December 2023: Local governments - cities, municipalities - are becoming increasingly important. Because they are the authorities closest to citizens who are looking for a foothold in uncertain times. In our cities big, global issues are translated into practical answers. Here the desire for a better life does not remain abstract, but becomes tangible in our streets and neighbourhood. Cities and towns have a unique role to play: they are both bearers of continuity and bastions of progress. In this dynamic environment mayors occupy a unique place. After all, we are the faces of our city or municipality. It is up to us to embody both continuity and progress alike.
In December 2020, I was appointed mayor of Utrecht. Until then, I worked in national politics for a long time and lived in several other cities. But in Utrecht - the most central big city in the country - I see everything coming together. We are facing national and global issues (such as security and climate), which need to be tackled at street and neighbourhood level. In the process, as mayor, I get to be closer to people than ever, both in their joy and in their sorrow. It is the most personal and connective administrative position I have ever had the pleasure of holding.
In his book If Mayors Ruled the World political scientist Benjamin Barber painted the picture of local governance as a source of hopeful solutions in a chaotic world. I recognise a lot in this perspective. It inspires me to always want to get the best out of the city. Sometimes local solutions turn out to have a huge impact. They can make a difference in the city and inspire others in the process.
Our role as mayors is to string those local solutions together like a bead necklace. In doing so, we make a pattern of hope and perspective visible to our residents and to people from outside the city. A pattern that palpably moves the city forward.
Realising this 'urban potential' demands a lot from local administrators: you need a high degree of administrative intelligence and a healthy dose of humanity. Daring to get 'up close and personal’, but also showing administrative courage by making radical choices for the city and its inhabitants. In my case, that also means paving the way for the political choices made by Utrecht aldermen, and supporting them in those decisions. As mayor, I therefore have to master several styles of administration, while at the same time always I need to get and keep people and processes moving.
Bringing people along and keeping them together is important, but as a mayor one cannot only have friends. Sometimes the city needs to move forward even in the face of headwinds. Continuity and progress do not always go hand in hand. 'Simply minding the store' is not enough in those situations.
In Utrecht, I experienced this on a number of themes. For example, I arrived in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic. Everyone was sitting at home, people were carefully keeping their distance from each other and the local economy was on lockdown. People and entrepreneurs lived in deep uncertainty. Together with Utrechters, I found ways to still open the doors of the catering industry: carefully, within the prevailing rules and in innovative cooperation between entrepreneurs. In doing so, we offered both continuity, progress and hope. Our city became world news.
Utrecht also has something to offer the world in terms of climate and sustainability. We are a true cycling city, housing the world's largest bike garage. And in our neighbourhoods we will accelerate the replacement of gas cooking and heating with sustainable energy in the coming years. Although I am not responsible for these policies as mayor, I can support my colleagues in the city council and help pave the way towards an ambitious decision. This also concerns me personally, as in 2015 - as State Secretary in the Dutch government - I helped negotiate the Paris climate agreement. We make these goals specific in Utrecht, working hard every day to ensure healthy urban living for all. Here, too, the balance between continuity and progress is crucial.
A third important moment was the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Suddenly, a lot of unsafe and frightened people sought refuge in our country. From the first day of the war, I strove to offer these people a safe place in Utrecht. In the process, countless residents stood up to help as volunteers. This attitude is heartwarming and, in my eyes, a typically Utrecht-like response. We are a city with open arms. I am proud that, to this day, we are a safe haven for people who had to flee hearth and home. Whether they come from Ukraine or from other parts of the world, people can get on with their lives here and experience hope.
Finally, the recent unrest in the world can also be felt on the streets of Utrecht. My main task as mayor is to keep Utrechters united in times of political polarisation. This applies both to local politics and in neighbourhoods. This is why I organised several meetings of local 'allies' around the conflict in the Middle East. People and organisations from very diverse backgrounds (Jewish, Muslim, Christian and non-religious) met and engaged in in-depth dialogue. My job in such a situation is to keep the city together and provide calm. This sometimes brings criticism: as mayor, I am then accused of not firmly taking a side against injustice. But fortunately, there was also a lot of support for the calmness with which we keep listening to each other in Utrecht.
