Episode 5

Building Between Conflicting Views | Interview with Mayor Mike Savage

Vincent interviews Mike Savage, a president of the World Energy Cities Partnership, Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership member, and mayor of Halifax Regional Municipality.

In this conversation: Leadership through collaboration, influencing sustainable development with policy and incentives, and the ongoing effort to make Halifax the most inclusive, entrepreneurial, and livable city it can be.

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Map of Halifax Regional Municipality.

Cover of HalifACT climate action plan.

Click here to download a full copy of the HalifACT plan (caution: 51mb PDF)

Host: Vincent Van den Brink, Architect + Partner, Breakhouse, Inc.
Guest: Mike Savage, Mayor, Halifax Regional Municipality
Announcer: Danielle Pottier, Senior Architect, Breakhouse, Inc.
Producer: Brenden Sommerhalder, Director, Analytics + Integration, Breakhouse, Inc.
Production Assistant: Jamie White, Manager, Social + Front of House, Breakhouse, Inc.
Theme music: Ghettosocks

Episode Transcript

“I think that they recognize that they have to build stuff that they could be prepared to walk by and smile and not rush by and hide their faces.” Mike Savage



Welcome to Design Makes Everything Better, a podcast about design as a process for making decisions and succeeding. Today, on Episode #5, Vince interviews Mike Savage, the President of the World Energy Cinergy Partnership, Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership member, and Mayor of Halifax Regional Municipality. Now, here’s your host, Vince.


Vince: Hello, listeners. Thanks again for checking in to our latest episode. Today we will be introducing you to Mike Savage, who is the mayor of Halifax. In the context of our podcast, it’s interesting to have a conversation with somebody who is not operating in the field of design specifically but creates policies and rallies people to create the framework of which we can work within.

It’s an important piece to understand how they do that, who they talk to, and their value systems. It makes sense for anybody who is designing areas within the city that they understand what governing policies are in place that can make our lives easier or even maybe, hopefully not, but can make it more challenging. Mike Savage has a great mandate, which very much falls in line with a lot of the principles we share in the office, which is to create a city that is sustainable, entrepreneurial, and inclusive, and to do so, so it becomes recognized as one of the best in the country that we live in.

For those listeners that might not know where we’re from, we’re from Halifax, and that is located in Nova Scotia, which is a province within Canada. I think it’s important to reference that because the craziest thing that our team here in the office has recognized is we have listeners that are global, listeners from Australia, listeners from all over Europe, and it’s quite exciting for us to know that when we’re getting off our desks and sitting in our boardroom and meeting with people that there are others out there that find that valuable for them, and that it’s worth us doing, and we will continue to do so.

Please be sure to subscribe if you haven’t yet, and tell friends and like because if we know that there are people out there, we will continue to bring this material out to you. I hope you enjoy the podcast episode, and we’ll check-in and hopefully hear from you soon.

* * * Music * * *

Vince: Mr. Mayor, thank you very much for joining us on Design Makes Everything Better. Congratulations on your landslide victory into your third term. It must feel good to be so well supported.

Mayor Mike Savage: Thank you very much. I’m very pleased to have the opportunity to do this. That election seems like years ago, not months ago, but it’s always good to have a chance to talk to people about the issues. Of course, we came out of the election with gender parody, which is on council: eight men, eight women, and a mayor. That’s pretty amazing because we only had two before, so some positive things came out of the election.

Vince: I would say that it falls very much in line with your mandate, which was, from the very beginning, something that I’ve seen. And I’ve always really loved and been excited to see it play out, which is to make Halifax the most livable, entrepreneurial, and inclusive city in Canada.

Mayor Mike Savage: Well, you guys do your homework.

Vince: Well, I just follow what is, in fact—

Mayor Mike Savage: That was a century ago.

Vince: Well, it’s still relevant, and even to bring up how the equality exists now amongst the councillors is a big signal.

Mayor Mike Savage: I think so, and we have our first black female councillor, as well, Iona Stoddard. There are a number of things that have happened in the election that I think position, as well, to understand more points of view within the municipality. Really, that’s what governing is about.

