ANY MAYORALTY CANDIDATE RUNNING ON A platform of change is destined to face strong opposition the moment she or he gets elected. Just ask Naheed Nenshi of Calgary. When he called for a more inclusive city during his election campaign some special interests took notice, but given that there were so many candidates, they fretted little. When Nenshi ultimately triumphed in 2010, those same interests began coming together to curtail what they believed would be harmful to their sector. Given that the majority of them were powerful real estate developers with plenty of influence, the line was drawn for civic battle.
Nenshi could have turned it into a two-party conflict between his office and the developers, but instead he developed a message that he delivered to the entire community:
“We need to make sure that we’re building neighbourhoods that are mixed, where people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and particularly income levels can live in the same neighbourhoods. Social inclusion can go a long way in reducing inequality.”
The broader view registered with citizens because, whatever their political or economic leanings, Nenshi understood that the people of Calgary coveted altruistic ideals and a practical compassion that characterized that city for decades. In other words, he went for the collective interest over the corporate interests and citizens responded with their support.
Calgarians came to understand themselves a bit better in that process. And Nenshi? Well, he learned something too. A new politician, he was nevertheless learning that the better angels of citizens’ natures could compete with powerful forces, provided they were inspired to live at that level. Developers, too, made their compromises once they perceived the respect with which he was held among the electorate. Everyone benefitted as a result.
Yet there was one area where the new mayor possessed wisdom beyond what other politicians professed: with politics in decline, cities would eventually become the centre of the political universe. And so he began functioning in ways that would prepare his city for that ultimate reality. It’s one of the reasons he continues to call for cities to practice higher levels of cooperation because of all what they have in common. And that outlook has turned him into a world figure when it comes to the future of cities.
Technically powerless within the Canadian confederation, cities nevertheless have all the ability to let their creative juices flow. As senior levels of government vacate historic responsibilities, cities are free to invent new ways of being. Yet, because municipal governments lie closest to the people, satisfying local citizens becomes paramount. As something of a community developer, Nenshi knew this going in and proceeded with the detailed undertaking of bringing citizens into the overall process. His opponents could only watch in frustration as he went around them directly to Calgarians. He had become the new civic Ninja, and in the process brought new dynamic to Calgary. This is difficult to do in senior political jurisdictions, where both political and special interest powers are far removed from the average citizen and voter. The rise of cities changes all that.
As business guru, Peter Drucker, puts it: “Rank does not confer privilege or give power. It imposes responsibility.” Unfortunately, senior levels of government have become increasingly characterized by the pursuit of rank and privilege. Naheed Nenshi is a needed reminder that the chief job of being mayor is the responsibility to be the chief representative among equals, and to empower citizens to occupy their own respective posts in the running of vital cities.