Government: Leadership Council

Five leading mayors talk about the challenges they face, the strengths of their cities, and their visions for the future.

The leaders profiled here are all recently elected mayors doing innovative work in urban design, planning, and sustainability. Each of them was recommended by Story Bellows of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, an incredible program that advances the role of design in urban policy. Joseph Riley, the mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, founded the institute in 1985 (with support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Conference of Mayors) to train mayors to become the chief urban planners of their cities.

Six times a year, eight mayors from around the country participate in a two-and-a-half-day summit. They share case studies in closed-door meetings with a group of invited consultants and architects, who agree not to seek or accept contracts from the cities. The conferences are purely to familiarize politicians with the language and process of design. City leaders leave the summits in a position to ask the right questions and make informed decisions about policies that will have long-term effects on their cities but that few of them have formally studied. Nearly 900 mayors have participated since the program was established.

The mayors profiled in this survey lead cities with unique advantages and challenges. Detroit and Philadelphia both required significant restructuring of government agencies and services. The reform processes they’re putting in place take advantage of new thinking and methods that have emerged from the rebirth of the urban idea over the last two decades. They have initiated community-based plan-ning processes that involve the public in thinking about long-term sustainable growth. The mayors of Sacramento and Houston are competing for the title of Green City, U.S.A. San Antonio is a sleeper city—the fastest-growing city in Texas and the seventh-biggest in the country—with a rarely acknowledged identity as the largest majority Mexican-American city in the United States.

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Michael Nutter

City councilman from West Philadelphia

Handling a budget crisis and declining tax revenues

Passage of a $2 billion water-management plan

A budget crisis and falling tax revenues haven’t kept Philadelphia’s mayor, Michael Nutter, from having big ambitions. Taking office in 2008 on a reform platform, he has set in motion long-term plans to improve the city’s sustainability, livability, and economic growth and is investing economic-recovery funds in infrastructure projects. Nutter has borrowed the best ideas from mayors in New York, Chicago, and other places, though many will only pay off after he leaves office. (He is limited to two consecutive four-year terms.) “Generally in politics, elected officials are focused on what they can do during their term,” he says. “As hard as you work, you have to acknowledge that you may not be able to get it all done. I’m trying to change the culture here in ways that will last for a long period of time.”

The mayor has initiated a 30-year comprehensive economic-development plan (to be published later this year) that has sustainability as a core principle. In 2009 he enacted a Greenworks plan that includes 170 separate initiatives: farmers’ markets, healthy food programs to prevent obesity, improved recycling collection, 500 more acres of future green space—and a transparent system to track progress. The most impressive proposal, which is currently awaiting approval, is an ambitious $2 billion water-management plan that takes the best ideas from landscape architecture, civil engineering, and hydrology to address storm-water pollution.

Adjusting the traditional lines of authority with a series of deputy mayors who oversee broad areas such as planning and economic development, transportation and utilities, and public safety, he has made the administration more accountable, more unified, and more collaborative. Nutter also brought in Alan Greenberger as deputy mayor for planning and economic development to supervise the process of rewriting the city’s zoning law for the first time in 50 years. A practicing architect before joining the administration, Greenberger pushed for a professional design-review committee to evaluate buildings impacting the
public realm.

Kevin Johnson
Sacramento, California

NBA basketball star

Using arts and culture to enliven downtown

Transforming Sacramento into a hub
for green technology

The centerpiece of Mayor Kevin Johnson’s campaign to position Sacramento as the country’s leading sustainable city is Greenwise, a plan for the six-county metropolitan region that combines environmental stewardship and economic development. Launched last May, it aims to turn Sacramento into the greenest region in the country and the biggest hub for green technology. It’s also a bit of a branding exercise: Sacramento already has the state’s highest growth in the ecosector, with 100 companies catering to a huge market driven by aggressive state environmental policy. “As the capital of California, Sacramento
is the home of some of the most aggressive environmental policies in the world, but not many people know what the city is doing,” Johnson wrote in an e-mail interview. “It makes sense for us to capitalize on these competitive advantages and embrace green.”

This month Greenwise is issuing the final report of its five policy committees: energy, urban design and green building, green and clean technology, waste and recycling, and water and nature. Its regional action plan includes three-year targets for energy-efficiency in schools, a hub for distribution of food grown on local farms to city schools and hospitals, and a ten-year biofuel-production strategy to prevent all organic waste from going into landfills. “My vision is to turn Sacramento into the Emerald Valley—the greenest region in the country and the hub for green technology,” says Johnson, who is also a former NBA all-star. “This is the place where people will come to be at the forefront of the green movement.”

