The art of urban leadership with Jonathan Coté

Former mayor of New Westminster offers an insightful approach to creating better cities

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This is a photo of the New Westminster port and skyline.
PHOTO: David Stanley / Flickr

By: Saije Rusimovici, Staff Writer

On January 16, urbanist and former mayor of New Westminster Jonathan Coté led a reflective lecture Transforming Urban Leadership, where he outlined some of the key areas of effective urban leadership in addition to challenges in public policy. Presented by SFU’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, Coté provided an insightful look at his experience with 17 years in local government. 

Coté’s final term as mayor of New Westminster ended last November. Since 2014, Coté has served as the chair for regional transportation and the chair of regional planning. As an SFU alum of urban studies, Coté has recently been “appointed an Adjunct Professor in the Urban Studies program.” 

Coté described the feeling of a spotlight shining down on him during his time as mayor. He described a common illusion where the mayor has the ultimate authority when it comes to city building. “There are so many different groups, stakeholders, and people that are involved in good city building that often don’t have the big spotlight that you might shine onto a position like the mayor of a city,” Coté said. “From my perspective, I think the biggest unsung heroes in city-building and in our cities, are actually the people who work for our cities.” Coté went on to say city building is an ongoing, never-ending project that is constantly changing.

Coté spoke on pivotal experiences with urban development and public policy throughout his time as mayor, some of which were initial successes and others that were not. “I think there are lessons to be learned from successes [ . . . ] but also stories where things didn’t quite work out,” Coté said.

In navigating the transformation of downtown New Westminster while maintaining the city’s historical routes, Coté highlighted the triumphs and challenges in an ever-evolving city. “On the one hand we wanted to have a really great conversation about revitalizing downtown New Westminster [ . . . ] but on the other hand, I had a deep concern about the other side of revitalization, which is gentrification,” Coté said. Gentrification happens when the city is reconstructed to encourage wealthier people to move in, displacing people in working class areas. It has been known to primarily impact lower income groups and racialized communities. 

According to Coté, it was important to consider the negative impacts of gentrification on community displacement. “Over my seventeen years, we did a lot in downtown New Westminster [ . . . ] they were kind of flipping back and forth between these two goals of revitalization versus trying to mitigate gentrification,” he added. Coté said this resulted in meaningful developments such as Westminster Pier Park, rather than trying to make “Canada’s newest, trendiest neighbourhood. 

“City-building is important and it is central to all of the biggest issues that we are facing all around the world,” said Coté. He described city-building not as a linear process where success is the result of well-thought out plans, but “messy.” He noted the process of city building is inherently unpredictable as a result. “The reality is, cities are all about people, and people are complicated, complex, and diverse.”

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