Mayors for the win

14 September 2021

“Aboutaleb is no ordinary mayor,” wrote Ramon K. in his nomination for the Mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb. “As the first immigrant mayor in the Netherlands, he is unique. He has taken charge of Rotterdam, Europe’s biggest port and a multiracial melting pot.” Words like these resulted in the Mayor of Rotterdam being awarded the 2021 World Mayor Prize jointly with Philippe Rio, Mayor of Grigny.

Organised by the London-based City Mayors Foundation, the bi-annual award is conferred to mayors nominated by fellow citizens. This year the award focused on mayors who had shown “leadership during the Covid-19 pandemic and who are now aiming to make their cities more resilient economically, structurally, socially and environmentally”.

Crisis management

During the Covid-19 crisis, Ahmed Aboutaleb didn’t hesitate to criticise the national measures. For example, he advocated for wearing masks well before the Dutch government made them mandatory.

Under his leadership, the city invested in clear and inclusive communication to fight the spread of the pandemic. For instance, information leaflets were distributed in nine different languages. The mayor also reached out to children and students to answer their questions and promote the health measures.

A man of the people

“Most of his fellow citizens refer to Mayor Aboutaleb as ‘burgervader’, father of citizens,” says Tann vom Hove, Senior Fellow at the City Mayors Foundation. “During all his years as Mayor, Ahmed Aboutaleb has always acted as a father of a very large family.”

A family that brings together 175 different nationalities needs a leader that treats all citizens as ‘Rotterdammers’, irrespective of their origins and backgrounds to build a stronger and fairer city. A value that Aboutaleb defends.

“I sometimes jokingly call myself the Secretary-General of the United Nations of Rotterdam,” says Aboutaleb. “To live together, it’s important that we get to know each other, that we meet. This helps us to learn to understand each other better and benefits peace and social cohesion in the city.”

A mayor in action

As part of his nomination, Aboutaleb replied to questions from his fellow citizens, revealing some of his plans for Rotterdam. “The growth agenda concerns investments in mobility, housing development and sustainable energy,” he summarised.

In terms of mobility, the city focuses on encouraging people to choose alternatives to cars, like public and shared transport as well as active mobility modes. The mayor also proudly mentioned the work on innovative ways to use the city’s rooftops.

“The Dakakker, a 1,000 m2 roof farm in the centre of the city, isn’t just the largest open-air roof farm in the Netherlands, it’s actually one of the biggest in Europe,” explains Aboutaleb. “To drive further progress, the City Council has drawn up a programme for installing solar panels on roofs, making roofs greener, and collecting water.” Last June, the city also published a roof catalogue presenting 130 options on alternative uses for Rotterdam’s roofs.

It’s not all unicorns and rainbows, however, divided in two by its river, Rotterdam is trying to bring its two sides together. “South Rotterdam is catching up with the rest of the city fast,” says Aboutaleb. “The South Rotterdam National Programme (NPRZ) is working hard on promoting this by concentrating on employment, education and housing. Change takes time, but plenty of work is being put into making it happen, and successes are visible.”

As proof of these successes, the mayor mentions the new theatre, the 50-m swimming pool, the art building, the many sports fields, and especially the plan to build 3,700 homes, including social housing units.

Other winners

In addition to the World Mayor Prize, the 2021 World Mayor Project also awarded other mayors for their efforts and achievements in fields such as capital design, international relations, inclusivity, sustainability, future development, public service, and community advancement.

More Eurocities’ members went home with an award. Peter Kurz, Mayor of Mannheim, was awarded the International Award for his engagement and co-operation with cities worldwide. By working together with mayors from other communities, the local government can influence developments nationally and worldwide.

Ricardo Rio, Mayor of Braga, got the Sustainability Award for his efforts to deliver Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs) at the local and regional levels in the EU. For his administration, it was crucial to achieving sustainable development and sustainable urban mobility, thereby creating a greener and less polluted city with better living conditions for the population.

Matús Vallo, Mayor of Bratislava, received the Future Award for his goals and projects to transform the Slovak capital into a green, compassionate city. The Bratislava Plan includes creating high-quality public spaces, sustainable forms of transport, with an emphasis on public transport and cycling, and the provision of affordable rental housing. “My wish is that people feel comfortable in high-quality public spaces like in other European cities. I think that even small changes can have a big impact on urban spaces,” says Vallo.

*The World Mayor Project was conceived to increase public awareness of and engagement in local government.


Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer