The Sustainable City: Creating Car-Free Communities
Welcome to The Sustainable City Podcast. Cities around the world are trying to find ways to reclaim their streets for people, for walking, biking, and scootering from point to point. The goal is to make cities safer, cleaner, and more fun while reducing or eliminating altogether the number of cars and trucks that have dominated urban landscapes for almost a century. This month, we talk to the Lord Mayor of Heidelberg, Germany, Dr. Eckart Würzner, about his city’s efforts to create a car-free community, and Chris Shears, an urban designer and planner who has long advocated for transit-oriented, infill development to move Americans beyond auto-dependence.
William Shutkin: Cities around the world are trying to find ways to reclaim their streets for people, for walking, biking, and scootering from point to point. The goal is to make cities safer, cleaner, and more fun, while reducing or eliminating altogether the number of cars and trucks that have dominated urban landscapes for almost a century. For today’s show, we talked to the Lord Mayor of Heidelberg, Germany, Dr. Eckart Würzner, about his city’s efforts to create a car-free community, and to Chris Shears, an urban designer and planner who has long advocated for transit-oriented, infill development to move Americans beyond auto dependence.
In 2006, Eckart Würzner was elected mayor of Heidelberg and re-elected for another eight years in 2014. From 2001 until 2006, Eckart was deputy mayor for environment and energy. Prior to that, he worked as an environmental consultant and head of the technical environmental protection division for the City of Heidelberg. Following his studies in geography, Eckart received his doctorate in 1993, and was appointed as an honorary professor at the SRH Hochschule in Heidelberg. Chris Shears is principal and founding partner at Shears Adkins Rockmore based in Denver, Colorado. In his decades of practice, he has been particularly focused on downtowns and urban infill mixed use projects in Denver and throughout the country.
Chris holds a masters in architecture from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Welcome, Chris and Eckart.
Andy Bush: Hi, thank you for being here. Eckart, you’re focused on primarily one city, although I know your contributions go way beyond Heidelberg — but tell us what have you been doing in Heidelberg and why. Can you give us the broad overview of the strategies to create a more car-free, but I think more importantly, livable city?
Eckart Würzner: I think the main point is that, first of all, it depends on your society. I must be fair: nearly 70 percent of all employees in my city are working for the university, for science institutes, for tech companies. So, it’s a very brainy city, a knowledge progress you might say. It’s always about global positions, global experts when we’re talking at the theater, in the cinema, wherever we’re meeting. And to understand this, this means that really the citizens are pushing always the political responsible persons to go ahead further, use their brain, implement technology that is available. And in general, create a structure that might have a future perspective also for other cities on a global scale.
And by doing so, it’s all about creating a city of welfare and the city where you really see that if you’re living in such a situation, you’re not overstressing nature. So, it must be livable, fair, social, open-minded.
Andy Bush: That’s great, and tell me a little bit more on the transportation car-free mobility perspective? I know that’s only a piece of it, but it’s a big piece of what we want to talk about today.
Eckart Würzner: Yeah, I think it’s at the moment — we all know that Glasgow is at the moment discussing how we can stop this heavy climate change. And by doing so, we notice of course buildings are the main partner or industry when you’re talking about climate change, but the car-based city structure is one of the main big problems globally. Thinking about Los Angeles, for example, which has about the same number of inhabitants as Barcelona, but LA has more than 10 times the space. So, this urban sprawl creates brutal emissions and is also responsible for a not-so-livable city in our opinion and therefore, we always try to be engaged in what we called the European city model, where you have the church, the foot pedestrian zone in the center, and not this huge urban sprawl.
And by creating such a structure, it’s able to have the downtown area car-free, or with very low numbers of cars — just what you need. You have a very attractive downtown area, green, the kids can play on the streets. And in the suburbs, you have to use the mass transport system to get them to downtown.
William Shutkin: Eckart, what you’ve just described so well is reducing auto dependence or car dependence equally to promote livability and quality of life as to reduce carbon emissions and promote climate protection. It seems that approach, that message that reducing car dependence can really enhance quality of life, has been a core message for you as mayor. Chris, what is it about U.S. culture and communications to date about cars that seems to blunt this message a bit. The idea that reducing the number of vehicles in cities like LA could actually make life in LA so much better let, alone benefit the climate.
Is it that we’re not sending that message — our mayors, our governors, our political leaders are not as effective as someone like Eckart? — or is there something else making it harder for us to think about cities beyond the car?
Chris Shears: That’s a huge question. I can’t help but recognize that Heidelberg’s fortunate enough to have a mayor who has the intellectual capital to lead in the way that he has and that the community, the city is elected in. I think that it would be very difficult in most U.S. cities for Eckart to be elected mayor. Boulder might be one of those exceptions. I think a lot of what we’re talking about here is about convenience, and I think that you have to balance what people consider to be convenient with what people consider to be comfortable in terms of where they live. And I guess it frankly boils down to human behavior. We have nodes of great urban places in the United States, but people tend to drive to them.
