“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.


Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit citymonitor.ai to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

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In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.