Greens in Big Cities Meeting 2013

Report of the

8th Meeting of the “Greens in Big Cities” Network

in Berlin, May/June 2013

Watch PHOTOS of the meeting  HERE.

Since 2001, municipal councilors of European capitals and big cities meet regularly to exchange experiences and views about topics related to local politics. This rather loose network is coordinated by a steering group composed of Greens from 5 cities (Barcelona, Berlin, Budapest, Helsinki and Vienna). From  May 31st till June 2nd, 2013, the 8th meeting took place in Berlin, Germany.  As usually, the success depends on the commitment of the hosting parties. This time, the contributions by the Berlin Greens and by Bildungswerk Berlin of Heinrich Boell Foundation made the meeting possible. Parts of it were included into a conference on “Affordable Housing and liveable Cities for All” (“Bezahlbares Wohnen und lebenswerte Städte für alle”) that the Berlin Greens held on June 1st.

The topic of the 2013 GBC meeting was “public participation – experience and ideas” (topics of the two previous meetings in 2010/Budapest and 2012/Thessaloniki have been Green anti-corruption strategies and multicultural heritage/politics of inclusion in large cities).

On Friday (May 31st), the meeting was opened with welcome addresses by Saraswati Matthieu (on behalf of the Committee of the European Green Party), Monika Vana (on behalf of the “Greens in Big Cities” Network), Oliver Schruoffeneger (Die Grünen Berlin) and Stefan Gelbhaar (Bildungswerk Berlin of Heinrich Boell Foundation and Member of the Berlin City Assembly).

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From left to right:  Ágnes Somfai (Budapest), Yahya Hassan Bajwa (Baden/Aargau, Switzerland), Stefan Gelbhaar (Berlin), Amra Zulfikarpašić (Sarajevo), Gerhard Jordan and Monika Vana (Vienna).

An interesting excursion followed:  “Changing neighbourhoods – the example of Prenzlauer Berg” by Jens-Holger Kirchner, member of the local government Berlin-Pankow. He showed parts of the district quarter Prenzlauer Berg that has been a “hot spot” of alternative activism already in the days of the GDR and is one of the “Green Strongholds” today.

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Excursion to Prenzlauer Berg:  Jens-Holger Kirchner (right) at Senefelderplatz.

The GBC meeting on Saturday (June 1st) took place at the event center “Kalkscheune” in the district Berlin-Mitte and started with a presentation by Monika Vana, member of the City Assembly of Vienna, on the “Vienna Charter, a participative integration project that the “red-green” city government of Vienna implemented in 2012. In over 650 moderated talks, more than 8,500 citizens met and discussed aspects of living together and respect for each other (young and old, German speaking and speaking other languages, car drivers and pedestrians, etc.).  Nearly 50,000 online contributions were submitted and in the end a paper with proposals and commitments was elaborated and presented to the public – the “Vienna Charter”. But the most important achievement was the dialogue process as such, in which activities arose all over the city that challenged xenophobia and right-wing prejudices.

The following panel on “Lack of affordable housing – Ways out of the ‚rent crisis‘” was held together with the conference of the Berlin Greens.  “Spotlights” from Munich (Sabine Nallinger, top-of-the-list candidate for the election to Mayor in 2014), Vienna (Georg Prack, spokesperson of Die Grünen Wien and district councilor), Berlin (Franz Schulz, District Mayor of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg), Hamburg, Cologne and Dresden (Municipal Councilors Olaf Duge, Barbara Moritz and Thomas Löser) gave an overview of the situation in the various cities, and a panel discussion with experts followed.

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Panel discussion on affordable housing with presentations from Munich, Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne, Dresden and Vienna (from left to right).

In all the cities presented, growth of population and increasing rents lead to the need for building affordable flats, but also to find ways of limiting the costs for housing. A common challenge, particularly in inner-city areas, is the so-called “gentrification” process – neighbourhoods becoming more “expensive” and people with lower income have to move away.  A common appeal “Bündnis für bezahlbares Wohnen in lebenswerten Städten” (Alliance for affordable housing in liveable cities) with several proposals, signed by Green politicians all over Germany, was presented in the discussion.

