A conversation with Marvin Rees, mayor of Bristol

Bristol City Center Aerial View in England UK

In a wide-ranging conversation on July 22, Brookings Senior Fellow Anthony F. Pipa and Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees examined the role that cities are playing on the front lines of COVID-19 and reviewed lessons in leadership and governance while tackling issues of race, class, and climate change.

Watch the whole conversation here or read the highlights below.

In light of COVID-19, local leaders are under pressure to act fast to restore their economies and create jobs. But Mayor Rees warns cities against a “dash for growth” that ignores equity and the environment. The COVID-19 crisis and the economic downturn will compound existing fragilities. The city is using the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a basis of its One City Plan, to build a values-based recovery that addresses inequalities across classes, communities, and neighborhoods, and deals with the condition of left-behind communities and frontline workers. Bristol is also doubling down on its 2019 commitment for carbon neutrality by 2030.

Mayor Rees highlights that cities need to move “from local government to city governance” to address the interdependence of local challenges. Bristol’s One City Plan connects city actors across sectors into six thematic boards (Connectivity, Economy, Environment, Health, Homes, and Education) that create a sequence of key actions toward 2030. Each board focuses on three annual “sprints,” or key priorities, that connect with the actions of other boards. This model of governance enables regular engagement and conversations between actors in and out of government, breaks silos, and aligns disparate efforts around common goals. According to Mayor Rees, Bristol’s One City approach to city governance helped better respond to the COVID-19 crisis, as city leaders used these connections to address simultaneous priorities.

Mayor Rees emphasizes the need for city leaders to have influence not only over their particular jurisdictions but also on national and global policymaking. National governments cannot meet today’s global challenges alone. Cities are at the frontlines dealing with economic shocks, migration, climate change, global health. Mayors need a platform to shape the national and international environments they operate in, and global multilateral processes must evolve to include a city perspective.

Bristol has also experienced demonstrations and backlash regarding the city’s legacy of racism, including controversy over the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston, a philanthropist who was a prolific slave trader. Mayor Rees highlights how mayors must rise to the challenge and the role they play in creating an environment of understanding, respect, and tolerance.