Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
Local leaders like Eric Garcetti have always juggled a lot. Now they’ve got the world on their shoulders.
Mayors have always juggled a lot. The day-to-day needs of city management are profuse: potholes, trash collection, tiffs between council members.
But as President Trump unwinds policies that help U.S. cities thrive—withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, threatening the status of millions of immigrants, and now offering a tax plan that would further slash local budgets—the responsibility of U.S. mayors seems to grow. Now there’s an extra-heavy ball to keep in the air: an obligation to fight for policies that protect 80 percent of the national population—and therefore, to keep the country from going off the edge.
How do they do it? I posed the questions to two mayors who attended CityLab Paris in October: GT Bynum of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, California.
The national government is “having philosophical debates instead of fixing real problems,” said Bynum. He comes from a line of Tulsa mayors, and said he got into the family business because of the concrete impact good local governance can have. Bynum’s sense of responsibility is indeed growing in the current political climate. But he said that when cities exchange resources and ideas through urban networking organizations (such as 100 Resilient Cities, of which Tulsa is a member) and make collective purchasing agreements (like a a massive multi-city request for thousands of electric vehicles), it’s possible to make real impact outside limits.
Garcetti agreed—although he believes cities have always been powerful. “They’re the original political entity, from ancient Greek times,” he said. “They’re organic. They’re where people congregate.” But in a globalized society, the problems and solutions cities face are more obviously connected. Addressing L.A.’s horrendous traffic with a major overhaul of its transit system can help Angelenos and also help the U.S. inch closer to its carbon reduction goals.
“I’m troubled by what we’re seeing nationally,” Garcetti said. “But I think mayors can tell the story of an America that gets things done.”