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Origins, Motives, and Structures of Citizens' Initiatives (October 27, 1973)

When local politicians started making controversial decisions that harmed citizens’ quality of life – like building super-highways through residential neighborhoods – citizens began to form single-issue protest movements in the hopes of forcing politicians to abandon misguided urban development projects.

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The Citizens Strike Back. Participation or: The only Alternative? Citizens’ Initiatives and the Hamburg Example

“The citizens triumphed over the authorities” was the headline of a morning paper in Hamburg this summer. It was about an inner-city highway, a so-called feeder road to the prospective western freeway bypass around Hamburg, which also includes the new tunnel under the Elbe. The route for a connection with the urban road network would had to have been cut through the densely built-up residential area of Ottensen. There had been protests for a long time. Resistance to the intentions of local politicians was ultimately modeled on other citizens’ initiatives. In the end, the success of this local protest movement was not limited to the planned route alignment and not even to urban traffic planning in general. The feeder will not be built as planned. There is still no substitute for it – although the western freeway bypass is already far along.

Nevertheless, this is not merely a matter of the authorities capitulating. Ottensen, a district built in the early twentieth century, with narrow streets, mostly poor building materials, and a relatively large amount of industry, is an urban redevelopment area. In addition to not building the feeder road, the building authority approved the appointment of a redevelopment commissioner, corresponding to the wishes of the relevant district assembly. In the future, the commissioner will negotiate between the individual citizens’ initiatives and the authorities. Building senator Cäsar Meister also expressly promised the Ottensen citizens’ initiative that they could participate in the redevelopment planning. A Hamburg official commented that “without the participation of the residents, development plans can no longer be implemented.”

The Ottensen Case

This sounds less like resignation than a willingness to rethink procedures. Exemplary among other similarly successful protest actions, the Ottensen case is interesting in view of the emergence and development of such citizens’ initiatives. The population of Ottensen is largely lower middle class, with a considerable proportion of blue-collar workers. The rebellion against the freeway feeder offers a rare example of citizen involvement in districts with socially weaker structures. Up to now, an Ottensen district spirit would have been described more negatively.

The authorities responded to the surprising solidarity of the community in favor of the old established residential district with a sign of positive interest in this long neglected district. Planned office space was decreased by 40 percent. Modernization of numerous prewar buildings, especially in the vicinity of the Altona train station, is to be supported in order to retain the character of a traditional residential area. But this, too, is part of the results: In early July an Ottensen Action Community continued to protest against the city planners with a march, banners, and slogans. “There were mocking rhymes about Mayor [Peter] Schulz and Building Senator Meister,” reported the Altonaer Nachrichten. A spokesperson for the citizens’ initiative distanced the group from its agitational competition.

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