SASKATOON: Prairie city chooses city-builder as mayor

EDITOR’S NOTE: In the spring of 2013, Spacing profiled Saskatoon city councillor Charlie Clark in our national edition. He had caught our eye for taking a strong interest in public realm and city-building issues. Clark was part of our Saskatoon event for the 2011 Spacing Roadshow and it was clear to our editorial staff — and everyone we talked to in that city — that Clark had a bright future. This week, Saskatoon elected Clark their new mayor. Here is our profile of Clark from that issue.

SASKATOON — “I find local politics to be a really appealing level of government to be involved in,” says Charlie Clark, a Saskatoon city councillor. “It’s the politics of coalition building and problem solving.”

In 2006, after first winning a seat on City Council, Clark was young, idealistic, and, like many new councillors, he wanted to contribute to his city and bring a new voice to the civic discussion about the future of Saskatoon.

“Since local councillors are closest to the ground, you get to see the tangible results that come from local discussions and decisions,” Clark says.

Upon arriving at City Hall, the first challenge was to develop a coherent understanding of the many issues involved with city administration. “The intersection between the physical city and human [relationships] is a complex puzzle that you navigate daily,” Clark muses.

Clark also became better versed in good urban planning principles. He already had an interest in planning issues, but sought advice from local planners and academics about good texts that would expand his understanding. “Charlie took on educating himself about cities and city building, in an almost vocational way,” says Ryan Walker, past chair of the Regional and Urban Planning Program at the University of Saskatchewan. “While it’s common for councillors to identify themselves with their previous jobs, Charlie has been dedicated to executing his skills fully through leadership on council.”

Before joining council, Clark was active working on affordable housing and restorative justice issues with groups like Quint Development Corporation and Oxfam. His experience working with local community development and equity issues is evident in his work on council. His support for projects — such as improving active transportation networks and creating more public gathering places — is grounded in his belief that the lived experience of Saskatoon’s residents is of utmost importance.

It can be challenging for any young politician to avoid becoming jaded or discouraged when they are exposed to the often polarizing nature of local politics, but Clark has managed to maintain his positive outlook and build a reputation as a thoughtful and respectful leader. Instead of losing his passion or watering down his convictions, he has managed to normalize the discussion around progressive urban planning ideas in the rather conservative confines of Saskatchewan. He’s also helped to create an open and supportive environment for people of all stripes to engage in discussion about Saskatoon’s future.

“He’s the kind of person that citizens like and respect even if they don’t agree with his position,” says Walker. It seems that citizens welcome his positivity and enthusiasm — he has won every election since 2006 with a continually increasing margin of victory.

After three terms, the junior councillor of seven years ago has become one of the most experienced on council and is inspiring a new crop of citizens to become active in civic leadership. “There are an increasing number of thoughtful young leaders joining local politics,” says Clark. “It’s amazing the way conversations about how Saskatoon should grow have shifted in the last seven years.” A true leader, Clark knows that real change happens when people work together. “No one can ever solve anything on their own — creating a great city is a collaborative effort. People are passionate about Saskatoon’s future. As a councillor, I draw on the energy and enthusiasm that citizens, community organizations, and fellow leaders bring to the table.

“Saskatoon is a growing city with an increasingly diverse population,” continues Clark. “We have the potential to create a city of opportunity and belonging for all, a place where everyone can pursue their interests and talents. We’ll be successful in achieving that vision as long as we never lose sight of the fact that cities are about people.”

photo by David Stobbe