Annise Parker

Three-term city controller

Having the most LEED-certified office buildings in the country

Turning her city, the oil capital of the world, into the renewable-energy capital

Houston is famous among architects and urbanists as the largest unplanned and unzoned city in America, and Mayor Annise Parker knows residents will not tolerate government regulation. Any gains on the sustainability front will have to be accomplished through market-based incentives. She has to convince Houstonians that energy-efficiency promotes economic growth and entrepreneurship and cuts costs.

Houston calls itself the oil capital of the world; Parker wants to it to become the renewable-energy capital. The city is already the largest municipal purchaser of solar and wind power in the country. Air-conditioning is one of the largest expenses of doing business in the city, so there’s a program to subsidize 20 percent of the costs of energy-efficiency upgrades. The Green Office Challenge provides resources and funding to businesses to achieve LEED certification and Energy Star ratings, with the aim of having the most buildings of each kind in the country. Parker is preparing the city for electric vehicles by installing free charging stations downtown and upgrading its municipal fleet with hybrids and electric vehicles.

Parker, the first openly gay mayor for a city the size of Houston (more than two million), argues that these environmental changes are about creating new markets and expanding industries. “The public has to understand this is not some feel-good idea by the mayor,” she says. “It’s something that is good for the city today and also good for the city in the long run.”

Julián Castro
San Antonio

Youngest city councilman in the history
of San Antonio

Creating a new identity for the city

Reimagining HemisFair Park as a large
mixed-use residential district

Mayor Julián Castro describes San Antonio as the new face of the American Dream. Majority Mexican-American, the thriving city is the seventh-biggest in the country, expected to overtake Philadelphia in a few years. Sixty-one percent of its residents are Hispanic; many of them migrated north during the Mexican Revolution. Castro, 36 years old and in office for only 18 months, is already being talked about as a future national leader.

San Antonio has weathered the recession well, partly because it has the second-largest university in the state, the University of Texas at San Antonio; Fort Sam Houston, the army’s consolidated medical-training center; and a booming health-care industry. What it lacks, however, is a strong image. In 2009, when the federal government decided to move its local offices out of HemisFair Park, the site of the 1968 World’s Fair, Castro saw it as an opportunity to re-create the park as part of the downtown area and incorporate a mixed-use residential district with
expanded green space. Johnson Fain, based in Los Angeles, was hired to design a master plan for the entire 78-acre park and make it into a symbol of the new San Antonio.

Castro is also presiding over the ongoing restoration of the original flow of the San Antonio River; the redesign of the downtown River Walk, to better accommodate local residents; an expansion of bike lanes; and the creation of Mission Verde, a sustainability- outreach and green-job-training center made from a former middle school. “This place has been a laboratory for the confluence of different people,” Castro says. “San Antonio demonstrates that you can have a large Hispanic influence and have a successful big city.”

David Bing

Hall of Fame basketball player and successful businessman and philanthropist

Demolishing blighted homes

Shrinking the city while investing
in stable neighborhoods

A former NBA basketball star who founded a steel-shaping and -stamping business before turning to philanthropy, Detroit’s mayor, Dave Bing, has taken a businessman’s approach to reorganizing a deficit-ridden government. He is consolidating police and fire headquarters, establishing tough ethics policies, and replanning a city designed for two or three times more people than live there today.

Anyone who knows a little about Detroit politics will be astonished to discover that Bing, in office for 18 months, is still talking with its residents about what they want. “Former administrations were very top-down in terms of policies and procedures and changes they wanted to implement,” Bing says. “We have the intellect to put together a policy and force it on people from a top-down standpoint, but that’s fraught with a lot of resistance. If you want to engage people, you have to
listen to their point of view.”

Through the Detroit Works Project, Bing has promoted a long, deliberative, community-based process with clear underlying principles to create a blueprint for the city’s future. With funding from the Kresge Foundation, Detroit Works Project’s director, Karla Henderson, is collaborating with the deputy planning and development director, Marja Winters, and the former Newark planner Toni Griffin to organize large community forums and smaller-scale meetings on specific issues like transportation, zoning and land use, and landscape design and ecology to understand the needs ofdents. Technical teams are performing fine-grained research, evaluating demographic data, and monitoring the quality of services.

In the short term, Bing has promised to demolish 10,000 abandoned homes by the end of his term, December 2013. He is also trying to rehabilitate whatever can be saved and support stronger and more concentrated neighborhoods. “We’ve identified our stable neighborhoods and want to focus on those,” Bing says. “We want to invest in those stable neighborhoods and make them even stronger. There are other neighborhoods where we’re going to disinvest.”

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