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There and Back Again: 3 Weeks of German Best Practices

Kim Kim
By Kim Cekola, Research Associate/Editor
Information & Public Policy Department
Michigan Municipal League

The McCloy Fellowhip in Urban Affairs was created to allow local government officials to meet with their counterparts across the Atlantic in order in order to gain a better understanding of the issues faced by cities and the diverse policy solutions used to address those issues.

As a McCloy Fellow, I will spend three weeks in Germany meeting with city officials and nongovernmental organizations to discuss best practices and to see firsthand how they are applied in that setting. My time will be divided between Cologne, Dusseldorf, Oldenburg, Berlin, Cottbus, and Munich. You can follow along on the adventure as I share my experiences and what I am learning right here in this online journal. So check back often for the latest update!


Munich is an incredible city—though its city center was 90 percent destroyed during WWII, the streets are full of gorgeous old buildings. Munich was founded in 1158, and became the capital of the kingdom of Bavaria in 1806. The first Oktoberfest was held in 1810 as a celebration of the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig to Therese, princess of Saxony, The “regular” people of the kingdom were invited to attend the celebration and free beer was served to all in big tents. The people liked it so much they asked for it every year, and a tradition was born. There is a saying in a beer house we passed through: “Durst est schlimmer als heimweh.” This translates as: “To be thirsty is worse than being homesick.”

We were privileged to have an appointment with Christian Ude, the mayor of Munich. He was very solicitous of four Americans representing local government. One of the McCloy fellows is from Cincinatti OH, a sister city of Munich, so that was very fortunate. The Mayor told us of one of his proudest accomplishments as mayor—the erection of a synagogue and Jewish museum. The bottom portion of the building was modeled after the wailing wall, and the synagogue is situated in the middle of an established block in the city center.

We went to another famous landmark of Munich—the Olympic Stadium. During the years since Munich hosted the Olympics (1972), the stadium and surrounding park area has become the largest “leisure” area in Germany. People come here to bike and walk. There had been a landfill here but landfills were outlawed in Germany in 2006. The landfill is now a skiing hill.


Since part of our twenty-one day journey fell on a weekend and municipal offices are closed, we were led on an informative trip to Potsdam, the site of the treaty ending WWII. We visited the castle where the treaty was convened, and saw the window of the room President Truman made the decision to drop the nuclear bomb. We also walked on the Glienecke Bridge where political prisoners were exchanged. The white line across the middle was the trading point.

A little help from Wikipedia:

During the Cold War, Glienicke Bridge was one of the few places in the world where the Soviet Union and the Western powers stood directly opposite each other. Thus, “deals” could be made here without any of their allies having any say in the matter. The bridge lies at an isolated point where the US-occupied sector of West-Berlin met Soviet-occupied Potsdam, which was in East Germany.

The U.S. and the Soviet Union used it four times to exchange captured spies during the Cold War, and the Bridge was referred to as the Bridge of Spies by reporters

We also went to a former jail of GDRs Homeland Security. The former prison is situated in the middle of a block—right amongst flats (apartments) and stores. The prison was used for German political prisoners then afterwards, by the Russians. People were brought in for questioning and had their photos taken in a small forlorn room in a wooden chair. They were put in isolation, then moved to a cell that housed about 6-10 to a room. Their families never know what happened to them. The site is now open to tours and is a memorial for politically persecuted in the 20th century.

On a brighter note, we also visited Sans Soucci castle. The name is French for “without worries.” Prince Friedrich the Great was in love with the French culture and built a castle as a getaway from his courtly duties. He fancied himself an intellectual and hosted the great thinkers of his time. He admired the Roman and Chinese culture as well, and these interests are reflected in the outbuildings, gardens, and statuary of his grounds.


Cottbus is a city located in what was formerly East Germany. The city does not get many visitors from the U.S., so much to our surprise, we McCloy fellows were written up in the local newspaper. Since the reunification of East and West Germany, former East German cities are suffering from a lack of jobs and the resulting population loss. However, despite these problems, the city of Cottbus has shown amazing resilience.  Outdoor activities were not encouraged under the GDR, so the city has been changing that custom, with gusto. They have transformed a former parking lot into an outdoor hub. The surrounding restaurants now have outdoor seating; there is a small stage with various live performances happening all throughout the day, and picnic benches for general use after grabbing an ice cream or some other treat. Our host told us people are really enjoying this sense of social freedom. In the past they may have been spied on or “listened to”—criticism about the government or even off-hand comments interpreted the wrong way could land someone in an interrogation room or prison.

The city has been renovating its buildings and doing façade improvements. Color and beauty was not a priority in the past. Now the city is experiencing an appreciation for the architectural style and design of its buildings. There are several lovely walking malls, with cobblestone streets, shops, banners announcing upcoming festivals, and the photo on the side of the building contrasting the old and the new.

