“3 things for Calgary”: how a Canadian mayor brought citizens into government

Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi in 2011. Image: Getty.

Around England, new mayors of various political creeds are settling into their new roles, and figuring out how to start making their mark. As they do so, they would be well served to look across the Atlantic for inspiration.

But they should raise their eye line a little beyond the big-money mayoral news stories of recent years in New York and so on. Instead they should level their gaze on a little grassroots campaign established by Naheed Nenshi, the mayor of Calgary, in the Canadian province of Alberta.

Nenshi’s rise is a political case study worth understanding for many reasons: an ex-McKinsey consultant, community organiser and professor of non-profit management, he is the first Muslim mayor of a North American city, an independent who rejected both left (red) and right (blue) to create his own grassroots “purple revolution” election campaign.

His rise from obscurity at the start of the 2010 campaign was meteoric: polling at 8 per cent just a month before the election, he went on to mayoralty with 39 per cent of the vote. In 2013, he was re-elected with an astonishing 74 per cent. He has clearly got quite a lot right.

The thing I want to focus on, though, is a campaign Nenshi and his team launched a few months after taking office. It costs them less than C$10,000 a year (a little under £6,000) to run; and Nenshi himself sees it as core to the reinvigoration of the city of Calgary which he is so proud to have been part of.

It’s called “3 Things for Calgary”, and it’s as simple as it sounds: an invocation to every citizen to do three things for their city, and share them with one another. By carrying around a big green foam ‘3’ with him wherever he goes, what Nenshi has done in essence is to create a 21st century, Facebook-friendly, meme version of JFK’s famous invocation.

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

-JFK inaugural address, January 1961

The keys to the campaign’s success are Nenshi’s tone when he talks about it, and his energy in supporting it. It’s not about preaching or requiring action; rather, it’s about celebrating what he knows full well people are already doing for each other, for their communities, and for the city as a whole, but maybe keeping to themselves. He’s giving them permission and validation both to shout about it and to do just a little bit more.

This openness is worth emphasising: it’s not about specific actions dictated or arranged by the city, but about whatever each individual is doing and wants to do. As Nenshi says, “It’s about creating an ongoing movement and motivation for citizenship, based on the understanding that citizenship is nothing to do with the piece of paper that you may or may not have from the government: it has to do with your participation.”

The campaign started small, focusing at first on engaging the city’s schoolchildren, and then moving onto their parents. This set the tone for creative response and sharing of the actions and pledges – which has continued, as a quick look at the website reveals – and was fuelled by tireless personal support from Nenshi himself. “We go out of our way,” he says, “to celebrate people who are doing good things in our community, and we take a giant foam ‘3’ along with us. It’s pretty much as simple as that.”

That’s underplaying it a little – there are big piles of pin badges involved as well – but not much. “This campaign puts both permission and expectation in the hands of the citizen. What do you care about, and what needs to be done? You do what you can about it, and we’ll come support you and draw attention to it.”

The response to a lamentation that there are no festivals in the suburbs because they all happen in the city centre is a perfect case study: the mayor’s response was, “Start one then, and invite me.” Nenshi attended (with his ‘3’), so did the press, and the local festival scene soon hit a rich vein of energy.

Of course, there are issues that need bigger interventions. The campaign is not an urban panacea, and Nenshi and his team would be the first to say that there are many big, entrenched, systemic issues that they’re working on that go way beyond its direct reach.

But the genius of “3 Things For Calgary” is that it creates an entirely different context for these efforts. At a fundamental level it completely changes the conversation between administration and citizens, dissolving the division between “us and them” and saying “let’s make this place better together.” Power is shared, and channelled back through the people, who feel enabled, validated and motivated – not (under)served.

Nenshi and his team have no qualms about other cities copying the campaign; indeed, they’re actively encouraging it, this year dedicating themselves to supporting “3 Things For Canada” in celebration of the nation’s 150th anniversary. With the price of change limited to a few thousand pounds, some time spent with constituents, and a few big foam ‘3’s, here’s hoping some of England’s new mayors are listening.

Jon Alexander is a partner at the New Citizenship Project. He tweets as @jonjalex.


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.