Vince: Right. We have listeners; surprisingly, we have a global interest. I actually thought when we started this that it might have just been my family and some friends and colleagues to listen to this. It’s great to see that there’s an appetite for people, all things around the world of design. For those that may not know Halifax at all, if you were to give Halifax the elevator pitch to somebody in Europe, say, that has never heard of it, how would you describe Halifax to them?

Mayor Mike Savage: It’s a good question. I would probably say that we are a mid-sized city with large city ambitions and a small-city friendliness. We’re a city that’s growing. So we’re a growing city. We’re taking advantage of some of the opportunities that come with being a mid-sized city that does want to reach out a little bit higher.

We’re a city that’s been growing in areas we hadn’t before, like technology, as an example, and taking advantage of those creator-given benefits like being on a great harbour and being well located. That’s more than an elevator pitch, but I think we’re a mid-sized city on the move that intends to embrace the world and bring it to Halifax and make us all better at the same time.

Vince: In 2019, you and everybody that is with you declared Halifax in a state of climate crisis. Looking back on it over the last few years, how have you seen the response from citizens of Halifax, and how has that been working? Has it been successful in terms of what you’d hoped that it would do?

Mayor Mike Savage: We were one of the first cities in Canada to declare a climate emergency. I’ve got to give Richard Zurawski, our former councillor props on that. He brought it forward. I know there was some skepticism from people saying, “Why are we doing this?” But it was supported, and I do think that it has led credence to the argument that we have to do more. We have to do it more quickly. We have to take our role very seriously.

We have good people on staff. Shannon Medina heads up our Environmental Initiative. We declared the climate emergency in 2019. In 2020 during the COVID crisis, we then passed HalifACT, which is our climate plan, which I think is one of the best municipal climate action plans in Canada or North America.

We’re a coastal city. As a city on the water, there are blessings that come with that, and there are curses that come with that. One hundred years ago, we had the Halifax explosion, but great riches and wealth have come from the ocean, as well. But things like storm surge, sea-level rise, we see those effects. Flooding, we see those effects. Climate has a big impact on us. I think that it’s incumbent upon us to do whatever we can to mitigate against those impacts and not just wait till tragedies happen and then try to recover.

Vince: With such a specific outline of goals being zero emissions by 2050 is huge. The amount of momentum that we need as a city, as a collection of people to make those changes, is significant in the world that we live in, where we work closely with developers and city builders and planners. I was surprised that I don’t hear it enough in conversation. Have you found that to be a challenge to get people to focus on that? Is it COVID-related? How can we make it more significant today?

Mayor Mike Savage: I think it’s growing in significance and recognition all the time. We have brought our HalifACT plan. We’ve created a Mayor’s Advisory Council on the Green Economy as well as a Mayor’s Advisory Council on Housing and Transportation. But the first one was on the Green Economy.

We have had Shannon come and present to our university presidents, who all take this very seriously. I think it’s a growing issue. We originally called it HalifACT2050. I’ve had the opportunity the last couple of years to work with Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York who has put a lot of money into city building. He put together this group of 40 mayors from around the world, which I got to be a part of.

One of the things that Bloomberg said that had a big impact on me was, “When people talk about net-zero by 2050, particularly politicians, call bull**** on them because most of them won’t be alive, let alone in office in 2050.” The timeline has to be much quicker than that. So, as a city, I’m proud of the fact that we have said yes to 2050 net-zero in the community, but by 2030, we want to be net-zero emissions in the city, our operations, our buildings, our fleet, our buses. All that stuff, we want to put our money where our mouth is. It’s going to cost some money. But, in the long run, it creates jobs; it really does, and it creates a better economy and more opportunity.

Vince: I have to say that I feel, at times, a little suspicious that it’s not going to translate into noted action by developers, by retailers, by people in their own homes that can make some of those changes. Do you see a movement toward policymaking that can force some of those changes to happen?

