I was surprised when Naheed Nenshi won Calgary’s mayoral race in 2010. The odds-on favourite, a well-known alderman, had been running for years and, due to his popularity with developers, had a huge war chest. However he failed to convince the public he had the right stuff to be a big city mayor, and Nenshi emerged from a pack of no-names winning with 39 percent of the vote. (In 2013 he was returned with 74 percent.) At the time, he was teaching business at Mount Royal University after consulting at McKinsey & Company.
I didn’t know much about him, but as I learned I liked what I found. Most importantly he shared my belief in denser cities. The odds-on favourite had been a sprawl man, so Nenshi looked good by comparison.
Grounded with a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard, he immersed himself in the workings of cities. He wrote extensively on municipal affairs, was the chief author on ImagineCalgary’s 100-year plan, and was involved in founding a variety of citizens’ groups. By the time he ran for office, he knew cities.
As mayor he pushed the city in a more urban direction. The “sprawl subsidy” that required the city to subsidize development on the city fringes was eliminated. A rapid bus network was established and the route planned for a new light rail transit line. Downtown was rejuvenated with expansion of the East Village and Rivers District on its eastern edge. A gifted communicator, Nenshi’s leadership shone during crises such as the 2013 flood
He worked with his counterpart in Edmonton, Don Iveson, to obtain charters for the two cities. As someone who believes our big cities are more important entities than provinces, I saw this as an important step in the right direction. Unfortunately when the UCP formed a new government, they took a step back and cancelled the charters.
Nenshi’s intellect and his sophisticated approach to civic matters, to say nothing of his being the first Muslim mayor of a large Canadian city, has changed the city’s image in the rest of the country and elsewhere. He has done us proud.
Now he has announced his day is done. This is his third and last term.
The hopefuls are already gathering for the October election with 10 candidates declared to date. In the early running, Jyoti Gondek, currently Ward 3 Councillor, looks promising.