Mayor Riley - attention to detail and a listening ear

Recognized as one of the most visionary and effective leaders in America, Charleston, S.C. Mayor Joe Riley spoke in Memphis in Sept. of 2005 at a program sponsored by Friends for Our Riverfront, Memphis Heritage, and the American Institute of Architects.

We've continued to follow Mayor Riley's successes. Here's an article that appeared on the Project for Public Spaces website about the role of Mayors today and how Riley's attention to detail and listening ear have made a tremendous difference in Charleston.

Joe Riley helped revive Charleston, South Carolina, by listening to people and paying attention to details
By Jay Walljasper

Bill Clinton, a man whose self-deprecating charm has carried him far in life, loves to tell a story about his appearance on a Shanghai radio show. It was a historic event: The president of the United States would field questions from everyday citizens in a nation notorious for its tight lock on information. But to Clinton’s surprise, two-thirds of the calls coming into the station were not directed at him, but to his host, the mayor of Shanghai. “People were more interested in talking to the mayor about potholes and traffic jams,” Clinton laughs.

Actually, when you reflect a moment, this shouldn’t be such a surprise. Mayors, who are representatives of the government closest to people, stand in a better position to actually get things done than the most powerful man on Earth. Mayors operate on the front lines of democracy, and when they do their jobs right with a keen understanding of the importance of place in their community, they can play a huge role in making their cities great.

Here's how Joseph Riley Jr.—who has been at the helm in Charleston, South Carolina, for 30 years, making him one of America’s longest-serving mayors—describes the job: “You have a personal relationship with people. You pick up their garbage. You make them feel safe. You try to help them when they are in trouble. It’s a chance to do things directly for people—for the poorest person in town as well as the rich.”

No one would cast Riley, a small, dignified man who speaks with a soft voice, in the role of a political powerbroker. Yet he has reshaped this city of 105,000 to such an extent that few who knew it in the 1970s— as a poor, racially torn backwater that had lost hope in the future—would recognize it today.

Riley vigorously led Charleston’s turnaround by paying careful attention to the strong sense of place that characterizes this city. He has preserved the city’s historic qualities, and even improved upon things with charming new parks, developments and attractions that blend in with the classic 18th- and 19th-century architecture everyone loves. Charleston is also known around the world for its springtime Spoleto arts festival, which Riley brought to town in partnership with the famous Italian composer and impresario Gian Carlo Menotti.

For most Charlestonians, however, these accomplishments pale in comparison to Riley’s leadership during the devastating Hurricane Hugo of 1989. After ordering an all-out evacuation, Riley and city staff helped people flee to safety and stayed behind to protect the city. Almost as soon as the winds died, he launched a full-force program to make Charleston “more beautiful and vital than ever.” The triumph of Riley’s rebuilding efforts can be seen in the delighted smiles of tourists who come from all over the U.S. to wander the city’s streets and in the envious looks of other mayors who come to learn Charleston’s secret at the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, which Riley founded in 1986.

The secret is simple: Riley’s careful attention to the details shows what distinguishes a great city from a merely okay one.

I begin to understand the magic of Riley’s leadership as we walk out of city hall, where he has patiently but stiffly answered my questions from behind his desk, and head out onto the bustling avenue outside. He seems suddenly charged with electricity. My long legs struggle to keep up with his short ones as he bounds down the street, calling hello to nearly everyone we pass—black and white, young and old, rich and poor. He’s a leader who listens to people, and welcomes their ideas about how to improve things around town.

We turn up an alley and sneak through someone’s backyard gate so I can see what Riley considers one of the finest flower gardens in town. At one point, he almost knocks me over in his excitement to point out a construction worker eating lunch on a park bench—the man is using a nearby ledge for a footrest, just the way Riley planned it. Hurrying over to investigate a couple of police cars he sees stopped behind a house, he seems visibly relieved to find that the problem is just a malfunctioning burglar alarm. He thanks each of the officers by name and we continue our stroll.

“See that building there,” he says, stopping abruptly in front of the Old Exchange Building, a historic site once visited by George Washington and now operated by the state of South Carolina. “One day I was walking past, just like we are now, and I saw the stucco was discolored, so I called up the state authorities right away to tell them about it. They seemed surprised that I noticed, but I told them, ‘that’s my job.’”

Joe Riley is one of a new breed of mayors around the world who see their jobs as nothing less than helping deliver security, opportunity and happiness to residents of their cities. Indeed, we may now be entering a new age in history when mayors play a leading role on the world’s political stage.

Mayors like Ken Livingstone of London (who defied all conventional wisdom by imposing a hefty toll on cars entering central London), Richard M. Daley of Chicago (who turned a gritty town into a top contender for title of world’s greenest city) and Bertrand Delanoë of Paris (who hopes to top Livingstone in his ambitious efforts to reclaim Paris from traffic) are already more influential and well-known internationally than many prime ministers and presidents. Indeed, Myung-bak Lee, former Mayor of Seoul, who made the city into a symbol of livability by replacing an elevated highway with a riverfront park that winds four miles through the city centre, was recently elected president of South Korea.

But even more influential may be former Bogotá mayor Enrique Penalosa, who built many new schools, libraries, parks, the world’s longest pedestrian street, 300 kilometers of bike paths, a greenway winding through the city, and a 21st-century Bus Rapid Transit system while in office. He once considered running for Colombia’s presidency, but now spends his time persuading municipal officials in Mexico City, Cape Town, Beijing, Delhi, Jakarta, Dar-es-Salaam and many other cities around the world to think differently about what’s needed to make their cities great.

This article appeared on the Project for Public Spaces website. For additional interesting articles about successful cities and public spaces, click here.

Mayor Riley, co-founder of the Mayor's Institute on City Design, has received the Presidential Award for Design Excellence for public housing, the Urban Land Institute J. C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development, and the American Architectural Foundation Keystone Award for exemplary leadership in using architecture to transform a community.

Click here for a synopsis of Mayor’s Riley’s presentation in Memphis.