After lunch, GBC participants gave short inputs during a Forum on “Thinking urban development in a European way”.
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“Thinking European”:  Ágnes Somfai/Budapest, Outi Silfverberg/Helsinki, Saraswati Matthieu/Ghent, Monika Vana/Vienna and Sergi Alegre/Barcelona (from left to right).

Monika Vana emphasized the importance of European politics for the local level and mentioned some achievements of the Greens in Vienna (for instance the introduction oft he right for MEPs to speak in sessions of the City Assembly).  Sergi Alegre, Deputy Mayor of El Prat, a city in the area of Greater Barcelona (where the airport is located), pointed out that European cities should try not to “lose” motivated young people.

Ágnes Somfai, Green Municipal Councilor in Budapest, mentioned some good examples from her city, like “urban gardens” and the revitalisation of a formerly run-down neighbourhood in the 8th district.  Outi Silfverberg from Helsinki informed about networking and common initiatives of Nordic cities, including an intensified cooperation on the level of Green parties (in 2012 a meeting of Greens from Nordic capitals took place in Helsinki, in 2013 a second one is planned in Stockholm) and mentioned the “Restaurant Day as a “best practice” that is today known far beyond Helsinki’s city borders:  Hundreds of “pop-up Restaurants” attracting more and more people – an event emerging from a small protest action against bureaucratic obstacles in 2011.  Helsinki – today’s population:  500,000 – is supposed to get approx. 400,000 new inhabitants by 2035. This is a challenge for urban planning. Three new residential districts are going to be constructed at the site of a former harbour.  Saraswati Matthieu mentioned the social housing program “Community Land Trust” as a best practice example from Belgium.

In the Forum, there were also two presentations from professors that were discussed:

Yuri Kazepov, a sociologist from the University of Urbino (Italy), spoke on “Social inclusion – how to manage”, and Leo Penta from the Catholic University of Applied Sciences in Berlin and founding director of the German Institute for Community Organizing (DICO), on “Organizing platforms – structures of citizens ‚from below‘” (mentioning concrete examples of initiatives in Brooklyn/New York and in Berlin).

In the evening, Pierre Hémon, Green Deputy Mayor of Lyon (France), presented the concept “Age-friendly city Lyon”.  Lyon is member of the WHO Global Network of Age-friendly Cities and Communities.  By means of involving hundreds the people in various neighbourhoods, a survey of the special needs of aged people has been made. A lot of proposals were implemented thereafter, ranging from “park furniture” (like “sit & stand-benches”) to new modes of transportation (like the “Cyclopousse” velo-taxi for aged people, run by young people who are part of a social-economic project). The phases of the traffic lights have been optimised, and people calling the city administration by phone are now getting again answers by “living human beings” and not just by tape recorders.  In France and elsewhere, more and more cities declare themselves “age-friendly”.

The final input on Saturday came from Switzerland:  Yahya Hassan Bajwa, Green municipal councilor in Baden/Aargau, and Bruno Kaufmann from the “Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe” (he is Swiss as well as Swedish citizen) presented their ideas on the topic “The world of direct vs. representative democrcacy”. The democratic instruments in Switzerland were explained, and several aspects discussed – if “turnout quota” are counterproductive or not, if the Swiss tradition can be compared to the situation in other European countries, what tactics governments use to pursue when they decide to ask the population, etc.  Yahya Hassan Bajwa also mentioned discussions inside the Swiss Greens when party members and  Green members of governments sometimes have different opinions on recommendations on how to vote in certain referenda.

The GBC meeting on Sunday, June 2nd, was opened with a presentation by Bruno Kaufmann who is member of the (red-green) city government in Falun, a city with approx. 56,000 inhabitants in Sweden, in charge of public participation. He emphasized the necessity of a minimum infrastructure for public participation. In Falun, the public libraries fulfill the function of “Democracy Centers”, where the citizens can also meet personally. Two “Democracy Navigators”, employed by the City, provide information and legal advice for interested people, and try to involve schools and teachers. A “Democracy Week”  in September 2013 with various activities shall contribute to the promotion of “active citizenship”.  In 2014, a consultation on the Urban Development Plan will take place. However, even in Falun politics not always comes up to the expectations of citizens  – this is the case in particular if the decision making level is not the local one, but one that can not be influenced directly.