Mayor Mike Savage: Yeah. As a city, we have some policies now in terms of where you can develop and where you can’t, and there will have to be more policies to make sure that we’re building in areas that make sense. We have people who live in floodplains in HRM. It makes no sense.

So, yeah. I do see action. I think it’s a combination of advocacy, common sense, but I also believe that there has to be a financial aspect to this. Some people do it altruistically, and that’s great. We have our Solar City Program, which allows people to put solar panels on their roof and pay for it on their property tax over a period of time, which makes it much more affordable. Some people do it whether it makes economic sense or not.

I do think that there is a behavioural aspect of this that has to be driven by financial incentive or even financial penalty, and that’s why I think the price on carbon is essential. But I also think that there isn’t a wide recognition in the community that action on climate change is, in fact, good for the economy, that the countries in the world that are really attacking this in a serious way.

I think you’re going to see the U.S. stepping up a lot more under this president than the last president; thank Heavens! There’s going to be support for those industries, whether it’s solar or whether it’s wind. It could be title. There has to be incentive, and there has to be penalty for the carbon that you produce.

Vince: We’re fighting a similar fight. I sometimes feel like a bit of a lone voice in the room when we say, “We cannot build this building this way. We have to be better.” That financial incentive that you’re talking about that could help toward making some of these changes aren’t necessarily there yet.

There isn’t enough of that collective fear that we have in COVID, which I know can exist then as a people, but we don’t have that yet for our environmental crisis. 2050 is a long time away. 2030 is even a long time away, even though it’s only nine years. How can we make it more urgent?

Mayor Mike Savage: At the end of the day, we all react to market pressures, and I think that the development community that I see in Halifax, they’re building buildings that I think are a lot better than I see in other cities, and a lot better than the development we had before 2010, with little regard.

We’re not far from the Grainery Lofts, where my daughter is going to be moving into, which is one of the most environmentally high-standard buildings in the country. I think people will react. I think people want to live and be able to demonstrate that they live in buildings that are environmentally stellar.

In the same way, as it is with affordable housing, I think the development community has moved to realize that this is good for everybody when we do things in the right way. Are we there fast enough? I don’t know. I can’t really judge it. I don’t know that. I think we’re doing better than we have before.

Where people live and how they live is important. For a long time, our downtown was really kind of decaying. We have the infrastructure. We don’t have to rip up—we don’t have to put in water; transit already exists. We have the services in the downtown. Focusing on that the last number of years, I think that’s been good for the environment. It gives us an opportunity to look at other areas now where we can develop environmentally friendly ways as well.

The market dictates some of it. Conscious dictates some of it. More and more, the developers are building stuff that has more of an environmental focus. You don’t see buildings like we saw before that would take up the entire space of the land that’s owned going directly up, creating wind tunnels, no green space, no walkways.

I personally am a big fan of our development community because most of the developers who develop here and live here. A lot of them cycle here or walk here. They’re not owned by numbered companies out of somewhere else like some cities are. I think that they recognize that. They have to build stuff that they can be prepared to walk by and smile and not rush by and hide their faces.

Vince: Yeah. I would completely agree with that. There’s the sense of ownership for the developments and pride that does exist is certainly evident on many of our clients that I have.

Mayor Mike Savage: And we need buildings. We’re approving 4,500 units a year. Our population has been growing by 9,000 to 10,000, so you need a lot of units. The families aren’t big anymore, and a lot of those folks are coming from around the world, and they need a place to live, and they want to live on a transit line. They want to live close to services. They don’t need to live in the 1.5 acre lots that they used to demand. There’s a place for everybody, I think, in our municipality.

I do think that our downtowns are special. I’ve always felt that a successful downtown is where lots of people live together, all ages, all incomes, all languages, all religions, all foods, all histories, all experiences, young and old. If you can build that kind of a space in our city, then people live together naturally and harmoniously. If you build areas where like-people live, whether it’s income or background, ethnicity—I don’t like these isolated communities of people who all look and talk the same. I think our developments have an opportunity to bring people together.

