How mayors are making cities more powerful than ever

Local politicians are stepping up to take charge on some of the world's most pressing issues.

October 15, 2019
Mayors gather at the C40 World Mayors Summit in Copenhagen, Denmark. More than 90 mayors of some of the largest and most influential cities attended. (Photo by Ole Jensen/Getty Images).

Paris and Pittsburgh, separated by an ocean and having broadly little in common, two years ago joined together to take a stand on climate change.

At the heart of this connection: their mayors.

While leaders of large metropolitan areas the world over remain focused on matters close to home, they are increasingly influencing policymaking on the most pressing problems facing society, from climate change and counter-terrorism measures.

“Whereas national governments are retreating on some major issues, city governments are responding to an imperative,” says Jeremy Kelly, director of cities research, JLL. “Cities don’t have the burden of international politics. They are often closer to their constituents and can offer more practical solutions.”

Last week mayors from cities all over the world met to discuss climate change at the C40 World Mayors Summit in Copenhagen. In June, London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan hosted the first European mayors summit, which brought together 12 mayors from across the continent to discuss the rise of the far right and climate concerns.

A month earlier, mayors and leaders from 210 European cities urged the European Council and Member States to step up the EU’s climate commitments.

“Mayors and city governments are talking more, they are collaborating on key issues and often taking on the mantle of globalisation,” Kelly says.

Mayors driving change

Mayoral coalitions in Europe, and the relationship between Paris and Pittsburgh, are displays of rising influence for cities thanks to their positions as engines of productivity. Cities account for more than 80 per cent of global economic output and, by 2050, nearly seven out of 10 people in the world will live in urban areas.

As a result, national governments are looking to their cities for expertise on everything from urban planning to environmental policy making. 

From left, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and Copenhagen Mayor Frank Jensen at the World Mayors Summit.(Photo by MARTIN SYLVEST/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images)

Globally, new alliances are forming with organisations such as The United Nations, and the World Bank, giving cities platforms to influence policy making at an international level.

The first Urban 20 (U20) Mayors Summit was held in 2018 and brought together mayors from global cities in the first international event of its kind to shape discussion among G20 leaders.

Some cities undoubtedly have more power to dictate policy than others.

“City states like Singapore and Dubai have great deal of power,” Kelly says. “And then there’s a city like Mumbai, which has no metropolitan structure and therefore limited ability to make changes.”

However, regional cities can reap the benefits of devolved power. For example, Manchester, Stuttgart and Montreal joined JLL’s ranking of New World Cities for the first time in 2019.

“Manchester is getting its act together as metropolitan economy,” says Kelly. He credits the city’s universities, relative affordability and cultural scene, all of which are supported by a responsive and open metropolitan government.

Why mayors matter in real estate

Property investors have underestimated the power of strong city leadership for too long, says Kelly.

“Cities dictate supply and demand dynamics for an entire nation and as home to most major universities they play a big part in a country’s ability to nurture and attract talent,” he adds.

When investors look at a city’s potential they consider its economy and the infrastructure but, Kelly says it all comes down to how agile its government is and how business friendly it is.

Whether a city can turn aspirations into reality is becoming a definite area of differentiation for real estate.

“Is a city agile enough to respond to new demand through regeneration and transformation” asks Kelly. “This is critical to a city’s success.”