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Presentation by Bruno Kaufmann:  “The example of Falun”.

The central element of the Sunday morning agenda was a forum with “Spotlights” on Greens in city governments and their relation to citizens‘ initiatives and civil society groups.

Ghent:  Saraswati Matthieu, Municipal Councilor in Ghent, reported about the situation in her hometown where the Greens, after a long process of discussion, entered a common list together with the Social Democrats and won 45.5% of the vote. This gave the list 26 seats out of 51 which was the absolute majority. 11 of them are Greens. The Greens now have a Deputy Mayoress (in charge of education and youth) and two other executive positions in charge of mobility and of environment (including energy and North-South relations). In the ruling coalition there is also a third party – the Liberals (Open VLD). Climate protection is one of the main aims of the coalition. And there are many initiatives in the civil society – from bicycle repair workshops to “urban gardening”.  One initiative for sustainable mobility is called “Bike of Troy”:  25 people met on five evenings and developed ideas: “Liveable streets”, delivering of goods and foodstuffs to the neighbourhoods  and storing them there in order to avoid multiple car-traffic, etc. The green concept of the “living streets” will now be implemented:  Three streets in Gent will totally become car-free – even without parking lots.
Saraswati
who is also working as advisor in the cabinet of Bruno De Lille, a Green Minister in the Regional Government of Brussels (in charge of mobility) mentioned a project from Brussels:  There is a “toolbox” for better mobility that encourages projects. Six projects have already been implemented and partly resulted in a decrease of car traffic by up to 60 percent!

Helsinki:  Outi Silfverberg informed that the Greens in Helsinki traditionally have a strong position:  since 2003, their vote in municipal elections always has been around 20%, in the previous election they scored 22.3% and became second-strongest party. Their deputy mayor, in charge of environment and public works, is Pekka Sauri. In 2010, the city council elected him for a second 7 year-term. In Helsinki, local democracy pilot projects (concerning mainly social politics and urban planning) have been elaborated by working groups and implemented especially in the northern and western part of the city. Young people can experience participatory budgeting. Since 2002, public participation is a legal standard in urban planning. Using resident panels, wiki planning, etc., a concept Vision 2050 will be elaborated. There is some improvement in Helsinki concerning transparency: Council meetings are live-broadcast in  TV, documents of the committees can be fund online, politicians use blogs and twitter. But still, committee and board meetings are closed to the public and their documents are difficult to read and understand. And the Greens are in favour of a direct election of the mayor and deputy mayor positions by the voters since this would better reflect the strength of the parties than party deals” in the council.

Paris:  Christophe Najdovski, Deputy Mayor of Paris (in charge of childhood) informed that the Greens are part of a ruling coalition with the Socialist PS in Paris since 2001. In the first period they had 23 seats and 7 deputy mayors and were able to achieve successes particularly in traffic issues. From 2000 to 2010, car traffic decreased by 25 percent, 700 km bicycle paths were built, new tramway lines were installed, dozens of green quarters emerged all over the city. But in the local election of 2008, the successes were rather seen as successes of PS, and the Green vote fell from 12.4% to 6.8%. The Greens stayed in the coalition with 9 seats (out of 163) and 4 deputy mayors, but with less influence, since the Socialists do not “need” them for a majority any more. However, a climate action plan including concrete action has been developed, and after 18 months of dialogue also a biodiversity plan. 7 hectares of green roofs were implemented, and pedestrians shall be given priority in the designing of the banks along river Seine. Problems for the Greens are high expenses for football stadiums and plans for the constructions of new high-rise buildings in the districts 12, 13, 15 and 17. The Greens are in favor of involving citizens by voting on local topics via internet, like this is the case in Reykjavik.