Vince: Yeah. The greatest cities have a great deal of diversity and interests in people. That’s great.

Mayor Mike Savage: That’s not always naturally easy for a city like Halifax, which was pretty traditional. Now that we’re becoming much more international, I think it’s a good thing.

Vince: Yeah. I completely agree. I’m curious when you described our downtowns in Halifax, and I think for some people that might be listening to this wouldn’t understand that Halifax, HRM consists of Halifax as a county, which is a great deal of rural and suburban area.

Mayor Mike Savage: 5,500 square kilometres.

Vince: It’s amazing.

Mayor Mike Savage: It’s massive.

Vince: The time that it takes to just drive across on a non-busy day, probably in the neighbourhood of 2.5 or 3 hours. It’s huge. I’m curious about the tension that exists between those different areas and how you can get all of those voices heard. How do you begin to understand the balance that is necessary between the voice in a rural community and the voice of residents in the city of Downtown Halifax?

Mayor Mike Savage: To me, I’ve always felt that we need to look at HRM and its whole size, not as a challenge, but as an opportunity. When I sell Halifax, and I’ve taken Halifax on the road a lot with the Halifax Partnership. We have a wholesale Halifax philosophy we’ve been selling for five or six years.

I don’t just talk about a beautiful downtown, which is important, the most craft beer companies per capita, the most bars in Canada per capita, life, IT, coffee shops, that’s beautiful, but I also talk about the 100 Wild Islands, and I talk about the advantage of being able to live in a downtown and being five minutes away from a pub and 20 minutes away from a lake, and 30 minutes away from being paddling on a beautiful pristine lake because I think those are advantages.

There are advantages all over the municipality. People want options. Right now, where people are coming to Halifax and are looking for housing, some people want to live downtown. That’s not where I live. I live in the suburbs. That suits my family and me. But you have to focus, so we were able to get Council to focus on the downtown and realize that if you’re going to put money into a convention centre and a beautiful library and a discovery centre, then it’s to the benefit of everybody.

The key is, as politicians, is to speak with the same voice and Sheet Harbour that you do in Downtown Halifax. You can’t go to Sheet Harbour and say Halifax gets everything. You can’t go to Downtown Halifax and say we’re subsidizing other parts of the municipality. You either believe in your gut that it works, or you don’t.

We’re big. We’re the only city in Canada that’s as big as a province, so we’re big. We can argue about it all day long. We could say maybe we should hive off part of HRM and just have a government for the central part of it, but that doesn’t solve any problem. Then you’ve got another area in HRM with very little tax base, but I think have assets for the municipality together.

I like going to the Exhibition in Middle Musquodoboit. I like going to Sheet Harbour and talking to the Chamber of Commerce there. I’m proud of the fact that as a city, we’re investing in the Eastern Shore Lifestyles Centre in Sheet Harbour, the BLT needs a new rec centre. These are all assets for the municipality. I think we work the way it is now. We’ll never be completely happy. I always tell people that the one thing that unites everybody in HRM is the common view that they’re getting *** more than anybody else. That’s life.

Vince: Yeah. One thing that’s kind of fascinated me about your role is you have to hold, not just what I was mentioning earlier, the tension between the rural and urban, but the different needs and the ways that people think on a day-to-day basis. Their mental models of all of these different people make a complex environment that you need to make decisions.

In the world that we live in as designers, whether or not we’re working for a client that has a number of customers, we have to ask all of those customers, as many as possible, through surveys and so on what they feel about a particular challenge that our clients have asked us to work on.

Do you lean on advisors to help you understand what the different voices are? Or how do you connect with all of those different voices from such a huge area? What does that look like, and how do you shift through all of that white noise that might be there?

Mayor Mike Savage: We do have elected representatives across the municipality. I lean on them. I spent a fair bit of time talking about what’s happening in their district. As a mayor, you not only have the opportunity but the responsibility to actually get out and talk to people in their communities and find out what is on their minds. You just have to, I really believe, not be two-faced about it. You have to be honest with people about the benefits to everybody if we succeed together. Then, also recognize that their concerns are legitimate. It’s not a matter of I’m right, and you’re wrong. We can both be right to some extent.

