Last week, I caught up with Chloe Maryam Mohr, a senior community planner with Montgomery County Pennsylvania, about her recent trip with the POCACITO program to the land of the rising currywurst. Amid the national shutdown over COVID19, it has been a great opportunity to catch up on some old correspondence and dig into some stories that can provide an alternative to the COVID-heavy news cycle.
POCACITO, or Post-Carbon Cities of Tomorrow, is a European-American exchange program that facilitates professional exchanges on topics related to the postcarbon economy. I participated in the program in June 2016 and met some amazing people, many of whom I still keep in touch with. Our trip took us mostly through the Ruhrgebiet, a sort of German Rust Belt, if the American Rust Belt were condensed into an area the size of Metro Detroit– and had an intercity subway system. Dortmund, Essen, Duisburg, and Bochum are the largest cities. As a point of geographic reference– and to emphasize how close together things are- it’s a 15-20 minute train trip between Duisburg, Düsseldorf, Cologne, and Bonn along the Rhine.
Perhaps the highlight of my trip was the opportunity to attend ExtraSchicht (Extra Shift), a virtually 24-hour, aestival celebration that capitalized on the access to former industrial spaces that had been transformed into tourist destinations. The event included everything ranging from food trucks to performance art to a boat tour on the Dortmund-Ems Canal, a Bundeswasserstraße (lit. “federal water-street”). The Canal included a look at a centenarian Schiffshebewerk or ‘boat lift work’, which is sort of a boat elevator. (Germans just had to make the old lock-and-dam system so much more complicated).
ExtraSchicht in 2020 is set to take place over 50 host sites. We have a few examples of this in the United States– Carrie Furnace in Pittsburgh, for example, or Seattle’s Gasworks Park. But, by and large, when we’re done with things, we demolish them and turn them into strip malls. I returned to Germany in November 2017 with the German American Chambers of Commerce-South and had a couple of extra days to spend on research in Bochum and Duisburg around industrial historic preservation.
ZIN: FRANKFURT’S ENTREPRENEURIAL ECOSYSTEMS
Different approaches to sustainability and technical innovation are always interesting to compare, too. Germany enjoys relatively well-capitalized governments, funded by a well-developed, progressive tax structure. While this can drive up some costs, it allows a lot of scale from centralization that isn’t possible within the neoliberal frameworks popular in the United States.
Mohr formerly managed GHG inventories and other initiatives with the Center for Sustainable Communities at Temple University. As a county planner, she works with smaller communities that don’t have their own full-time staff planner. Small municipalities are similar in many ways to poor inner cities– in that they have to figure out creative ways to stretch dollars, seek out partnerships and resources to facilitate growth, and cultivate local entrepreneurialism.
The focus on specifically sustainable business is something Mohr said she enjoyed the opportunity to get a closer look at from a German perspective.
“Small business is often the source of a lot of innovation– and a lot of impact on societal change,” she said, “so it makes sense to try and support businesses [focused on sustainability] to try and develop new ideas and solutions.”
The City of Frankfurt partners with the Provadis University’s Center for Industry and Sustainability (ZIN in German) to provide support for startups working in the sustainability space. They have a competitive accelerator program that provides €50,000 in operating cash to participants, working in everything from waste pickup to smart logistics routing to solar deployment. Another program, Pioneers into Practice, operates in a number of European countries. It aims to train professionals in integrative, systems-based thinking for addressing sustainability and climate change.
SOCIAL VS. TECHNICAL INNOVATION
One of the biggest takeaways I brought up from a few of these trips was the perceptions that while Germans are great at technical innovation, they’re not always great at social innovation. I mentioned this, thinking about Germany’s cultural struggles– similar to that in the US and Canada- as the country’s mean skin tone changes from a combination of a slowing domestic growth rate mixed with immigration from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Combine this with a brain drain from the rapidly aging populations of the former East— and it might necessitate some lessons from the American Rust Belt.
“A couple of times, [people in the group] would have some questions about their efforts to try and reach out to lower-income people, immigrants and refugees […] to try and get their ideas, or to try and encourage companies to get involved with these communities,” Mohr said, “and they didn’t usually have a response for that. ‘Yeah, not really‘, was sort of the general takeaway.”
I’ve had this same experience. It might be worth mentioning that the country’s social contract is quite a bit different from that of the United States. The country also has a strong social net that the United States lacks. On my POCACITO trip, there was occasional grumbling from a member of the older generation about the high-tax business climate. But largely there was more of an acknowledgment that it’s fair for the rich to pay more taxes if it means building a civil society for everyone.
Equity, inclusion, and a specifically culturally pluralistic platform remain an important piece of that puzzle. In spite of all of the shortcomings of my home and native Americaland, there are plenty of opportunities for mutually beneficial, cross-cultural exchange in this department.
On the bright side, accessibility to the green economy generally would appear to remain much higher than in the United States. Frankfurt, Mohr said, has a large percentage of buildings certified under the Passivhaus standard, and said that a large percentage of the city lives in social housing owned by the city. It isn’t like American public housing, though, in that it’s not just the lowest-of-low-income residents, nor does it have the same particular stigma attached that it does in the United States.
HOPES FOR THE FUTURE
As the world faces down COVID19, it’s hard to imagine exactly what the future might hold. While the silver lining of Chloe Mohr wants to bring back some lessons to Montgomery County and Philly about sustainable finance– and some novel business models.
One new program– cup2gether (English language article and an English language name, of course, being a bit less cumbersome than the German equivalent of tasse2sammen, and without the Beatles reference to boot)- seeks to reduce the waste from single-use coffee cups by providing a deposit-based system where cups can be returned to any participating business, which will then wash, sanitize, and reuse them. The Pfand (deposit) system in Germany is a ubiquitous (and culturally ingrained) incentive to reduce waste from single-use drink products.
Mohr says it’s exciting to think about the ways in which businesses are combating the slow decline of brick-and-mortar retail, ranging from one sustainably-minded café that has a clever system to legibly illustrate the acres of rainforest it has preserved.
“The idea is that it’s not just a store selling a product, it’s an experience,” she says. “It’s also a product you want to spend money on for the social aspect of it, too, echoing a lot of what we’ve heard in recent years about where retail is going.”
Amid COVID19, it doesn’t look like there will be any trips coming up too soon. But stay in touch with the Ecologic Institute and POCACITO.
(Chloe Maryam Mohr is a Senior Planner at the Montgomery County Planning Commission. Jordana Vásquez is a Project Manager with BrightPower in New York. Ashley Tracey is a transportation engineer with McCormick Taylor in Pittsburgh. Thanks to Jordana and Chloe for providing commentary and photos for this article. You can check out Jordana’s personal website here. Special thanks to Max Gruenig of the Ecologic Institute— and the European Union CCP- for making the POCACITO program possible.)