They tend to drive there to occupy those places, and then they go other places. They don’t necessarily yet value living there all of the time, parking the car, not using their car. And we’re involved in and have been fortunately involved in a few planning projects that are going to I think make a big difference in Denver. And through planning, we are beginning to either reduce the parking available, or discourage parking, or in fact plan for very little automobile circulation and parking, but it’s a very slow process. And back to my original comment — it’s so much tied to the politics. And it’s so much tied to the leadership that we have in Denver or Boulder or other cities.
William Shutkin: Do you think, Chris, that in the Denver cases that you’ve just referred to, that the negotiations with city staff and city leaders around reducing, or indeed eliminating parking in order to reduce auto dependence, that those conversations are more productive now than they were even a few years ago, but we still have a long way to go, until someone like Eckart is on the other side of the table?
Chris Shears: That’s right.
William Shutkin: And again keep note Chris, I’d love your answer, Eckart. Eckart, in reading your bio, I mean you’ve been basically in a leadership position in Heidelberg now for 15 years, right? You’ve been able to help lead a change really in consciousness around mobility and climate that as Chris is suggesting is really hard for most U.S. local leaders to do who are serving much shorter terms. Chris, your thoughts on where Denver is, and then Eckart, I’d love you to weigh in on your tenure and how that affects your ability to make real change.
Chris Shears: Well, as you know, I occupy two cities. I’m in two different fish bowls and they’re very different, but I think I’m optimistic in that both of them are moving in the right direction in terms of policy. And our issues I think in both communities have to do as much with policy as anything. There are maybe two ways to look at this. One is that we tend to be more — or our ideas tend to be more acceptable to mayors and city councils, and that’s the optimistic part of it. We have to convince our clients and the owners of the property where we do projects, whether it’s a single building, or a hundred acres. A mayor has to convince and the city councils have to convince their constituents when they change policy.
Our challenge now is to work with both of those entities in order to plan for the future. And when I mention the future, what we’re talking about in our office and with many other people is not the 5-year plan and the 10-year plan, the 20-year plan, but way out — 50, 75 years. And when you start thinking that way, which is I think what we’re beginning to think about when we think about global warming and sustainability and all of that, your attitude changes completely. It just turns everything around. Fifty is a lot more interesting frankly than 5 or 10.
William Shutkin: Mm-hmm. Thanks, Chris. Eckart, what are your thoughts on your ability over 15 plus years to direct change and how that differs from the U.S. scene?
Eckart Würzner: Yeah. If you’re talking about cities like Heidelberg, which have a politically better situation than others maybe — I have a very long term, eight years — you can implement projects which were not accepted by the citizens. We should not always tell the story that everybody likes such stories. This is not true. When I started, for example, 12 years ago, I made a clear commitment that all city buildings must reach a passive house standard. Instead of two tons per year in capital, that’s the normal building — 1.5 tons is the national standard — we are building 0.1.
William Shutkin: Wow.
Eckart Würzner: And since the 12 last years, we have this for all buildings and all new developing zones — if you want to build there, you have to accept 0.1. That’s really a change, but at the beginning, nobody wants to go there. Nobody wants to invest there because it’s 3 percent higher investment, which is just this tiny little thing, but the story was all very good educated young women were coming to Heidelberg designs, were coming to Heidelberg. The flats were sold out two years before they were starting the construction. And today, we have one of the biggest growths in the southern part of Germany. When you look at the BIP, Heidelberg has the biggest BIP grows more than Munich, more than Stuttgart.
Why? The city is attractive. Downtown city is attractive. It has a future vision and now, it pays out what you have implemented, but you have to be fair. It was not the brutal story we tell them at the beginning. So, we were talking about green space, living attractive, downtown is wonderful to stay there with kids. So, you have space, you’re secure. If the kids go to school, they don’t have to fear that the kids were hit by a truck or whatever. If this is the message, it’s not against cars or against anybody. It’s for the future, and this is always a story because otherwise, you’re just working with environmentalists together and this is 50 percent, maybe 20 percent, but it’s not the — also not in the city council, the majority. So, that’s my clear mission. We have to go in this direction, but always create the feeling that this is a better city, a greener city, it’s more livable and so on.
William Shutkin: Andy, that’s so much your message, isn’t it?
Andy Bush: Yeah, it’s both our message and I’m fairly practical on the development side, even though we’re trying to develop net zero energy buildings and all-electric and leading edge. There’s times that we’ve been a little frightened as we move forward in this path. For example, we built a 100,000 square foot complex with 50 parking spaces. That’s about a quarter of what you would normally build, even in Boulder, but we took the challenge in an intellectual way. We didn’t just say we’re going to do that and live with it. We actually rented some short-term spaces, but over time as the demand went down, we could shed those spaces. We did our own bike fleet as part of it.
We did our own car share program, and now we’re in the process of developing an app that our clients and tenants can use. And they can get a parking space for an hour or a day or a month. If they really want it for a month, they’re going to pay for it. And they also can give their employees Uber and Lyft credits for not parking. We’re really trying to say, “Let’s look at the complexity of all this mobility.” The answer at least for me is someone who has to essentially finance our buildings in the private sector, and our lenders have to believe that we have a strategy. It means we have to have a strategy. We can’t just say we’re building a quarter of the spaces, and it will take care of itself.
