World Mayor 2020

Peter Kurz, Mayor of Mannheim
Peter Kurz, Mayor of Mannheim, Germany, since 2007

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THE ESSAY

I was delighted to be asked to write an article about the Mayor of Mannheim, Dr Peter Kurz, that highlights and discusses his achievements, ideas and approaches. As the managing director of a municipal company who has worked closely with Mayor Kurz for almost 20 years, I naturally have a very personal view of the situation which I would like to explain.


Industrial heritage
Mannheim is a traditional industrial city at the confluence of the Rhine and Neckar rivers in southwest Germany. With a population of around 300,000, Mannheim is the second largest city in Baden-Württemberg and ranks among the 20 largest cities in Germany. In the 1980s and 1990s, the city suffered greatly from the effects of structural change inherent to an economy based on industrial production. However, historically culture and innovation have always played a major role in Mannheim. Not only was Germany's first municipal theatre built here in 1776, but groundbreaking inventions such as the automobile (Carl Benz in 1886), the bicycle (Karl Drais in 1817) and the Bulldog tractor by a company called Lanz also originated in Mannheim. Furthermore, Mannheim's urban society is very diverse and multicultural. Almost half of the city's residents have an immigrant background. People from 176 countries live together in Mannheim.


Mayor Kurz leads
Mannheim’s transformation

In 1998, Mayor Kurz was elected deputy mayor for culture, education and sports. Even at that time, he had the vision of drawing on Mannheim’s traditional strengths and thinking and developing the areas of urban development, culture and innovation in an integrated way. He began very early on to build up a creative business cluster for the city to stimulate structurally weak neighbourhoods with the help of artists and creative service providers while at the same time continuing to strengthen an atmosphere of openness. Germany's first academic pop music program (Popakademie) and the Musikpark, the first start-up centre for the music industry (which was also the first creative business centre in Germany), were born out of his initiative and established in the Jungbusch district. In 2007, Dr Peter Kurz was elected Mayor of Mannheim and was re-elected in 2015.

Since the beginning of the 2000s, Mayor Kurz has consistently worked on developing the vision of making Mannheim a city of innovation with a strong urban-cultural character. Under his leadership, eight start-up and innovation centres have been established over the last 20 years, providing an infrastructure for the regional start-up ecosystem that is unique in Europe. Almost 300 start-ups are located in this ecosystem and are working ever more on sustainable innovations in keeping with the city’s Mannheim 2030 mission statement. In recent years, a special focus has been placed on developing and expanding the medical technology sector. A MedTech campus was established in the immediate vicinity of University Hospital, with two start-up centres and a number of research institutions that are intended to shape this scientific and economic focus for Mannheim.

Furthermore, Mayor Kurz has built up this start-up ecosystem as an integral part of innovative and cultural urban development. For example, the activities linked to the start-up promotion and the internationalisation of the ecosystem are managed and implemented by the same municipal company that is responsible for positioning Mannheim as a UNESCO City of Music and providing the first German Night Mayor. Mayor Kurz sees international cooperation among cities as a key to positive global development because mankind’s future problems will originate largely in cities as most people live in cities. In light of this fact, it will therefore be necessary to solve problems in cities. Mayor Kurz explains, "Cities are not only the centres of innovation, they also have to act faster, communicate more directly with the population and – above all – cooperate. They know that they are not independent and cannot pursue their interests in independent of others. This makes them the political entity most capable of responding to the immense challenges of the 21st century. The exchange among cities creates knowledge and inspiration and contributes to understanding and turns into a positive political force. That is why we as a city are committed internationally."


International cooperation
Mayor Kurz began to initiate international partnerships early on. Based on the network of Mannheim's partner cities, other projects and initiatives were developed and implemented outside of these structures. For example, Mannheim's start-up ecosystem has a permanent representative and a branch office in Tel Aviv, one of the most important start-up capitals in the world. In Hebron on the West Bank, an international co-working lab was also set up in cooperation with the Palestinian administration and with the support of the Mannheim-based GIZ (German Society for International Cooperation) to give company founders there a platform for exchange with international start-up locations. In the Turkish city of Kilis, Mannheim is using federal funding to build a centre to educate women, especially Syrian refugees. In Moldova and Ukraine, we are supporting cities in cooperative urban development with citizens. The strong commitment also generates credibility within Mannheim’s heterogeneous urban society.

Mayor Kurz is not only the chairman of the Baden-Württemberg Association of German Cities and Towns, but he also chairs the board of the Global Parliament of Mayors.


The withdrawal of
American troops

One of the great challenges during Mayor Kurz's two terms in office was that huge areas in Mannheim became available at relatively short notice upon the withdrawal of American troops. Under the Mayor’s leadership the city made the daring move to purchase this space with its own new company and – despite the extremely fast pace – to designate it for sustainable, future-oriented uses. Already now we are seeing that this exemplary move is going to succeed. Fifty percent of the area was used to produce and create green spaces. The conversion of this area is changing the notion of what a city is. To this end, not only have residential quarters been promoted with ecologically and socially innovative projects, companies resettled there and digitization approaches implemented, but the 2023 Federal Garden Show will also be used as an important urban development tool on part of these newly converted areas. It will also be the platform to showcase the transformation of the city nationwide.


