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The Art of Being a Mayor

The recipient of the 2011 Joseph P. Riley Jr. Award for Leadership in Urban Design was the Honorable Richard M. Daley [1], then mayor of the City of Chicago. The Riley Award, presented by the American Architectural Foundation and the United States Conference of Mayors, recognizes mayors whose commitment to excellence in urban design reflects the outstanding example set by the award’s namesake.

Mayors—great, successful mayors—are artists. They see their city as a canvas and understand that a bold vision can lead to a compelling composition. As Daniel Burnham, the father of urban planning and famed son of Chicago, once said:

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized. Make big plans, aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever growing insistency.”

How fitting that Richard M. Daley, the mayor of Chicago, has always intuitively known this tenet of mayoral leadership and has lived it better than any mayor I know. Many of his ideas, big in both ambition and scope, will continue to shape Chicago as long as it graces the shores of Lake Michigan.

And as these ideas go through this process of becoming, his attention to detail makes all the difference. Great painters press brush to canvas with purpose, trying to make each individual stroke perfect: the just-right weight of a line, the pure color of a tree leaf, or the sure placement of an eyelash on a face. And that’s exactly what Mayor Daley has done for Chicago. With a view toward the larger composition, and with the guidance and support of many topflight design professionals, his detailed and deliberate brushstrokes have brought beauty and inspiration to his city and its residents. From countless perspectives and in countless ways, Chicago, under his leadership, has become a more beautiful work of art each day, enriching the lives of its citizens.

Mayors have the opportunity to be the lead designers of their cities. They have significant influence on what will go where, what buildings will be torn down or preserved, when and where parks will be built, how residential and commercial neighborhoods are to be restored, and so much more. Attentive mayors will even involve themselves in the smallest details of these decisions to make sure they are just right. With each engagement, they change the composition of the city—and the experience of the citizen.

So, in a sense, mayors also become the de facto artists of their cities, creating with every decision. The greatest gift a mayor can give a city is beauty. And I know that Rich Daley is a firm believer in beauty as an integral part of Chicago. Chicagoans see that every day in their city.

Image of "Daphne Garden," a series of public sculptures in Chicago

One of the many public displays of art around the city, “Daphne Garden,” by Dessa Kirk, stands on Northerly Island. Photo courtesy of the Office of the Mayor, the City of Chicago

As mayors, there is no one else in our community who does what we do. That is why meetings of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and sessions of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design present such important opportunities to interact with others who are leading their cities. Whether it’s at a committee meeting discussing policy, sitting next to one another at a luncheon, or sharing design challenges at the Mayors’ Institute, we’re always sharing ideas. We are teaching each other and learning from each other, often without even knowing it. We gain insight from and inspire one another, and friendships form because we start with this commonality.

I first met Mayor Daley when he came down to Charleston for a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in 1989, his very first year in office. Since then, I’ve seen him demonstrate his design leadership on countless occasions. It didn’t take him long to establish his reputation as a champion for good design. In 1999, the American Architectural Foundation created its Keystone Award to recognize a non-architect for design leadership. The first one went to Mayor Daley. And he has continued to push himself to bring better design to his city—for example, through his participation with the Mayors’ Institute. I have also worked with him in giving direction to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, as we are both past presidents of the organization. As a result, over the past two decades, my colleagues and I have had the pleasure of becoming his friend.

All Chicagoans know that their mayor is a forceful, creative, and aggressive leader, but he is also filled with a genuine humility that makes him approachable and intensely in tune with his constituents. Very good leaders get their inner strength from such reserve. In addition, when he’s talking with constituents and advisors, he’s really there with them. He is a careful listener eager to learn. That’s valuable—and a splendid example for other mayors.

Mayors of cities both big and small have developed relationships with Rich Daley because he recognizes that we are all in the same profession of making our cities better and more beautiful. Great leadership, like Mayor Daley’s, inspires. America’s mayors know that Chicago is a remarkable city and that it didn’t just become one by accident. Rather, its ascent has been catalyzed by a mayor who exercises extraordinary leadership in urban design. They look to and learn from his projects and initiatives, seeing the enhanced beauty and quality of life in Chicago.

Of course, every mayor doesn’t have 25 acres of railroad tracks that can become a downtown public park, but many mayors have big, bold, ambitious initiatives that they haven’t quite had the nerve to pursue. And Mayor Daley has always given other mayors the inspiration to move forward.

