"Making Aachen fit for the future"

13. December 2023
Stadt Aachen

"How can Aachen's city centre become an attractive shopping destination again?" A citizens' assembly drew up 75 recommendations, which were presented to the public on 12 December 2023. What is special about Aachen's Citizens' Assembly is that this batch meeting was the first round of an ongoing process.

The Citizens' Assembly's proposals relate to the overarching themes

  • Identity and bottom-up
  • Leisure and culture
  • Mobility
  • Climate
  • Public spaces and vacancies

Strengthening the quality of stay

The Citizens' Assembly wants to improve the quality of time spent in the city centre in order to increase the length of stay and make shopping an "experience" for individuals and families. To this end, the city should set up mobile trees with integrated, intact seating in accessible places, operate a short-cycle shuttle bus within the Grabenring, install more toilets and drinking fountains and increase the presence of the public order office.

The city is also recommended to distribute play oases throughout the city centre and to use the Elisengarten more for events such as open-air cinema, readings and concerts. The weekly markets should stay open longer to enable working people to visit them. Pedestrian zones are to be extended. Where this is not possible, pedestrians should be favoured with play streets and smooth, barrier-free paving.

Revitalise former department store

To counter vacancies, the members of the Citizens' Assembly propose revitalising the "Haus Horten". The city should fill the former department stores' with cafés, a food market, library, adult education centre, small start-up businesses, low-threshold retail spaces, indoor play areas and pop-up shops. Vacant buildings should also be made available for clubs, initiatives, artists and leisure activities for a limited period of time until they are re-let.

"Basically, a more pleasant atmosphere needs to be created in the city centre. To this end, the greening of public buildings should be intensified for both aesthetic and climatic reasons," says the Citizens' Assembly's report. To this end, the facades and roofs of public buildings should be designed to utilise energy. If this is not possible, these areas should be greened.

More greenery in the city

The city's tree population should be expanded and planting should be based on the criteria of climate resistance and the well-being of citizens. The aim is to avoid "smelly ginkgo fruits" and "chestnuts that burst open and cause slipping hazards".

In the field of transport, the Citizens' Assembly is proposing a reform of local public transport. In addition to existing buses, the citizens' assembly recommends creating an autonomous network bus system with stops on demand. Other recommendations include a clear ticketing system with simple fares and barrier-free bus transport. People with physical or mental disabilities should be included in decision-making processes.

Better dialogue with citizens

The city should set up shuttle bus routes that run from park & ride sites to the city centre. When shopping in local shops, the parking fee or bus ticket should lead to a price reduction.

Last but not least, the Citizens' Assembly wants to see improved dialogue between the city and its citizens. The city should set up an easily accessible contact point for citizens. The contact point should be an open ear for all citizens, collect their questions and solutions and make them publicly available. The contact centre should also be used to provide information about projects and offers from the city administration.

Limiting regulations and restrictions

The city is called upon to enable citizens to scrutinise existing regulations, processes and restrictions. It should impose time limits on ordinances and restrictions and review whether they should be maintained at the end of the period. Deadlines should be set for city authorisations within which the city must make a decision. Exceeding the deadline should lead to a positive decision in favour of the applicant.

Neighbourhood councils should be set up to promote a sense of neighbourhood; to work together better; to increase identification and create identity. City/street festivals organised by citizen communities should be supported by the city.

"Making Aachen fit for the future"

"We want to bring Aachen to life. And there is also life in our report," write the Citizens' Assembly participants in the foreword to their citizens' report. "The 75 recommendations fit neatly into a drawer and we quickly realised that we were afraid of not being heard. But the ideas, suggestions and discussions with families, friends and acquaintances fill entire rooms. We act as multipliers that can fill an entire stadium," the report continues.

"Five days of our lives have gone into this report and you, dear City Councillor, can make it possible to translate this time into the vision of the city of the future. We want to make Aachen fit for the future."

Citizens' Assembly work over three weekends

The Aachen Citizens' Assembly took place over a period of three weekends. The starting point was a kick-off event with a city walk on 28 October 2023, followed by two working weekends on 4/5 and 11/12 November 2023. The Citizens' Assembly members received an expense allowance of 50 euros per meeting day.

