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Leadership Lessons from a 30-Year Mayor

James Brainard has stepped down after seven terms leading Carmel. The Indianapolis suburb has become a widely cited model for urban design.

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James Brainard has just retired after 28 years as mayor of Carmel, Ind.
Alan Greenblatt/Governing
In Brief:
  • James Brainard has been recognized as a leader on urban design and climate change.

  • On his watch, Carmel, Ind., tripled in size.

  • He faced opposition to many of his ideas but built his case by appealing to community leaders and maintaining that change doesn’t have to cause pain.

  • James Brainard has been perhaps the nation's most prominent suburban mayor in recent years. He's been a leader in urban design — Carmel, Ind., now has more traffic roundabouts than any other city in the country — and has been one of the loudest Republican voices expressing concern about climate change, having led a task force on the issue for the U.S. Conference of Mayors and serving for years in an advisory capacity to the Environmental Protection Agency.

    During Brainard’s 28 years in office, Carmel’s population has tripled to just over 100,000. When he took office, a few subdivisions broke up a series of farms and fields in the suburb, which sits about 15 miles north of downtown Indianapolis. Today, Carmel is known for density, with apartment blocks, corporate headquarters and retail and restaurants closely sharing space along a much-used walk and bike path. The city has become a fixture on lists of "best places to live."

    Brainard’s term ended on Jan. 1. Last month, Governing sat down with him in a conference room at Carmel City Hall to hear his reflections about a long career. Edited excerpts from that interview follow:

    Governing: You’ve tried to take the long view. That’s unusual in politics, as you know, but I understand you’re always asking builders and engineers about potential problems that might crop up 10 or 15 years down the road. How do you sustain that kind of focus on the long game?

    Brainard: When we’re building a building, we know what the impact is going to be over the next three years, such as how many construction jobs are going to be created. But it’s going to be here for 50 years or 100 years or longer. We’ve got to look at it as building a city, which is going to be here forever, so how we do it matters. These decisions will last a long time.

    I always had the opinion that if I didn't get re-elected, I would probably make a lot more money in the private sector as a lawyer, but if I was gonna do this, we're gonna do some bold things. There’s no question, I valued the position that I was entrusted with, but I never worried about losing that much. And so that enabled me to not look toward the next election in my decision-making.

    Governing: You made building a proper downtown a priority right out of the gate as mayor. Why was that so important, given the nature of Carmel’s population at the time?

    Brainard: When I first ran for mayor in 1995, I knocked on lots of doors and asked people what their hopes and aspirations were for the city they chose to call home. What I heard was this yearning for something besides a series of nice subdivisions and good public schools. Those things are wonderful, but what people were saying was, "I wish we had a downtown, I wish we had a center."

    We could work with the private sector to build a downtown. But why were people going to come to that downtown? I looked at what Indianapolis had done over the years, and they had invested tremendous amounts of resources into promotion of amateur sports, and then later professional sports worked out very well for them. I thought the arts would be a nice niche for us to take on. We also noticed that visitors for the arts spend about three times as much as visitors at a sports venue, which would be good for business.
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    Brainard looks over some of his favorite books on city planning.
    Alan Greenblatt/Governing
    Governing: You faced opposition on the City Council about building a city center and you’ve faced opposition over the Monon trail, building a luxury hotel and even starting a Christmas market. How do you find the right balance as a leader, in trying to guide people but at the same time not getting too far ahead of them?

    Brainard: You’ve got to be leading. I always tried to focus on the thought leaders. In a city of this size, we have 70,000 adults, but about 1 percent of them, maybe 2 percent, are thought leaders who are active with the neighborhood associations, chamber of commerce types, business leaders. They influence thousands of people.

    I could answer some questions in a company newsletter about why something is happening and get our word out. I've always tried to focus on those thought leaders. They're with me for the most part. I'd be talking to somebody who's in favor of it, you'd enlist others to help as well and have a community discussion, and then I'd invite councilmembers to come with me to a neighborhood meeting.

    Governing: I always thought that was the great power of mayors, to act as conveners.

    Brainard: Yeah, it’s an overused cliché about herding cats, but it really is many days. Change is hard for people, because they look at it like they’re going to lose something. Life is not going to be as good as it previously was. You have to look at change differently. If you do change carefully, thoughtfully, it can make someone's life better. And so that's always the way I try to guide the discussion. How do we make it through this change that I want to make? How do we make everyone's lives better? And if you get the discussion to that point, I usually have success with people who were hesitant.

    Governing: Your developments have been carefully planned. Do you worry that there seems to be a paradigm shift around the country, where zoning is getting a bad name? Some people look to Houston as having more affordable housing thanks to its lack of zoning.

    Brainard: We need to build carefully after good planning. Single-use zoning is bad for our cities and creates huge expenses — huge. The biggest victory the city planners ever had was during the 20th century, when the average lifespan was increased by 20 years by moving the houses away from the factories. In other words, single-use zoning was invented. It made a lot of sense, just getting those people away from those noxious fumes.

    But city planners have hung their hat on that for way too long. Single-use zoning is the worst thing that can happen now. It just keeps people in their cars too long. The average American is in their car an hour a day. There are people in this country that drive two hours to work and two hours back every day. Single-use zoning is very bad, it just keeps people in their cars too long.
    Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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