He is one of the ‘top 40 under 40’ in Germany, according to the ranking of the magazine ‘Capital’: Belit Onay, since November 2019 Mayor of Hanover in Germany. Now the city has joined the Eurocities network. We spoke with Belit Onay about the importance of European cooperation, his green agenda and how cities can come out of the corona crisis.
Belit, first of all: welcome to Eurocities!
Hanover has been a ‘red city’ with social democratic mayors for more than 70 years, you are the first mayor from the green party. How important is your political colour in your work?
First of all, I am the mayor of Hanover and all our people. At the same time, I have a clear green agenda when it comes to transport and mobility, social inclusion, and solidarity, for example. Personally, a high degree of pragmatism defines me. My work is oriented towards the people in our city: their needs steer our direction.
So, how do you involve people in your policy making?
I am a big fan of citizen engagement and direct participation. We will try out new formats and find optimal solutions to give people a say in different projects. Most important for me: it must be a dialogue that includes as many people as possible. Often participation processes engage those who are already well organised and represented and have their voice heard – but not others who are also affected.
You just launched such a participation process: an initiative to make Hanover’s inner city “fit for the future” – a reaction to corona?
The structural change of the city centre had already begun before, but it has been accelerated by the pandemic. Online shopping puts the retail sector under pressure, mobility patterns have changed, people today have different needs and expectations. We therefore invite a broad dialogue about the city centre of tomorrow, with people who live and work there, with visitors and the whole population of Hanover. Until the end of next year we want to collect and evaluate suggestions for a new concept.
Will the city centre become car-free? This was one of the topics in your election campaign a year ago.
We are working for 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, also for reasons of climate protection. People want fewer cars in the city and promote other means of micro-mobility, including public transport. The local businesses also benefit from a more attractive city centre, which offers more space for people instead of cars. 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. It must be more convenient and cheaper to drive into town by bus, light rail or bicycle rather than by car.
“Cities can inspire each other”
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 for smart mobility solutions. This debate has been fuelled by corona in many cities, it’s a trend all over Europe. Now cities can inspire each other with their best practices.
Was that a reason for Hanover to join Eurocities: to learn from others in the network?
It’s important that Hanover is well connected with other cities and municipalities, in the region, nationally, and on European level. We see ourselves as a European city. We know that most of our issues cannot be addressed alone, but only in a European context: mobility, migration, social inclusion, finance, climate. It was a right and important step for us to become a member of Eurocities now.
How do you see Europe’s role in fighting the pandemic? It looks more like a patchwork of national approaches.
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 European level to overcome this global pandemic, both in terms of health and recovery: to tackle the economic and social consequences. And travel restrictions may only be a temporary measure – the normal situation is an open and free Europe.
“We want to create a digital city hall”
Let’s hope we get there soon again! In our current situation, with different levels of lockdown, digital communication becomes even more important. How is Hanover doing there?
We are working actively for the digital transformation. 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, free capacities for those who want and need a face to face service. And our administration becomes more transparent and more agile. Digitalisation opens up new ways of working, with collaboration cross departments and opportunities beyond the traditional hierarchical structure.
Citizens need skills and devices to connect digitally. How do you support people who lack those resources?
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. Digitalisation 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, in school use probably shorter. The budgets for updates and upgrades need to be reserved. And overall, digitalisation must not lead to a social divide.
“We must invest locally to boost the economy”
The same is true beyond the digital sphere: efforts – and funding – are needed to ensure that everyone can take part. How can you support inclusion, with corona stretching the city budget?
Inclusion is a human right, not a ‘nice-to-have’. It is an obligation: for the city as an employer, for barrier-free buildings, and many more active steps. We are talking with national and regional governments how to tackle the structural investment deficit on local level. We need investments in municipalities to solve our common issues – inclusion, climate, and many more. And we must invest against the crisis. Austerity would be the wrong response to the situation, we must invest now locally to boost the economy.