An Interview with Richard Florida on City Leadership: “It’s the most important challenge facing our world today.”

Richard_2X6C6311_05-5-300x400Richard Florida is Director of Cities at the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. He is also Global Research Professor at New York University and the founder of the Creative Class Group. He is a senior editor for The Atlantic, where he co-founded and serves as Editor-at-Large for CityLab, the world’s leading media site devoted to cities and urban affairs.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting with Dr. Florida at the Martin Prosperity Institute. During our interview, he spoke about the important role mayors play in building prosperous cities. He argued that the role of the mayor is critically misunderstood and underdeveloped, and that increasing the capacity of Canada’s local leaders is one of the most important social, political and economic imperatives of our time.

This conversation just had to be shared. Thanks to Dr. Florida, and to the Martin Prosperity Institute, for sharing your insight with The Mayors Project.


Q: The mayoralty is a global institution. Mayors have been a part of city leadership around the world for centuries. How would you describe the role of mayors today, and do you think it has evolved over time?

A: I start from the simple hypothesis that cities are the single most important economic and social organizing unit in the global economy. Cities have always been important, as the arenas of innovation and economic growth, as the sites of cultural, political and civic advancement.

During the era of industrialization, we identified nations and corporations as the main sources of economic development. We gave cities the short shrift. But as we moved from an industrial economy to a post-industrial knowledge or creative economy, it’s cities that have become the social and economic organizing unit. Cities are where people come, where firms cluster, where the economy advances.

The problem is that we have a governance model for cities and metropolitan areas that lacks the power it needs to grow itself. Canadian cities are ‘creatures of the provinces’, and Canadian mayors have considerably less power than their American counterparts. Mayors don’t necessarily have the requisite management or institutional capabilities, the bureaucracy, or the revenue generation capabilities to deal with the problems they face. So, we end up in this conundrum.

The world’s population is supposed to grow to 10 billion roughly speaking over the next century or so – and say 75 or 80 percent of its population will live in urban areas – that means we’re going to at least double the urban population. We’re going to expand existing cities or build an equivalent number of cities to all the cities we have on earth today, spending trillions of dollars. And mayors in the developed world are literally winging it.

So you have cities as the engines of economic growth, as our most important innovation, and urbanization taking place at this rapid rate – and we have under equipped, understaffed, and not really understood leaders. We don’t have real research on city leadership. We don’t have enough data, and we don’t have comparative data. We can’t look across countries, and we have no metrics. We’re flying blind.

It’s a big issue. This idea of better understanding what cities do, what mayors do, and equipping them with tools and data – I think it’s the most important challenge facing our world today. We either get it right, and proceed to build better cities, or we get it wrong, and the costs are enormous.

Q: So how important are mayors to the prosperity of cities?

We know that cities are the font of national and global prosperity. If we take the world’s 40 largest mega-regions, they have roughly 18 percent of the world’s population and produce two-thirds of all economic output, and 85-90 percent of all innovations. So the big question is: What mayors can do at the margins to effect that?

I think mayors can aid or abet prosperity. I think mayors are distributed on a bell curve. In the middle there is a group of competent mayors – studious, ethical, with a high degree of integrity – and then there are the ends of the bell curve. On one side, you have the really dynamic mayors: Michael Bloomberg, Naheed Nenshi, Don Iveson. And then on the other side of the bell curve, there are the dysfunctional or really corrupt ones. They don’t care; they do this because they want to be famous celebrities. Both ends of the bell curve can push their cities. One end of the bell curve can do a lot to make their city better, because they create a vision of their city. I don’t think it’s the more specific lever pulling or operational things so much. It’s more about developing a strategy, a vision, a sense of empowering others. The mayor has limited power, so it’s doing the big picture, broad strategic things others can’t do. Then on the other end, the dysfunctional mayors can put their cities in limbo – that’s the tragic reality.

In Canada, we have this incredible bureaucracy, which is better than in the United States. It’s the civil servants who actually keep the city running. But still, a dysfunctional mayor can really hold the city back. If you had a really dysfunctional mayor for three, four terms, the city could really fall off.

So I think the most important thing mayors can do is to set a vision for their city, an aspirational vision, and I think that’s what the successful ones do really well.

When I meet a mayor, I can’t tell who is Conservative, Liberal, or NDP, or in the United States, a Democrat or Republican. They are just very much concerned with growing their city, making it better, and making sure people are having a higher standard of living. Mayors are the group of people who intuitively get this. I do think the most important function of mayors is about prosperity. The importance of that function has not been well enough understood.

Q: We agree that the role of the mayor is not well understood. What are the implications of this?

A: We’re screwed. [Laughs] We’re screwed. We go down this road at our own peril.

I’ve been making this case for at least 20 years. I presented to the United Nations. People listen – but they don’t really get this. There’s no real sense that this is urgent.