Vince: The ability to have an understanding of planning or architecture or the movement of goods, all the different things that go into having that complex ecosystem of the city, how do you go about selecting or finding who would be the right advisor on something from an architectural point of view from a trained architect? How would you find an architect, or would you ask for advice on something or a planner? How do you decide who to put into your circle?

Mayor Mike Savage: First of all, we have an amazing staff at HRM. Historically, people have been critical of bureaucracies. I’m very proud of the staff that we have at HRM, whether they’re architects, planners, whether they’ve finance people, whether they’re communications. I rely on staff.

In this day and age with social media, that blows hot and cold. You get good, you get bad. You’ve got to pay attention to those things, but you also have to recognize that circumstances change. I think that there are a lot of people in the community that you can listen to. One of the cool things during COVID has been this thing that Patrick Sullivan set up through the Chamber, the Business Labor Coalition Group, all coming together and recognizing common problems.

There are enough people out there that want to help that you can find them. One thing a mayor has is the power to convene. The mayor may or may not be able to do everything she or he wants in a city, but you generally have the opportunity to bring people in and get their point of view.

Vince: That is such a powerful position to be that your voice and ability to corral people is an instrument for change.

Mayor Mike Savage: Sure. Yeah.

Vince: Where you decide to put your time, and what you want people to think of is a mayoral opportunity.

Mayor Mike Savage: Just on that point, too, when I got elected, I said, “I want to spend more time actually listening to what people have to say, and actually thinking about things. It doesn’t come naturally to me. As mayor, it’s easy to be outside of COVID. You can do 12 events on a Saturday and all during the week. The key really is to be a successful mayor, to balance that with thinking about the big ideas of what a city needs, and then trying to make them happen, and convening the right people to get it done.

Vince: I’m curious; in this vision of what Halifax could be, do you have a city, let’s say outside of Canada, that you hold in high regard, or do you feel as a distant cousin to Halifax that shows a really good example of the kind of place that we could be?

Mayor Mike Savage: I don’t. But there are parts of cities. There are parts of Copenhagen that are a very cool thing. Their parliament doesn’t have cars; they have bikes. People bike to work. That impresses me. There are parts of my home city of Belfast in Northern Ireland, Edinburgh and the Royal Mile. There are things that Vancouver has done that have been very impressive.

What I want us to be is a livable city. I think if you’re a livable city that gives people the opportunity to be around people who aren’t like themselves all the time, then you learn from all those bits and pieces. We’re not going to be a Copenhagen. We’re too hilly, first of all, to be a Copenhagen, and Copenhagen’s not a cheap city, but it’s a beautiful city.

I’ve been to Cape Town. I’ve been to cities, and you look at them, and you learn, and you think, “Okay. Why do they have their traffic set up like this? Why do their crosswalks look like that? Why aren’t people developing here, and what’s making the difference there, so you ask those questions all the time.

Vince: Sure.

Mayor Mike Savage: I think we’re pretty good. When I got elected mayor, I said, “We should be looking at other cities and getting inspiration.” But I want people to look at us and get inspired, and more and more, I see people looking at Halifax and saying, “There’s something going on there that we really like.”

Vince: Oh, sure.

Mayor Mike Savage: My own kids used to say to me—they’re 24 and 21. They couldn’t wait to get their education and go to Toronto or Montreal, Vancouver, and now, they want to be in Halifax. To me, that’s the greatest validation of where our city has been going.

Vince: There is a lot more opportunity here, not just going away.

Mayor Mike Savage: There is. We have a great quality of life, but I always tell people a great quality of life without a job really doesn’t mean much. So, there has to be opportunity, and then the quality of life impresses people.

Vince: You’ve been an advocate for biking around the city as being a key component in terms of making it livable. How is it looking for the near future, and how have you felt it is moving toward, maybe not to the degree of Copenhagen, but what do you imagine in terms of bicycle transportation in the near future. How do you see that playing out now in Halifax?

