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Jutta Steinruck: Our task is to shape the huge transformation processes of our time successfully and consensually

Jutta Steinruck: Our task is to shape the huge transformation processes of our time successfully and consensually

An interview with the mayor of Ludwigshafen, Germany

Jutta Steinruck was a member of the European Parliament for the German Social Democrats from 2009 to the end of 2017. Among other things, she was a member of the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs (EMPL). From 2014 until she left, she was the coordinator for the S&D Group. Her main areas of work were labour market policy and social policy, showing her particular commitment to a more social Europe.
After leaving the European Parliament, she immediately accepted the position as Lord Mayoress of the City of Ludwigshafen am Rhein, the second-largest in Rhineland-Palatinate, in January 2018.

Lord Mayoress Steinruck, how would you describe the city of Ludwigshafen and what would you say is its most well-known landmark?

Ludwigshafen is a young city; it is innovative, cosmopolitan, and open to new ideas. Global corporations have their headquarters here; we have a strong industry, but also strong medium-sized companies. Ludwigshafen is a place that thinks about production and research, and connects one to the other; a place that bravely faces new challenges repeatedly, but does not forget its roots in the process.

Like many cities, we are looking for our way to master the challenges of digitization and demographic change; we face the questions of future-oriented mobility and human-friendly urban planning that link ecology and successful social cohesion. In doing so, we do not overlook the needs, opportunities and requirements of a large economic and metropolitan area. We ask ourselves these questions. In this respect, Ludwigshafen's landmark is not something carved in stone, but in a certain way, it is the principle of change, dialogue and – as Ernst Bloch's city – the future.

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

Our most demanding project by far is the elevated road project. Behind it, there is an infrastructural transformation process that brings mobility, urban planning and society together in a strongly participatory manner. We will tear down an elevated road in the middle of our city and replace it with a city road. We are rethinking mobility – also in a digital way; we are planning a sustainable urban district in the heart of our city. Not many cities get such a huge opportunity.

At the same time, we also had to tear down another “arm” of the elevated road system for safety reasons in 2020 and in the middle of the pandemic. Here we are currently planning the reconstruction.

All of this is done with a forward-looking approach: How do we organize mobility in the city in the future? How do we support our strong economy and industry through good infrastructure and how do we build and plan a human-friendly city? These issues concern us.

In Ludwigshafen, we rely on very early and broad citizen participation – voluntary, consultative, sustainable. When it was no longer possible to do it in person, due to the pandemic last year, we have tried online formats and are using them successfully.

In addition to these major political and planning processes, there are also many new initiatives in the city districts that promote positive developments. However, the following applies to all of them: We plan and work transparently and comprehensibly, we involve citizens and maintain a respectful dialogue with one another.

The mayors were and still are on the front line in the fight against the pandemic. How do you manage to maintain contact with your fellow citizens and convince them to respect measures that are sometimes unpopular?

We have indeed been in a pandemic control and crisis management mode for over a year. This situation is very challenging for all of us. I would like to thank everyone who – in the context of their profession, in voluntary work and in administration – works above average and day by day for the common good. We can only master this situation with solidarity and mutual respect.

Myself and my colleagues on the city executive board are always looking for a dialogue with the citizens. We inform very consistently and transparently, which is why we have set up regular media briefings. There we are available to answer questions and explain every measure.

We communicate in an outreach way, actively and continuously, and we use all of our channels. We try to make both the decisions and the path to them transparent so that people can understand this. But yes, we are also experiencing and feeling growing displeasure in parts of society about regulations that may be perceived as unjust.

Moreover, we see how many smaller companies, self-employed people, artists and many more fear for their economic existence. We will do whatever we can to help. However, we also have to recognize that we are reaching our limits.

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

We started a local emergency aid program very early and offered economic support. The aid program was intended to quickly and unbureaucratically help institutions that are suffering from the corona pandemic and its consequences.

For the local economy – especially for the small and solo businesses – the consequences of the pandemic are severe. Large drops in sales are not uncommon. This is why it was important to me that we as a city help wherever we have direct influence and opportunities to do so. I also asked our Economic Development Organization to actively expand its piloting activities during these times. We want to be approachable to people and companies.

You have been Lord Mayoress since 2018, how has the city changed in that time?

My previous work in the European Parliament (2009-2017) has given me a lot of experience. I think it is right and important that we strive together – and maybe even argue – for the best solutions in the city council and with full respect for the democratic processes. I am sceptical of overly powerful majorities. Rather, it is important to me to hear the voices of the smaller or other groups, to make different perspectives visible and to negotiate compromises.

That may be exhausting at times, but it is part of good political coexistence and a lively democracy. That is my political style and I have consistently implemented it since I took office.

What are your plans for the city from now on?

I am committed to humane, ecologically and socially sustainable urban development. Our task in the cities is to shape the huge transformation processes of our time successfully and consensually. We are talking about nothing less than the opportunities and challenges of digitization, the protection of our planet and its climate, the implementation of intelligent mobility systems, the responsible use of our resources – just to name a few major topics.

We are dealing with the “workplace of the future” in a very specific way and with scientific support. To be precise, we are dealing with the question of what an administration can do in the future and how efficiently and resource-saving it can do it.

How we deal with public space is also a big issue for me: How can we design public space in such a way that people feel comfortable there? In a way that they consciously experience the sojourn quality of it and, conversely, also respect it. Our new city quarter should become such a new public space. But we are also examining our inner city carefully and consider how we can make it sustainable.

In addition, I think that we as a society, and especially here as cities, have to reflect on our experiences with the pandemic. We have to think about and discuss what we have learned from the crisis, what we might want to do differently in the future or where we want to improve. We have to cope with the pandemic, but we also have to come to terms with it. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations.

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