Naheed Nenshi, Mayor of Calgary, answers questions put by an international audience

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Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi
questioned by an international audience

3 February 2015: City Mayors invited those who participated in World Mayor 2014 to put questions to Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, winner of the 2014 World Mayor Prize. From the questions received, a representative selection was forwarded to the mayor. He replies below with candour and thoughtfulness.

By Chris R, New York City, USA
Given your background as well as your progressive social and political views, did you have to think long and hard before entering local politics in a conservative province like Alberta?

Mayor Nenshi replies: I reject these terms – ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’. I think they are meaningless to the vast majority of people, who just want good government at a decent price. As the former Governor of Washington and Senator, Dan Evans, wrote in 2002, “There are no Republican schools or Democrat highways, no liberal salmon or conservative parks.” I really believe that this kind of categorization alienates people and keeps them from participating in the political process.

So, the answer is no. I know my community and I had a good sense of what people want and need. What I did think long and hard about was the personal cost: was I willing to give up my personal life to be in the public eye? Could I do better on the inside than as an academic and pundit—as an ideas guy? Could I develop a thick enough skin to deal with really mean people on the internet? Could my family? These are questions that I still think about: how can we remove some of these barriers to get more good people entering politics? I think not pigeon-holing folks before they even get there might be part of it.

By Vivian H, Calgary
In the University of Calgary alumni magazine (Spring 2011) you are quoted as saying, “To this day I still don’t really think of myself as a politician. I see myself as continuing to be a community advocate, just trying to build a better city.” I would hope that the aim of most politicians is to build a better city, province or nation. In your experience, is this the case? Or do most enter politics for less altruistic reasons?

Mayor Nenshi replies: This is a really tough question. I deal with politicians in various orders of government every day, and I can say that the vast majority of them do this job because they truly believe in a better community. Indeed, I can’t imagine why anyone would get into this business for any other reason. The costs are too high - there are easier ways to make money, and many would argue that there are even easier ways to influence decisions.

That said, citizens often see acts by politicians that are inexplicable when viewed only through the lens of public service. Citizens can be forgiven for asking “who benefits from this decision? Who are these politicians working for? Who are they listening to?” I do it too.

I’m not naïve enough to say there’s no self-interest or even corruption in politics. But I’m also not willing to say that these factors influence the majority of politicians or the majority of decisions.

However, the systems we have created tend to amplify some voices – the echo chamber is very real. As public servants, we have to work hard to listen to the community in a deeply authentic way, invite people into our decision-making process, and ultimately, apply a decision based on our values, our judgment, and our best view of the future.

Some people, mostly in media and political science, find my attitude not only a bit unsophisticated, but ultimately self-defeating, since it flies in the face of current political thinking about micro-targeting groups of citizens. I reject that. I think people are fundamentally good, and fundamentally smart, and can be trusted to support us when we do the right thing.

By Ian R, Calgary
Calgary's wealth is largely due to the oil and gas industry in Alberta and you've used this wealth to bolster the city's infrastructure and transit with continued success. We know oil is a finite resource, and an addiction we have to wean ourselves off if the city is to prosper after the oil is gone. What steps are you taking to ensure Calgary diversifies its industry and wealth, ensures its future, and sets and example to the rest of the world for life without oil dependency?

Mayor Nenshi replies: I often discuss the need for us to monetize the resources we have while we have them and to ensure that we are using the proceeds to secure a legacy for future generations. There are, I think, two ways of doing this: save cash and build infrastructure.

We can’t do too much about the first one: that really is up to the provincial government. But we need to manage our debt and build up cash reserves now, as best we can, to ensure that future Calgary governments have flexibility in providing services and are not crippled by interest payments, for example. This is one of the reasons I’m pushing hard for full cost-recovery in suburban development. I’d rather have the costs covered up front than recovered from all taxpayers over decades.

The second one – infrastructure - relies on a lot of funding from other levels of government, and we continue to advocate hard for it. Transit is a great example: It’s incredibly expensive, but has extraordinary positive externalities for many decades to come.

Finally, and somewhat out of my authority, the best way to diversify an economy is not for government to pick winners and losers, but for us to invest in education at all levels, and in continuing a vibrant entrepreneurial environment.