And now, as his 22-year administration draws to a close, mayors across the country will continue to have a dialogue with his legacy as they study his leadership and accomplishments for generations to come.

We all know of such iconic Chicago projects as Millennium Park and the Navy Pier, the public art displays throughout the downtown, and the green rooftops, parkland, and building initiatives that have made Chicago among the most environmentally friendly cities in the world. We also know about such audacious and ambitious initiatives as the closing and conversion of the former Meigs Field airport on Northerly Island. Mayor Daley will surely be remembered for these considerable undertakings. For mayors, thinking big and acting big is important.

An aerial image of "The Bean" in Chicago’s Millennium Park

Cloud Gate, unofficially dubbed “The Bean,” is a public sculpture by British artist Anish Kapoor in Chicago’s Millennium Park. Photo courtesy of the Office of the Mayor, the City of Chicago

But Mayor Daley is also attuned to the scale of the individual and the experience of the individual in Chicago. From the flowers on the street medians that he made certain were there, to the neighborhood initiatives in parks, to the smaller gardens and gathering spaces, he pays attention to the small things because he realizes that small in size or scope does not mean small in importance.

With his focus on the micro and the macro, the visionary and the pragmatic, the today and the tomorrow, Mayor Daley inspires mayors from cities of every size in our country. He is successful because he understands that a city must be beautiful and livable. And all mayors, no matter the size of their cities or the length of their time in office, can benefit from committing to those ideals. A mayor need not be in office for long to create a vision or develop momentum or put into practice processes that are so good that the next mayor will want to follow them. Whether it’s the future mayor of Chicago or the mayor of a small town a thousand miles away, Mayor Daley and his legacy will continue to inspire.

Of course I don’t know all the details of some of the things he does. But I do know this: nobody who works for him wants to let him down. He assembles strong, smart people around him—great architects, landscape architects, urban designers, engineers, builders, and others. They all know that this man’s heart and soul are dedicated to the city. And he listens and gets ideas from them as well. It’s part of his humility.

And he is quick to act on good ideas. Many of these have been his; many have come from others. Who comes up with them doesn’t matter. What does matter is that as mayor, he has recognized their value and worked tirelessly to shepherd them into reality.
Mayor Daley’s determination and boldness to carry out initiatives makes him an exceptional leader in design, but it’s also his will to think creatively in the first place. To think big and to ask “Why not?” By giving license to others to help him create and design, he himself becomes the city’s most influential artist.

Mayor Daley always makes sure the designers, planners, builders, and others working with him know that he really cares and that the details of the final product need to be just right. Why? Because he will notice. And he will notice because he knows his constituents well, and he knows what they want. He puts a positive pressure on those working for and with him, a reminder to create and keep the city at all times as something beautiful.

You want your city to be so beautiful that if you didn’t live there, you’d hope to visit it. As residents go to school, work, worship, or play, they should be exposed to places as nourishing, optimistic, and inspirational as those that they seek out on vacation. Mayor Daley has helped make Chicago such a place, a city that people want to both live in and visit. It’s admired.

It seems to me that Mayor Daley has always been in the people’s corner. He’s always tried to make decisions in their best interest, never thinking or acting like he was wiser than they. Rather, he has been positively infected with their wisdom. Mayors need to know where their constituents’ hearts are and what their hopes are, what their fears and desires are. Anytime Mayor Daley talks about the city of Chicago, you can tell he means the people of Chicago; he is thinking of them when he says his city’s name. He understands the commonality of their hopes and aspirations. In his unwavering efforts to make Chicago a well-designed city, he has made it beautiful, and a beautiful city is the greatest gift a mayor can give. It is nourishing to all of its citizens—every day and for all days. A beautiful city is a work of art. In Chicago, the artist—a great artist—is Richard M. Daley. His work of art will be studied and will inspire mayors and their cities forever.

Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. was first elected by the residents of Charleston, S.C., in 1975 and is serving an unprecedented ninth term in office. Under his leadership, Charleston has developed nationally acclaimed affordable housing and has experienced remarkable revitalization of its waterfront and historic downtown business district. As a founding father and champion of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design [2], a leadership initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts [3] in partnership with the United States Conference of Mayors and the American Architectural Foundation [4], Mayor Riley has also helped provide critical urban design support to mayors across America. For his efforts, he is widely recognized as one of our nation’s most visionary civic leaders.

Featured image courtesy of the Office of the Mayor, City of Chicago [5].