It’s a message of hope, but it’s a message that’s based on, as Chris said, looking five years ahead, 10 years ahead, 20 years ahead and trying to convince lenders. And I think we’re being more effective recently that 15 years from now, which is the length of many of these loans, it may not be so great to be holding a fossil fuel-based building, versus an all-electric building. So, we’re trying to appeal to the risk profile of their long-term thinking.
William Shutkin: Andy, that’s such a great story because, Eckart, as you might know, Andy has been the developer and landlord for the Rocky Mountain Institute since they built their first Boulder office almost 20 years ago. In doing the latest project that Andy just referred to, 100,000 square feet with only 50 parking spaces versus more than 200, it helped to have an organization like RMI with its ideology of megawatts, all the energy we don’t have to use to experiment with that kind of dramatic, or even radical parking reduction in a place like Boulder.
Also, Andy had the support of the city or at least some in the city who said, “Wow, this is really cool,” including one of Chris Shears’ dear friends Molly Winters who formerly headed up the parking program for the city. So really, a collaboration between public and private to experiment with a new model with investors who believed in Andy and the city to make this work.
Andy Bush: But very similar to Eckart, we sold what was great about the building. We didn’t really focus on sustainability. We focused on it’s got great air quality, you’ve got wonderful temperature control, it’s got beautiful decks that give you views to the mountains. We did some great courtyards and spaces in between. And I think that that’s the future, and I’d be interested to hear from Chris and Eckart as we look toward convincing other people as you said Eckart, it’s not just the 5 percent or 10 percent that are hardcore environmentalists. We’ve got to convince whole communities that this is the right thing to do.
Eckart Würzner: Yeah, but you mentioned one point I think which is also very interesting. If you look a little bit into the past, we noticed that those institutes like the Rocky Mountain Institute, yeah, Amory Lovins, which as you know I met 27 years ago. And he really fixed me with this building, yeah, up in the mountain. In the snow, he had howled, he has palms and geckos without any energy.
What a stupid story, but it’s hangable, it’s technical, no problem. He has really fixed me in my career when I made the study about the climate change policy 27 years ago for the United States, for Minneapolis, Chicago and so on. But it was always those nests I always say — like with Denver, the DOE, Bill Becker and Pam Hermann which, working together with the Rocky Mountain Institute, believed in each other and then expanded their idea. I think it’s very important and the same with me, I work very close with the Passivhaus Institute in Darmstadt with Wolfgang Feist. We’ve known each other for a very long time, so we believe in each other.
Politicians and scientists are coming together. And this is something which is missing for many politicians which were just going the political way, which were never connected to those institutes. You need those institutes who give you the belief that there is a way and that it’s attainable, that you can do it, then you can build buildings super-efficient, no cars, or less cars. But then you first of all have to implement the mass transport system, what we have done here for millions to expand our tram system, to expand our tube system.
Because if one wants to change behavior, you have to make it attractive because we are not running on Uber and Lyft. We are running on mass transport trams and a few number of taxis. And this is then a wonderful perspective, but it costs a lot of money and therefore, mostly cities which are getting good revenue from business are able to implement this expensive infrastructure, which is needed to become such a city.
William Shutkin: Yes. Chris, what are your thoughts on that? This virtuous cycle of these innovation communities where knowledge and politics meet to show what’s possible, and then attract more investment, and then take that private investment and convert it into tax revenue to pay for the transit, so we can make some of this stuff, as you were saying earlier, more convenient, an easier choice, rather than a herculean choice right now in terms of mobility?
Chris Shears: Well, I like this idea of bringing those who understand the science together with politicians, and I don’t think that happens very often. We have to recognize that our politicians — and I’m thinking city councils and mayors — that they have an awful lot of problems to sell on their plates. And sometimes, the sustainability part of it is not considered to be that important, because it’s not immediately urgent. I think we’re all realizing maybe now just in the last few years that it is. I guess one way to answer that question is, that is the time that it takes to change, and what we’ve noticed is that architects, planners, urban designers in our communities are way ahead of the politicians, are way ahead of the policy, and it catches up.
Even an entitlement process for a highly sustainable well-planned community takes so much time and sometimes gets influenced in a negative way, such that you don’t end up with what you really should end up with. And one example that I’ll give is on the River Mile project, which is this very large planning project, Eckart, that I’ve been involved with for five years. It took us over a year to convince the city Public Works department that we could use permeable pavers in order to handle water quality, and that’s just one example. We need to move more quickly.
Eckart Würzner: Absolutely.
Chris Shears: I feel naive when I suggest that because it seems like every time a mayor or a council suggests that they can and they will, they don’t. And we just don’t have time anymore and of course it’s very costly when projects get delayed. We don’t have time to mess around with the politics when it’s in conflict with the science.
