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Interview with Martin Papke, Mayor of Weißenfels, on turning towards smaller and medium-sized cities

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— 5 minutes reading time

In January, Germany’s Stadtvonmorgen published an interview with Martin Papke, Mayor of Weißenfels (Germany). Below is an unofficial translation of the article, available in its original German here.

Martin Papke (Source: City of Weißenfels)

Papke: “We need a grant policy”

OBM Martin Papke on his trip to the US Conference of Mayors, social cohesion in cities and the global role of smaller cities.

17 January 2024, by Andreas Erb

Martin Papke, the Mayor of the Saxony-Anhalt city of Weißenfels, which has a population of around 40,000, is taking part in the 92nd Winter Meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors in Washington at the invitation of the US State Department. The event is comparable to the general meeting of the German Association of Cities. It addresses the concerns of American communities at the national level. The conference is aimed at approximately 1,400 U.S. cities with more than 30,000 residents and will take place 17 – 19 January. Papke and Mayor Thorsten Pötzsch from Weißwasser are the only German city leaders taking part this year. Speaking to #stadtvonmorgen, Papke talks about his trip to the USA, calls for a municipal “grant policy” and advocates for greater attention to be paid to small and medium-sized cities in a global context.

“Turn towards smaller and medium-sized cities”

#cityoftomorrow: Mr. Papke, you are speaking at the US Conference of Mayors in Washington. How did that come about?

Martin Papke: The invitation goes back to a meeting of the Strong Cities Network. The network was initiated by the United Nations in 2015. It connects cities around the world that are particularly committed to combating extremism, increasing polarisation and promoting social cohesion. Six from Germany are represented: WeißenfelsHalle (Saale)AugsburgBerlinDresden and Düsseldorf. At a meeting of the Strong Cities Network last year in the Red Town Hall in Berlin, I had the opportunity to give a talk. This was followed by an invitation from the US State Department to take part in the Winter Meeting of the US Conference of Mayors.

#cityoftomorrow: What do you hope for your city from your trip to the USA?

Martin Papke: On the one hand, it is of course about the exchange between cities and learning from each other. In addition to my participation in various discussion formats, I am also always a representative of our city and our region. In this role I would like to promote the business location and settlements. We are currently developing a 400 hectare commercial and industrial area that can be attractive as a location for companies that want to strengthen their position in European markets. The establishment of Intel shows that Saxony-Anhalt offers good conditions for this. I also want to draw attention to the tourism profile of our region in the USA and expand networks in this regard. Perhaps a meeting of the Strong Cities Network could be held in Weißenfels? I believe it is time to focus more on smaller and medium-sized cities.

Global concurrency of similar local tasks

#cityoftomorrow: In fact, when we talk about “global cities”, i.e. the global dimension of urbanity, the focus is usually on large cities and metropolises. So you advocate broadening the perspective and taking more small and medium-sized municipalities into consideration?

Martin Papke: Absolutely. Because we have something to tell. Globally, we are experiencing a simultaneity of similar local challenges and tasks. This exchange is particularly important for small towns and medium-sized centers in order to compare strategies and solutions. Added to this is their diversity, their different character – their unity in diversity. This means that small and medium-sized cities can bring a wide variety of perspectives and perspectives to the big debates of our time. Let’s take the fight against climate change: For it to be successful, it takes everyone, of course the big cities and big players, but overall the small and medium-sized cities are an equally important factor. You all have to be able to contribute.

#cityoftomorrow: … for example in formats such as the Strong Cities Network or the US Conference of Mayors. What issues do you want to address locally in Washington?

Martin Papke: It’s about social cohesion. As a city in East Germany, we in Weißenfels recorded various disruptions in the post-reunification period. There are, for example, political change, industrial upheaval or migration issues. Topics emerge here that are also happening elsewhere in the world and bring with them challenges but also opportunities.

Ensuring social cohesion

#cityoftomorrow: What are you specifically aiming at?

Martin Papke: The connection between the global and the local can be seen, for example, in fears of new wars and conflicts, in political uncertainty and polarisation or in skepticism regarding far-reaching decisions in the fight against climate change. The challenge of ensuring social cohesion exists in many cities. It is important to align the structures on site accordingly.

#cityoftomorrow: What position do you represent? How can local leaders counteract or prevent a loss of trust?

Martin Papke: By listening to people and addressing them. After the fall of the Wall, the cities in East Germany developed strongly in terms of urban development. But at the same time, in many places the administrative apparatus has retreated to the bare minimum or what is legally required. In urban planning, for example, people have paid attention to houses and buildings, but less to the people who live in them. This has fostered a certain distrust of the state and administration. But it is not a purely East German phenomenon: For example, digitalisation is accompanied by tendencies toward anonymisation. Of course, digitalisation ensures efficiency and also new participation formats. But at the same time it reduces personal encounters in many places. This reinforces the feeling of being ignored by those who already do not feel heard or seen.

Grant policy: Cities for people

#cityoftomorrow: What can local politics and administration do about it?

Martin Papke: We need a funding policy. Anyone who does not focus on people has no place in administration and politics. Because in democratic societies, citizens are the very thing that strengthens us. In this respect, we have to design the structures in such a way that local people can get involved and be heard. Subsidiary structures are essential for building the city of tomorrow. It is important to develop neighborhoods and cities together with the population and not to align everything with funding guidelines. It is much more important that people and their needs are reflected in urban development. I see this as my responsibility as a person responsible for local politics.