The Citizens' Assembly's first topic was determined following a collection of topics from the public. Suggestions for topics could be submitted until 10 March 2023. A total of 58 topic suggestions were received in this way via a participation platform. From 24 February to 10 March 2023, all residents were able to vote on the proposals online. All topic proposals that received at least 125 supporting votes had a chance of being discussed by the Citizens' Council. This hurdle was cleared by 17 proposals.

Topic selection

After the administration had checked whether the topics met the specified criteria (quorum of signatures reached and not yet dealt with by the City Council), the six finalists were selected by the Citizens' Assembly monitoring committee, in which the "Citizens' Assembly for Aachen" initiative is represented by the same number of people as the Aachen Council groups. This initiative had set the Citizens' Assembly ball rolling in Aachen.

The monitoring committee discussed the selection intensively. In the end, arguments such as "appeal beyond Aachen", "proximity to the reality of life" and the severity of the "pressure of suffering" were included in the selection. On 18 April 2023, six topics went to the city's Citizens' Forum for a decision. This forum is a committee of the city council for citizen participation.

3,500 residents randomly selected

In July 2023, 3,500 randomly selected people aged 16 and over were invited to take part in the Citizens' Assembly. The Citizens' Secretariat, which supports the Citizens' Assembly in organisational matters from within the administration, drew 56 members from the responses of those randomly selected. Their ages ranged from 18 to 85.

Many mini-public members reported positive experiences on the Citizens' Assembly. "At first I didn't dare to join at all and thought, what am I supposed to do," reported one participant. "It was nice to provide impetus. Someone hears it, someone sees it," said another participant, summarising his experience. A third participant said that it was important to realise "that the whole thing is democratic, that everyone gets a vote". Other members of the Citizens' Assembly reported that they were proud to be involved, that it was a "special experience with unknown people" and that they "had a lot of fun" working on the Citizens' Assembly. "More of this, please," said one of the participants.

"Citizens' Assembly an important instrument"

The results of the Citizens' Assembly were presented at a Citizens' Assembly conference on 12 December 2023. The report was discussed in the Citizens' Forum on 16 January 2024. On 31 January 2024, the City Council accepted the recommendations of the citizens' assembly. These will now be discussed in the specialised committees. After that the City Council must decide whether to implement all of the recommendations or only some of them. The council must give detailed reasons for its decision. If some of the recommendations cannot be implemented, this is also explained.

Lord Mayor Sibylle Keupen was pleased in a statement that Aachen was able to successfully establish the first permanent citizens' assembly in Aachen as a pioneer in Germany. She said: "The Citizens' Asseembly is an important instrument for actively involving citizens in political processes for a participatory urban society. As a permanent, institutionalised body, it goes far beyond a discussion forum. Politics and administration thus receive a direct recommendation from the citizens".

"A means against division in society"

And further: "Democracy is only strengthened through genuine participation and strengthens citizens' trust in political processes. Aachen is thus sending out a clear signal in favour of a democracy based on transparency, diversity and active citizen participation".

The "Citizens' Assembly for Aachen" initiative is pleased about a side effect of the mini-public: "People from the city come together who would otherwise never meet and would certainly never discuss city issues together. However, these new acquaintances will continue even after the meetings have ended and so there is a chance that the city's society will move a little closer together again in the long term. The Citizens' Assembly is therefore also a means of combating alienation and division in society."

Citizens' Assembly as a permanent body

The Aachen City Council decided to introduce the permanent Citizens' Council on 30 March 2022. It is modelled on the citizens' dialogue in the nearby German-speaking Community (DG) of East Belgium. The parliament of the DG had already regulated by law in 2019 how the democratic instrument should be organised there. Since then, five mini-publics have already taken place in East Belgium. There are also permanent citizens' assemblies in Brussels, Copenhagen, Milan and Paris.

Citizens' assemblies are also to be held regularly in Aachen in future. The body has a legal basis and a permanent organisational structure for this. Through ever new citizens' assembly, politics and administration are to receive direct recommendations from the citizenry. The members of the citizens' assembly are newly appointed every year. The topic for the next Citizens' Assembly is already being determined.

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