Greensboro’s new city manager: ‘I lead with people in mind’

Piedmont Triad News
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Taiwo Jaiyeoba (City of Charlotte)

You may know that Greensboro has a new city manager starting next year. City Council on Dec. 21 approved the hiring of Taiwo Jaiyeoba, the city of Charlotte’s assistant city manager and director of Planning, Design and Development

You may also know that Jaiyeoba, 52, has nearly 30 years of regional, municipal and private leadership experience, having also worked in Sacramento, California, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, before moving to Charlotte in 2018. You may know that he was named Charlottean of the Year but also was challenged by a member of the city council.

You may know that you pronounce his name TY-woh JAH-ye-aw-bah, that he was born in and educated in Nigeria and started his career in Botswana and that he is replacing David Parrish, who resigned in June after three years of running the city’s business, with Chris Wilson having served on an interim basis.

But you probably are curious about Jaiyeoba’ s insights and experiences, the sort of perspectives that surely emerged during the interview process that led to his hiring.

So we asked him about some of those things, and we think you will find depth in his ideas and gain insight about how the city of Greensboro might be managed in the coming years.

WGHP: What are your first impressions of the city of Greensboro, its assets and needs?

TAIWO JAIYEOBA: I have been coming to Greensboro for many years. Dating back to my years as a consultant (I managed the Urban Circulator Project in nearby Winston-Salem from 2013 to 2014), I would fly into PTI and drive throughout the Triad area. The rich civil rights history, several higher institutions of learning, abundance of pocket parks and active open spaces, small buildings, ease of commute, relative affordability, visible presence of arts and entertainment facilities, were (and are) the things that first struck me about Greensboro. You might not know, this but the Trust for Public Land lists Greensboro as the second highest ranked city in North Carolina (after Raleigh) on its 2021 park score index – which means residents have ease of access to parks and recreational opportunities in Greensboro than many American cities, including my adopted city of Charlotte. I estimated that Greensboro has about 10 colleges within an area of 137 square miles, which means about one higher institution per 13 square miles. That’s unique. It means there’s a latent population to support a vibrant night life and strengthen the arts and entertainment environment for the foreseeable future.

However, like most growing urban areas, Greensboro has its challenges: public safety, inequity in investments, ease of access to public transportation and increasing homelessness among others. And all of these are connected and have to be addressed together.

With specifics, it is easy to notice the several underutilized buildings and lots of surface parking especially in the downtown area. Those are opportunities that could be leveraged by developers to create a more vibrant downtown, resulting in creation of jobs, which can be easily accessed by anyone living within a 15-minute drive radius of downtown. It is possible for Greensboro to be a model of a 15-minute city.   

WGHP: In what ways do you see it alike or contrasting with Charlotte?

JAIYEOBA: Aside from the obvious differences in population and approach to governance, most American urban areas are alike in many respects: They attract talents and jobs, are centers of learning with presence of healthcare facilities, better housing options and highest concentration of transportation investments. In these, Charlotte and Greensboro are alike. Urban environments also face similar challenges (although at varying scales): increasing homelessness, public safety issues, lack of affordable housing, inadequate transportation services among others. Driving from East Greensboro to other parts of the city, the obvious disparity in investment cannot be missed. This reminds me of Charlotte’s “Arc and Wedge” disparity. In Charlotte, the “Arc” (or Crescent to some) has the most minority population, highest level of poverty, lowest life expectancy, poor quality of schools and lower median income than the rest of the city. The “Wedge” is mostly South Charlotte – it has the highest number of white population, higher income than the rest of the city, highest life expectancy, more jobs and affluence. This is a challenge not just in Greensboro but in most American cities. A quick review of Greensboro’s 1936 redlining map developed by UNCG’s Center for Housing and Community Studies shows expanded redlining boundaries expanded eastwards (council districts one and two) especially when overlaid with racially/ethnically concentrated areas of poverty. Closing the gap in investments has to be intentionally addressed.

