Devout urbanist R.T. Rybak thinks his students can be better mayors and city planners than he was.
At six o'clock each Monday night, a group of students in Minneapolis can be found discussing some of Minnesota's most important urban policy proposals.
Nearby Rochester, home to only 100,000 residents, has access to over $4 billion in public-private capital. "How can this money be used to create public places that celebrate the city during winter?" The professor asks his students.
Up north, mid-sized Duluth has developed along the shores of Lake Superior. Yet the corridor of the St. Louis River, which feeds into the Great Lake, has been underdeveloped by previous city administrations. "How do you use it as an asset?" The instructor broaches.
These are the weekly discussions being held in "Mayor 101," a course introduced earlier this year by the University of Minnesota. And R.T. Rybak, the man leading the class, has the perfect resume for the job.
Rybak served three terms as the mayor of Minneapolis, beginning in 2002 until leaving office in January of this year. He took on budget concerns early in his tenure and, taking into consideration the city's sizable Muslim Somali population, encouraged interfaith dialogue following 9/11. A new college football stadium opened in 2009 under his watch, though a snowstorm in 2010 did destroy the home of the Minnesota Vikings.
These are just a few experiences Rybak is channeling into his new professorial role. He spoke with CityLab about "Mayor 101," why he decided to teach urban planning, and what he envisions for future cities.
You teach two Mayor 101 courses; one dealing with the political and financial world of city hall, another focused on the physical development of cities. Why dedicate equal time to the urban design responsibilities of a mayor?
[Urban design] was the only part of the job I was qualified for when I came in as mayor, and for many years it was the one part of the job I never got to work on because of what I was dealing with. I walked into a budget crisis after 9/11, so there was a lot of finance and a whole set of crime issues—especially juvenile crime. And there was also a bridge collapse, and a tornado came through the town. So many things distracted me from the work I’m now teaching about.
What I hope to do is take the kids from architecture and tell them [urban development] is more than pretty images, and take the people from the politics class and tell them it’s more than just policy. Living in great places is about people who can cross these artificial boundaries that we create in our own minds.
Before you became mayor you were involved in a number of other fields, from journalism to community organizing. Did you ever think about teaching in one of these areas instead of urban planning?
It was definitely [urban planning]. I’ve been one degree of separation from architecture for most of my career. [During college] I studied urban planning and communications with the idea that I was going to come back to Minneapolis and write about architecture for the [Minneapolis] Star Tribune and become mayor. And that's what I ended up doing.
One of the best times of my career was when I got to write about development and architecture at the Star Tribune when the city was beginning to go through its growth. And then I became development director of the Downtown Council where I was doing some urban design. Then I was off in the private sector doing things [with] the Internet and with marketing. But I always had some body of work in development—including that I got my real-estate license at one point.
So I’m happy to be a former politician telling war stories, but mostly I wanted to have an impact on a generation that has the ability to transform American cities.
Beyond Minneapolis, you also require your students to look at the development of other cities—namely, Rochester, Duluth, and St. Paul, Minnesota. With that in mind, how vital is it for mayors to understand how other cities are developing relative to their own?
There are limited things you can do on people’s tax dollars. But if I had personal wealth when I was mayor I would have traveled dramatically more. Because you most often get the best ideas by getting lost in cities.
My mom was from San Francisco, so when I was a kid I was very lucky because we’d go out to visit each year and she taught us how to take the bus into the city. My brother and I would walk around that city for hours and hours and hours. And then when I went to college I did the same thing in Boston, which became another laboratory for me.
There is this correlation between connecting to transit and being able to understand cities because it gives—especially among young people—such a range. So I’ve always studied other cities and I really think that’s the best way to understand these things.
By the end of Mayor 101, your students must present an urban-development proposal they created. Are there certain elements of urban life you find your students consistently in support of?
The simple, cleanest thing you can say about the difference between this generation to previous generations is that my parents saw a car as freedom. But our children’s generation sees freedom from the car as freedom. That transforms everything about cities. But one of the things I’m trying to do is encourage [my students] to be archaeologists of the cities that are already there.
The lecture I gave a few weeks ago was “The Past is the Future,” and it’s really about saying, if you’re looking to create a street that has dense population along transit corridors, just put it where the streetcars used to be. The bones of the city you want are right in front of your face. That’s the beauty of American cities. Almost all of them [at one time] had higher populations and obviously dramatically better transit. On some level we just need to recreate the cities that were already there.
Do you ever run into scenarios during a class lecture where you need to address urban policy mistakes that were made while you were mayor?
Absolutely. It happens all the time, and they don’t have to wait to hear about the mistakes I made. In each lecture I tell them about five mistakes I made.
How does that feel? To stand in front of a group and recognize that you may have made some mistakes while in office.
Well, it’s remarkably liberating to be in a room with really smart people with good perspectives and to be able to say “I made a mistake.” It’s much different when compared to doing it at a press conference. To me there’s a little bit of a quality of inviting people to your therapy sessions because you’re working out collectively what went right and what went wrong.
There’s no exams in this class. And it seems like the curriculum really pushes the students to go do projects within the Twin Cities. Why did you structure the course that way?
I’d like all the energy they would have spent cramming on a final to be spent trying to develop something that can have an impact on a current place being designed. I mean how exciting that, instead of jamming a bunch of stuff into my brain that will help me either pass or fail the test, I can make my project better and putting it out into the public realm.
I very much want these students to use the work they’re doing to go out into the workplace. Because we need their perspective now. Not just when they graduate.
You’re almost a year now removed from city hall. Has teaching this course helped you reflect on what the next line of mayors should prioritize in their cities?
Oh, yeah. I would say every Monday when I’m driving home from class I’m thinking about something that should be going on in the city or something that maybe I would’ve done differently. The balm in that is knowing you’re now helping a whole new generation go out and do things better than you ever thought you could.