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Manny Diaz was first elected Miami’s mayor in 2001, having never held elective office. He was reelected to a second term in 2005. He was chosen to lead the United States Conference of Mayors as its president beginning in the summer of 2008. Diaz has been recognized with the 2006 Government Award by Hispanic Magazine, the 2004 Urban Innovator of the Year by the Manhattan Institute, 2004 Business Leader of the Year Award by South Florida CEO Magazine, and was named an Outstanding American by Choice by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service.

This article is part of a series of interviews that were conducted during the Urban Sustainability Course organized by the Emerging and Sustainable Cities Initiative (ESCI), Universidad Internacional Menéndez Pelayo and the City of Santander between July 28 and August 1, 2014. Learn more about the course here.

ESCI: What was Miami’s biggest challenge during your administration?

In 2000, we had a horrible image. The city was subject to ridiculous jokes. The unemployment rate was even worse than the one we had during the big recession a few years ago. No projects were being developed. There were tons of ethnic and racial conflicts. In a nutshell, the city was a disaster. Parks were not taken care of, roads and neighborhoods were filled with drugs and crime… the city was in very bad condition, and we obviously had to change all that. That meant changing people’s culture and expectations.

ESCI: How did you solve this problem?

It was a long process. There’s no straightforward answer. The first thing to do is to have a vision, and to convince everybody of how honest your vision is, and how much you wish to build a better city for their children and grandchildren, and little by little bring people towards your ideas and your vision. And look for allies in the city, particularly among employees because if employees are not on your side it is very hard to achieve your vision and the goals you have. That’s how, little by little, we began to establish our vision.

In the beginning, many thought that I was a little crazy, that the ideas were too big, and that we were not going to make it, that they were dreams. But little by little we demonstrated through different projects that it was possible and how we could accomplish many of our goals.

That’s how you build more enthusiasm, so people ask and want more, and are willing to do more. When you are capable of inspiring and motivating people, it is amazing what they are capable of doing.

MiamiLincoln Road Mall, Miami Beach. Photo: Flickr

ESCI: What piece of advice would you give to mayors of intermediate cities in the region?

You have to be honest, communicate constantly with people, and involve people in the process. It is important to make them part of your team, to make them owners of your vision. To know that they are like shareholders in a company that is the city, and to think in the future. The trend, unfortunately, for politics and politicians—even in the modern world we live in—is to think only about today, or next week, or next month, but nobody thinks in the long term.  And these are issues that can’t be fixed overnight. These are problems that have existed for decades, and changing them is not easy. But we have to start somewhere, start by gaining citizens’ support, so when your term is over the fight will continue, the dreams continue, and others who come after you will be able to accomplish what you began. Everything is possible.

Watch the full interview here.