By Nauman S A, Calgary
Would you support a provincial sales tax in Alberta that provides a certain percentage to local municipal government infrastructure projects?

Mayor Nenshi replies: I don’t think we will ever have the political will for a provincial sales tax. That said, we need to diversify municipal revenue sources in a way that allows cities predictable, stable, long-term revenue to invest in infrastructure. I’m agnostic on what this looks like, but I think our new Premier understands the issue and will help us find better ways of sharing revenue.

By Sadruddin N, Chicago, USA
What is your plan to bring international tourists to Calgary to allow the city to have global name recognition, and most importantly generate revenue through tourism.

Mayor Nenshi replies: I encourage everyone to check out Our tourism programs in Calgary are getting better and better, since we have such a great product to market – arts, culture, great restaurants, and, of course, landscapes that are amongst the most beautiful on the planet. Come visit soon!

By Deborah McC, Calgary
You have often spoken of the different challenges that large cities face compared to smaller ones, as well as the significant issues facing cities that are rapidly growing. Can you please tell us what some of those challenges are and how you propose to deal with them?

Mayor Nenshi replies: We have created a system of diseconomies of scale - where it is more expensive to serve a larger population than a smaller one, and where the property taxes new residents pay don’t cover the costs of the services they need.

Transit is a good example. In a smaller centre, transit is sometimes seen as a necessary evil: you have to have it, but you can get away with a minimal level of service. In a larger city, it’s absolutely necessary as you simply can’t afford to build roads to accommodate cars for everyone, and not everyone can afford a car. But once you build rail, you’re in a completely different world of cost and it’s impossible to cover capital costs with property taxes alone.

Social issues such as homelessness are another example. People in need tend to congregate in larger centres, and so dealing with social issues becomes a regional issue, where the big city is managing the issues for the smaller towns.

To address this, we need to fundamentally rethink how we fund cities. We need to be able to access revenue sources beyond the property tax and carefully delineate the responsibilities of the city with that of the province and federal government, and fund it appropriately.

By Nauman S A, Calgary
The next major issue in Calgary appears to be housing costs. With developers not responding very positively to your ‘build vertical’ instead of urban sprawl, what are your next steps to make housing affordable for current and future residents?

Mayor Nenshi replies: Actually, we are well on our way to achieving a better balance between growing outward in new communities and infilling established neighbourhoods with greater density. Since I took office, we’ve seen about one-third of our population growth occur in established communities; this is a substantial shift from less than a decade ago when established communities were losing population and new communities comprised over 100 per cent of growth.

I’d also suggest that our new communities are much denser today than in the past, and they are more mixed use and provide a better variety of housing choices. Within the development industry (with a few notable exceptions) we also see many builders who traditionally only build new single family homes now developing more multi-family projects as well as infill in older communities. To make housing more affordable, we need to provide more housing choice and greater housing supply across the entire housing spectrum from new rental housing stock through entry-level home ownership.

By Vicki W, Calgary
Considering the amount of damage to property during the Calgary flood because so many of the areas were close to the river what would you like to see done to prevent future destruction to and flooding of Calgary?

Mayor Nenshi replies: We have already taken a number of practical steps at the municipal level to better protect individual properties and communities. This includes things like local flood protection through the construction of berms and regulations for individual properties to ensure that buildings are more flood-resilient. The province is also working on better regulating water levels of upstream dams, and examining a ‘Room for the River’ approach to make floodplain development more resilient.

As you may have heard, we are also looking at three very large capital projects: a dry dam at McLean Creek, the Springbank Reservoir (or dry dam) and the Glenmore Diversion tunnel. Work on analyzing all of these is proceeding. It is likely we will need multiple projects to protect the city from the kind of damage we sustained in the 2013 floods (or even worse flood events).

By Edward A, Calgary
Hello. What is the current value of Calgary’s municipal debt? How is it being paid off?

