Five mayors at IDEAS CITY

How does a city's history become untapped capital? Five forward-thinking mayors gave their answers at IDEAS CITY.

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Austin was named the 2011 best city for people seeking to start life over.
Austin was named the 2011 best city for people seeking to start life over.


“For some cities, Untapped Capital might be neighborhoods; for others, the arts. Governmental efficiency and green power offer reserves of Untapped Capital, while “downtown” revitalization and transit expansion may have proven less stable resources. How does a city’s history become Untapped Capital and how deeply is a city’s identity tied to its resilience? Five mayors cite specific examples of their utilization of Untapped Capital from their tenures while also considering the context of their cities within a larger national and international framework.”

On Thursday, May 2nd, the New Museum/IDEAS CITY Festival concluded the day with a panel devoted to the untapped capital of cities. How does a city’s history become untapped capital and how deeply is a city’s identity tied to its resilience? Five mayors, from five distinct cities, were invited to share their thoughts and experiences on how cities could harness their untapped capital.

Will Wynn, former Mayor of Austin

To kick the panel off, Will Wynn, former Mayor of Austin, set the stage with a promotional video of Austin, illustrating the traits that define Austin – outdoor activity, live music, funky streetscapes and storefronts, and food trucks. This is a far cry from the Austin of ten years ago, when the city was still in the midst of recovering from an economic slowdown, largely within the technology sector, where it had lost 45,000 of its best, high-paying, high-tech jobs. To reverse the economic slowdown, the Mayor was faced with the challenge of developing an economic development strategy. Whereas many cities in the past have attempted to revitalize their economy through traditional large-scale projects, such as an international airport, a theme park, or “a tourism-piece of infrastructure,” Austin adopted a “Keep Austin Weird” initiative, to tap into the creative heart of the city.

To deliver this initiative, Mayor Wynn began by seeking answers to questions as diverse as: “How do you recognize what live music really means to the heart and soul of our city? How do you sponsor a fund to try to host two national poetry slam finals in your downtown?” Foremost, the City sought to attract people, recognizing that the largest untapped capital of most cities is the energy and talent of their population. Reflecting on the words of Richard Florida, if the people come, the jobs would follow afterwards. In the years since the initiative took place, Austin has become an attractive city for young people. As Mayor Wynn cites, between 2000 and 2010, more 25 to 34 year olds have net immigrated to Austin than any other city in America.

Manuel (Manny) Diaz, Former Mayor of Miami

Miami is a remarkable example of a city that has transformed and redefined itself. In early 2000, Miami not only had double-digit unemployment, but was also a notorious center of the drug trade, with a high murder rate and entrenched poverty; a brew that led to repeated riots. Alongside two other cities in decline, Cleveland and Detroit, Miami was a punchline in late night TV jokes. As former Mayor Diaz states with bitter humor, there wasn’t much left that a city could be bad at.

According to Diaz, Miami had untapped capital but was missing a plan, stability, and strong political leadership. As Mayor, he sought to invest in five key areas: economic opportunity including education, neighborhood safety, infrastructure, sustainability, and arts and culture. Among the measurable results during Mayor Diaz’s eight-year tenure in office: the school system rose from a D average to a B average; $5 billion was invested in infrastructure; the number of green buildings increased from 0 to 200; crime levels were reduced significantly to 1960s levels; and $450 million was invested into a new performing arts center.

Four principles for any city:

Throughout his tenure, Mayor Diaz followed four principles as a guide to unlocking Miami’s potential:

Honesty: Assess your strengths and capitalize on them, rather than attempt to be something you are not.

Vision: Have a clear vision of what you would like your city to look like within 20-30 years and ideas that you could effectively communicate.

Lead: Don’t be afraid to lead or to fail. Instead, be afraid of inaction and politics. You have to be willing to take risks and to never quit.

Common Sense: Have a common-sense driven approach to decisions. Invest in people and places that make us who we are. Make investments that will tap our untapped capital.

Epigrams from Manny Diaz:

“[Leaders are] supposed to dream big, and then they’re supposed to lead others to their idea, because grand ideas will inspire grand action from people.”

“Grand ideas are made up of the smallest of detail. No small detail should be ignored. Let’s take a building like this one for example. The sidewalks, the bus shelters, the garbage cans, the street furniture – all of them coexist and contribute to the appearance of this and any other building.

Plant flowers in a median and guess what you’ll find. You will find that people will stop littering on that median. And a clean median will lead to a clean neighborhood, greater civic pride, which will lower crime, and create a sense that people care and that government cares, which than creates an attraction for that neighborhood and economic opportunity will follow.”

Bill Purcell, former Mayor of Nashville

Bill Purcell, former Mayor of Nashville, echoed Mayor Wynn’s thoughts when he quoted Shakespeare’s famous line: “What is the city but the people?” In line with many other American cities, in 1953, the Federal Government blessed Nashville’s first redevelopment district, wherein large tracts of land were cleared at the foot of the capital and tenements wore torn down. At the time, the sentiment was that the problem with cities was the people. During the last fifty years, this sentiment has been reversed, wherein the people weren’t considered the problem, but the purpose and the solution. This consensus has allowed the City to understand what it must deliver to its people. In the words of Mayor Purcell, the role of the city is to provide education, public safety, and quality of life to its people. To highlight the importance of education, Mayor Purcell proposed an initiative to celebrate the start of the school year. Before he left office, 20,000 people gathered from the city to celebrate the first day of school.

Jim Gray, Mayor of Lexington

Jim Gray, Mayor of Lexington, defines Lexington’s identity with the following images: basketball, horses, bourbon, and bluegrass music. Also noteworthy is that Lexington is a university city of 300,000. Perhaps lesser known is that in 1958 Lexington created the nation’s first urban growth boundary (UGB), a regional growth strategy to control urban sprawl, which allows the city’s density to remain within the confines of the UGB. Mayor Gray notes that the Urban Growth Boundary is one of Lexington’s strongest policy initiatives. He regards density as Lexington’s greatest untapped potential. As part of its economic strategy, the City is seeking to reinvent existing spaces, including the Rupp arena, a large-scale basketball arena, and an emblematic reminder of the nation’s history of building large-scale infrastructure projects. Today the projects of the city are meant to: (1) relate to the built environment; (2) protect and preserve the natural environment; and (3) build cultural assets within the urban core.

Christophe Girard, Mayor of Paris’ 4th District

The 4th district of Paris, over which Mayor Girard presides, is one of the smallest in area but densest by population. As one of the most renowned cities in the world, Paris carries on its shoulders a legacy of the arts, history, landmarks, and knowledge. Paris’s role, as Mayor Girard asserts, is to be more than an entertainment city or “a Disney Land of Culture.” Rather, Paris holds a responsibility to attract new generations of poets, writers, actors, creators, artists, and architects. As he states, “culture…is not something you add in the evening or on the weekends to your life, it is something that makes you a citizen.” As a city known for its great cultural institutions, Paris’s untapped potential lies in its ability to attract the people who will continue to encourage the arts and cultural scene to flourish in Paris. At the same time, he believes that it is every mayor’s responsibility to ensure that the greatest number of children have access to the education, knowledge, and culture available within the confines of cultural institutions. Mayor Girard concluded by noting that culture and art is the key to curbing violence and promoting a sustainable and democratic society.

A closing thought for all five of these civic innovators might be summed up by Manny Diaz of Miami:

“Always ask why not. Challenge everyone’s assumptions including your own. You’re going to get a lot of pushback but don’t worry what others say. Change is always difficult — there is always resistance to change.”