These situations also show how important local administrators to keep our societies governable. On a national level, polarisation is increasing, while trust in (the solutions of) parliaments and governments is declining. Municipalities are proving to be better equipped for staying connected to citizens. This may feel like a risk, but it is at the same time a huge opportunity. Of all governments, people still trust their municipalities most. As mayor, I cherish that trust every day. But at the same time, I want to capitalise on it and build on it.
In all these situations I notice that Utrecht is a progressive city: people want to move forward. My role is to take them along and encourage them. And at the same time, I want to preserve all that is good about our city. That's why I talk to everyone, in all corners of the city: mothers and fathers, old and young, progressives and conservatives, workers and academics. Together with all these Utrechters, I want to connect the big and small questions and uncertainties, on every level. We never forget that our efforts are always closely linked to our neighbouring towns and cities. Because all our perspectives belong together, they need each other. I can only fulfill this connecting role by always stepping forward myself. I am not a timid administrator who prefers to stay at the water's edge. Rather, I leap in and seek out the places of tension. In doing so, I hope to set an example for the city.
Utrecht has a lot to be proud of. Our city can show this with more self-confidence. Visible and leading, but also serving our surroundings. As a good, reliable neighbour. As far as I'm concerned, this attitude is crucial to passing on the city to the next generation. Utrecht is a young city. That's why I pay a lot of attention to teenagers and people in their twenties. They too long for both continuity and progress. In Utrecht, as in other big cities, I sometimes see young people sliding into crime. I see a generation - more often than before - struggling with mental problems. That's why, as mayor, I work hard on policies that give our young people perspective. If we embrace them and lift them up, we offer them the future they are entitled to. Moreover, I can connect the local to the global in the UN Local Government Advisory Group, where I am especially committed to Future Generations.
Utrecht is a thriving, progressive city because it knows where it comes from. Our city is more than 900 years old. As mayor, I stand on the shoulders of giants. Trijn van Leemput was one of them. When the city was liberated from Spanish rule in 1577, Trijn - along with several other Utrecht women - single-handedly started tearing down the city's prison fortress (Vredenburg). I cherish this revolutionary zeal. Walls of injustice and exclusion, of discrimination and disadvantage - they must continue to be broken down in Utrecht too. In this I gladly step forward. It is my duty as Mayor.
True, Utrecht has plenty of big challenges for the coming years. Our city is expanding to over 400,000 inhabitants, with all the growing pains and uncertainties that go with it. We need lots of new housing and good facilities. At the same time, this growth must help our city become cleaner, more sustainable and more healthy. We can only realise these grand ambitions step by step. Continuity and progress must go hand in hand. This can make people feel uncertain: they see their city changing before their eyes. But at the same time, Utrecht's history teaches us that our city has changed so many times over the past 900 years.
Generations of Utrechters have always been able to shape growth and change to their liking. Even now, we ourselves have influence on the Utrecht of tomorrow. I want to harness this influence together, by building a safe and healthy city, in which more and more people feel at home and can live happily. Where necessary, I stand on the barricades with others to break down - literally and figuratively - walls that hinder this.
A mayor is always part of the bigger picture. Just as a city is also part of a larger world. I cannot be a good mayor without the hard work of my fellow aldermen, the city council, civil servants and all those entrepreneurs and residents who love the city as much as I do. What's more, I stand on a foundation that was also built by my predecessors. And on that of so many other inspiring Utrechters, like Trijn van Leemput. People who gave Utrecht colour and character and made it the beautiful, warm city it is today.
I also like to be inspired by colleagues who govern their own city with the same love and ambition. I think especially of Mayor Vitalii Klychko of Kyiv: leader of capital at war, where defenceless civilians are dying and the future is uncertain. His leadership is courageous, with integrity and determination, as I experienced in our meeting(s). It is a great honour to be nominated along with him for this award.
Cities are crucial to preserve what is good while working for progress with an open mind: a fairer, more sustainable, healthier and safer world should be felt in our streets and neighbourhoods. I wish for Utrecht - and all its residents - to embrace this progressive role. A city 900 years old, but young at heart. A curious, self-aware and courageous city, that inspires the world. As mayor, I get to serve that city by leading and enabling ambition and action. For me, this is a labour of love.
Essays by: Mayor of Dover | Mayor of Graz | Bürgermeisterin von Graz | Mayor of Greifswald |Oberbürgermeister von Greifswald | Mayor of Oliveri | Sindaco di Oliveri | Mayor of Quelimane | Mayor of Utrecht | Burgemeester van Utrecht |
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