Urban pioneers: Rotterdam’s Local Democracy Cheerleader

6 May 2024

Lot Mertens has been Rotterdam’s Local Democracy Cheerleader since April 2022. In the latest of our Urban Pioneers series, she goes into how she’s boosting civic engagement – bridging the gap between citizens and city hall in her trademark pink overalls.

Local democracy is in danger. In Rotterdam, the average voter turnout was 38% in 2022 with some neighbourhoods only at an 18% turnout. While there are many reasons why voters may choose to stay home, Lot explains that when citizens don’t feel that the government is there for them, they drop out. This creates a division in the city: a small group of people who speak up and a much larger group of people who keep quiet, assuming they have nothing to say or won’t be heard.

When low turnouts persisted in Rotterdam’s city council elections, the city took action. In 2022, Rotterdam created 39 neighbourhood councils of citizens to advise the city government. They collect stories and amplify the voices of the community. Although they have no mandate, they influence the City Hall. Lot Mertens’ goal is to maximise it. In April 2022, she created the role of Local Democracy Cheerleader to bridge the gap between citizens and city hall.

As Local Democracy Cheerleader, Lot promotes democratic principles and participation at the local level by advocating for increased civic engagement. Cheering on active citizen involvement in shaping local governance, she empowers communities to participate in the decision-making processes.

She was working as Neighbourhood Manager in Rotterdam West when she learned firsthand just how important it is for citizens to understand how politics work. There she saw the power that comes when you work together with the local community to make a tangible difference for the neighbourhood.

Today in her uniform of pink overalls, she stands out in Rotterdam’s political arena as Local Democracy Cheerleader. Each pair proudly displays Lot’s call to action: ‘stadsluisteren,’ which means ‘listen to the city’ in Dutch. Amplifying this message even further, Rotterdam is hosting a speednetworking session on local democracy at Eurocities Annual Conference to help other cities follow suit.

What are you trying to achieve in your position?

As Local Democracy Cheerleader, my goal is to make citizens feel empowered knowing that their voices matter and have an impact on the political practices in our city. I want neighbourhood councils to be taken seriously and for the municipal government to more strongly consider their input in plans for the city-level.

What’s your personal motivation to do this job?

Many citizens in Rotterdam feel like they don’t matter. As Local Democracy Cheerleader, I’m an activist making it loud and clear that they have power. Each day, I grab a clean pair of bright pink overalls from my wardrobe. Wearing this, citizens, politicians and civil servants can easily recognize me.

Donned in my uniform, I go out into the city and visit local communities. I talk to them about their questions, wishes and actions. I encourage them to make their voices heard and help them organise political action. No two days are the same, except for the pink coveralls.

What are your main challenges?

There’s a lot of work to be done solidifying the role of citizens in local government. Although officials work with good intentions, the municipality often works as a closed system. I want civil servants to experience the impact that comes from working directly with citizens. As a result, their work not only becomes more fun but also more effective.

When was the last time you felt that your position had a positive impact on your city’s inhabitants?

I know I’m making an impact when citizens use their voices to tell the City Council how things are in their neighbourhood or when a neighbourhood council works with the local community to create their own neighbourhood plan.

Citizens thank me for taking them to City Hall and explaining how it works. Neighbourhood councils appreciate my support and the connections I facilitate to advance their goals.

If you had a magic wand, what could significantly improve the way you do your job?

One simple question would help immensely: what have you done to give residents influence? This question from administrators to city officials should be an everyday practice in local government.

Pitch your job to other local, regional, national or European governments

As a cheerleader, I have to be careful and very clear. I must confront and offer comfort, challenge and manage relationships. It’s all a question of balance. The establishment shouldn’t become completely uncomfortable with my role, but on the other hand, it’s important to maintain credibility with citizens.

In my view, the pink overalls play an important role in that balancing act. It is a ‘performance’ of sorts. It invites both administrators and citizens to show different behaviour. I would love to see more such ‘performances’ in public governance as a way to bridge the gap between the different worlds of government, neighbourhood councils and citizens.


This interview is part of ‘Urban Pioneers,’ a Eurocities series published every second and fourth week of the month spotlighting innovative and original job positions in municipalities across Europe. Each article in this series highlights a job position aimed at improving wellbeing, health conditions, society and the environment in cities. From tackling the urban heat island effect to countering gender imbalances to encouraging sustainable mobility, ‘Urban Pioneers’ showcases how cities are leading by example and breaking new ground in enhancing people’s quality of life. ‘Urban Pioneers’ jobs can inspire national, regional and EU authorities to create similar positions in their own structures, multiplying across Europe’s regions and nations the positive impact that started in cities.

Article one: Officer for Basic Research in Women´s Issues in Vienna

Article two: Malmo’s Skateboarding Coordinator

Article three: Amsterdam’s Bicycle Mayor

Article four: Brussel’s Bouwmeester Maitre Architecte

Article five: Munich’s Head of the Equal Opportunities Office for Women 

Article six: Vienna’s Integration Officer

Article seven: Antwerp’s Chief Resilience Officer

Article eight: Dortmund’s Night Manager

Article nine: BYCS’ Rome Bicycle Mayor

Article ten: Barcelona’s Time Policy Officer

Article 11: Vienna’s Walking Officer

Article 12: Dortmund’s Loneliness Officer


Alyssa Harris Eurocities writer