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Mayor Eckhard Ruthemeyer , Source: City of Soest

Eckhard Ruthemeyer: The ‘Soest way’ is to try and tackle climate change and digitalisation simultaneously

Eckhard Ruthemeyer: The ‘Soest way’ is to try and tackle climate change and digitalisation simultaneously

An interview with the Mayor of Soest, Germany

Eckhard Ruthemeyer has been working for the city of Soest, Germany for 25 years. He became the First Assistant City Treasurer from 1996 to 1999. He became mayor in 1999 and has never lost the position, offering a long-term view into the development of the city.

In this interview, he talks about the future. With the pressing issues of digitalisation and climate change, Mayor Ruthemeyer offers a sneak peek into how Soest mixes old and new into a continuous process of improvement.

Mr Ruthemeyer, you have been the mayor of Soest for more than 20 years, so you must be an expert on all issues concerning the city. Could you describe Soest to our readers? 

Soest was one of the most important cities in Germany in the Middle Ages due to trade relations via the European Hanseatic League and was as big as Cologne at that time. We have been able to preserve a large part of the medieval townscape throughout the centuries, including the town fortifications.

Today Soest has a beautiful old town to offer with a well-stocked retail trade and a diverse gastronomic scene. Two of our highlights taking place annually between half-timbered houses and centuries-old churches made of green sandstone are the Allerheiligenkirmes (All Saints' Fair) at the beginning of November, which is the largest old town fair in Europe, and the Christmas market.

As a business location, Soest with its 50,000 inhabitants is very robust thanks to a broadly diversified mix of industries. Fortunately, we are a growing city where people really like to live and work thanks to the previously mentioned advantages.

What were the most pressing issues at the start of the millennium and what are they now? 

When I became mayor in 1999, the city's ability to act was limited due to a difficult budget situation. Therefore, we had to focus on improving the city’s finances while making investments in urban development possible - in other words, developing infrastructure, schools, day-care centres, culture and recreational value. We have had great success in that regard, in part thanks to the support by funding programs from the state, the federal government and the EU.

Currently, the central issues for us are coping with climate change and digital transformation. Soest aims to become a climate-neutral smart city. The "Soest Way" is to try and to tackle both challenges at the same time as we are convinced that this way we will achieve our goals faster, more efficiently and sustainably.

In addition, we need to keep small and medium-sized towns vibrant so that people in rural areas are not left behind compared to conurbations. In this regard, modern digital infrastructure is paramount.

However, "analogue" living will also persist, which is why we have to do the utmost to save inner cities from becoming deserted. This has not become easier through the growth of online retail trade during the Corona pandemic, which is putting a lot of pressure on brick and mortar stores. I put a lot of faith in the fact that by increasing the quality of stay we can make city centres future-proof.

As you have said, digitalisation is a key issue in the current decade. Soest though is a city with a long and rich medieval history. How do the old and new mix in your municipality?

In Soest, we preserve the treasures of our city's history, as we take advantage of the opportunities offered by digital transformation. That is why Soest has become a Digital Model Municipality of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia and is participating in the German government's Smart Cites funding program.

This allows us to benefit from valuable grants for digital projects. Our goals are to simplify services for citizens and to make the work of our municipal government more efficient. After all, the use of digital technology must not be an end in itself.

One challenge during this process is to design our services to be practical for everyday use while ensuring data protection and data security. In addition, our employees need to be educated for skilled use of the required digital tools. Furthermore, it is important to ensure that citizens who hardly use digital technology have continuous access to city services.

Tackling climate change is a massive undertaking and one that requires a lot of resources, scientific knowledge and determination. Considering Soest is a smaller city, do authorities have enough resources to effect change?

Climate change does not draw a distinction between small and large cities. All municipalities are affected by the consequences and have to do something to protect the climate. In order to do this, the council of the city decided that Soest will aim to become a climate-neutral city.

To achieve this, a roadmap is required with packages of measures plus financial resources and manpower to implement those measures.

We have drawn up this roadmap in the form of the so-called “Climate Pact Master Plan”. In view of this, the municipal budget does include funding and additional respective personnel. In this respect, we are now on our way.

The three main fields of action are the energy-efficient refurbishment of existing buildings, the mobility revolution and the expansion of renewable energies in the city.  In my opinion, these fields of action also exist in other municipalities. Regarding those areas where our local government has direct access to providing solutions, we are ready to do whatever we can do. In my view, however, a special challenge is that of reaching and convincing the citizens to participate, because private households have to make significant investments in climate protection in the areas of real estate and mobility behaviour.

Finally, TheMayor.EU is a platform dedicated to sharing the best ideas local governments have to offer. Could you share some of Soest’s secrets for a well-run municipality?

If you want to lead well, you have to listen actively to people and involve them in the process of change. In the past 22 years, it has always been important for me to work out broad majorities in the council and in the municipal community to support and make important decisions and to design processes. Now and again, this approach turns out to be difficult, but it is worth the efforts - because in this way city development is supported by a majority consensus and can, thus, be successful.

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