2020 Charlottean of the Year: Taiwo Jaiyeoba

Life was chaotic in 2020, but Charlotte’s city planner charted a winner’s path—and we don’t have to take the car
Taiwo Coty 4
Photo by Logan Cyrus

“History is fond of repeating itself … unless we alter its course! That’s what I’m committed to as our city’s Planning Director. Take steps to change the historical inequities in the growth and development of our city. #2040Plan”

Taiwo Jaiyeoba—@winnerspath in the Twittersphere—tweeted that at 9:05 p.m. on Monday, September 28, the night before I wrote the story you’re reading. Story subjects seldom write the lead paragraph, but in 227 characters (including spaces), Jaiyeoba unintentionally crystallized the reason this magazine has named the city planning director and assistant city manager a Charlottean of the Year.

The year being 2020, no one seemed to know where they were going, especially in government. Even decent, conscientious public officials usually followed rather than led. In Charlotte, the city government provided basic services but, with COVID, fell under the shadow of Mecklenburg County, which handles public health and schools. Meanwhile, the City Council entangled itself in a thornbush of frivolous ethics complaints, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg police tear-gassed nonviolent protesters during the George Floyd demonstrations.

Jaiyeoba, whom the city hired as planning director in January 2018, was one of the few local public officials with a handle on his work and a vision to match. It’s true that disease outbreaks and lockdowns don’t strictly affect urban planning. But Jaiyeoba, who turns 52 this month, was already working on two massive projects that will shape Charlotte for decades to come: the city’s first comprehensive plan since 1975 and a corresponding rewrite and simplification of outdated land use regulations. He expects to present both to council members on schedule in 2021.

Jaiyeoba, in other words, was already thinking of the future and the specific steps the city should take to meet it. This year in particular, he’s communicated not just what those steps are but how they fit his conception of what Charlotte could become.

“Especially now, with the confluence of the COVID-19 pandemic and then the racial inequity protests that we’ve seen in the country, it’s highlighted a lot of challenges that we have as a city,” he tells me in late September. “But what I’ve also found is that, as you try to pivot to respond to those things, there are folks who just think you’re moving too fast. And I say things like, ‘Well, we are the 15th-largest city by population in the country. We should be setting examples, not waiting for people to set them for us.’ As long as it doesn’t violate regulations or laws and ordinances—if it is a good thing that can help people rather than hurt—we should be doing those things.”

It’s a common criticism of cities, especially in the South. Jaiyeoba, a native of Nigeria who’s led planning efforts in California and Michigan, believes it’s partly because institutions in Charlotte, a city built on financial services, have internalized an aversion to risk that sand-traps bold ideas. But he’s encouraging his peers to consider the risk of not evolving. Much of his work over the last three years has championed inclusion—adjusting regulations to allow for more affordable housing, increasing public transit options, and gradually weaning Charlotte streets from the dominance of the automobile.

In June, Jaiyeoba took note of a Black Lives Matter mural that activists had painted on two blocks of 16th Street in downtown Washington, D.C., just north of Lafayette Square, which is across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. Jaiyeoba took to Twitter to amplify the idea, and a group of Charlotte activists painted a similar mural on the 200 block of South Tryon Street, between Third and Fourth streets. Jaiyeoba convinced the city to close the block to cars until the end of 2020 and study how officials might make Tryon more suitable for pedestrians. Even with COVID, Charlotteans have embraced the new, car-free uptown plaza.

Not very Charlotte; not even, in the strictest sense, planned. Neither is the future. “We need to learn to be open to the fact that authenticity will not be neatly organized. Authenticity is not going to be tidy,” Jaiyeoba says. “But it’s going to be appreciated. That was an authentic moment in time that we needed to capture—and look at it.”

Greg Lacour is the senior editor for this magazine.