Mayor Mike Savage: Bicycling is surprisingly polarizing to me. I didn’t know there were people that hated bicycle lanes as much as there seem to be.

Vince: As a cyclist, I’ve had objects thrown out the window on Herring Cove Road when I was on the road because they didn’t want me on the road.

Mayor Mike Savage: Some of those people have sent me letters.

Vince: Yeah, I bet.

Mayor Mike Savage: In government, you don’t get elected to govern and create a community that you think is perfect. You have to create a community that is better for everybody. The only cycling I do these days is in my basement. I’d like to be one of those people who cycle more often to work.

Vince: I want to say I find that—makes me happy to hear you say that you actually aren’t an avid cyclist, but you found that it is a priority for the city to have proper bike lanes. That conflicting view is what I was talking about earlier, to be able to hold two opposing ideas at the same time and understand that both can exist and that’s okay, I think is a way that we have to be considering the development of our cities.

Mayor Mike Savage: Absolutely. Plus, we have to. If we did referendums on whether we should have bike lanes, it might not pass because bike lanes are not so much about who’s on them now. It’s about who will be on them in five years if we build them and make them safe. In the same way that you don’t have to be LGBTQ+ to appreciate the fact that rights for gay and lesbian people makes us a better community.

I remember somebody who was really opposed to same-sex marriage telling me, “I can’t believe, Mike, because everybody I talk to agrees with me.” I said, “You know what? When the people that you’re with all the time agree with everything you say, you’ve got to get some new people.”

We really have to find a way to reach out a little bit. I think biking is where we have to go. We have to change the way people think about moving themselves around a municipality. People need to walk more; we need to cycle more. You need to skateboard if that’s what you do. You need to roll to work. These are things that progressive cities have in common.

I said a number of years ago, the Macdonald Bikeway, getting that fixed was something we would do no matter what. I believe that way. Some people don’t agree with me on that. But when you look at how much money traditionally we spend on roads and how little we spend on active transportation routes, that’s a shift that has to change, and it will change as part of our integration mobility plan. And you don’t have to agree with it, but people who bike to work spend money as well. It’s not like if you take away one or two parking spaces that the world is going to come to an end.

Vince: If you have more people biking, they will spend more money downtown. If you have people walking, they will spend more money than those that are driving. You can see the direct relationship because if you’re driving, it’s harder to stop at that last-minute thing that you notice that you didn’t know that you wanted to buy until you walked by it. A lot of cities around the world were going through that urban renewal where everything was based around the car, and the transition of a people place into a car place was detrimental to the health of the city.

Mayor Mike Savage: Completely. To go back to the question about the cities that I admire, I mentioned some that I really like. Then there’s a couple that you go to, and you think, “I’m glad we’re not like this.” I spent a lot of time in Houston. I used to go twice a year before COVID, and great people. The mayor there is somebody I’ve come to know well; I love him, Sylvester Turner.

But what you have is a city that was designed, I wouldn’t even say, around a car so much as an SUV, where there’s very little planning. As a result of that, not only do you have a city that doesn’t really have as much of a soul to me, but you have a city where Hurricane Harvey devastated it, and a large part of that was because of the lack of planning of the city in saying, “You can put big buildings anywhere, and you can do whatever you want with it. We’ve done some things right. There are cities I admire. There are cities that I think have made mistakes, and there are things in Halifax that fit into both of those categories.

Vince: Yeah. I’m in this place of city building. Development is important to me. Change is really critical, but at the same time, we have to recognize what is a significant piece of our built environment that is worth keeping. What is your opinion on how we can go about preserving parts of our city that are important without making them stagnant because you’re just encapsulating them?

Mayor Mike Savage: It’s funny. History is different in Halifax than it is in Jerusalem, or Rome, or even London. Our history of the built environment is much shorter than theirs. The Miꞌkmaq have been here for 13,000 years, but they weren’t building skyscrapers. And I think maintaining those buildings, the look, and the feel, and the impact, and the importance to our history of buildings that have been here for a long time is really important.

