“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.


A growing number of voters will never own their own home. Why is the government ignoring them?

A lettings agent window. Image: Getty.

The dream of a property-owning democracy continues to define British housing policy. From Right-to-Buy to Help-to-Buy, policies are framed around the model of the ‘first-time buyer’ and her quest for property acquisition. The goal of Philip Hammond’s upcoming budget – hailed as a major “intervention” in the “broken” housing market – is to ensure that “the next generation will have the same opportunities as their parents to own a home.”

These policies are designed for an alternative reality. Over the last two decades, the dream of the property-owning democracy has come completely undone. While government schemes used to churn out more home owners, today it moves in reverse.

Generation Rent’s new report, “Life in the Rental Sector”, suggests that more Britons are living longer in the private rental sector. We predict the number of ‘silver renters’ – pensioners in the private rental sector – will rise to one million by 2035, a three-fold increase from today.

These renters have drifted way beyond the dream of home ownership: only 11 per cent of renters over 65 expect to own a home. Our survey results show that these renters are twice as likely than renters in their 20s to prefer affordable rental tenure over homeownership.

Lowering stamp duty or providing mortgage relief completely miss the point. These are renters – life-long renters – and they want rental relief: guaranteed tenancies, protection from eviction, rent inflation regulation.

The assumption of a British ‘obsession’ with homeownership – which has informed so much housing policy over the years – stands on flimsy ground. Most of the time, it is based on a single survey question: Would you like to rent a home or own a home? It’s a preposterous question, of course, because, well, who wouldn’t like to own a home at a time when the chief economist of the Bank of England has made the case for homes as a ‘better bet’ for retirement than pensions?

Here we arrive at the real toxicity of the property-owning dream. It promotes a vicious cycle: support for first-time buyers increases demand for home ownership, fresh demand raises house prices, house price inflation turns housing into a profitable investment, and investment incentives stoke preferences for home ownership all over again.

The cycle is now, finally, breaking. Not without pain, Britons are waking up to the madness of a housing policy organised around home ownership. And they are demanding reforms that respect renting as a life-time tenure.

At the 1946 Conservative Party conference, Anthony Eden extolled the virtues of a property-owning democracy as a defence against socialist appeal. “The ownership of property is not a crime or a sin,” he said, “but a reward, a right and responsibility that must be shared as equitable as possible among all our citizens.”

The Tories are now sleeping in the bed they have made. Left out to dry, renters are beginning to turn against the Conservative vision. The election numbers tell the story of this left-ward drift of the rental sector: 29 per cent of private renters voted Labour in 2010, 39 in 2015, and 54 in June.

Philip Hammond’s budget – which, despite its radicalism, continues to ignore the welfare of this rental population – is unlikely to reverse this trend. Generation Rent is no longer simply a class in itself — it is becoming a class for itself, as well.

We appear, then, on the verge of a paradigm shift in housing policy. As the demographics of the housing market change, so must its politics. Wednesday’s budget signals that even the Conservatives – the “party of homeownership” – recognise the need for change. But it only goes halfway.

The gains for any political party willing to truly seize the day – to ditch the property-owning dream once and for all, to champion a property-renting one instead – are there for the taking. 

David Adler is a research association at the campaign group Generation Rent.

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