City Hall (where the employees are situated, not the Rathous) was rehabilitated. It was originally a Presbyterian Church, but almost as soon as it was built it was turned into a hospital for soldiers; its next use was as a hospital for prisoners; then an entrepreneur wanted to turn it into a brewery and restaurant. He zealously took a hammer to it and starting knocking things down. His business did not pan out, so the city had an abandoned, gutted building on its hands. They brought in architects and artists and restored it to its original beauty. And, as a municipal devotee, I had to take a photo of the wedding ceremony area in city hall. The Cottbus mayor performs marriages, just like his counterparts in Michigan!


Oldenburg is near Bremerhaven, the site of a big wind farm in the mouth of the North Sea. Bremerhaven has the only deep sea port in Germany. The project is a really big deal, so there has been a lot of public outreach. We stopped at one of the information booths built specifically to inform people of the project. The front of the structure says Wind + Energy = Jobs. Inside there are panels with photos and facts about wind energy and sustainable energy in general. In my opinion, the wind turbines do not detract from the landscape. My photo did not turn out very well, but I wanted to show them amongst the trees and next to stately buildings.

In the area of adaptive re-use, we visited a former landfill that is in the process of a complete transformation. The garbage was covered/sealed with about 6 feet of clay, and that area will have an ice skating rink. There are also trails getting a lot of use by joggers, walkers, and bicyclists, and there is a playground area and a physical fitness area. Last but not least, the transfer station is the subject of debate on what should be done with it—one idea is to make a climbing wall with a café on the roof

The city of Oldenburg is close to being built out. It does not have any vacant homes, and though the norm is not to own your own home in Germany (only 40% of Germans overall own their own homes) in Oldenburg the figure is much higher. The city responded to this situation by making city-owned property available for development. The city sells plots of land to both private developers and individuals who want to build their own home. The system is run on a first come, first-served method—so those who get their applications in early get first pick of a plot. The city does not make a profit, it only recoups what it spends for infrastructure. There are some restrictions in the program, such as some areas where the footprint of the home cannot exceed 30 perccent of the total area; some streets in the “subdivision” require the houses to have a shared wall between them (usually the garage wall); some homes are clustered in threes and fours and will share a common green space for barbeques, outdoor dining, recreating, etc. When buyers sign a contract they are obligated to build a home within two years and live in it for five years.

Oldenburg is a city with a great attitude. There is a happiness map of Germany (don’t you love it?) and Oldenburg ranks as the happiest city in Germany. Currently the city is being directed under the leadership of an avant garde mayor. The mayor breaks with tradition when he thinks it will move his city into the future. He is a fan of Richard Florida’s book Rise of the Creative Class on attracting talent, technology, and tolerance, and incorporated the three Ts into his vision for the future of Oldenburg. However, when his plan met with some citizen resistance, he was savvy enough to realize he was moving a bit too fast, so he added another T to the city’s motto: Tradition.

In 2009 the city won the City of Science award, and since then has been “on the map.” Before that, hardly anyone in Germany knew where Oldenburg even was. Now the city has a Technology Center and business incubator. It has christened itself “Ubermorgenstadt”—a city of tomorrow

Oldendburg is flat—and therefore has many bicyclists—and has been ranked one of the most bike-friendly cities in Germany. It has a population of 150,000, and was settled in 1108 (when it was first mentioned in the historical record). The city has 52 elected councilmembers. Currently, the controversy at city hall is whether to put up a statue of Count Anton Gunther (he saved Oldenburg from the 30 year war) in the public space in front of the castle. A wealthy former councilmember wants to donate the statue but also wants to determine its location. Some members of city council want it, some do not. They do not want it in the location its proposed patron wants it. They would like the public space in front of the castle to remain uncluttered.

Speaking of Count Anton, the city of Oldenburg holds a yearly festival where he is the sort of mascot. Someone dresses in his likeness and rides a majestic Oldenburg stallion as the lead in the parade.  The parade has built a strong reputation and attracts thousands. It was fabulous. There were so many participants, of all stripes. What struck me was the number of seniors that were involved. They were having a ball. The parade was the official opening of the Kramermarkt, a big festival similar to a county fair here in the states, with food vendors and games and prizes.

Dusseldorf - Day 2

Bicycles are going to be a consistent theme in this journal. In Dusseldorf we visited the environmental department of the city and learned about the bicycle for employees program. The city provides bicycles for employees to ride to and from work; the city also provides a mini bike maintenance area to put air in the tires, etc. There are regular bikes but also motorized bicycles so if you get tired you can turn the motor on and keep on truckin’. There is a cautionary note—there are sidewalks for pedestrians but also sidewalks for bikes. The bicyclists will “ding ding” their bells and you had better get out of the way! There is a line painted on the sidewalk demarcating the lanes.