I’m a history major. I love history. I love to feel history. I love to give a sense of this is what happened here in 1789, or this happened in 1805. I think our heritage is really important. I also think it does need to be balanced. For example, I personally like looking at a grand parade from my window, and I’ll see St. Paul’s Church, and I’ll see the Convention Centre. I don’t think there’s any reason that, like in London, that the old and the new can’t coexist together. I believe they can.

But the thing is, when you destroy something, you can’t replicate it. I think it’s important that we do what we’re doing, not only with individual buildings, but the Schmidtville Historical Heritage District, and Barrington South Heritage District, and other districts that we’re looking at, trying to keep and maintain the historical aspect of those buildings because there can be great vibrancy

And, by the way, there can be great density in some of those buildings as well. Smithfield is more dense than most other parts of Downtown Halifax. I think recognizing the heritage aspect also is another thing that makes sense economically over the long term. It doesn’t mean you can save every building.

Vince: No, you can’t. For sure. Lunenburg, for example, and Echer World Heritage site have their challenges now because it has evolved to a degree, but there are areas and there are buildings along the waterfront that they can’t evolve into current-day requirements. You can’t put a beautiful old building and transform it into an apartment of some kind, or like four or five people living in it because you can’t have a new window. You can’t put in a new door.

So, it’s just impossible, so they become monuments to a time that was very different. That’s just the death of a city. You can’t evolve, and it’s not this sort of organic changing organism, then nobody will go to it. Nobody will be in it. And if you don’t have people, a city doesn’t live; a place doesn’t live.

Mayor Mike Savage: I remember when Fred Connors ran for mayor the first year I did, and he used to say something to the effect, “I don’t want the city to be an 1850s theme park. I think he was making a good point. A lot of this comes down to balancing points of view and making good decisions, and as city leaders, we have to do that all the time.

We should think very hard before we destroy a building that has historical importance. And our heritage folks in the city are very dedicated to that. Again, it’s a balance. Something that’s built today will be heritage in 150 years, and a lot of people don’t even think about it. I’d like them to think that we’re a growing city that never forgot our past but had an eye firmly on the future as well.

Vince: Yeah. Absolutely. I’ve got a couple of fun questions that I wanted to ask you as we’re running down.

Mayor Mike Savage: Is it like boxers or briefs? That kind of thing?

Vince: It is a little bit of that. What is your favourite city outside of Canada?

Mayor Mike Savage: I’ll give you two. Maybe they’re more of the heart than the head, but Belfast because I was born there, and Boston, which I think is a city not unlike us with whom we have a very strong affinity, and I spend some time there. The mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh, who I got to know quite well, is now in Joe Biden’s Cabinet, so he won’t be the mayor anymore. Boston and Belfast are a couple of cities. Copenhagen was one I had a great time in and Edenborough.

Vince: Do you go down to the tree lighting in Boston every year?

Mayor Mike Savage: Yes.

Vince: That’s great.

Mayor Mike Savage: Last year was the first year I haven’t done that in five or six years.

Vince: Oh, is that right?

Mayor Mike Savage: Anybody that hasn’t done that might want to consider. It’s a lot of fun.

Vince: Maybe just briefly if you can describe why that happens just for other people that don’t know.

Mayor Mike Savage: Yeah. The Halifax explosion of 1917 happened on December the 6th, and that night there was a snowstorm in the City of Halifax, and people in the city didn’t know what was happening. Why that is so important is that immediately the City of Boston mobilized and sent nurses, doctors, supplies up to Halifax.

Other cities along the way did as well. Boston was pretty special. So starting in 1970, the Premier decided that we would send a tree down, and it’s become a real thing. It goes on in the Boston Common. Tens of thousands of people come out to see the tree lighting.

The Premier tries to go down. I’ve been down with Stephen Harper a couple of times and Leo Glavine, Karen Casey. I was pretty cynical, “Is this really a thing?” When you actually get there, you get a sense, “Yeah, this is a thing.” Not everybody in Boston knows about Halifax, but some people do. So it’s important. I love it every year.

