The Happy City: Interview with Buenos Aires Mayor Marci @ World Cities Summit
I didn't expect I'll be writing about happy cities today.
Not in a forum of world leaders and intellectuals.
Not at a showcase of deep research and highly-sophisticated technological innovations.
Certainly not when the night before, I reviewed the program for today, and noticed a string of panel discussions focused on “Intense Cities”, “Resilient Cities”, “Smart Cities”, “Inclusive Cities”, “Eco Cities”, Biodiverse Cities”, “Mobile Cities” and “Investing in Cities”.
These were the afternoon highlights collectively labelled the Flagship Urban Solution Tracks (FUST) at the World Cities Summit (WCS) 2012 held in Singapore.
But the morning started with a simple question, and a profound reminder…
At the WCS Keynote Plenary
We started the day with the WCS Keynote Plenary – a session comprising a panel of very distinguished speakers – and moderated by Prof. Kishore Mahbubani, a highly-regarded thinker, and Dean at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.
Prof. Mahbubani started with a statement we didn’t have problems believing – “the urban population is going to explode”. But what he wanted us to think about – is whether the cities we live in will turn out to be nightmares, or dream cities. Nightmare cities would be rife with crime and pollution, while dream cities would be orderly, green and sustainable. And we can influence the outcomes in our own cities now.
With that thought framing the conversation to follow, he asked the speakers on the panel to share their thoughts on trends that are currently shaping their cities.
"What keeps you up at night?"
I was surprised at the first answer given in response to Prof. Mahbubani’s question on what keeps them up at night. Considering the deep experiences, vast networks and the heavy responsibilities each speaker had, I didn’t expect the first word uttered to be so simple – “Happiness”.
The first panel speaker to respond was His Excellency Mauricio Macri, Mayor of Buenos Aires City, Argentina.
As any skilful communicator would, he drew references to his immediate surroundings. Mayor Marci shared his observations over the last few days at the Marina Bay Sands, where the Summit is held.
He spoke of the countless visitors who were seen lapping up all that the integrated resort had to offer – shopping, entertainment and dining – the good life. And he quickly followed up by asking what would happen, if all the people in poverty today started to consume at a similar rate. Would cities be able to support that? What then, would it look like, if we took our rate of consumption down a couple of notches?
Cities are marked by ever-increasing consumption. Would we be happy, if we mended our own shoes? Would we be happy, if we repaired our bicycles instead of buying new ones?
Mayor Marci asserted that these were pointed questions to ask ourselves, but it was important that cities “seek to find the right balance between growing and consuming”. Without a happiness that leads to contentment, cities will only have a cancerous combination of dis-satisfied citizens that consume precious resources disproportionately.
He reminds us of a faithful saying – that it is not the man with few things that is poor, but the man who does not have enough.
Such is the irony of cities and the pursuit of happiness…
People today think that they need cities – the comforts and conveniences thereof – to maximise happiness. And that they should work at maximising their happiness through consumption. But in reality, we need citizens to be truly happy to maximise our cities.
The True North
I realised then, that while countless conversations were had before this morning, and while countless conversations will be added after today, happiness is the true north for every government leader to follow.
Happiness, as an answer, is all at once the most profound, the simplest and perhaps most often ridiculed. And even more so, it takes real conviction to continually hold up happiness as a measure, amongst complex and very valid distractions like “public transport”, “inequality”, “water” and the likes.
I found some time in a one-to-one with Mayor Marci after the panel discussion to ask him how he stays on track. Here’s what he had to say in response to some of my questions:
Keeping focused on happiness is a deeply philosophical and very enlightened approach to governing a city. How does he keep focused when there are so many distractions that counter the gravitational pull that “happiness” exerts?
“I see all the work that I do, as improving the quality of life. If I don't succeed in making citizens happy, then all the effort is useless,” he replied. “If we don't change our perspective of happiness, it's also useless. People turn on the TV and think they have to buy an Armani suit. That’s not happiness.”
“What’s important?” in a Tweet
I asked Mayor Marci – if he had to give a piece of advice to city mayors, in 140 characters or less, what would he say?
“Be near your citizens,” was his quick and uncompromising answer. “Nobody has all the answers,” he added. “Nobody demands you have all the answers. It’s important to be near your citizens so that you learn what matters most to them. And you can do something about it.”
Leading the Change
I was also curious about his perspective on who is most able and suited to lead this quest for happy cities – would they be Government leaders, businesses or religious leaders?
“Open governments,” again, a distinctive and clear answer – one that must have been forged in much conviction. He went on to explain that he and his team are working hard to put all city’s info on the city's (web)sites – so that communities can working together in co-create solutions.
Starting in Buenos Aires
Finally, I asked him where visitors to his city (Buenos Aires) should start looking, if they want to find out more about how he has transformed the city.
Earlier in the plenary session, Mayor Marci mentioned his work in banning cars from streets in the centre of town – so that pedestrians could freely walk without fear of accidents and exposure to air and noise pollution. “Visit Reconquista Street”, he said. And I would be able to see what he meant by making the centre of town truly a place for the people.
I could tell from the conviction in his eyes, that this was a work he was immensely proud of, and that it was all centred on the well-being of his people.
I think I’ll check it out some day… Reconquista Street – perhaps a street that leads to the happy city.
Sustainable Cities Collective