William Shutkin: Eckart, regarding development in your community, do you make it easier for developers including the public sector who are committed to the kind of strategy — do you make it easier for them to actually get projects going and off the ground streamlining, the permitting, et cetera or —
Eckart Würzner: Yeah, absolutely. We are the biggest developer. We’re becoming the biggest developer, where we have developed about 300 hectares over the last years. We are the fastest growing city with the lowest number of square meters which we’re using. Yeah, so we decouple it. We’re becoming the landlord because we noticed if we don’t take this into our hands, it’s only private engagement. And by using the private partners to prepare the ground for them and then set the rules, you can build there, but you have to accept the standard. And it’s not based on a federal standard. I think this is one thing which is very important, which Chris mentioned: time. Of course, our standard in Heidelberg, which we implemented 13 years ago or 12 years ago, will be the national standard in 10 years.
So, it’s a lack of 20 years — yeah, unbelievable — before it becomes to the federal standard. That’s the reason why we cities try to empower us by ourselves. There’s a wonderful book, “If Mayors Ruled the World.” You may have heard about the book. It’s a little bit jokey, but there is something which is deep-minded inside, because we are directly linked to the citizens. The city is forcing us, we have to react. We are smashed away if we are not going against the shooting in the school, for example, in U.S. if we just let it run. So, we have to give answers where the national level can say, “Oh, the gun association, maybe yes or no.” No, we have to give answers and in this, we are working together.
Maybe tomorrow, we will get one of the main environmental prizes for empowering cities. My network energy city in Glasgow, we are now working together with more than 7,000 cities, in the covenant of mayors, organizing platforms, discussion forums, meet and greets, and giving advice for best practice. Bloomberg has a fantastic initiative, working with Eric Garcetti from LA, for example, London Breed from San Francisco, Lori Lightfoot from Chicago. Believe me, if you’re working together — just 25 leaders working together for a year, even — you come to a much better understanding about the main points where we have to act. And this empowers the local leaders, and this is absolutely needed because some are coming with big knowledge in case A, B, Z, but not in all. And therefore, it’s important to have this experience exchange. And there is a movement, believe me, there is a movement which brings in much higher speed that is absolutely needed.
Andy Bush: It’s not that dissimilar from what we’re trying to do in a small way and what we present at so many conferences, is we’re trying to say we’re a small demonstration vehicle that can show what’s possible, and then let’s share with as many people as possible through conferences, through other venues. Someone said to me one time, and I always remember it, is things start out a lot slower than you think they should, and then they happen much faster than you thought they would. And that’s happening with climate change, but I think it’s also starting to happen with our response to those things.
William Shutkin: Mm-hmm, that’s a great point.
Chris Shears: What I can’t help but think about listening to Eckart is that his attitude is very positive. And I think we hear too much, especially recently, is the gloom and doom. It’s just, “Gee, we have this huge problem and it’s going to be…” Imagine what’s going to happen internationally, geopolitically and yet, I’d like to attend a conference where it was only positive, just don’t talk about the problem, but talk about the solution entirely. Just look in every way, this is good. Economically, socially, environmentally, it is good. And there’s room for optimism and let’s work together to get there. And frankly, I am an optimist. One of the concerns I have is that I won’t live long enough to see what I hope will be something wonderful happen in the 20 or 50 years, and that’s a strange way to look at.
William Shutkin: Chris, you are. You’re seeing it happen now, and I mean the fact that we’re having this conversation via Zoom, talking about the work that you and Eckart are doing. Eckart, we’re so thrilled about your positive vision and not just that, but you bring science to bear on that vision. So, there are real facts and evidence and a technical understanding of what’s required. It’s not just pie in the sky and pure idealism. It’s actually backed by knowledge and understanding of what’s possible and how to get there, which is super exciting. Like Chris, I love the positive energy and focus.
You mentioned peer learning. I mean our conversation today is an example of that, right? I happened to read about what you’re doing in the New York Times of all places six months ago and reached out. And you were responsive, and now we’re having this discussion. Do you feel, Eckart and Chris and Andy, that one of the things that perhaps gets in the way of us really scaling up some of these novel strategies and ideas is the fact that a lot of people are heads down, that they’re not even paying attention to all the cool stuff that’s going on beyond their borders? And to the extent they’ve got a certain pride of place: if it wasn’t invented here, we’re not interested versus let’s share this incredible knowledge and strategy. Are there some barriers to the peer-to-peer learning and sharing, Eckart, that you just described, that Mayor Bloomberg and others have been promoting now for a couple of decades, especially around climate?
Eckart Würzner: If you ask me first, I would say it is a great perspective what I mentioned about the Bloomberg program and our way of sharing experience. But over the time, I’m now working so long in this field is that I noticed it’s depending also on the structure. For example, a mayor in Heidelberg is the head of the energy utility. I decide to buy green, I decide long distance. Today 50 percent is green. I decided to build a new power plant for the new city area because to become a zero emission city… So, it’s based on the decision by the mayor. I’m the head of the city bank, so I’m responsible for six billion euro for all the companies.
William Shutkin: Wow.
Eckart Würzner: And I’m the head of the traffic company, so I’m running all the trams. Besides the administration, it’s a very powerful position, a mayor. If you have not the power as the mayor, you’re just responsible — in many countries and not for eight years — for one year, just for political messages. And then you are not the city manager, you are more the lord mayor. It was a little bit the picture in the past, yeah. So, you have to bring political leaders also in the position to be a city manager. If those things are coming together and you are empowered for five years or more, but not less, it is the best decision. That’s what we try to achieve. That’s what we’re working for globally: to empower local leaders. Without any power, you’re not able.
