Blogpost: Voices of New Economies – An Interview with Mike McGinn

By Alicia Tallack

Mike McGinn knows exactly what real wealth means for him, and it’s simple: health, and friends. These have been fundamental to everything he has done, from being a community member volunteer, to a lawyer, a non-profit founder, and the Mayor of Seattle. Mike has found the motivation for his ongoing work in his children, and believes that we are the first generation to see the effects of global warming, and we are the last generation that can do anything about it - “I want to tell my children we did everything we could.”

MikeheadshotWhat are some key elements of "new economies"?

There are three central challenges that I have seen as a part of new economies, certainly for America, and Seattle specifically, but I think it is true on a wider scale as well. These key challenges are:

1. Rising economic inequality;
2. The need to address institutional racism and bridge our diverse cultures, and;
3. Climate change.

When we consider new economies, we need to look for policies, investments, and strategies that, right from the front end of their development, are designed to work across all three of these challenges. What makes these difficult to address, is that we don’t have limitless resources. We have to heal the mistakes of the past, while looking forward. This makes it an era of choices in a way that is more stark than ever before.

How does this relate to cities?

These are deeply related, as cities are the closest form of government to the people in a way that no other legislative body or government executive is. The streets, land use, libraries, schools, children, families, are all affected. We run social programs, and deal with just about every aspect of day to day life - electricity, sewage, garbage, water, and so on. The Mayor is expected to respond to all of it. The neighborhood level is where people make a difference by coming up with new ideas. The types of policies and changes that are going to impact people’s quality of life won’t be solved with some big new highway, or dam, or industry – the solutions we are talking about have to be at a fine-grain level that reach people where they live. For example, how we deal with sidewalks, bike lanes, transit, solar panels, and natural drainage, is all impacted by a sense of community, and an understanding that we can look out for each other and lift each other up.

This doesn’t come from national capital, it comes from people in their neighbourhoods, and they look to their local governments to facilitate it. The challenge of the future is how to build a multicultural city that can lift everyone up, and deal with the environmental and social issues at the same time.

What does leadership need to look like for new economies? 

My own personal evolution within these issues has been interesting. When I was volunteering with the Sierra Club, working on congressional races, state legislative races, and city level races, I kept going more and more local. Two things began to coincide for me – I began to understand that creating a place with lots of housing and housing types, so that people can live near grocers, doctors, and transit, also positively impacts the global warming sector. There is real alignment between reducing our environmental impact and creating places that are appealing for people, with things like libraries, sidewalks, bike lanes, and all of the things that make a place delightful for people.

Recognizing this motivated me, which is why I moved from being a volunteer and a lawyer, to starting a non-profit (Great City). Getting out of my own neighbourhood, and seeing other neighbourhoods and the levels of disparity and challenges faced by marginalized communities that are systematically deprived of the ability to create wealth, through discrimination and government policies, was a big transition moment for me. This was a learning experience that deepened while I was Mayor.

One thing I learned from this, is that we can’t solve these big issues like climate change and the threats that come at us from the horizon, if we can’t figure out how to work together on the issues right in front of people, like education, safety, and being able to put food on the table. If we can’t come together around the basic issues, we will fail on the bigger challenges.

When I think about resilience, the new buzzword we keep hearing, I think that a lot of the time, peoples’ minds go to physical infrastructure and resisting changing environments. But I think that resilience is really about the capacity of a community to identify and solve problems. Effective leadership in new economies stems from the community level; it means going to where people are, listening to them, and letting go of authority so that people can create the change themselves.

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Mike McGinn, Mayor of Seattle 2010-13, was the first Mayor in the country to begin the process of divesting from fossil fuel companies, building upon Seattle’s leadership on clean energy, green buildings, and sustainable urban practices. Before becoming Mayor, Mike founded and ran a non-profit, Great City, to urge elected leaders and the public, to adopt practical changes to enhance quality of life and prepare for the challenges of global warming. Prior to that, Mike spent years volunteering in the Sierra Club helping lead high profile ballot measure and legislative campaigns to stop highways, build transit, and support walking and biking. His experience as a champion of positive change, a community organizer, and a chief executive of a major American city gives him a unique perspective on the fight to reduce fossil fuel emissions. As a community member, and parent, he brings a sense of urgency to the work.

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This blog is part of the 'Voices of New Economies' series within Cities for People - an experiment in advancing the movement toward urban resilience and livability through connecting innovation networks.

The Voices of New Economies series is collectively curated by One Earth and The Canadian CED Network.

This series is an exploration of what it takes to build the economies we need - ones that work for people, places, and the planet. We are connecting key actors, finding patterns, noting interesting differences, and highlighting key concepts and initiatives. Together, this series offers insights into the new economies movement as it develops.

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