage communities, people and business in strategic, long-term planning, the more they would be informed and the less likely you’re going to encounter opposition. There’s less of a 'not in my back yard' attitude if people are well informed. 

I’ve been reliving this case in Italy, where they can’t complete a high-speed train network because a couple of communities on the route oppose it. We’ve seen cases like that over and over again. Who’s to blame? Previous administrations never engaged communities on any decision, so people have almost an allergic reaction to new development. Look at Heathrow Airport and the third runway – that’s been going on for 20 or 25 years.

This has been evolving very rapidly in China. Just a few years ago, all the central government had to do was say “move” and people moved – although that did require considerable monetary compensation. Today, that’s almost impossible. In Shenzhen they want to tear down housing that was built 15 years ago, because it no longer responds to market trends – it’s ugly, it was built in a hurry, and that’s a problem when you have very rapid development. But today it would be impossible for the mayor or regional authority to say “we’re coming in with bulldozers and you’re evicted”. 

Mark Watts: There’s means to engage citizens so they come along on the journey of long-term development of the city. Some of the Latin American cities have done that really well. Look at what Jaime Lerner did as mayor in Curitiba, Brazil, when he brought in bus rapid transit. He put public transport on the agenda at schools so kids got enthused about wanting to use the bus, and that played a role in changing the minds of their parents, who otherwise saw the car as a status symbol. 

There’s also a role for leadership in what Mayor Anne Hidalgo is doing in Paris, in pedestrianising the Left Bank of the Seine, banning the oldest, most polluting vehicles, and proposing to ban diesel altogether. These are obviously policies that are not going to be popular with a section of the population who own those vehicles, but you can absolutely see that it’s in the interest of the vast majority of the population. And sometimes you do need leadership that is willing to take the tough decisions.

Diane Davis: Given the nature, scope and scale of infrastructure planning – at least in the case of urban transport – participatory and deliberative planning can be challenging and at odds with tight fiscal conditions, project deadlines and larger metropolitan aims.

The celebration of local democracy permeates everything in the field of planning. You often can’t get people to think about a city – it’s what’s best for their community. The institutions reflect that.

But when it comes to transportation, the local way may not be the most democratic option. If we define 'democratic' in terms of equity and justice, we must also consider some of the troubling implications of what are often touted as “sustainable transport investments”. Improvements to transit infrastructure can greatly benefit the urban poor and other underserved populations relative to private-sector-driven innovations such as Uber and company buses. But transit-oriented developments are also often associated with trends of gentrification and displacement.

What role can a city mayor or government play in housing provision?

Nicholas You: Housing is a very sticky issue, because by themselves, cities have a very limited margin to manoeuvre. Through planning and zoning they can help mitigate gentrification and speculation. But if you’re in a totally open-market system and people want to come to your city, inevitably, you’re going to have a housing affordability issue. Sooner or later, national government has a big role to play. Instruments of housing finance such as mortgage rates, interest rates and subsidies are typically in the hands of national government and can be manipulated – something local government rarely has the means to do. 

Diane Davis:  Housing is, generally, different to transportation as in most countries and cities housing is provided by the private sector. Few countries still offer state-provided housing, although this may have been true in the past.  In the case of New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has struggled to introduce subsidised housing into a market where land values are exorbitant and upscale market housing dominates. He has been able to make progress, not just by holding fast to affordability regulations and restrictions, but by making accommodations in terms of design styles. That also led to controversy over segregation in a new Manhattan housing development, where market-rate units were provided with a different entrance to the subsidised units. 

It has been an uphill battle. There’s limited room to manoeuvre for housing developers and state regulators, including elected mayors and politicians. The market draws global investments in ways that transportation generally does not. In markets such as housing, the financial gain is clear and relatively guaranteed. It is harder to disrupt supply-and-demand dynamics. Many of the transportation innovations we have studied had positive impacts on land markets and their respective city’s global economic competitiveness.

The World Built Environment Forum facilitates industry leading discussions harnessing the enormous potential of the 21st century's people and places.