Sunday, November 01, 2009
Great Mayors: New York's Michael Bloomberg And Bogota's Mayor Enrique Peñalosa
It’s hard to brag on a guy who’s spending $100 million to run for a third term that was supposed to be prohibited by law, but despite that, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is counted among our great mayors.
Our last addition to our list of great mayors is former Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa whose bold aspirations inspired an unimaginable leap forward by his city.
Separated by half a hemisphere, both mayors’ accomplishments are anchored in their emphasis on quality of life. In New York, it took the form of smart transportation and a 127-point plan to make the city sustainable. In Bogotá, it was transportation, education and the public realm, and it’s hard to remember anyone who made more progress on as many fronts.
More to the point, if Mayor Peñalosa’s “no excuses” attitude in a Third World city could work, it’s pretty hard to suggest hat we should not set our sights higher in Memphis.
The Right Focus
But if we’re looking for inspiration, we could do a lot worse than emulating his radical improvements to the city and its citizens, giving priority to children and public spaces and restricting private car use and building hundreds of kilometers of sidewalks, bicycle paths, pedestrian streets, greenways, and parks.
Two accomplishments particularly interest us because of the intransigent bureaucracies that stand in their way in Memphis. He planted more than 100,000 trees (MLGW continues with its same Depression era thinking that treats trees are irritants) and he created a 21st century bus-based transit system (as for MATA, don’t get us started).
Most of all, he proved how a great mayor can transform a city's attitude from hopelessness to one of pride. "We need to walk, just as birds need to fly. We need to be around other people. We need beauty. We need contact with nature. And most of all, we need not to be excluded. We need to feel some sort of equality. (Bogotá's) pedestrian infrastructure shows respect for human dignity. We’re telling people, ‘You are important.’
"Every Sunday we close 120 kilometers of roads to motor vehicles for seven hours. A million and a half people of all ages and incomes come out to ride bicycles, jog, and simply gather with others in community. A bikeway is a symbol that shows that a citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally important as a citizen on a $30,000 car."
His advice to other mayors: start with a vision, “an understanding of what alternatives there are.” “People don't go to the suburbs because they're dumb. It's because they are looking for something. You must help people understand that they can have more of what they want by giving a little less preference to cars.
“We are living in the post-Communism era when we have immense confidence in private entrepreneurs and individualism and distrust any form of government intervention. Adam Smith is reigning triumphant. He told us that each citizen behaving selfishly yields the best good for society.
“This is not always true. If you have a shipwreck and everyone tries at the same time to grab the lifeboat, everyone will drown. You cannot allow a developer to do anything they want, whatever it does to his neighbors or the rest of the city. There is not a mathematical rule that will tell you exactly how many pedestrian streets, or how far people should live from a park or sports field, or how tall a building should be. These standards are a collective creation. How do societies create collectively? They do this through an institution called government.”
He urges mayors to pay attention to the power of good urban design and architecture. “Every detail in the city should shows respect for human dignity and reflect that everything human is sacred. And I do believe that if people have to walk in the street, avoiding parked cars, or next to some horrible surface parking lot, or they are mistreated by poor quality transportation systems, it's very difficult to ask them to be good citizens, to keep the streets clean, or even pay taxes. If a city shows respect, and more than that, loving care for its citizens, people will behave in kind. I do believe it, because I've seen it happen. It was beyond my wildest dreams the way the attitudes changed in Bogota, from being despondent and convinced the city was doomed, to civic pride and hope that the future can be better. If the physical quality of the city is poor, the quality of life there also will be poor.”
With this in mind, parks are especially powerful because they are equalizers of society. “We almost always meet under conditions of social hierarchy. At work, some people are bosses and others are employees; at restaurants, some people are serving and others are being served. Parks are the gathering place for community. They create a sense of belonging. Everybody is welcome regardless of age, background, income, or disabilities. This creates a different type of society.”
Meanwhile, in New York City, Mayor Bloomberg was expected to spend his energy on control of the school district and fighting crime, but he surprised many of his fellow citizens when he gave just as much emphasis on global warming, parks and sustainable government and neighborhoods.
He enacted "PlaNYC: A Greener, Greater New York" to fight global warming, protect the environment and prepare New York for the projected 1 million more people expected to be living in the city by the year 2030. “We now know beyond a doubt that global warming is a reality. And the question we must all answer is, what are we going to do about it?" he asked, urging cities to fight climate change by reducing carbon dioxide emissions, using cleaner and more efficient fuels, and encouraging public transportation.
He took the $6 billion deficit that he inherited when he took office and turned it into a $3 billion surplus without slashing programs that help the poor, or improve health care, or ensure a social safety net.
He made HIV, diabetes and hypertension top priorities, extending the city's smoking ban to all commercial establishments and implementing a trans fat ban in restaurants. He strongly supports New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, the largest urban healthcare agency in the United States serving over 1.3 million New Yorkers and Opportunity NYC, the nation's first-ever conditional cash transfer pilot program designed to help New Yorkers break the cycle of poverty in the city. Also, he instituted $7.5 billion municipal affordable housing plan, the largest in the nation, aimed at providing 500,000 New Yorkers with housing.
The most important measurement of whether a mayor is succeeding, according to Mayor Peñalosa, is the happiness of the public. He is no doubt right, and using this measure, the Bloomberg years delivered a level of happiness only hinted at by the Giuliani years.
In our next post, we’ll explore the lessons of great mayors that have special meaning for Memphis.