William Shutkin: So, that’s what you mean by structure?
Eckart Würzner: Yeah.
William Shutkin: Having a really strong mayor form of governance, where that mayor has control or jurisdiction over pretty much every function of municipal government, can make those decisions over a reasonably long period of time and you’re saying it can be no less than five years.
Eckart Würzner: Yeah, that’s very important in my opinion.
Andy: And in our structure that’s almost the opposite in that we’ve got city council members coming and going every couple of years. It’s a weak mayor form of government with a strong city manager, which really means they get stuck with everything, but they don’t really have much authority. So, it’s just ours is a difficult structure here in Boulder to accomplish the kind of things you’re talking about.
Chris Shears: Yeah, that’s right, that’s certainly true in Boulder and Denver and probably most cities in the United States, but the fact is it can probably work both ways. It can be a negative where not everyone is — I mean, I look at Mayor Peña. This was about 20 years ago, Eckart, and he walked in as a very, very young man. And he put together a brain trust of people in this city, and he changed it. And the influence of that mayor continues, continues. He set in place a plan for the city of Denver which made all the difference and it’s why we’re where we are today. Subsequent mayors adopted his policies and because they were so logical and they were so important. And yet often, we don’t have mayors who have either the knowledge, the mental capital, or the strength to lead.
Andy Bush: Well, and he did it with a very powerful positive message, right? It was, imagine a great city. And so he set the bar pretty high and…
Chris Shears: Yes.
William Shutkin: So true. I mean these cultural differences, Eckart, as you’re suggesting, are meaningful and important. We do have, and we’ve seen this certainly in the last several years, a fundamental distrust of government, that’s a defining feature of American political culture going all the way back to the founding fathers. And unfortunately four years under Donald Trump, for most of us, reaffirmed the idea that maybe we shouldn’t have so much trust in our system of governance, let alone our polity. You mentioned Eric Garcetti, London Breed, Laurie Lightfoot.
Do you have a sense based on your own now personal relationships with some American mayors that there are some folks in some places that might in fact be able to do what you’re doing, even with an inadequate structure that is a 4-year term, not a 5-year and perhaps not as strong a seat as you possess in Heidelberg?
Eckart Würzner: Yeah, what you notice is that for the American system, this is also in many other countries the same situation, it’s not the big city. It’s more the mid-sized, smaller cities which are quite powerful mostly university cities, so intellectual cities were taking the lead. I just had a meeting with — Cambridge was best practice for the meeting —
William Shutkin: Cambridge, Mass or Cambridge, England?
Eckart Würzner: Cambridge England. And we have the same situation in the U.S. I look at these mid-sized cities — Boulder is a perfect example in my opinion — where the main point is: the citizens are close to the leaders. And we have lots of political debates in our town, nearly to every topic. Sometimes the discussions are too long, in fact, but we are a city of dialogue. So, it’s not the mayor who is deciding this or that way. My role is not implementing my strategy. It’s a strategy which is developed by a huge commitment by the citizens, but then clearly implemented by the management, by the city leaders ordered or divided by the mayor for longer term. That’s the secret story.
So, it’s never based on just an individual idea. I’m not sitting here as an individual, but more the father who is taking care of the family who has a wonderful idea and wants to go in this direction. And therefore, yes a lot of cities in the U.S., I can name a lot of them, but mostly mid-sized. Mostly —
William Shutkin: Yeah, I tend to agree, especially the university towns, population say 80,000 to 200,000, but here’s the rub for me at least, and I think Chris and Andy, might agree: these really important and visionary urban sustainability strategies, having to do with mobility and transport and green buildings, are so important and we’ve made so much progress in advancing policy and practice. Of course, the flip side, the underside, which is something I spend a lot of time thinking about, is those very strategies tend to make these cities more expensive to live in, more exclusive. At least that’s how it’s gone in the U.S. We call it environmental gentrification. The greener you make a city generally speaking, the more expensive. Look at San Francisco, look at LA, look at Boston…
Andy Bush: I have an opinion on that one in that the fear is gentrification, but I think the other way to look at it is that good cities tend to be places where people want to go and live, and you can’t stop that phenomenon. What we need to do is create a lot more good cities. If we spent the energy to create good cities like the top 20 or 30 cities in the United States and another 50 mayors got together and said, “Boy, we’re going to copy the best ideas of each of those 20 cities, and we want to be a great city too,” I feel like that’s the solution versus just the practical side of saying yes, Boulder’s expensive or Portland’s expensive. It’s a reality, I agree with that, but I think the solution is create more great cities.
William Shutkin: Well, in the meantime, just this morning, we learned that a number of ballot initiatives across Colorado and across the country promoting essentially inclusionary housing, Eckart, passed. Here in Colorado and many resort towns, cities and towns are taxing themselves in order to underwrite the additional costs of low income and workforce housing. How have you guys in Heidelberg addressed the matter of inclusionary development, inclusionary housing workforce housing in Heidelberg to match the other strategies that you’ve talked about?
