In today’s cities we see how governments struggle to create solutions and to implement large policies. Cities are more complex, diverse and dynamic making governance almost impossible. Governments can’t make changes in these cities by themselves. They need to build collective efforts with all the stakeholders in the city.

Nevertheless, politicians keep on promising and acting as if they had the capacity to make real changes by themselves. They keep on bringing THE SOLUTION for mobility, security, education and health without really understanding the issues or the actors behind them that control real power in the city. During the political campaigns they promise everything and give figures of all the great changes they want to make. But when they get elected the passionate candidates crush with a wall of the real power that controls the city through legal and illegal means.

The elected mayors may have the institutions (buildings) but not the governance. They can talk, write and dream but making things tangible requires the understanding of the powers behind the city.

The brokers of the city control territories and institutions. Their power is so large that they can paralyse cities mobilising neighbourhoods and make the most radical mayors change their projects. They have big stake on the city and they want to keep their control over economic, territorial and social powers.

A historical example of this power behind the power is highlighted in the pulitzer-winner book “The Power of Broker” that underlines how Robert Moses governed New York for 44 years without a single vote controlling every mayor who came to office. It didn’t matter what party or promises they made. The real power laid in the institutions, money, networks and boards Moses controlled.

Moses governed the decision-making and implementation of the cities projects without questioning. When a mayor challenged him he had the power to mobilize the media, people and institutions to stop the government. Through this control of power Moses did enormous infrastructure projects including roads, bridges, houses and beaches (sea Robert Moses Projects). Some of his work improved the city but others condemned its urban fabric to an unsustainable and segregated community that prioritised the car and the wealthy communities.

Even though this old anecdote of New York is part of history in every city today we have not only one broker but many making governance multifaceted. We have illegal cartels and groups that control neighbourhoods though fear and extortion. They govern the violence figures through agreements and not as the result of security policies from the municipality. They govern politicians, political parties and judicial institutions. They govern commercial activities that move between legal and illegal structures.

We also have economical brokers that want to foster unsustainable cities by promoting second floor highways and car oriented cities. These brokers also include the construction firms that control the growth machine and build houses without legal standards that end up in tragedies (Space Medellin). They gentrify neighbourhoods and evict the poor to marginalized and segregated communities (Istanbul).


Their power and corruption of institutions is so voluminous that no mayor alone can reduce their capacity to control the city. Sure, the mayor has a budget and a development plan but making them real requires an understanding of the real power in the city. How many promises has the mayor in your city accomplished? How many nice articles did you read of projects in the city that ended up archived? How can mayors build governance to reduce the capacity and control of the brokers?

Planning is governing

Recently I heard in a talk of Jaime Lerner, former mayor of Curitiba, that mayors can make profound transformations in cities in short time if they plan properly. Planning is not only about writing a beautiful development project. It’s about knowing the context and the actors that take the decisions. You can have the best idea and proposal that will make the city better but if you don’t comprehend the context of implementing policies it the will be added to the room of failures. No Mayor (in democratic cities) can make authoritarian decisions without compromising the trust, credibility and capacity to govern the city. Thus planning requires leveraging resources of the key stakeholders and engaging with the community to collectively build the solutions the city needs. Planning also needs implementation capacity.

Communication is governance

Candidates and elected officials must be responsible and accountable for their promises. They must be able to see the big picture of transforming the city within its reality and context. Having the capacity to build at short term a long term vision is crucial. In this sense communicating is governing. Mayors must have the capacity to leverage trust with low cost and high impact interventions that start changing the urban fabric towards the large scale initiatives (NY Times Square).

Empowerment is governance 

Empower the real brokers that should represent the city: citizens. Give citizens a voice and power to make changes in their city. People don’t want to hear more promises and figures. They want to see how their neighbourhood changes. They want to visit the new park near their house, they want to walk at night without feeling fear and they want their children to receive the highest education possible. Making these dreams real at the local and territory is what matters. Not cutting the ribbon of a newly constructed highway. Think about the people and their daily challenges. Ask the right questions.

In Benjamin’s book “If Mayors Ruled the World” he makes an important point towards the role and importance of cities today. With examples from various cities he amplifies how Mayors can make profound transformations. These examples highlight mayors with the capacity to plan, communicate and implement ideas. They understood the brokers and actors involved in the city. They were able to leverage and mobilize resources. Mayors can Rule (govern) the world if they govern the cities brokers.

In my next post I will talk about other elements of governance and the role of the different stakeholders to reduce the power of brokers.

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