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A deep look at who is leading the 100 biggest cities in the U.S.

A new report looks at the demographics of America’s mayors.

A deep look at who is leading the 100 biggest cities in the U.S.
[Source Image: Rabilbani/iStock]

America’s cities are getting an influx of youth at the very top: nearly half of the mayors leading America’s biggest cities–that’s 49 of the top 100–have been in office for three years or less.

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“It’s very exciting when new people enter city hall,” says James Anderson, the head of government innovation at Bloomberg Philanthropies, which looked at the state of America’s mayors. “They see everything as an opportunity and a possibility. They don’t know what they cannot do and they’re eager to experiment.”

The relative youth poses some challenges, also: For instance, only eight members of the current field held office during 2008 financial downturn. “That’s another data point that I think really popped, and one that we can immediately put into the range of supports that we’re providing to cities,” Anderson adds.

[Image: courtesy Bloomberg Philanthropies]

The findings of Bloomberg’s “City CEOs” research are fairly basic. But the nonprofit plans to continue researching and release a comprehensive report at some point. Its initial snapshot covers things like tenure, demographics, experience, and generational representation. It started after Bloomberg released the results of its 2018 Mayor’s Survey last year, which covered how mayors from both big and small cities viewed a range of pressing issues.

For instance, while the federal government has cooled on the idea of taking responsibility for climate change, most civic leaders are eager to find ways to address it. Anderson says the real goal is twofold: Bloomberg wants to help the public better understand who’s leading them, and figure out its own ways to better support those leaders.

Given the dearth of recessionary experience, it plans to add special sessions around “governing in tough times” to its Harvard City Leadership Initiative, the intensive management training sessions that Bloomberg runs for city officials interested in expanding the capabilities of their city halls.

[Image: courtesy Bloomberg Philanthropies]

That’s not to say the new arrivals lack experience. Roughly 85% of that total field at some point worked in the public sector. More than half also have private business experience. Anderson makes clear that many incumbent leaders are eager to act boldly too. That includes Denver mayor Michael Hancock, whose city was recently named one of Bloomberg’s Mayors Challenge winners, receiving financial and consulting support to implement an innovative array of sensors around schools aimed at tracking and curbing air pollution. Poor air quality in the Mile High City has contributed to asthma that costs the city’s residents a combined $30 million in medical costs.

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In 2019, 25 major metro mayors are female, up 25% from the year before. All told, 25 big city leaders are not white, a 9% increase in year-over-year representation. (The exact numbers: three are Asian American, seven Hispanic, and 15 African American.) Obviously, there’s still a long way to go on the diversity front, which would likely speed positive change. “Our urban areas are diverse places and it’s incredibly important that the voices of our leaders reflect the diversity of the communities that they serve,” adds Anderson.

At the same time, he’s hopeful. “Mayors are absolutely leaning into the most critical challenges that they face in their community. They are not waiting for the federal government to come to their rescue. The level of ambition and the level of precision that they’re bringing to their efforts to solve any number of issues–whether it’s affordable housing, or mobility, or inequality–is incredibly inspiring.”

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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