And Chris, River Mile of course is a really great example too of a big new development that will take place over the next 20 years in Denver, which is also trying to slice and balance the green and the equitable. Eckart, what are you guys doing?
Eckart Würzner: First of all, don’t leave it to the market if you think about expensive flats. We always capped and expanded as much as possible to be the biggest building owner. So, 10 percent of all flats are owned by the city. So, that keeps you in the position to be a big owner, especially for affordable housing. Second point is for all new developing areas, we have a law: 30 percent are affordable housing.
William Shutkin: Thirty percent.
Eckart Würzner: In some areas, it’s about 70 percent.
William Shutkin: Wow.
Eckart Würzner: It’s not a building just for those who can pay, it’s for everybody. So, we always wanted to have a mix. We don’t want to have ghettos, neither just kids who don’t care about money, which is also brutally heavy for the social structure, or just for poor people. You have to steer it, this is typical German planning instrument because we have the legal frame to do so in this case. We are very practical in this kind of field.
Chris Shears: It’s so different here because the private sector — the policy places the responsibility to build affordable housing on the private sector. To my knowledge, there’s very little public housing being built in the United States. And I may be wrong about that.
Andy Bush: Well, you’re probably right. I think that most of the contributions come from the private sector, and then they’re redirected through housing authorities that may actually be the builder, but there’s not a lot of… Citizens are not taxing themselves for affordable housing in the United States by and large.
William Shutkin: That’s right.
Chris Shears: That’s right, I believe they should.
Eckart Würzner: That’s right.
William Shutkin: It’s coming really out of the budgets of the private developer who’s either building, Eckart, the inclusionary housing on site in any given project, or is paying cash in lieu of building the actual units, and that we see as an expanding policy across communities as communities begin to build out what Andy was saying — more communities, more cities, trying to be better, trying to grow and grow in green ways. And when they do that, recognizing that property values are going up. And so implementing inclusionary programs that fall largely on the private sector to implement. We do have a robust network of housing agencies, housing authorities, both public and non-profit.
But generally speaking, the demand, the need for more of these units greatly outstrips our ability to deliver them whether in the private, or in the public sector.
Andy Bush: And part of that I think is what Chris mentioned. Here in Boulder since I think it started in the late ’50s or early ’60s, we’ve taxed ourselves for open space. And we’ve created this wonderful open space system that started as a system of mountain parks, and then really became agricultural land purchases around the city to create this urban growth boundary. And we’ve re-upped for that tax every four to six years for the last 50 years.
William Shutkin: Fifty, yeah.
Andy Bush: We have yet to tax ourselves for affordable housing to say we feel that the citizens should contribute, and it’s important to us as a local economy and community to do that, which I find interesting and a little disappointing.
Chris Shears: Eckart, I noticed looking at an air photo of Heidelberg, and I did a little research on your great city, that you are actually surrounded by agricultural land, and what appears to be almost virgin forest. It’s beautiful.
Eckart Würzner: Yeah. Yeah, we’re the city of beauty, the city of romance, absolutely.
William Shutkin: It sounds like nirvana basically.
Andy Bush: Yeah, I got to come…
William Shutkin: Can we move there?
Eckart Würzner: Yeah, everybody… I think 10 million tourists, if you have just 160,000 inhabitants, shows there must be something special to visit.
William Shutkin: Wow.
Eckart Würzner: It’s the castle with the most visitors, which is sometimes heavy because of so many tourists here, which is not only sustainable, yeah, thinking about this, but this is different story. But coming back to taxation, I think nobody likes taxation. I think what’s very important is if you really have the feeling that your money, which you’re giving to the society is directly seen in your neighborhood, it’s different. It’s not just gone anywhere to anybody and they decide. If it’s more local used, the people are much more are willing to do so and of course, it’s much more common in Germany, but we always say, “I have so many rich people in my city. But if you have a flat tire at any place in downtown at 4:00 in the morning, yeah, you always will feel safe.”
This is something which is very important, yeah. So, not always thinking about gated communities which in my opinion is really a heavy story which comes up more and more; we have to accept that there must be a commitment that we live together in a city. And only if this is real, also rich people, which is a big message, can live there free. Otherwise, they are gated which is not a nice story. Yeah. So, trying to give this message which is not easy — I know this from so many discussions with American friends — it’s not very common to give taxation. And I’m not a fan of a socialism, where the state rules everything. I don’t like this. What we have achieved is a regulation where those who need to support gets the support, but it’s still a market. It’s a market for fair deals I always say, and that’s a —
William Shutkin: But with very strong mayor?
Eckart Würzner: Yeah.
Andy Bush: Well, and speaking of markets, in one of our previous conversations, the question was, don’t electric vehicles solve everything? And I think all of us said no, but Chris and Eckart, I’d like to hear your perspectives on why doesn’t the EV solve all their problems. Maybe Chris go first.
Chris Shears: Gee. Well, it solves one problem, but to solve the problem that we face requires lots of different strategies. And you still have to park them. You still have to accommodate them on your infrastructure yourself to build bridges and roads and all of that. Obviously, the carbon footprint is less, but no, it’s just one piece of the problem.