Mayor Nenshi replies: Current debt is about CAN$4 billion. This is relatively high compared to other Canadian municipalities, but we do have a sound plan to reduce our debt-load in the coming years. A substantial portion of this debt was accumulated during the 2000s as a result of a development levy agreement for new growth in The City that failed to collect money to pay for water and wastewater infrastructure (in particular). As a result, City Council had to make the very difficult, but necessary, decision to increase utility rates to pay off this debt. The current development levy agreement does help cover more of these costs, but it is not enough. We are establishing a new development levy agreement this year and one goal of that agreement is to ensure that growth better pays for itself so we don’t accumulate debt and burden future generations.

Another substantial portion of our debt is short term and was used to develop major projects like the West LRT. Our debt (and its carrying costs) were negatively affected by a slower than anticipated payment of the Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) grant by the provincial government. Once those MSI grant dollars finally flow to The City in the next few years, our debt load will be greatly reduced.

By Cheryle C, Calgary
When do you estimate that homelessness will be eliminated in Calgary?

Mayor Nenshi replies: Calgarians should be proud that we’ve shown great leadership using a “housing first” strategy to eliminate homelessness. Cities around North America are now following our lead. The Calgary Homeless Foundation is responsible for implementing our 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness with a deadline of 2018.

I’m not naïve - it’s not going to be easy to eliminate homelessness by the deadline we’ve set for ourselves. During our last count in October 2014, there were 3,531 homeless in Calgary. That’s a lot of people, but I am optimistic because - given our record population growth over the past few years - that number has stayed relatively static when it could easily have gone up.

I’m confident we are on the path to eliminate homelessness. Over the past seven years, we’ve helped house nearly 6,000 people. And we continue to worth with other orders of government to create more affordable housing for our citizens. I’m optimistic because we are seeing the success of other housing programs like the Attainable Homes Calgary Corporation (which helps middle-income Calgarians purchase their first home) and the RESOLVE Campaign (which brings together homebuilding companies to create affordable housing for 3,000 vulnerable and homeless Calgarians).

By Azim J, Toronto, Ontario
We have seen high racial tension in many major cities in Europe and the United States. Toronto, has reached the point where foreign-born residents outnumber locally-born ones. Do you think Canada's policy of multiculturalism is heading towards disaster, and how would you, as Mayor, ensure that racial harmony is maintained.

Mayor Nenshi replies: Calgary is often held up as an example about how a community can thrive in a multicultural and pluralistic society. Our city continues to benefit by being an attractive place for people from around the world who want to live and work.

I can’t speak for the realities of other communities, but I know that Calgary will continue to work hard to draw smart, passionate people our city. Even during the current economic downturn, Calgary business needs more skilled workers to succeed.

I believe that our success with multiculturalism is linked to a history of true meritocracy. In Calgary, few people care about where you come from, what you look like, whom you love, or how you worship - they care about what you bring to the table. Certainly, we all have our cultural differences, but Calgarians have created a unique Calgarian culture that is influenced by all cultures which come to our city. If we continue to resist insularism and close-mindedness in all communities, and actively fight intolerance in all its forms, we will continue to be a successful multicultural city.

By Kimm R, presently in India
Community Association membership can include individuals who do not actually live or have a business in the community. Where there is rapid development, this can lead to an imbalance in how the voice of the community is represented when major new developments are proposed. What do you believe is the role of the Community Association in municipal affairs and how will you ensure that they are equipped to fulfill that mandate?

Mayor Nenshi replies: Especially in dealing with development or redevelopment, we’ve ended up in a situation where Community Associations are a de facto fourth order of government. In my opinion, this is inappropriate and unfair to the members of the community association. While we have some Community Associations in dealing with development and planning matters that are well equipped, experienced, well governed, and highly representative, there are some tha not as experienced or even not well governed or not representative of the community as a whole.

We need to both better define a meaningful role for the Community Associations and move to more authentic consultation with people who live in communities.

We have a lot of work to do in this area, and I look forward to working with community members and my colleagues at The City on solutions moving forward.

By Lori R H, Calgary
Your passion for the arts and especially literacy are always at the forefront of your civic activities. Why is literacy so important to you, and how do you feel it impacts the economy of a city?

Mayor Nenshi replies: Canada is one of the most educated countries in the world, and Calgary’s levels of post-secondary completion are among the highest in Canada. We are, by definition, a well-educated community. Undoubtedly, that is part of why our economy and our community is so successful.

