Expert Interview: Thomas Geisel, Mayor of Düsseldorf Since 2014, Thomas Geisel has served as mayor of Düsseldorf, a city that consistently ranks extremely highly in Mercer's Quality of Living City Rankings. Throughout his tenure as mayor, Mr. Geisel has invested much time and effort into maintaining and improving his city’s quality of living even further, and the results speak for themselves. With Düsseldorf again positioned very highly in the latest Quality of Living City Rankings, Mercer was pleased to have Mayor Geisel chat with us about some of his efforts to improve the city’s infrastructure even further. In addition, Mayor Geisel went into detail about some of the challenges he has faced along the way, as well as where he sees his city within the next few decades, general tips for other cities wanting to improve their quality of living, and a variety of other topics. Throughout the past 20 years, Düsseldorf has consistently maintained or even improved its standard of living. What do you think have been some of the most successful initiatives for making this a reality? The ability to transform and take advantage of structural and economic changes is right at the heart of Düsseldorf's success. Both the city administration and the main stakeholders of the city's corporate and civil society organizations have taken a distinctively proactive approach towards developing and establishing sustainable and innovative economic clusters. In fact, Düsseldorf has always been at the cutting edge of industrial development ever since the industrial revolution. Today we play host to an extremely diverse and innovative range of industries. So, to me, the main change over the last 20 years has been the shift of industries. This has included the increasing number of service providers in the city – for example, international law firms, patent attorneys, creative industries and, most recently, startups. It also covers the continued redevelopment of abandoned industrial sites like the former brownfield area east of the Main Station or the Media Harbor, to name just two internationally well-known projects. Also, areas dominated by manufacturing in the past have been successfully redeveloped into true hotspots for digitalization and creative industries, thus providing the basis for the future growth and success of the city. I believe that innovative companies offering wealth and career opportunities are one of the key factors for retaining and improving the quality of living. However, successful development and innovation cannot work without the necessary policy initiatives that address key aspects of social environment. That's why our most recent initiatives focus on the improvement and construction of daycare centers, schools, sports facilities, parks, etc. Right at the center of all our initiatives is the goal of developing new residential areas that can provide social and affordable housing for our citizens. As a growing city, we also put great effort into making Düsseldorf greener, be it through the expansion of public transport offerings like the Wehrhahn Underground Line, Metro buses, or the famous “Rheinufertunnel,” or by upgrading our inner-city cycle paths. Green mobility is at the top of our agenda when it comes to being an even smarter city. On the other hand, as a city decision maker, what have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve overcome to implement your quality-of-living ideas and best practices? Due to limited budget and resources, it has always been crucial to find ways to fund necessary investments without increasing the debt burden for future generations. This aspect has always been very crucial from the citizen's point of view, as well. So, one way we have done this is by making creative use of the city's assets to improve our financial room for maneuvering. One example is the so-called "sewer deal", in which the sewers which, once held by the city, were sold to the municipal drainage company to raise necessary funds to the city treasury for infrastructure investment. Another factor, which is probably even more important, has been the direct participation of the city's population in our major projects. In order to achieve this, we make certain that opportunities for participation are always included in the planning and implementation process for any major project. We also actively encourage citizens to contribute their own ideas, and we’re not only doing this in connection with our major projects, but also by encouraging an ongoing Citizens’ Dialogue. So, whenever I visit the various quarters of Düsseldorf, the Citizens’ Dialogue process allows me to talk to the people living there directly and get first-hand information on what is on their agenda. [See below for more on Citizens' Dialogue.] If you could give some general tips for cities that are already thriving on how to improve their quality of living even more, what would you say? I’d say that each city has to find its own way to deal with its unique challenges, changes, and current trends. However, I would add that maintaining social balance should always be at the center of all strategies and activities. In the case of Düsseldorf, this means finding a balance between living and working, parks and production sites, cultural hubs and trading locations, economic success and social inclusion, and so on. Careful planning of projects and constant dialogue with citizens, stakeholders, corporations, and partners is key for this, as well. In order to deal with current economic trends, for instance, the city’s Office of Economic Development has established a number of units that help identify and address areas where support is needed. This is because growth and rising prices in growing cities inevitably puts pressure on some companies, such as a startup initiative or a team for