NIMBYism and Citizen Engagement

top of photo--the street level above the subway construction.

top of photo–the street level above the subway construction.

Walking through the soon-to-be subway extension

Walking through the soon-to-be subway extension

Down catwalk to the Dusseldorf subway construction site

Down catwalk to the Dusseldorf subway construction site

Sunday afternoon in front of the Cathedral in Cologne, Germany

Sunday afternoon in front of the Cathedral in Cologne, Germany

Huh, and I thought NIMBY was an American thing. When I was in Germany as part of the McCloy Fellowship in Urban Affairs, German officials cavalierly said “Germans are famous for opposing everything. Every project is met with ‘Not in my backyard’ (NIMBY).” And what is the response to citizen opposition? They proceed anyway. They said if they didn’t, they would never get anything done.

I bring this up because in Dusseldorf, I toured the most incredible building project—the construction site of a subway line extension. We went right under the existing buildings on the street level—they are only five 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. The incredible part is—the city did NOT close any streets for this construction. Traffic is flowing just as before. It’s really amazing. The construction manager said “The citizens of Dusseldorf will not tolerate disruption to their transportation systems.” And, to top it off, the city is building a tunnel in conjunction with the subway. The tunnel and subway will be stacked right on top of each other. They tore down an overpass because they wanted to turn the area into a walkable, pedestrian-friendly site, and concluded that it would be less costly and more convenient to construct them both at the same time.  

            What does this have to do with Detroit? Detroit has a lot of initiatives that are driven by residents and city-lovers. There is a lot of citizen involvement. That is something that is not part of the German municipal operations. Because they have such large elected city councils (the city of Dusseldorf has 92 elected officials), they don’t have a lot of what we think of as citizen engagement and participation. Not that Germans don’t fully engage in their everyday lives—they  are out and about in droves, walking, taking public transit, visiting museums, hanging out in the public square (and in those charming cafes). I have never seen so many people on the streets here—and I don’t mean just walking to where they are going to catch a specific form of transit—but actually being out in public as a purposeful activity.

I’ve thought a lot about it, and I think the government is so efficient at getting things done, and the agenda of the political leaders is focused on sustainability and transit and education and building partnerships—that the citizens don’t need to fight for those types of things. When I asked the mayor of Oldenburg how much citizen participation his city had, he told me “citizens can come to the council meetings.”

So, what do we have that is unique and special? We have citizen engagement, participation, the city as “host” and not “the life of the party.” We have Detroit Soup, we have Recycle Here!, we have the Green Garage and the Green Alley, we have the Artist’s Village. So many great things! What a multitude! What we will show the German fellows, with their varied interests, about our largest and at times, most maligned city? Stay tuned.