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Belit Onay: Our priority is to have a car-free city centre with more space for cycling and walking

Belit Onay: Our priority is to have a car-free city centre with more space for cycling and walking

An interview with the mayor of Hanover, Germany

Belit Onay (BÜNDNIS 90/DIE GRÜNEN – European Greens) is the elected mayor of the State Capital of Hannover since October 2019. Belit Onay studied law at the Leibniz University Hanover (1st State Examination) and worked as staff to a member of the Lower Saxony state parliament from 2008 to 2013.

From 2011 to 2014, he was a councillor and budget policy spokesman in the Hannover City Council. From 2013 to 2019, he was a member of Lower Saxony's state parliament and spokesman for domestic policy, municipal policy, migration and refugees, sports and network policy. Belit Onay is 40 years old, married with two children.

Mayor Onay, how would you describe the city of Hanover?

Hanover is an international city - not only because of many world-class international trade fairs. In Hanover, the peaceful coexistence of people from 178 nations is a lived normality. Our city is characterized by cultural, linguistic, musical and religious diversity.

Hanover is a city of science and research with 12 universities, colleges and universities of applied sciences, four clusters of excellence and more than 49,000 students. We are also well-positioned as a business location with many companies that successfully operate in the globalized business world. An active cultural scene with a dozen theatres, an opera house and many museums round off the picture, as does "an incredible amount of green".

Almost fifty percent of our city consists of green spaces: water is an essential element in it. Hanover has become known nationally and internationally as the "City of Gardens". All this is Hanover for me - a city in the heart of Germany and Europe.

As a newly elected mayor, what is the focus of your administration and what challenges did you face at the beginning?

I have a clear green agenda when it comes to transport and mobility, social inclusion, and solidarity. Personally, a high degree of pragmatism defines me. My work is oriented towards the people in our city - their needs steer our direction.

Looking back at the beginning of my term of office, I can say it was a year of extremes.

I don't really know what it's like to be Mayor in normal mode. I'll exclude the first hundred days - that was the phase of arriving. But in February and March, the Corona pandemic began. Since then, it's basically been one crisis talk after another. At the same time, of course, I haven't lost sight of what I actually wanted to achieve.

The digitalization task force is now in the process of being set up, and we have also put down the first stakes in the transport transition. Cycling is an important building block in the mobility transition (under the aspects of sustainability, climate protection, health, more attractive city etc.). My goal is to increase the share of cycling in traffic to 25% and more. Hannover has the best prerequisites for the further expansion of the cycling infrastructure.

Furthermore, securing participation in society is very important to me. For this reason, we bundle all assistance offers, from housing to social work, in one department of the city administration. This enables us to pursue a holistic social policy. We have already set an important course on all these matters.

What is the most recent project started by the city of Hanover and how has it helped the citizens?

We have just launched an important project for the future - the inner-city dialogue. It is about the transformation of the city centre, which is of immense importance. The city centres are under pressure caused, among other things, by online competition in retail and people's changing buying and consumption behaviour. 

Hanover's city centre is no exception. It is important to set the right course now so that the city centre can maintain, and at best, expand its local and supraregional appeal. Retailers and restaurants in particular will benefit from a better quality of stay.

The inner-city dialogue is also intended to show ways in which significantly more climate protection can be achieved in the city's central area. This is a great challenge in times of climate change. To this end, we have launched a large representative survey in order to get all relevant actors on board.

Our goal is to achieve a mobility turnaround in the city. We want to reduce traffic and create more space for walking and cycling. We see that the needs of people have changed. The mobility policy of the past is challenged.

People want fewer cars in the city and promote other means of micro-mobility, including public transport. Air quality and life quality are improved and noise and congestion reduced. Therefore, my objective is less car traffic and more climate-friendly mobility solutions.

Were you able to implement any local initiatives to help the population and business sector get through the difficult health and economic situation?

For me, it seems sensible to focus the fight against the spread of the virus on the local and regional situation. But we need to work together at least on a European level to overcome this global pandemic, both in terms of health and recovery so that we can tackle the economic and social consequences. Travel restrictions may only be a temporary measure – the normal situation is an open and free Europe.

With reference to the situation in Hannover, I can say, that in the first corona lockdown we have seen our own digital weaknesses in the administration, as well as a digital gap in schools, for example. We must respond to this. Digitalization should support participation, not social segregation or discrimination.

I am glad that our national and regional governments are investing more in digital capacities in schools now. This remains a big challenge. Digital investments are costly. Devices have a life span of maybe up to five years - and in school use probably shorter. The budgets for updates and upgrades need to be reserved. Overall, digitalization must not lead to a social divide.

In addition, we have jointly put together several aid packages: the ten-million emergency aid program for companies, the Corona Social Fund and the Corona Stability Pact. Hanover has thus taken on a pioneering role among municipalities.

Our strategy is based on five cornerstones: We invest vigorously, we pursue a determined consolidation course, we maintain important social, economic, societal and cultural structures in this city. We ensure social balance and we safeguard our ability to act.

First and foremost is the area of education. Around 260 million euros alone have been earmarked for schools and daycare centres in 2021 and 2022. We are thus creating additional childcare capacities and modern educational infrastructure. These investments have absolute priority.

But we are also strengthening the infrastructure and the neighbourhoods. For example, around 56 million euros have been earmarked for road infrastructure. 37 million will flow into urban development. The keyword here being 'social city'.

And I would like to point out another priority at this point, which I have already mentioned: the investment volume for the digitalization of the city administration amounts to a good 20 million euros.

We want to create a digital city hall where, as many of our services as possible can be executed online, in a smooth and time-efficient way. That provides more comfort for the people, and, at the same time, frees up capacities for those who want and need a face-to-face service

As the capital and largest city of Lower Saxony, what advice would you give to other local governments that want to make their cities innovative but do not know where to start from?

I rely a lot on citizen participation formats, I want to involve the people in our city, the diversity of opinions is very important to me. Through dialogue and creative ideas, innovation can emerge.

With reference to topics - one theme is very relevant from my perspective: to develop intelligent mobility solutions, more precisely we aim to have a car-free city centre. It must be more convenient and cheaper to drive into town by bus, light rail or bicycle rather than by car. It also gives us exciting new opportunities to design and shape the urban space: more room for arts and culture, social services, more quality of life.

If you look at cities like Paris, Vienna or Madrid, you can find very good examples of smart mobility solutions. This debate has been fuelled by the pandemic in many cities - it’s a trend all over Europe. Now cities can inspire each other with their best practices.

Lastly, what are your plans for the city over the next 5 years?

We are now setting the course for the sustainable development of the city. The city should offer all generations an even better quality of life, be more climate-friendly, greener and more colourful.

Hannover will set standards in new mobility (traffic turnaround), get a better grip on social problems (this development is well on its way - for example, when it comes to combating homelessness, integration or affordable housing for all). Hannover should be even more of a role model in terms of tolerance, diversity and cosmopolitanism. 

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