11.–12.06.2025 #polismobility

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From Headwind to Tailwind

How can the development of mobility and public spaces for the common good succeed?

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"It is not only in the city that major challenges become visible. It is also where we can best develop and try out new solutions, because this is where all the relevant players come together and work together" - this is the introductory statement on the website of the Federal Ministry of Housing, Urban Development and Building. Our cities and municipalities are facing huge challenges. Demographic change, climate protection and adaptation and ensuring social cohesion are just a few examples.

Guest article by Dr. Jessica Le Bris, Lead Strategic Consulting Mobility & Public Space, experience consulting GmbH

People standing between information booths on a closed road.

Creating awareness and activating people - these are the goals of the "Re:think Munich" campaign. Through public participation processes, people are to enter into a dialog and have the opportunity to actively shape their living environment. ©experience consulting GmbH

There are many proposed solutions for the individual sectoral challenges. They are often put forward with great impatience and a lack of understanding as to why the obvious is not implemented immediately. This impatience is often justified. However, it is often forgotten that we cannot adapt our cities at will, because they are social and physical living spaces that have evolved over centuries.

Shaping mobility in the city of the future

Let's focus directly on one of the most important issues for sustainable urban and regional development: sustainable mobility and the associated use of public space. If we look at the topic in the context of urban centers, we have long known that public space is extremely valuable, not only for the quality of life with open and green spaces, but of course also for business and trade. Only the mix of different functions in a street creates real life outside. Especially in cities - with their high housing costs and therefore often cramped conditions - outdoor spaces or third places play an incredibly important role.

Headwind due to volume

Unfortunately, we repeatedly experience a dissonance between the theoretical and conceptual objective of focusing on the common good and its practical implementation. In particular, projects for the traffic turnaround quickly give rise to a highly charged discourse and extreme resistance.

A saying that still rings in my ears: "(Parking) cars at least don't shout!" This was the comment of an elderly lady in response to a street space experiment in which car spaces were made available for playing and staying. And an increase in noise levels due to more children is just one facet of the resistance argument. The repertoire of the so-called nimbys - "Not in my backyard" - naturally also includes the subjectively worsening (car) accessibility as residents' parking spaces are removed. Very often, it is also the retail sector that puts up massive resistance to traffic calming measures or redesignations, fearing massive losses in sales - although there are now numerous studies that prove the opposite.

Sometimes there are actually only a few dissenting voices, but they know how to assert themselves very loudly. From our own experience in our projects, the supporters are usually not so loud, as the redesign has positive effects for them. This is also a phenomenon that needs to be taken into account, i.e. that those who are satisfied articulate themselves less frequently. If there is no differentiated consultation process, these opinions are lost.

The examples show: Ultimately, it is about interests that are sometimes very different or diametrically opposed.

Tailwind through dialog

The question is how we can realize precisely this socio-political goal at the concrete implementation level and integrate the different interests as far as possible. One of the most important instruments remains dialog with one another and the development of a culture of trust: ultimately, there are people behind the positions, so it is all the more important that everyone at least feels that they are being taken seriously and that the positions are weighed up and discussed in mutual dialog.

The joint development of visions for the future must therefore play a major role. That sounds simple - but it is not. The important thing is the process of developing visions of the future, discussing and weighing up the pros and cons, integrating scientific findings and also incorporating specialist political positions. This is where the real awareness of the different requirements takes place and thus a sensitization for compromise solutions and/or social future-oriented necessities.

More and more modern participation formats are now being used for the negotiation process itself, so that not only the loudest voices have an influence, but the diversity of concerns is taken into account. An example of this would be citizens' councils, in which a group that is as representative as possible is put together by drawing lots from the residents' register. Such citizens' councils can of course also be expanded to include interest groups from trade, culture, etc.

However, it is also important to be aware of the stages of participation. Simply informing or listening is not yet a holistic participation process; genuine participation means being involved as early as possible and being able to help shape and co-decide.

If polarization has already occurred, the only thing that usually helps is a change of perspective. A workshop on the success factors of successful participation resulted in the following statement: "It's definitely a huge success if one side says at the end: 'I'm still against the measure, but at least I now understand the other side's point'."

Needs must be clearly defined

Another important point is to sensitize the planners themselves to the various needs. We have had very good experiences here with inclusion tours, where employees of the city administration go on a walk through the city and experience for themselves what it is like to be deaf or blind, to have bones that are no longer as flexible and balance that is wobbly or to be dependent on a wheelchair.

On the other hand, the question must also be clearly asked as to when it makes sense to be fully involved at all. The administration has a public welfare-oriented mandate per se - individual interests should not be allowed to take center stage here. But not only do routines change very slowly; systems also have a tendency to be self-perpetuating.

In rural areas, of course, there are completely different discussions. The problem of space does not usually arise in this form here. There, the focus is on maintaining mobility and ensuring accessibility - even without a car. And this particularly affects young people without a driver's license and older people who may no longer need to drive. Demographic change will hit with full force and requires a readjustment of existing structures and the scaling of good practices.

Mobility - an emotional topic

For many, the topic of mobility is not only highly emotional, but mobility is the basis for fulfilling our everyday and human needs. Urban development geared towards the common good can only be achieved if the interests of a wide variety of stakeholders are taken into account and common goals are nevertheless developed while recognizing conflicts of interest. Compromise is not a dirty word, as it often appears in today's media discourse; it describes the art of achieving what is possible and thus creating the basis for modern urban development.

About the author

Jessica Le Bris combines strategic thinking, scientific theory and methodological expertise from urban and mobility research with practice-oriented communication. Since 2015, she has been working at Experience Consulting, an office for transformation consulting that originally emerged from the Green City e.V. association in Munich. With a doctorate in human geography, she is head of the strategic consulting division and has also recently been made an authorized signatory.