Greensboro completed its 2040 comprehensive plan ahead of Charlotte. While there are key differences in approaches to the development of the plans, they both emphasize the need for the two cities to address growth and rapid pace of development in a sustainable and equitable manner over the next 20 years. For example, GSO2040 has a big idea designed around “becoming car optional” while Charlotte’s 2040 Plan has a policy about diversity of housing options besides detached single family housing. Both approaches point to the need for the two cities to become more sustainable and equitable even as urban demographics become more diverse (U.S. Census 2020).

Two key differences between Greensboro and Charlotte governance structures, which did not escape my attention, are 4-year versus 2-year mayor/council terms and the ability of the mayor of Greensboro to cast a vote regularly. 

WGHP: What do you see as the key issue facing the future development of urban districts?

JAIYEOBA: The urban environment is a systemic organism in which everything is interrelated, so to single out one issue facing future development of urban districts is nearly impossible. Cities are not one-issue spaces. However, if I were to boil down issues that future cities face, I would point to four critical areas: affordable housing options; equitable public transportation especially for low income and BIPOC communities; neighborhood safety and environmental sustainability. It will take public, private and non-profit participation to address these issues together and successfully. It will take a bold approach to change in policies and matching capital investments in these areas to be able to make any significant improvements. Everything else in an urban environment will respond to these four issues, for example, economic opportunities will locate in safe and sustainable communities with options for employee housing and mobility. When our economic development specialists go out in the future to market Greensboro and the Triad, these four subject areas will be ones to highlight as why people and businesses want to choose our city and region to locate.

“My approach to effective urban planning and leadership is the same regardless of geography: make people the focus of your service or work.”

WGHP: During your education and training in Africa, what stuck with you that you’ve applied at your stops in the United States?

JAIYEOBA: I received my master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning in Nigeria in 1992. I worked in Nigeria and went to the country of Botswana (in southern Africa) to work as a professional planner for four years. Back then, I mostly practiced as an urban designer. Coming to the United States in 1996, I started with the city of Sacramento as a land use planner processing entitlements for developments. I went on to work for the Sacramento Regional Transit District to manage multimillion-dollar, federal-funded rail projects. Most of my career in Africa and in the United States have been spent in the public sector as a planner-leader. I spent seven years as a consultant working with clients in small-, medium- and large-sized cities across the United States. I have served as a planner and a leader in all the agencies and corporations I have worked for. My approach to effective urban planning and leadership is the same regardless of geography: make people the focus of your service or work. Public service is our business, and that approach has not changed for me regardless of where I have been – whether it is in Nigeria, Botswana, California, Michigan, Georgia or North Carolina. I lead with people in mind. I believe in empowering staff and community. That’s the most effective way we can be successful.   

WGHP: You are the father of seven daughters? What is the age range? And how in the world do you manage that?  And how has managing that household guided your public work?

JAIYEOBA: My wife [Ronke Jaiyeoba] and I have seven daughters between us. We were married in 2015. Our oldest is 27, and the youngest is 12. For me, God and family come first, and work comes a distant third. Prioritizing it this way is the only way to make it work. Raising seven daughters from different households and backgrounds is definitely challenging, but having understanding, transparency in communication, setting expectations and demanding accountability are very important in managing a blended household. This has worked well for us.

Being a husband and a father has taught me to be patient, collaborative, understanding, innovative and, obviously, firm. When I think that all of our daughters have gone through public education, need quality health care, drive their own cars and/or use public transportation, fish with me at the local park and live in apartments in Phoenix, New York and Charlotte, it is important for me as a policymaker to consider their personal experiences in making key public decisions. For instance, one of our daughters previously worked at a local Chick-Fil-A restaurant, which was only three minutes from home by car but walkable. However, there was no sidewalk or walking trails, and thus she had to be driven on work days. Eventually she had to quit because she could not regularly walk to work when there was no vehicle available to drive her there. Public decisions can affect individual choices about where they walk, or where they live especially when mobility options are limited.  

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