A living space for people instead of traffic: An initiative in Mainz wants to reclaim space for community affairs in the city – and push politicians to make the city climate-neutral by 2030.

During a walk in the Mainz’ district of Neustadt, you were able to discover a speciality last May. Perhaps it was the sound of an accordion that made you glance around the corner. Perhaps it was the gregarious laughter of neighbours. At the corner of two streets, the city revealed a completely new image. Instead of a car-loaded roads, the street was crowded with humans. Some imprinted shirts, some helped each other repair their bikes. At the end of one street, a choir underlined the harmony of the event. Next to you, three young women ate on a wooden bench while the accordion was playing. Children were running in the streets careless of any traffic that would normally have been there. This scene didn’t happen by coincidence. Rather it was Mainz Zero, a climate initiative from Mainz, that set the scene. Their goal: Exert pressure on politics and make Mainz climate-neutral by 2030.

Now two months later, the playing children have disappeared. What has stayed are the self-made benches and Edith Heller sitting on one of them: “I have always felt a strong connection with nature. My parents were farmers”, says the speaker of the organization. Heller, like so many, is concerned about the health of people facing rising temperatures. Particularly, city residents are threatened by rising temperatures in summer. Health risks due to heat are increasing throughout Europe. That’s why Mainz Zero has set itself the task of preparing Mainz for climate change and driving climate protection forward. If it was for Mainz Zero, the city should be climate-neutral by 2030. A lot of work in a short period of time, but the initiative is successful and in close contact with the Mainz city government. The breakthrough for the organization’s visibility was the neighbourhood street in May.

The idea: Get the cars out of the city and make room for people

For ten days, no engine was allowed in the two neighbouring street sections in Neustadt, a district of Mainz. Instead, a space was created for flower beds and seating. Numerous resident projects and residents supported the project with various events, according to Edith Heller, part of the Mainz Zero press team. For example, there was a flea market, concerts, art projects, a children’s circus and a self-defence course. The two street sections were chosen regarding the two schools located there. In addition, Neustadt is known as a residential area for young families and students. « Of course, there were also concerns about the lack of parking spaces, but the city helped us solve the problem. Residents were able to reach us through an online contact form and request a parking space in a parking garage. Only the noise and occasional trash at the tables of the meeting place were criticized.”

Over 13,000 signatures for a climate decision in Mainz

Many of the members of Mainz Zero come from the climate movement Fridays for Future. Inspired by the goals of the umbrella organisation German Zero, Mainz Zero was born in 2021. At the beginning, the organisation collected over 13,000 signatures for a climate decision in Mainz, which was handed over to the city government of Mainz as a citizen’s petition. The demand: By 2030, the city should be climate neutral. This was to be achieved with an annual reduction in emissions of 10 percent starting in 2022. In the following September, however, the citizen’s petition was rejected for formal reasons. Mainz Zero decided against a lawsuit and, according to Edith Heller, preferred to remain in intensive discussion with the city and thus implement its goals. 

The decision played out. Only months after the discussion with the city government did the administration come up to the organisers. The city administration said, “We’d like to shut down a street for cars for a couple of days and make it a place for neighbours and interested people”, recalls Heller. Mainz Zero volunteered to find suitable streets for the project – in a calm area of the city and without too many entrances that must stay clear. The realisation of the “Nachbarschaftsstraße” – the neighbour’s street – gave the green light for more projects in cooperation with the city of Mainz. Since the idea has worked out, Mainz Zero is now looking for other streets to convert into “neighbourhood streets” during this summer holiday.

Mainz Zero relies on the city council’s resolution for consistent climate protection from 2021

Mainz Zero’s demands also refer to the city council’s resolution of November 2021 to « push ahead with consistent climate protection », which states that the city council welcomes the civic commitment of the « Mainz Zero » climate initiative. The common goal is to provide future generations with climate conditions worth living in. Based on this, Mainz Zero has presented a 10-point program to give the topic of climate protection in the city the appropriate priority. Among other things, it states that the city should set up a climate protection team to examine all projects. In addition, fast bike lanes are to be expanded in order to drive forward the traffic turnaround, and the green axes that have been adopted are to be planned and implemented. Furthermore, the immediate program provides for the expansion and funding of solar systems for private households and businesses.

The organisation seems to be successful, the city of Mainz is currently planning an upheaval in infrastructure around parliament in the city government’s district. A main road is to be closed to calm the traffic and create a meeting point for the citizens of Mainz. As an idea of democracy that politics and the physics of politics like the parliament building are accessible, the creation of a place to be and feel comfortable plays into this. But the organisation pleads that the city government establish a “climate congress”. “The city has some nice ecological projects, but few people know about them”, utters Heller. In such a congress, the city could present their progress and get in touch with the citizens about new ideas to make it a greener city. “Also to motivate the citizens for climate protection”, explains the organiser. Mainz Zero is also campaigning against the development of a BioTech firm site on a field in Mainz that represents a fresh air corridor for Mainz. To this end, they are also working with environmental organisations such as NABU, BUND and Greenpeace. Without the fresh air corridor, the city could become much hotter in summer.

« People are fighting back for their living space. » (Edith Heller, Mainz Zero)

Regardless of all efforts and progress, there is still a long way to go. Whether Mainz is doing enough to meet the 1.5-degree-goal of the Paris Agreement? “No, we still need to do a lot more”, says Edith Heller with a grin. “These are actually things that have been known for years. It is not about the people and their needs, but about the profit of a few.” Mainz Zero will therefore stay engaged and keep putting pressure on politics. Asked about her motivation for the initiative Heller says: ”My commitment stems from the fact that I want to work to ensure that creation is also preserved as well as possible. That people and animals can also live here. Therefore, I like to invest my free time, which I have as a pensioner”.

Heller is confident and hopes to make a difference in the city with her involvement. She sees that more and more young people are joining the initiative and hopes for even more support from the people and the city. Maybe it also needs more people, like Edith Heller, who use their free time to want to make a difference. In this way, what are currently single streets may become entire neighbourhoods in the future with people coming together, exchanging ideas to make the city a social and sustainable place to live. Or as Edith Heller would say, « People are fighting back for their living space. »

Texte : Annika Lange and Ben Kaupmann // Photos : Ines Barwig