Why mayors are looking for ideas outside the city limits

Los Angeles looks abroad. Cesarexpo, CC BY-SA

When our dear colleague and cofounder of the Initiative on Cities program at Boston University, former Boston Mayor Tom Menino, passed away one year ago, letters poured in to our offices at Boston University.

The intimate condolences from Boston’s many neighborhoods – Hyde Park, Roslindale, Dorchester – were to be expected. But the letters and fond remembrances from heads of state, governors, ambassadors, and countless domestic and foreign mayors took us by surprise. They were both a testament to the man and the leader he’d become, and a reminder that modern mayors are more than hometown heroes.

Mayors today are goodwill ambassadors, economic arbiters and agents of global change.

Champion networkers at home and abroad

Mayors are more closely connected to one another than their constituents may realize.

Here in the US, national member organizations for local elected officials include both the United States Conference of Mayors (USCM) and the National League of Cities (NLC). Founded in 1933 and 1926, respectively, both serve as federal lobbyists, conveners and clearinghouses for best practices, although they differ in their member structures.

The remarkable camaraderie and kinship that exists among mayors is on display at these national conferences, where informal tete-a-tetes, networking and peer mentoring are as much a part of the agenda as formal presentations.

Global city-to-city collaboration is also not new. There are hundreds of global networks linking cities to those sharing common interests and common goals.

Sister Cities, for example, founded by US President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, was predicated on the notion that formal bonds between cities could promote cross-continental cultural understanding. City-to-city exchanges have continued throughout the decades. United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) now estimates that 70% of cities and their associations participate in international city-to-city programs.

Issue-driven networks are a more contemporary frontier, from anti-nukes and anti-guns to the promotion of culture and trade.

As University College London’s Michele Acuto notes in his 2013 paper City Leadership in Local Governance, it was opposition to nuclear weapon proliferation that led to the formation of the global network Mayors for Peace in 1982.

Boston Mayor Menino (second from right) at conference of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. CC BY-SA

Here in the US, Mayors Menino and Bloomberg and hundreds of their peers found common cause in the fight to reduce gun violence, forming Mayors Against Illegal Guns in 2006.

But it is the environment that has been a consistent catalyzing issue.

As Acuto highlights, the UN has been a key proponent of the urbanization and localization of environmental issues. Today there are an abundance of municipal networks devoted to climate change and sustainability, from the global International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) to the EU-focused Covenant of Mayors.

A high-profile example is the C40, a global network of cities specifically committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which was created by London Mayor Ken Livingston in 2005. Initially a convening of “mega-cities” – those with populations of over 10 million residents – the C40 has expanded its tent to now encompass eighty cities, including 12 in the US.

The most recent mayoral network to emerge is the Global Parliament of Mayors, the brainchild of Ben Barber, a political theorist at the City University of New York. A global self-governing organization comparable to (and in fact linked to) the US Conference of Mayors, it is issue-agnostic, welcoming all mayors regardless of their policy priorities.

But a critical, and understudied, question remains: when do these efforts succeed and why? Our research examines a closely related question: what are the relationships that exist among mayors themselves?

A mutual admiration society

In a survey of US mayors conducted last year with my Boston University colleagues Katherine Levine Einstein and David Glick, we asked mayors about their key sources of policy information, cities they looked to for ideas, specific ideas they borrowed and their working relationships.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then mayors are beaming in mutual admiration.

Unlike CEOs, mayors are enthusiastic imitators and intimate allies, rather than fierce competitors.

Second only to their staff, mayors rely on one another for policy information. Second only to their business community, their strongest working relationships are with neighboring cities. And when asked to name specific cities they looked to for ideas and the types of policies they’ve brought from another city to their own, every mayor cited a list with ease.

The willingness of mayors to forge bonds that stretch beyond city limits and often beyond immediate constituent concerns is striking.

What’s their motivation for regional, national and even global networking? We would argue that exposure to good ideas that may resonate at home helps motivate mayoral collaboration.

To the best of our knowledge, our study with American mayors, recently rededicated as the Menino Survey of Mayors, is the only systematic effort to survey a representative sample of mayors on their sources of inspiration and specific ideas they’ve borrowed from peers.

In fact, mayors we spoke to were so eager to learn the results of this line of inquiry that these were the only questions we repeated in both the 2014 and 2015 Menino Surveys. (The results of the 2015 survey will be released in January 2016 at the US Conference of Mayors Winter meeting.)

What ideas are crossing borders?

New York High Line park has inspired other cities. John Schults/Reuters

Borrowed ideas range from large-scale investments like bus rapid transit (where buses run in exclusively dedicated lanes) and elevated parks to more modest efforts like regional mayors meetings and youth summer jobs programs.

Perhaps more significantly, we discovered that the cities American mayors look to for ideas vary enormously by city size, mayoral partisanship and city wealth, and include both domestic and foreign cities from Boston to Dublin to Hyderabad.

Interestingly, our survey revealed that there are no single cities that are broadly and disproportionately influential on mayors’ policy ideas.

Another question remains: will cities and mayors accomplish what nation states cannot?

City climate change pledges, including the relatively new Compact of Mayors, hold tremendous promise, given the role cities play in emissions. But the impact of these commitments may be difficult to gauge without better tools to measure emissions reductions.

As another of my Boston University colleagues, Lucy Hutyra, and her peers point out in a recent commentary in Nature, setting emissions targets is just the first step. She and her coauthors argue that cities need local emission data that are comprehensive and comparable, and tools that enable the mapping of emissions on “finer scales of space and time that reflect human dimensions at which carbon is emitted.” Think streets, parks and individual buildings. Only then can cities gauge the impact of specific policies, promote targeted interventions and track progress. Only then will they know if the ideas they exchanged and commitments they made really mattered.

Mayors may have grand ambitions and be part of global agendas. But in the end they’re judged by what they accomplish at home.

Mayor Menino was famously dubbed the “urban mechanic.” He judged himself by the ways in which he improved people’s lives, by the cleanliness of the streets and waterways, and the quality of the schools. He, like so many of his peers, knew that it’s the human dimension that matters most.