Literacy for everyone is an important foundation for our community - a point from where we build great places to live, great cultural institutions, and great businesses. It allows people to participate in civic live and in their community.

It’s not just about kids, either. While early childhood development is vital to community health, we need to ensure that literacy programs are available for all adults and particularly for new Canadians.

That said, focusing on children is also important. That’s one reason I started a regular series called ‘Mayor Nenshi Reads’ where I read books to children in person and online. Another reason: it’s lots of fun!

By Jennifer D, Calgary
What urban or social initiatives have you seen in other cities that you would really like to see implemented in Calgary?

Mayor Nenshi replies: I am constantly looking for good ideas to borrow or shamelessly steal, and I encourage others to shamelessly steal from us. Here’s one interesting example: under the leadership of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, New York City has seen a lot of success through their Vision Zero initiative in reducing collisions and fatalities in their streets. There are a lot of things that we can learn from their work and implement in a Vision Zero initiative of our own to make Calgary safer for everyone – drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists.

By Marian Z, Calgary
What is your vision for Calgary in 2020? What do the citizens of the city need to do or understand to help achieve your vision?

Mayor Nenshi replies: My vision for Calgary is that of a city of opportunity for all - a place where every Calgarian has the chance to thrive. That requires a lot of hard work from both the government and its citizens. From a government perspective, this involves:
• Building great neighbourhoods - new suburbs with a choice of housing and amenities and thriving established neighbourhoods with thoughtful redevelopment and renewed infrastructure.
• Creating a complete transportation system that makes it easy to move around the city, regardless of what mode you choose: car, transit, bike or foot.
• Ensuring all communities are safe, attractive, and vibrant with housing options and services for people of all walks of life.
• Continually improving municipal government to keep it citizen-focused and efficient.

But, of course, government can’t do it alone. To be successful, we need the involvement of citizens for every step along the way. We have a good start with ImagineCalgary - our citizen-created vision for the future of Calgary - and that continues to guide The City of Calgary in all it does. But citizen engagement and feedback as we move forward will ensure we are on the right track and nimble enough to adjust to serve Calgarians better.

Finally, our community is only as good as its citizens. Every act of volunteerism, large or small, is an act of community-building that makes Calgary even better. When we started the 3 Things for Calgary project to encourage every citizen to do at least three things to improve their street or neighbourhood or even the entire city, we wanted to help prompt every Calgarian to action. Thousands of actions later, I’m inspired by the power of everyday Calgarians, and I hope we will continue to make our city better together.

By Kris S, Lethbridge, Alberta
You are an outspoken proponent in many areas that matter to a great number of social democrats in Alberta. Would you consider a future career as a national or provincial representative of the people?

Mayor Nenshi replies: I have the best job in Canada, if not the world. I get to serve the people of this great city every single day with all I’ve got. And I have at least three years left in my mandate. Why would I want a demotion?

By Janet W, Calgary
You are a recognizable, popular and highly visible personality not just in Calgary but also across Canada. How and when do you get private time away from the office? Is there ever a time when you can be somewhere where nobody recognizes you and you can just be yourself for a little while? How do you feel about living in the spotlight?

Mayor Nenshi replies: This is likely the biggest surprise of my job. I really didn’t expect this level of notoriety. Even when I took a rare holiday with my family recently, I was recognized everywhere I went – even on a remote rural road in the jungle!

I have a rule in the office - I try to keep one of Saturday or Sunday free of meetings or events so that I can read, think, refresh, and prepare for the upcoming week. I only succeed one out of every three weeks or so, but it makes a difference.

My family and friends are kind of used to it. They all know how to use every camera phone on the market and put up with interruptions. But they, like me, always remember that even if this is my 50th selfie of the day, it’s this person’s first picture with the Mayor, and I need to make sure it’s special for them.

So, while it can be weird and tiring when every trip to the supermarket becomes an open house on snow removal (when all I want is to get my loaf of bread and go home) it’s also gratifying that people take such an interest in politics and feel comfortable talking to me.

