What Mayors Are Worried About From Paris to Cape Town

Five city leaders on refugees, green taxis, and other pressing concerns of the millions they serve.



Marie Mawad:  Mayors all over the world are taking positions on national and even international issues, like climate change and immigration. Why?

Anne Hidalgo: Globalization increasingly brings people into the world’s biggest cities, and mayors are on the front lines of its impact. We’re forced to come up with solutions to the questions of climate, pollution, and a population that is split between globalization’s winners and those who have come to our cities to seek refuge. And what distinguishes us from national governments is the agility to find innovative solutions and to put them into practice.

Featured in Bloomberg Businessweek, Aug. 14, 2017. Subscribe now.
Photographer: Sasha Arutyunova for Bloomberg Businessweek

What are some examples of that agility?
With the help of the national government, I got a change in the law so Paris can create a green investment fund. If we want to make all 18,000 Parisian taxis hybrid or hydrogen vehicles, we need private investment.


Eleni Chrepa: Soon after you took office in 2011, the refugee crisis hit Greece. How did you deal with it?

Yiannis Boutaris: We were opposed to the idea of refugee camps from Day One. We joined a UN program, and instead of setting up camps, we rented apartments for people, so they could integrate more easily into the city’s daily life. This way, the citizens also realized that regardless of the fact that many refugees don’t make the sign of the cross, they are no different from us.

Illustrator: Jaci Kessler Lubliner

How much can a mayor do to change hostile attitudes?
It is absolutely up to the mayor of a city to change this xenophobic atmosphere. We opened a school for afternoon classes: We found the right teacher, and we organized a welcome for those terrified kids who had come straight from the camps. The local children welcomed them, embraced them. We can’t forget that the first big wave of refugees came to Thessaloniki in 1490—Jewish refugees fleeing Spain. More than 50,000 people settled here then. Thessaloniki was named the Jerusalem of the Balkans. They were Jewish, that was their religion, but they were Greek citizens. It’s the same with Muslims. This is the mentality we’re trying to pass on to the citizens of Thessaloniki, and it looks like it’s working. 

Illustrator: Jaci Kessler Lubliner


Niklas Magnusson: What are your biggest challenges?

Karin Wanngard: The biggest is the housing shortage. So much is tied to housing—it’s the basis for safety, for development. A functioning housing market is a prerequisite for integration, and it’s not working in Stockholm today. When I meet business representatives, their No. 1 priority is more housing. More and more people need to be recruited from other cities in Sweden—and also internationally—and then they need to find a home when they come to Stockholm. We aim to deliver 40,000 new homes by 2020, but after that we need to produce even more.


Michael S. Arnold: A criticism about Jerusalem: There’s a developed western side where the Jews live, and the Arab side is much less developed.

Nir Barkat: One of the biggest challenges we have is that 80 percent of the land in east Jerusalem is not registered by the land authority, so when a resident wants to build, he can’t get a mortgage, and we don’t collect taxes. Now, every other city in the world and in Israel, when people build a new building, the city collects taxes and builds roads and infrastructure.

Illustrator: Jaci Kessler Lubliner

Why isn’t it registered? Is this the legacy of the British Mandate?
Yeah. And Israel has not yet pushed the button to fix it. In the last few decades, the investments in infrastructure were not at the level and the quality of average cities in the world. We are pushing the national government to increase investment to fill that gap, and now you do see roads and new schools in Arab areas.

In some cases, the residents prefer to stay as a village-oriented neighborhood. So it’s a delicate issue. I don’t want to impose a Western kind of life on an Arab way of life. My philosophy: Tailor the services to the differences between the residents. The ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods have different needs than secular neighborhoods, than Muslim neighborhoods, than Christian neighborhoods.

Illustrator: Jaci Kessler Lubliner


Cape Town

Paul Vecchiatto: How do you deal with a national government that’s in the hands of a different political party?

Patricia de Lille: I look at the powers given to local government by the constitution and use those to the fullest. If something goes wrong with national government, it takes people about a year to three years to notice. If something goes wrong at state or provincial levels, it takes three to six months for people to notice. If something goes wrong at the local or municipal level, people notice immediately.

You’ve decided to lodge a high court complaint against the national government over the use of renewable energy.
South Africa signed the Paris Agreement. In Cape Town we decided to change our energy mix: We want to include photovoltaic, wind, and other forms of renewable energy and lessen our dependence on coal and diesel. The only obstacle preventing us from doing that is our national government, which wants to protect its state monopoly. After struggling to get a meeting with the minister of energy, I’ve now decided to go to court.

Water has become a critical issue for Cape Town.
We have a 30-year water plan, but that was based on the assumption that we would get our winter rainfall every year. For the past three years, we have not. The new plan will be based on a new normal—a state of permanent drought. Cape Town used to use 800 million liters of water per day. It has been reduced to 650 million liters, and now we want to reduce it to 500 million. By the end of August, we will be able to produce 500 million liters per day from sources other than our dams. Our plan will include desalination, saving water and treating it, and reusing wastewater. The biggest waste is toilets—every flush uses 9 to 10 liters.

*Interviews have been condensed and edited.