Vince: I’ll make sure that I go down at some point.

Mayor Mike Savage: Yeah.

Vince: Because I haven’t ever actually been to Boston.

Mayor Mike Savage: The Nova Scotia Delegation stays at the Omni Parker Hotel, which is where the Boston Cream Pie was invented. It’s where John F. Kennedy proposed to Jackie Kennedy. The Parker roll was invented there. It’s an old hotel. It’s dumpy, but it’s beautiful.

Vince: It sounds great. What is an object or thing that you feel was designed exceptionally well?

Mayor Mike Savage: The Eiffel Tower.

Vince: Eiffel Tower. That’s a good one. What is a book that you most often give as a gift?

Mayor Mike Savage: Wow. The greatest political book, the greatest how to succeed in business book, the greatest team sportsbook that I’ve ever read is Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin about Abraham Lincoln and how he brought people into his Cabinet and affected enormous change by doing that.

Vince: What politician or leader do you look up to?

Mayor Mike Savage: Anybody that knew me over the last 50 years of my life would know that Bobby Kennedy was my political icon. He believed in social justice. He also had a hard edge to him, but he was a leader on human rights and equality rights in the United States. He’s somebody I admired a great deal.

I had a lot of time for Paul Martin, who made me run for office back in 2004 as a human being, as a business person, as a humanitarian. Martin Luther King Jr. I listen to his speeches all the time, but there are Canadians, as well. I’ve never met anybody with more integrity than my father, and I admire him. Lester Pierson, and there are a number of people that have had great impact on me.

Vince: What is a skill or talent that you have that would surprise most people?

Mayor Mike Savage: I can name every Prime Minister of Canada, the years they served, and the order they served—every president of the United States since Lincoln. Is that a skill, or talent, or is that a sickness?

Vince: It’s a fine line between the two.

Mayor Mike Savage: I think, like probably every husband, that I’d be a great standup comedian. My wife often says, “You’re not as funny as you think you are.” Yeah, we’re all the same way.

Vince: You’re a dad. You’ve got the dad jokes.

Mayor Mike Savage: Yeah. I do. I did actually appear at the Halifax Comedy Festival, and I think I was okay. Mark Kurtz said that I was the only one that dropped the F-bomb at that taping.

Vince: Obama is one funny guy. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Have you ever seen that?

Mayor Mike Savage: Yes.

Vince: Have you seen the episode with Barack Obama?

Mayor Mike Savage: I have not.

Vince: It’s great.

Mayor Mike Savage: I think it probably is. I will tell anybody, if you want to learn about critical timing, watch Obama at the Press Gallery at dinners, especially the last one where he did the mic drop and the Obama whisperer. Obama had great timing.

Vince: Oh, yeah.

Mayor Mike Savage: And also, by the way, was an awesome president.

Vince: He was. Well, thank you very much for taking the time in your schedule to visit us, and I have to say, I always have seen you speaking and reading about you. I know one of the things people say about you which is, you are probably one of the most relatable mayors and that people can connect with you. I think that certainly is a superpower. Just in our short conversation, I can certainly feel that I’d like to do it more often.

Mayor Mike Savage: Over a beer.

Vince: You’re a wonderful person, and I’m certainly happy that you’re our mayor.

Mayor Mike Savage: Wow. It’s very kind. I really appreciate being on this show, and I really admire the work that Breakhouse does in the community and in shaping points of view and very successfully, too, as messy as it is here. Thank you so much.

Vince: Thanks a lot. Take care.

* * * * *

Thanks for listening to the Design Makes Everything Better podcast by Breakhouse, a Canadian strategic design firm. This was Episode 5 with Mayor Mike Savage. A full transcript and show notes can be found at breakhouse.ca/podcast/5. If you like the show, help us out. Subscribe, rate, and review us on your favourite podcast app and share us with your friends. Have feedback or ideas for the show? Drop us a line at podcast@breakhouse.ca.

[End of Episode 5 – 39:47]

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