President Obama’s reelection and Democratic gains in the Senate, the House of Representatives, and state legislatures raise hope that American policy on issues from environmental protection to health care will move in the direction of commons-based values. While the word “commons” was never uttered on the campaign trail, we saw a clear difference between Democrats’ and Republicans’ approach to our public assets and the common good.

Yet after all the intense focus on national and state elections this year, let’s remember that local government plays a crucial role in protecting what belongs to all of us, and is more accessible and less expensive for typical citizens (i.e. commoners) to get involved. And local officials, especially mayors, play a bigger role in shaping the world’s future than at any point in history.

Bill Clinton, a man whose self-deprecating charm has carried him far in life, likes to tell a story about his appearance on a Shanghai radio show. It was a historic event: The president of the United States would field questions from everyday citizens in a nation notorious for its tight lock on information. But to Clinton’s surprise, two-thirds of the calls coming into the station were not directed at him, but to his host, the mayor of Shanghai. “People were more interested in talking to the mayor about potholes and traffic jams,” Clinton laughs.

Actually, when you reflect a moment, this shouldn’t be such a surprise. Mayors, as representatives of the government closest to people, are in a better position to get things done than one of the most powerful men on Earth. National governments, along with state and provincial ones, are distant and abstract entities, with which citizens feel little connection. Local government, personified by the mayor, can be a different story. Mayors operate on the front lines of democracy. If people around the world are ever to regain their trust in government, which has been fading for many years, it will be because of what happens in their hometowns.

Like so many cities and towns across the world, Marietta, Georgia, begins the process of change at City Hall. Photo credit: City of Marietta. Used under Creative Commons license.

“There is a crisis of democracy today and local government is the answer—it’s the new game in town,” notes Eric Britton, founder of The Commons: Open Society Sustainability Initiative, a Paris-based organization that’s launched a series of global initiatives on environmental, social and technology issues. He believes that small-scale governance, “where everybody knows somebody who knows the mayor,” is the best approach to untangling problems that so far have proved insurmountable to national governments and the corporate sector.

“If we want to figure how democracy really works,” Britton says, “the local level is where we can do that.”

Here’s how Joseph Riley Jr.—who has been at the helm in Charleston, South Carolina, for almost 40 years—describes the job: “You have a personal relationship with people. You pick up their garbage. You make them feel safe. You try to help them when they are in trouble. It’s a chance to do things directly for people—for the poorest person in town as well as the rich.”

No one would cast Riley, a small, dignified man who speaks with a soft voice, in the role of a political power broker. Yet he has reshaped this city of 105,000 to such an extent that few who knew it in the 1970s— as a poor, racially torn backwater that had lost hope in the future—would recognize it today.

At that point, Charleston’s only claim to fame was Fort Sumter, where the opening shots of the U.S. Civil War were fired by Confederate rebels in 1861. And local African-American leader Rev. Joseph Darby notes that the outcome of the war—the emancipation of black slaves—wasn’t entirely accepted in Charleston until Riley won city hall in 1975, campaigning as a civil-rights advocate.

Charleston now enjoys a bright national reputation for its progressive policies on economic revitalization and crime prevention. Affordable housing, a pressing problem because the city is now attracting many new residents and developments, is another focus for Riley. As mayor he has vigorously preserved the city’s historic qualities, and even improved upon things with charming new parks, developments and attractions that blend in with the classic 18th- and 19th-century architecture everyone loves.

Riley’s success an be seen in the delighted smiles of tourists who come from all over the U.S. to wander the city’s streets and in the envious looks of other mayors who come to learn Charleston’s secret at the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, which Riley founded in 1986.

The secret is simple: Riley’s careful attention to the details that distinguish a great city from a merely okay one. Charleston has flourished not just through the power of the mayor’s office, but through the dedication of the man in the mayor’s office.

That’s the case in many places, says Amy Liu of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., who tracks the progress of metropolitan regions across North America and Europe. “Mayors’ best tool is the bully pulpit. Mayors are the face and the voice of the region, even for the suburbs. What they stand up for matters a lot.”

The modern age has raised people’s expectations of elected officials. We’re not content anymore with bland bureaucrats, no matter how brilliant they are. We’re hungry for dynamic leaders who show they care about people like us and who make a difference in the places we call home. No national leaders, even the most powerful or charismatic ones, have the same opportunity to touch people’s lives as a mayor.

Stockholm City Hall is the building of the Municipal Council for the City of Stockholm in Sweden. It is the venue of the Nobel Prize banquet and one of Stockholm's major tourist attractions. Photo credit: Debarshi Ray. Used under Creative Commons license.

I begin to understand the magic of Riley’s leadership as we walk out of city hall, where he has patiently but stiffly answered my questions at his desk, onto the bustling avenue outside. He suddenly seems charged with electricity. My long legs struggle to keep up with his short ones as he bounds down the street, calling hello to nearly everyone we pass—black and white, young and old, rich and poor. We turn up an alley and sneak through someone’s backyard gate so I can see what Riley considers one of the finest flower gardens in town. At one point, he almost knocks me over in his excitement to point out a construction worker eating lunch on a park bench—the man is using a nearby ledge for a footrest, just the way Riley planned for it to be used. Hurrying over to investigate a couple of police cars he sees stopped behind a house, he seems visibly relieved to find that the problem is just a malfunctioning burglar alarm. He thanks each of the officers by name and we continue our stroll.

Joe Riley is one of a new breed of mayors around the world who see their jobs as nothing less than helping deliver security, opportunity and happiness to residents of their cities. Indeed, we are now entering a new age in history when mayors play a leading role on the world’s political stage.

Mayor Myung-bak Lee turned Seoul into a model of livability with creative moves like replacing an elevated highway with a riverfront park that winds four miles through the city centre. In honouring him with an award for sustainable policies, U.S. green groups Environmental Defense and the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy declared, “Mayor Lee belongs to a new generation of bold mayors and governors around the world who are tackling seemingly intractable problems like traffic gridlock and air pollution—and winning.” Lee is now president of South Korea.

Former Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa also contemplated a run for Colombia’s presidency, but instead devoted his energies to spreading the message that developing-world cities don’t have to imitate Western (especially North American) patterns of urban growth. “In Bogotá, our goal was to make a city for all the children,” he says. “The measure of a good city is one where a child on a tricycle or bicycle can safely go anywhere. If a city is good for children, it will be good for everybody else. Over the last 80 years we have been making cities much more for mobility than for children’s happiness.”


Adapted from an article in The Intelligent Optimist via On the Commons.

Jay Walljasper


Jay Walljasper

Jay Walljasper writes and speaks about cities and the commons. He is editor of and author of All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons and The