Heerlen The National Programma Heerlen Nord is one of twenty large community and economic development projects established by the Netherlands government to change the conditions in targeted communities over a twenty to twenty-five year timeline. These are potentially large scale operations with lots of moving pieces, requiring a high level of consensus and planning even prior to implementation. A project in Rotterdam South has been in development for years and the effort in Heerlen is not far behind, along with a couple of others who have managed to get up and running.
Heerlen Nord is arguably one of the most imperiled communities in Netherlands by some measures. With a population of 60,000, it also is a big hunk of the Heerlen municipality. Put all of these pieces together, as well as a potentially huge national and related set of investments, it is fair to say the program has everyone’s attention. For several days, I had been in the city and in Heerlen Nord as a consultant of sorts seeing if the establishment of ACORN here could advance citizen participation and engagement at all levels of the project and in the city itself, reflected by great involvement in mandated community consultations and even voter participation in local elections. Not surprisingly, then, that this trip also involved a pleasant and polite noon meeting on Sunday with the Burgemeester Roel Wever and one of the several deputy mayors to have some discussion about what the role of an independent organization might contribute to the project’s goals and objectives.
One of the bridge building events that the Programma is doing in Heerlen Nord is semiregular barbecues in different parts of the community. I showed up with Ron Meyer, the program director, shortly after it began, on a small patch of grass near a street corner across from an Aldi shore that had closed. It was a small gathering, perhaps twenty or thirty people came through over several hours. A housing corporation director was there and was one of two aldermen I met, as well as getting to followup with the director of the large social welfare agency, who I had met the day before. The mayor showed up, and his driver double-parked across the thoroughfare.
As I was talking with the mayor, several adolescents, between 9 and 11 years old, I would guess, drawn by the hamburgers and sausage, would ride their bikes right up to us and ask Wever, “are you really the burgomaster?” Still striding their bikes, oblivious to any previous conversation they might have been interpreting, they got right to business. They were speaking in Dutch, which I couldn’t follow, but I know the body language of persistence and demands. Several gathered. The mayor, smiling, engaged them. At one point, the mayor excused himself to me, and they all walked together to the corner to observe something. He came back to me, and the bikers gathered near the grill, caucusing likely, to evaluate their progress. I asked about their demand. The mayor said they wanted grass planted where they played soccer. I’m not sure any promises were made other than for future investigation. Several would come by later on their bikes to join the earlier chorus and second the emotion.
Watching the scene was an interesting snapshot of neighborhood life in a smaller city. The mayor had no security detail or handlers to shoo off anyone with a question, walking up or riding their bikes, like these kids. Not only was he accessible, but residents took their access for granted, even these wee ones. It wasn’t a selfie take, so familiar in North America. People had business, and they blurted it out. I don’t know if it worked, but I’ll be checking in future visits to see what might have happened. I found the whole experience novel and an education for future planning on strategy and tactics in dealing with the municipal government.