Andy Bush: I mean both Boulder and Heidelberg, because we’ve talked about it before, Eckart, have a fair amount of in commuters every day. I think here in Boulder for a city of 100,000, we’ve got 70,000 people commuting in. You have a lot too. I mean how do we address that problem, even if everybody’s in EVs?
Eckart Würzner: Yeah, first of all, just what Chris mentioned is also the same situation on Heidelberg. Our biggest problem, only 20 percent are using a car, but the whole downtown area is a huge parking place, and I wanted to get rid of them. Yeah, so I wanted to have greenfields, space for the kids and not parking spots…
Andy Bush: That’s just realistic, yeah.
Eckart Würzner: We still have to accept that we need a system based on cars going to the mobility hubs, but these mobility hubs should be outside the city. And then used as an area where you come together. So, use the tube, the tram or the big bus system to go downtown, not with your car. So, an electric car can be helpful in a rural area, for example, to go to the train station, absolutely if it’s too far with the bike. But if you go closer to the city, it’s tram based, it’s bicycle and it’s walking city, that’s my way. We are not so convinced with electric cars.
I like hybrid. Heavy lorries because if you’re running a waste fleet, it should be based on hydrogen, yeah, because you have a very small electric engine and no big batteries which are so heavy that you have no storage for waste and so on. So, buses and heavy lorries should use hydrogen, that’s our structure in Heidelberg.
William Shutkin: Well, we get so obsessed in this country and look, Germany is no stranger to big tech and to some of the greatest tech innovations of the last century, but we do have entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and companies like Tesla that are the great bright shiny objects of the last decade or so, which in many ways is a wonderful thing as Andy I think is suggesting. We’ve got the rise of EVs as a great new technology that can begin to move us off the fossil fuel dime when it comes at least to auto transport and yet, we tend to ignore, Eckart, what you’re talking about which is the larger planning and land use picture, right?
And if we still have a ton of vehicles, whether they’re electric powered or gas powered, moving about and coming into our cities, and taking up what Chris is suggesting, all that precious real estate, have we really moved the needle, especially in terms of quality of life? Because folks care as much about getting hit by the car as they do about the carbon emissions from the tail pipe.
Eckart Würzner: And there is a wonderful example in U.S., go to Minneapolis downtown. Nobody is living here: only parking lots and offices.
William Shutkin: Yeah.
Eckart Würzner: Who needs the office space now? What’s left? Parking, huge parking areas. It’s a totally a bad city downtown in the night every night and also in the weekend, so it’s not our strategy.
Yeah, and it seems to me that one of the things that we’ve been finding is the innovation comes, as you said, in these smaller mid-sized cities. The other thing that I’m seeing a little bit is some of the innovation is coming up from the fringe cities, the ones that you wouldn’t expect. In the U.S., it’s from Phoenix or someplace like that, which hasn’t been a traditional leader in urban design or planning, but they’re doing some of the most innovative projects.
Yeah. It’s a little bit crazy, I was there 27 years ago in Phoenix, Arizona. And I think it was the mayor — a person showed me the water chiller system, which was very special for Phoenix — to call the city, but not the traffic system, but it’s a city in the desert. So, they’re feeling more change than us. If you are under pressure, you’re thinking more about behavior, water use, or whatever, and also more sustainable actions.
Andy Bush: Yeah, there’s a large car-free development being planned in that area.
Eckart Würzner: Yeah.
Andy Bush: It’s the last place last place you would expect it in the U.S.
Eckart Würzner: No, no, no, this is the first space in the U.S. who will be drying out. It’s not on the coastline, they’re not flooded, but they are drying out.
William Shutkin: Yeah, yeah, no doubt about it.
Eckart Würzner: Also, the coastline, I must be fair — some of my colleagues are not really so much believing sometimes the environment. But if everything is burned down, they are under pressure to accept that there is a change they have to fight against and prepare for.
William Shutkin: Hey Eckart, we’re winding down, but a question as we talk about other places: Are there cities and towns in Germany or abroad that you look to as leaders, as forerunners? I mean Heidelberg is doing so many amazing things under your leadership and your colleagues’, but where do you look for inspiration if at all in other places?
Eckart Würzner: Yeah, in Germany, it’s about Freiburg who already has a very good bicycle system. And Munster. Munster is ahead in some areas in the bicycle construction and infrastructure, because it’s based on Holland. Netherlands, of course. Copenhagen is for us always the non-car city.
William Shutkin: Yeah, us too.
Eckart Würzner: So, we’re looking to do to those or what Anne Hidalgo is doing now in Paris, yeah, about a free downtown, mass transport system. I’m implementing a free of charge mass transport system for downtown next year to make it more attractive for everybody. So, we’re always looking for the best to find a better way for the future.
William Shutkin: That’s awesome. Chris, what gives you inspiration right now in terms of other cities that Denver could learn from, or Boulder for that matter?