In 2015, I hope to try something new: maybe a long weekend in a big city, where it might be easier to be anonymous as I explore a cool urban vibe.

By Ross B, Calgary
What do you think of the idea that mayors should rule the world?

Mayor Nenshi replies: I believe people should rule the world.

Mayors are in a unique political position. We are closest to the people we serve. The work of cities affects people’s daily lives from clean water to transportation to recreation and culture. A mayor knows (or, at least, should know) the real needs and wants of their citizens and has the opportunity (much of the time) to make the lives of citizens better every day.

So, yes, I can understand why some people should say mayors should rule the world. Compared to other politicians at other orders of government, we’re able to have a more direct impact on people’s lives.

It wouldn’t hurt if mayors were listened to a bit more by other orders of government. As the voice of our citizens, we definitely have something important to say. I wish, for example, the federal government would make more investment in transit infrastructure across the country. If mayors ruled the world, perhaps we’d fix the problem.

But ruling the world is a bit much. Plus, I don’t look good in a crown.

Naheed Nenshi has been awarded the 2014 World Mayor Prize

World Mayor

The philanthropic City Mayors Foundation awards the World Mayor Prize every two years to a mayor who has made outstanding contributions to his / her community and has developed a vision for urban living and working that is relevant to towns and cities across the world. The Prize has been awarded since 2004.

Anyone voting for a mayor is also asked to consider whether his / her candidate is likely to agree to the City Mayors Code of Ethics. Mayors wishing to be considered for the World Mayor Prize will be asked to sign up to the Code.

Votes must be accompanied by a thoughtful supporting statement.

2014/15 Timetable
First-round nominations were accepted until the middle of May 2014. A longlist of 121 candidates was published on 22 May. A shortlist of 26 nominees was announced on 18 June 2014. A second round of voting will take place between now and the middle of October. The winner of the 2014 World Mayor Prize and other results of the World Mayor Project were announced on 3 February 2015.

The philanthropic City Mayors Foundation, the international think tank on urban affairs, organises the World Mayor Project and awards the World Mayor Prize. The Prize, which has been given since 2004, honours mayors with the vision, passion and skills to make their cities incredible places to live in, work in and visit. The World Mayor Project aims to show what outstanding mayors can achieve and raise their profiles nationally and internationally.

The organisers of the World Mayor Project are looking for city leaders who excel in qualities like: leadership and vision, management abilities and integrity, social and economic awareness, ability to provide security and to protect the environment as well as the will and ability to foster good relations between communities from different cultural, racial and social backgrounds. Mayors wishing to be considered for the World Mayor Prize will be asked to sign up to the City Mayors Code of Ethics.

The winner receives the artistically acclaimed World Mayor trophy, while the runner-up is given the World Mayor Commendation.

Winners and runners-up
2004 to 2014

In 2014: Winner: Naheed Nenshi (Calgary, Canada); First runner-up: Daniël Termont (Ghent, Belgium); Second runner-up: Tri Rismaharini (Surabaya, Indonesia)

In 2012: Winner: Iñaki Azkuna (Bilbao, Spain); Runner-up: Lisa Scaffidi (Perth, Australia); In third place: Joko Widodo (Surakarta, Indonesia)

In 2010: Winner: Marcelo Ebrard (Mexico City, Mexico); Runner-up: Mick Cornett (Oklahoma City, USA); In third place: Domenico Lucano (Riace, Italy)

In 2008: Winner: Helen Zille (Cape Town, South Africa); Runner up: Elmar Ledergerber (Zurich, Switzerland); In third place: Leopoldo López (Chacao, Venezuela)

In 2006: Winner: John So (Melbourne, Australia); Runner up: Job Cohen (Amsterdam, Netherland); In third place: Stephen Reed (Harrisburg, USA)

In 2005: Winner: Dora Bakoyannis (Athens, Greece); Runner-up: Hazel McCallion (Mississauga, Canada); In third place: Alvaro Arzú (Guatemala City, Guatemala)

In 2004: Winner: Edi Rama (Tirana, Albania); Runner-up: Andrés Manuel López Obrador (Mexico City, Mexico); In third place: Walter Veltroni (Rome, Italy)