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National Urban Development Congress in Kassel, Germany

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National Urban Development Congress in Kassel, Germany


Raphael Bostic, Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research. Photo Credit: German Ministry of Building, Transportation and Urban Development.
HUD and PD&R have had a long history of engaging with our housing and urban development brethren beyond our borders. This is only natural, as people all over the globe face similar challenges of how to house people, build strong communities, and create vibrant urban places. There is potentially much we can learn from each other.

Under the leadership of Secretary Donovan, we have worked to invigorate our international relationships, and this is perhaps most evident in our relationship with Germany. In May 2010, HUD signed a Joint Declaration of Intent with the German Ministry of Building, Transportation and Urban Development — their HUD-equivalent plus Transportation — that focused on sustainable revitalization. The platform was a blend of our Sustainable Communities Partnership’s Livability Principles with their Leipzig Charter for Sustainable European Cities, and is intended to guide us as we exchange research, best practices and models, and perhaps even enter into common projects and events to make the Joint Declaration real.

As part of this growing relationship, I was pleased to provide a keynote speech at the Fifth German National Urban Development Congress in Kassel, Germany in late October. The Congress was fantastic. More than 800 attendees – urban planners, community development nonprofits, architects, federal ministry employees, community foundations, university professors, and people from other associations and organizations – enthusiastically discussed and debated about the past, present, and future of urban development in Germany.


The Fifth German National Urban Development Congress.
The great diversity of the participants — silos were definitely busted — meant that not everyone spoke with one voice or opinion, but it also meant that the dialogue was real and reflected the complexities that communities actually face. Solutions found here could become real solutions. I was struck that we don’t have an equivalent type of event here in the United States – perhaps we are too large – but it did suggest there might be value in holding such convenings at a regional level. The Congress definitely provides a glimpse of the possible in terms of our having our own urban development conversation.

As for my role, I delivered a speech that focused on “climate and the city.” A key theme was that policy cannot afford to overlook these, since climate impacts how cities live – for example, roughly half of the US population lives in coastal counties vulnerable to rising sea levels — and how cities are built impacts climate – energy use by buildings and transportation account for more than two-thirds of US greenhouse gas emissions. I described some US initiatives in this regard. While I called out a good number of figures on impacts and costs, I left out many others, since I’ve learned that doing too much of this can often induce drowsiness in a crowd. Afterwards, however, I heard an appreciation for the numbers, and an observation that such openness was unusual in Germany and very intriguing for them. And I thought I had included too much. They were hungry for more because it made the policy picture very clear.


The Unterneustadt neighborhood in Kassel, Germany.
I’d like to close with an historical reflection. The Congress host city, Kassel, was nearly completely destroyed by firebombing in October of 1943 and the ensuing separation of the two Germanys left it isolated. The result was that it took decades — after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 — for some parts of the city to come full circle after the War. I was able to visit a neighborhood along the river called Unterneustadt (Lower New City) that was completely destroyed, outside of a couple of buildings and middle age remnants that the city had clung to. Thanks to neighborhood and municipal actions, as well as appropriate investment and design, this area has come to life since 2006. Mixed-income townhouses, parks, playgrounds and schools mix with architectural gems of the far distant past and the present. This site reminded me of neighborhoods in some of our cities that struggle with degraded infrastructure and long standing abandonment, and made me think about how successes like this could be applied in the United States as we similarly try to unite the past and present of our neighborhoods. It also highlighted the level of cooperation and patience we may also need.

The trip to the Congress and Kassel is one I will not soon forget. As we continue to hone the themes and activities of our Joint Declaration with the German Ministry, we will be developing a more detailed plan for the exchange and cooperation that I hope draws your attention and involvement. It is my sincere hope that we on this side of the Atlantic can offer as much as I know we will receive through the relationship.