In Germany, becoming a city had many advantages, historically. If you were chosen to become a city, you were allowed to make your coins, benefit from commerce by holding your own market, and mete out justice through your own local judges. There is a sculpture by the old wall (Dusseldorf was a walled city) depicting the three aspects to be gained from becoming a city. In Dusseldorf there is old town and new town; 85 percent of Dusseldorf was destroyed in WWII.
Our visit to the city council meeting in Dusseldorf was eye-opening. It was different in the sense that there were 92 elected officials. Yes, you read correctly: 92. We didn’t understand what was being said, but the mayor acknowledged us from the floor (we were sitting in the balcony). There are many different political parties in Germany. In Dusseldorf there were about 9 or 10. Councilors from the same party sit next to each on the floor. The first item on the agenda was whether to tax prostitution in the city. It was a brief looksy at the council meeting—we left before they took the vote. The name of the city council building is the Rathous. OK, yes, our minds went there—Rat House.There is one last thing I’d like to point out about the Rheine riverfront redevelopment I talked about previously. The city council did not want to allow any new construction right by the bridge over the river—they wanted green space and nice views from the buildings on the other side of the riverwalk to the river. So, the Apollo theatre, which had always been there (before the removal of the highway) wanted to stay in its location. Solution? Rebuild UNDER the bridge. It was complicated, engineering-wise, but they did it.

Dusseldorf, Germany

Funny thing about the world—people are concerned about the same things no matter where you are. The thing that has been stressed to me several times these first two days in Germany is the aging population and what to do about it. Demographics are changing here, as in the U.S. In Dusseldorf today, as we were walking, we passed an apartment building right in the downtown that was a senior complex. There were residents out on the deck, enjoying the temperate September weather. The apartment complex is right on the bus line, and very near the tram line. German municipalities are concerned, as we are, about seniors having access to the services they need, within a reasonable, travelable distance of their living situation.

Dusseldorf is the capital city of one of the 16 states of Germany. It is on the Rheine River, and today we visited a site that used to be a highway right next to the river but the city council wanted citizens to be able to enjoy the Rheine right up to the riverbank, so they built a tunnel and put the highway underground. As a result, there has been economic development by the river. People want to enjoy the amenities, so apartments, restaurants, and outdoor cafes were put in.

We also had the privilege of visiting the construction site of a new subway line. We went right under the existing buildings—they are only 5 meters above the dig site. We put on hardhats, yellow firefighter-like coats, and boots and walked over catwalks and down narrow flights of stairs to see the construction up close. Next time I am in Dusseldorf I can say "I was walking right where we are riding this subway!" The incredible part is—the city did NOT close any streets for this construction. Traffic is flowing just as before. It's really amazing. And they are building a tunnel in conjunction with the subway because they tore down an overpass and concluded that it would be less costly and more convenient to construct them both at the same time. The tunnel and subway will be stacked right on top of each other.

Germans go about their business walking and riding public transportation. Cars are not the norm. Our host while in Dusseldorf, the delightful Bierthe (city planner) exclaimed to us on our first night “I don’t have a car. I don’t need one.” The cool thing is in Dusseldorf (I don’t know yet if it is the same in other German cities) is that you can buy one ticket and use it for every form of public transportation. We’ve been on the tram and the subway with only one ticket. The trams are super-easy to use, even for a neophyte like me.

First Impressions

Being in Germany is like being hit over the head with placemaking. In Cologne, my starting point, the hosts of the U.S fellows situated us in a hotel next to a roundabout, across the plazastreet from the train station, with a bus station at the back door, a medieval church right out the door of the train station (an imposing structure, visible from every vantage point), Roman ruins, public plazas with tons of people going through, hanging out, drinking beer (you can have open intoxicants right around the train station), street vendors, and bicycles--private and bike-share. In addition, in Cologne, there is a “green zone” for cars—when you register your car, you get either a green sticker, yellow sticker, or red sticker, based on your car’s emission. Only cars with green stickers are allowed unfettered access to the downtown area. If you have a yellow sticker, you are mostly allowed to drive downtown, and red stickeredcars, not at all.

bikesEverywhere we went, people are on the street. Bike riders weave in and out and it doesn’t bother anyone. Scooters are popular as well. People of all ages congregate in the plazas. From what I have observed of German culture in Cologne, it is very social. People share tables in restaurants, not sitting at separate tables when they go out to eat. The atmosphere is bustling: busy, but not rushed.

Side note—dogs are allowed everywhere, in restaurants and on the train, etc. At first I was startled by the practice, but the dogs are well behaved, and just part of the atmosphere.


From the American Council on Germany

John J. McCloy, Founding Chairman of the American Council on Germany, has been called "the most influential private citizen in America" by Harper's magazine, "the conscience of America" by DIE ZEIT, and "the godfather of the new Germany" by former Federal German President Richard von Weizsaecker. Mr. McCloy was “present at the creation” of the post-World War II world order, to borrow Dean Acheson’s phrase, and he had a unique role in shaping the political landscape. At a time when many Americans were wary of connections to a recent foe, Mr. McCloy set out to build bridges between the citizens of the two nations and to support Germany in its efforts to adopt democratic principles and join the community of Western nations. He was a strong believer in the value of the German-American relationship; the McCloy fellowship was started in his honor.




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