Vienna:  Gerhard Jordan, district councilor in Vienna-Floridsdorf (district 21, with approx. 150,000 inhabitants the third-largest of Vienna) and advisor for urban planning and European affairs for the Green Group in Vienna’s City Assembly, reported about some achievements of the red-green coalition in Vienna that had been formed after the 2010 municipal election in which the Social Democrats lost the absolute majority in the City Assembly of Vienna (44.3% of the vote and 49 out of 100 seats) and decided to form a coalition government with the Greens (12.6% and 11 seats), granting them a Deputy Mayoress – Maria Vassilakou – in charge of urban development, traffic, climate protection, energy planning and public participation.  The Greens now try to inform residents well before zoning procedures get into the decision making procedure. The ideas and proposals are collected, and more architecture contests are being launched to improve the quality of new housing projects. New pedestrian and traffic calmed zones and bike paths are proposed and discussed, but sometimes are heavily opposed by right-wing parties and “yellow press”. The urban development plan for the period 2015-2025 is currently under discussion. A Committee for Petitions has been created by the City Assembly in 2013. The project “Vienna Charter” had already been presented by Monika Vana.  And there is one of the 23 Viennese urban districts, Neubau (district 7), where there is a Green district mayor in office since 2001. Here, the Greens (45.4% in the 2010 local election) try to involve the residents as much as possible – the reconstruction of the Weghuber-Park is just one example. But there is still much to do: The way how politicians – of all parties – deal with consultative voting and plebiscites (Befragungen) should be reconsidered, and there is a lot of information that is kept secret by the administration (the so-called “Amtsgeheimnis”). Improving the legislation on transparency should therefore be an important task on all levels.

Sarajevo:  Amra Zulfikarpašić is artist and local councilor of the progressive and non-nationalistic party Naša Stranka (“Our Party) that has got over 7% of the vote in Sarajevo in the 2012 municipal elections.  Direct elections are held only for the 4 quarters of Sarajevo – Amra has been elected in one of them, Centar, where Naša Stranka scored 9.4% of the vote and has 3 seats now. Holding the balance of powergives them a nearly executive function, since no party block has a majority and Amra and her colleagues thus are able to negotiate improvements. Some of their aims are dog asylums for straying dogs, trainings for healthy ageing“, reconstruction of parks, urban vegetable gardens, greening of roofs and cleaning the city.

Switzerland:  Yahya Hassan Bajwa, Municpal Councilor in Baden/Aargau (where a Green Deputy Mayor has recently been elected) mentioned that all big cities in Switzerland have “red-green” majorities and Greens in executive functions. Reasons for this might be that Greens are not only addressing environmental problems, but also social ones, that there is no attractive left in Switzerland and that Greens never have been part of the Federal Government (which might attract some protest voters on the local and regional level).

In the discussion, Bruno Kaufmann added that in Sweden every study that has been produced with the support of public funds has to be publicized, or at least to be available in public libraries.
Jan Vindheim reported about Trondheim, a city in Norway where he is municipal councilor since about two decades. In the municipal elections of 2011, the Norwegian Green Party (MDG) for the first time managed to gain seats in all major cities. In Trondheim, Greens now have 2 seats with 2.6% of the vote and are part of a red-green majority now.
Oliver Schruoffeneger who will enter again the City Assembly (Abgeordnetenhaus) of Berlin in Autumn 2013, expressed his interest for common EU-funded projects with partners – also NGO’s – from the cities with which Berlin has partnership relations. He also asks for a stronger focus on the participatory budgeting issue.

The final session on Sunday was dedicated to the next steps of the cooperation.

The fact that Green councilors from 11 countries (Austria, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland) were present and had the opportunity to talk to each other personally was widely appreciated.

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Some participants of the GBC meeting in Berlin:  Yahya Hassan Bajwa/Switzerland (top row);  Gerhard Jordan/Austria, Jan Vindheim/Norway, Oliver Schruoffeneger/Germany, Outi Silfverberg/Finland (second row, from left to right);  Ágnes Somfai/Hungary, Saraswati Matthieu/Belgium, Monika Vana/Austria, Amra Zulfikarpašić/Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sergi Alegre/Spain (front-row, from left to right).

Being asked which city would be willing to host forthcoming GBC meetings, there were several positive feedbacks. It was agreed that IC-V (Iniciativa per Catalunya-Verds) shall examine the possibility of hosting the next GBC meeting in Barcelona.  Helsinki (Finland) and Ghent (Belgium) might be options, too.

The Committee of the EGP shall be asked if funds could be made available for inviting participants from Eastern Europe to the forthcoming GBC meetings in order to ease the financial burden of the hosting parties.


Notes:  Monika Vana and Gerhard Jordan

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