We repeat the same mantra, we say the words – “cities are home to half of the world’s population, cities are the economic engines of the world economy” – and then nothing gets done. I don’t know why that is. It’s my life’s work to make this case.

One of the things we’re trying to do here at the University of Toronto is build a Mayors’ School. We don’t have a Mayors’ School in Canada. Think about it: in an advanced, progressive, prosperous country, we don’t have a place where new mayors can go and learn – and not just from academics, but from other mayors who’ve done it, who can share the tools and tricks of the trade.

If mayors try to look at other cities, their critics or the press call it “a junket” – they’re traveling the world on the public’s dime. But for heads of state, for university presidents – we have extensive programs. We don’t have any of that for mayors.

The reality is that we’re going through a big paradigm shift. For years, nations and corporations were on top. We developed mechanisms – business schools, public policy schools – to train people with extensive professional development. We need something equivalent to that for mayors.

The whole way we deal with cities needs to be more scientific, more data-driven. We don’t even know how much a good mayor versus a bad mayor affects their city. We have so little scientific literature and data on this. When we administer drugs, we track their efficacy. We know which medical interventions and operations work. But we don’t track the leadership of cities. It’s the biggest tragedy and travesty. That’s why your work is important. That’s why all of this work is important. And we need to build an entire infrastructure to do it.

Q: What about Canadian city councils? Are they built for compromise, instead of leadership?

Canada is a three-headed beast. Canada has a great advantage in its federal system, in the strength of the provinces. In the US, the federal government has more power. In Canada, the provinces have a lot of power and the cities have very little power. That hamstrings cities.

The council system causes compromise because the mayor has insufficient power. Certainly the mayor of Toronto has insufficient power. But on the other hand, the Canadian system has a much better, bigger, more robust civil service. The professional side of our cities is more developed.

I don’t know if it’s the structure that can cause mayors not to lead, or if it’s something in the Canadian culture. One observation I have as an American living in Canada is that the business community is mostly absent from urban affairs. In most major American cities, if there was a mayor like Rob Ford, the business community would have become apoplectic. They would have gone crazy. When there are massive problems – like Detroit, or New York City’s fiscal crisis – the business community takes a real interest. You could argue Michael Bloomberg ran for mayor because he saw his city beginning to fall apart and said, I’m going to take on the task of making New York City a better place, for prosperity and innovation and economic growth. What really strikes me about Canadian cities is that big companies have really discounted the importance of a functioning city and a functioning mayor’s office to their long run well-being, to their competitiveness. Canada’s system has become a more political driven for good and bad.

Q: The process to become a mayor is very different than the process to become, say, a premier or prime minister. Do you think the role of mayor attracts a different kind of leader?

I think the job of mayor has become very attractive. It used to be mainly just politically-oriented people running for mayor. Now I think we’re seeing a different quality of person, because cities have become so important. I think you’re seeing a flip, too. Before you would have argued that the highest quality people, the most ambitious people, would run for provincial or federal office. Now, incredibly motivated people are running for mayor – with a realization that what’s probably not a road to federal office. It’s making a difference as mayor that really motivates them.

I wrote a book about this, Who’s Your City? The place you live is the most important decision you make. It really matters. Mayors recognize this shift intuitively. It’s the idea that they can make a big contribution by making the place where they live better. As it becomes a more attractive position, it attracts larger and more ambitious group of people.

Q: If you could change one thing about the leadership of Canadian cities, what would it be?

I would flip the whole Canadian federal system on its head. The federal government has the right amount of power. The provinces have too much power. Cities don’t have enough power. The big cities are the ones that really need more power. For Canada, this is urgent.

The United States can tolerate cities not getting it right. If New York doesn’t get it right, then maybe Chicago does, and then LA does, and then San Francisco does. Canada has just a small fraction of the number of cities in the US. So it’s really imperative. I would argue further that all of this debate about the prosperity deficit and the innovation deficit, it’s all about our cities. We should strengthen our cities, strengthen their role, strengthen the role of the mayor. Cities are the key drivers of economic prosperity, and we don’t have as many cities, so it’s really important we get this right.

I was asked this in South Korea once. They kept saying Seoul has too much power, there’s too much economic development in Seoul, and we need to spread it. I said, if Seoul is not one of the world’s top 20 spikes of world leading cities you’re done. You’ll write Korea off. The question is how can you make your cities as strong as you can, and then how do you tie them in to supporting the rest of the country. Not having chopped down Seoul, or having chopped down Toronto, or chopped off New York. Just make them as strong as you can and they are going to be your connection point to the global economy. Then you can spread wealth, redistribute, make sure all people can participate.

I think this is urgent for Canada, and I’m worried. We’re behind.

We have great cities – spectacular cities – but we’ve got to get our act together.