culture and creative industries. Those companies might be need a bit of support while adapting to this growth. The quality of life in a city also has much to do with convenience. This includes having a good transport infrastructure, sufficient and affordable living space, affordable and attractive leisure and cultural activities, as well as a distinct cultural identity and diverse populace. All this serves to maintain social peace, without which no city can thrive in the long term. Would you agree that a city’s talent and business attractiveness tend to correlate with higher living standards? Yes, high living standards do play an important role. Being able to recruit talent is indeed one of the most important factors for business success and standard of living is essential for this. Düsseldorf also has a successful and very international business community, and standard of living is already very high. However, the famous Rhenish mentality, wherein every guest of the city is viewed as a temporary Düsseldorfer, and general open-mindedness should not be underestimated in this context, either. Düsseldorf has traditionally always been an outstandingly welcoming city where newcomers find it really easy to integrate and make friends. Could you provide a few examples of initiatives which Düsseldorf has taken to accommodate or accelerate this correlation over the past few years? Of course, the factors that make Düsseldorf such a livable city need to be retained, but we are always looking for new ways to improve and make the city even more accessible to newcomers. So in 2016, Düsseldorf established the Expat Service Desk ME & DUS together with the neighboring county of Mettmann, as well as the local Chamber of Industry and Commerce. This joint project provides support to international professionals and their families living here, as well as to small- and medium-sized enterprises that plan on recruiting internationally. The team offers consultation in a number of languages, hosts events and provides a whole range of information. This welcoming attitude is not only found on the level of the city administration, however. Local charities and volunteers also run various initiatives to help newcomers to Düsseldorf. One example is the program of Düsseldorf Aktiv Net, which features advice and support in foreign languages. What do you believe should be the main priorities for Düsseldorf over the next 20 years? Düsseldorf will continue to grow, to innovate, and to improve the quality of living for its citizens. Our priorities lie in various fields: On the social side, we’re dedicated to ensuring safety and security for all citizens, expanding the availability of affordable housing to meet the growing demand, expanding up-to-date cultural, educational, social and recreational offers, and installing an infrastructure that is fit for the digital revolution. On the sustainability side, we’ll be consistently looking for smarter mobility alternatives, while also participating in climate protection initiatives. What other city has done a great job improving its living standards for residents over the past decade? Currently, Copenhagen is probably the city that’s best known for its innovative and smart approaches and policies. It consistently gets very good marks from its citizens and has recently been very successful in attracting creative talents from all over the world. I was personally very impressed by how Copenhagen was able to increase its attractiveness by expanding affordable housing and public transport. At the same time, it has been able to convert itself into one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in Europe, complete with its own cycle lanes and extensive selection of bike trails. How would you summarize Düsseldorf today and also where you would like it to see it in the future? Today, Düsseldorf is a diverse and welcoming city that combines economic success and quality of living perfectly. Düsseldorf is a strong and innovative international business location, but at the same time, it’s a comfortable, friendly, tolerant and cosmopolitan city with a certain ease about it. In the future, I would like to see Düsseldorf continue to grow and expand its economic success in a socially balanced manner. The basis for this is a sustainable development policy which includes affordable housing, attractive job perspectives, a better infrastructure and a continuously high quality of living. Over time, the city will become even more international and attract talent from all over the world, and this will all be supported by a broad political consensus. In closing: economic sustainability, an up-to-date infrastructure, and the continued development of rich cultural and social offerings. All of this will ensure that Düsseldorf remains a liveable and endearing city. Citizen's Dialogue The involvement of citizens in the daily life of the city is an important process that empowers the population to provide feedback on which efforts by the government are meeting their needs, and which are not. It provides private individuals an opportunity to influence public decisions and has long been a component of the democratic decision-making process. Citizens’ Dialogue has existed since ancient Greece. The below graph extracted from the “Characteristics of Good Governance” (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, 2009) shows that good governance is the result of several actors being involved and providing various views, ideas, and feedback. Ideally, for good governance it is important to reach a broad consensus with all actors. However, in reality it is indeed difficult; hence perseverance, transparency, and the willingness of decision makers to be open and listening will be necessary for cities striving for a high living standard to attract talent and business.