I spent much of last week with eight mayors, and seven other resource panelists at the Mayors’ Institute on City Design in Charleston, South Carolina. The mayors – two women and six men – came from cities as large as San Bernardino, California, and as small as Juneau, Alaska. Three of the cities were state capitols, at least two were located on historic Route 66, they spread from coast to coast, every community had a historic core that the mayors saw as vital to their identity and future, and all were ethnically diverse. The political leanings of the mayors – and those of their cities – spanned the spectrum. Some had been in office for several years, others were relatively new to either the mayoral office and/or public service. One was a writer on social justice. Two were accountants by training, while another was a banker. One had spent much of his career running YMCAs. As befits the mayor of a city that abuts Canada, the mayor of Juneau had worked for the U.S. Customs and Boarder Protection service for many years. Another was a Main Street business owner. In other words, their backgrounds were as varied as their cities and their politics.
We all came together as part of the 66th gathering of mayors and architects, planners, developers, and other professionals to address major civic challenges through design. As you can see above, none came in with a design or planning background, yet they embraced the notion that how our cities look and work can have profound effects on issues as wide ranging as housing, transportation, social justice, financial sustainability, environmental challenges, and much more. Mayors tend to be quick studies who, of necessity, have to grapple with a wide range of community concerns.
I had several revelations from the discussions we held around a design challenge in each community, but I want to focus on two.
First, mayors are problem solvers. Yes, they come at those problems from different points of view. One spouse said that her husband, the mayor, “saw through the eyes of his heart” in his empathy for all his constituents, while others, dealing with serious financial crises, had to focus their minds on stabilizing their cities’ very shaky financial foundations. Yet whatever the challenge they presented, they sought to make a difference in people’s lives. As I watched the thought process they brought to the eight challenges before them, I was reminded of Albert Einstein, who said, “The formulation of the problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill.” These mayors were open to seeing new perspectives and formulating the problem in different ways to get to the right solution.
Problem solving can be in short supply in today’s political world, where scoring points can appear to be the primary goal. That leads me to the second revelation from my time with the mayors: these conversations gave me an optimism for our public discourse and civic life that I’ve been missing in recent months. Public service for the public good is alive and well in America. Our mayors are facing tough problems while they are grappling with noisy interest groups, shrinking resources, politicized state and national governments, and much more. Yet they are plugging away, listening to different voices, shaping problems in new ways to reach healthy solutions. That’s both comforting and reassuring.
It is easy to complain and obstruct. My week with some of America’s mayors has challenged me to drop any easy path I may take towards complaint and worry and instead roll up my sleeves and get to work solving the problem.
Have a good week.
More to come…