Mannheim, a welcoming
and compassionate city

A historical challenge for Germany and especially for Mannheim was accepting numerous refugees in 2015. At times, 16,000 people were housed in the former American barracks. During this time, Mannheim was a city where refugees were first received and processed. Many requirements that had to be met and were met simultaneously included the protection of the refugees and their care, the assurance that the barracks could nevertheless be further developed for new residential quarters and keeping the peace in the city. The simultaneous increase in immigration from Southeastern Europe over the years meant considerable social challenges for the city in terms of integration into the labor and housing market as well as in daycare centres and schools.

Preserving the social values of openness, acceptance and peace in the city are therefore of particular importance to Mannheim and a key feature of the Mayor's work. A special tool for this work is the Mannheim Declaration for Living Together in Diversity. Around 300 signatory institutions profess that the strength and essence of Mannheim lie in a city characterized by diversity whosel citizens live together in peace and tolerance. The signatories vow to fight against all those who exclude and divide, and they commit themselves to specific partnerships and events.

Here, too, Mannheim has not lost sight of its international responsibility. The intolerable situation at Europe's external borders led to Mannheim becoming a member of the group of cities offering a safe haven to refugees who reach Europe by land or boat (Städte Sicherer Häfen/ Cities of Safe Havens). When I asked about the current situation in Afghanistan, Mayor Kurz said: "We cannot shirk our responsibility for what has happened. On the one hand, we must be ready to take in those who are being persecuted, and to do so as quickly as possible. And here, too, we as cities have to signal that we are ready for this and don’t wish to wait for an agreement in Europe with Poland and Hungary. On the other hand, there has to be really genuine help for refugees in neighboring regions. Here, too, cities can contribute, as we are showing in Kilis."

The city of Mannheim has specifically applied to take in several Afghan families from local staff. These families find protection and support in Mannheim. Their children are educated and integration managers are at their side.

By joining the Cities of Safe Havens alliance, the city of Mannheim has also agreed to take in more people. The alliance has already signalled to the federal government the willingness of cities to take in additional local Afghan forces. The City of Mannheim, under the leadership of Mayor Kurz, stands by this commitment, especially in view of the depressing situation in Afghanistan


Covid
One of the biggest challenges for Mayor Kurz as the city's leader – as was certainly the case for all mayors around the world – was the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, too, the city's administration under his leadership acted extremely quickly and efficiently. The international exchange with the partner cities was initiated to benefit from each other's experiences. Agreements were made with Chinese partners for the delivery of masks. Later on, 50,000 masks were donated to the partner city Bygdocz. The city set up emergency aid programmes for local businesses that went far beyond the funds provided by the federal or state government. These programmes were especially geared to the self-employed and restaurants who were particularly affected by the pandemic. Thanks in no small part to these programmes, almost all businesses in these sectors will survive the pandemic economically. Other special aspects of Mannheim’s response included easier access to vaccinations for older people by way of a direct invitation and a vaccination campaign that went directly to socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Mannheim was a pioneer in this regard, and Mayor Kurz had made the issue of social inequality in vaccination a topic early on. Mannheim has thus achieved an average vaccination rate despite problematic social areas that continue to be above average.


Mannheim, a stronger,
fairer, greener city

I was born and raised in Mannheim. At the end of the 1980s and 1990s, it sometimes pained me to say where I came from because the city suffered from an image of decline. Many friends felt the same way, but this has changed completely. Mannheim is now known as a highly innovative, agile, cosmopolitan and friendly city where people don't just talk the talk but walk the walk. Mannheim is a start-up city, a city of music and creativity, a city of science and research, a city of museums and culture, a city of diversity and equal opportunity that fosters international friendships and works to make the world a better place. Mannheim has character!

Thanks to Mayor Kurz’s efforts, Mannheim has become more lovable, greener, more sustainable, more innovative, more urban and more cosmopolitan without denying its "rough soul". When someone asks me today where I come from, it fills me with pride to say that I come from Mannheim.

The image of my hometown that I carry in me has changed profoundly in the last 20 years Mayor Kurz has been at the helm. I am proud to come from a city which values culture just as much as business, where special attention is paid to diversity and justice, which acts on an equal footing with international partners, but which also shapes the Rhine-Neckar metropolitan region in a friendly and cooperative manner with its neighbouring partner cities like Heidelberg and Ludwigshafen.

I am pleased that I can contribute to the fact that Mannheim has understood that the future can only be shaped if we switch now to sustainable management. I am pleased to be able to contribute to the fact that women in Mannheim have the same opportunities as men and enjoy a high status in science, research and education. Mayor Kurz is not only the visionary behind these developments, but also the driving force. He tirelessly drives us (who work in managerial positions on Mannheim's development) to look ahead and to anticipate today what will be important and right for the city tomorrow. As a pilot city, Mannheim has been developing its local green deal for months. One can say that under his leadership we engage in self-criticism and are constantly evolving.

Mayor Kurz did not invent spaghetti ice cream –that was Dario Fontanella – but he comes from Mannheim, too.


*Christian Sommer
Christian Sommer is the managing director of NEXT MANNHEIM, a public owned company of the city of Mannnheim.

NEXT MANNHEIM runs eight startup centers, supports startups, the startup-ecosystem and is responsible for the cultural urban development of the city.

Christian started his career as a music manager back in the early 90th. He worked with international artists and later for record companies like EMI and INTERCORD. In 2003, he became the first managing director of the Musikpark, the first startup center for creative industries and still the only startup center for music business in Germany. Over the years NEXT MANNHEIM combined the aspects of supporting cultural- and creative industries, fostering female entrepreneurship, establishing a startup-ecosystem, cultural urban development and internationalisation of those tasks, in ones entity.