Female mayors taking the chance to shape global cities
Friday, March 31, 2017
When we talk about shaping the cities of the future to be more inclusive, the question remains of whether those cities should be led by the people whose concerns their policies should reflect.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan's outspoken support for feminism has led people to ask whether and how cities themselves can be feminist. But it is a new wave of female mayors, both globally and in the U.S., who are testing out the idea that for diverse citizen needs to be reflected in how are cities are designed and run, city government itself must reflect that diversity.
Emerging wave of female mayors
The most prominent "superstar" female mayors are those turning governance upside down in key European cities. Ada Colau in Barcelona, Anne Hidalgo in Paris, Virginia Raggi in Rome and 72-year-old Manuela Carmena in Madrid have all made names for themselves.
Even in some of the world's most challenging and dangerous cities, women have taken the helm. Zekra Alwach, a former civil engineer, was appointed as mayor of Baghdad in 2015. In Paynesville, Liberia, activist mayor Cyvette Gibson was brought in in 2012 and two years later had to clear up the mess left by Ebola as it swept the country.
The largest U.S. city run by a woman is San Antonio, in the hands of Ivy Taylor. In Washington, D.C, Muriel Bowser was elected in 2015 as the city's second female mayor and has since supported fellow women with the "Reign" program to boost the chances of minority girls in the city. Megan Barry was elected in 2015 as mayor of booming Nashville, Tennessee, and has been an outspoken critic of president Donald Trump's immigration ban, saying that "in Nashville, we are not going to make our police immigration officers."
In Las Vegas, eccentric former mob lawyer Carolyn Goodman has run the city since taking over from her husband (the "Martini mayor" Oscar Goodman) in 2011. Baltimore, however, is ahead of the crown in electing three African-American women in a row to run the city, making female mayors the new normal. The trend seems to be growing, and some commentators in the U.S. have even hailed 2017 as the "year of the black woman mayor."
However, these women are still a rarity. In the U.S., as of July 2016, just over 19 percent of cities with populations over 30,000 were led by women.
Women against the establishment
These women have not shied away from bold policies. Hidalgo has made headlines by daring to ban cars from large parts of central Paris to make way for bike lanes and pedestrians. Former Occupy activist Colau in Barcelona, who has been dubbed the world's most radical mayor, has described the use of private cars as an "injustice." And in Warsaw, Hanna Gronkiewicz–Waltz has stood up to the Polish central government's inaction on renewable energy.
Many of these women have been elected to replace incumbents drained of legitimacy by allegations of corruption. Mayors, who often hold the key to lucrative construction contracts, are particularly vulnerable to accusations of abuse of office. Both Colau in Barcelona and Raggi in Rome campaigned on explicitly anti-corruption platforms, and Alwach replaced a mayor who had allegedly "turned Baghdad into a hub for corruption and a wreck of basic services."
Tackling urban problems from a different angle
Urban planners are increasingly recognizing that men and women use and move around the city in different ways, and that city design and governance should reflect that.
The World Bank argues that women — perhaps due to having lived in cities designed by people unlike them — are more likely to emphasize quality-of-life issues, the rights of minorities and the ability to "increase and diversify solutions to urban problems."
Indeed, Raggi has spoken out about Rome's double-parking problem and the problems it causes for mothers with strollers, and Colau has suggested that women are more motivated to deal with challenges "which affect health and life." Many female mayors are at the forefront of anti-climate change action and were well-represented in New York at the #Women4Climate conference in March.
Breaking from the 'old boys network'
This wave of female mayors have not escaped the usual reactions to women's encroachment on powerful positions — Colau was advised to go sell fish in the market or clean floors rather than attempt to run the city when she was elected in 2015.
However, what is most promising is the boldness of moves being made by these new appointees. It is perhaps no coincidence that it is women spearheading the revolt against mainstream parties at the city level.
Because of the local scale on which city governance takes place, local government is rife with allegations of corruption and "old boys networks." Female mayors are by no means immune to these problems, but for many they represent a fresh start.
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