Chris Shears: Well, as we all have, at least before the last two years, I traveled a lot, looked at a lot of cities. And of course, the four of us are always looking at things that most tourists don’t look at. We’re looking at urban design and planning and transit systems, and all that, that’s what fascinates us. I think there are lessons you can learn from almost every city, just little parts and pieces and that’s what I’ve tried to do is learn, and then bring those ideas back to Denver. And I want to bring up one interesting example that William and I talked about last night briefly on the telephone, and that is that we’re doing a new planning project that’s adjacent to downtown which is different than the River Mile.
And it includes a major sports venue and with obviously a great parking need, an awful lot of parking. And what we’ve decided is that rather than then attempt to replace the parking displaced by new development, we’re going to plan an entirely pedestrian environment, limit the amount of parking and limit that through-traffic and any traffic at all, except for that traffic that’s necessary to service the project. And that’s something that we decided. And in fact, in the meeting, we were just struggling with how do we do this, how do we phase this project. And I said, “Well, let’s simplify this problem by agreeing that we don’t have to do that.”
And we have looked now at other sports venues around the country where development has occurred around them and interestingly, everything is fine. People adjust, people change their behavior and they walk, or they find alternate modes of transportation. Unfortunately, we have two light rail stations, Eckart, adjacent to this property. So, we’re now moving in that direction, but here’s the challenge. The challenge is going to be political because of parking requirements that are in our zoning, and will our client agree to that. And we’re going to have to make that case and we’re going to have to pitch that idea. And I’m very excited about that. But on the other hand, I can’t be naive about what the consequences of this will be.
So, that’s what we can do. We can take ideas from other places, and we can then agree that we’re going to do this. And by golly, we’re going to do it. We’re going to push it as far as we can.
William Shutkin: Love it. And…
Andy Bush: I agree and I think to finish up and I’ll ask Eckart one last question, and that is, if you were giving advice to a new mayor, a young mayor, on how to get started along this road, for someone who’s been doing it for a couple of decades, what would your 60-second council be?
Eckart Würzner: Exactly, never give advice. Feel and see the perspective of cities that are going in the right direction. Try to get an idea why, go around a little bit, listen to best practice examples, go there, watch them, see them in real life. Therefore, they need to travel, and of course then they’ll believe. That’s the way in my opinion. Just look around. There are so many wonderful examples. And then write your guidance for your roadmap for the next two, three, or four years.
William Shutkin: Seeing is believing, that’s such great advice, Eckart. And Chris, maybe you’ll invite Eckart via Zoom to that client meeting when you talk about a zero parking strategy, because my sense is Eckart could convince pretty much anybody.
Chris Shears: Well, this is an example Eckart of a… it’s unique. It’s a unique opportunity because it’s one property owner who owns a lot of property. Usually you have to deal with an assemblage of property with a lot of different property owners. It’s like what you can do in Heidelberg, where you have this large new project and you can plan it. And you can determine its destiny. In our case, we do have one client and a client that has the financial means to be innovative. That’s unique and that’s what makes me tick every day now because of my involvement in that. But I think more than anything else, regardless of what problem we have to solve in our cities, it really boils down to human behavior, which fascinates me.
I think I’d like to find a book, the definitive book about human behavior, because that’s what all this is about. It’s about how people want to run their lives and what kind of environment do they want to live in, how do they make their decisions. I think we live in this oxygen rich strata, the four of us, and we don’t always understand what happens in the rest of society, and I’m isolated by… I get to work with great consultants and great minds like you guys, and enlightened developers, but we need to recognize that we’re different, not necessarily better, but we’re different. We’re better educated, we have economic opportunities, and we have to understand the needs of the people who are often behaving differently than we are. And I think it all boils down to human behavior.
William Shutkin: Mm-hmm, yeah. Hey guys, given the time, we’ll sign off, but I just want to say a super special thanks to Eckart for joining us from Germany. It’s a little after 5 p.m. now, so hopefully you’ve got some time off the rest of this day, but really appreciate, Eckart, your participation in this conversation and the work that you’re doing, which I think we’re all inspired by. Chris, you’re an anchor to me and Andy and others in this part of the world, and we really appreciate the work that you’ve been doing, fighting the good fight for decades around making better cities, and we really loved having both of you together.
Chris Shears: What you guys are doing is remarkable. It’s a pleasure to watch the projects you’re doing and the impact that you’re having.
Andy Bush: Well, I think when you look at it from a sustainability standpoint, we have this terrible problem that’s really an opportunity in disguise. So, we’ve just got to figure that out soon rather than later.
Chris Shears: We’re so lucky to be involved in doing this. These are huge problems, but we walk into our offices every day, excited.
William Shutkin: What fun. Well, let’s plan on going to visit Eckart in Heidelberg too..
Andy Bush: Oh, I think that’s a great idea..
William Shutkin: And I’m serious, and Eckart, come back here and tour the latest RMI offices. Maybe we can convince Amory to pay a visit when you come. And it would be great to host you here. We’d love to have you.
Eckart Würzner: Give him best wishes.
William Shutkin: Next time, renowned urban designer and planner, Peter Calthorpe, joins us to discuss this big idea for making California and the rest of the nation more sustainable. He calls it reinventing the strip.