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Minnesota State Fair, Trump/Pence boothAfter the first four weeks in my new hometown of Minneapolis, where I will spent the upcoming year as an exchange student at the University of Minnesota, I can assure everyone that people here are already focused on the upcoming elections. On November 8, 2016, they will not only decide about the new president but also their congressmen and women in the House of Representatives.

Minnesota differs from other U.S. states. From September 23 on, Minnesotans are already allowed to cast an early vote which gives more people the chance to participate in the upcoming elections. Unlike in Germany, Election Day is not on a Sunday, but always on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. As a consequence, a lot of people might not have the time to go to the polls because they have to work. Minnesota’s early voting system instead gives people the chance to vote whenever it is convenient to them. So they can avoid the often long waiting lines at the polling stations on Election Day.


Another difference between Minnesota and other U.S. states is the fact that Minnesotans can register for voting on Election Day. In contrast to Germany, U.S. citizens are not automatically registered to vote and have to do that at least 30 days prior to the election. Otherwise they are not eligible to cast their vote. A political science professor of mine regards this more flexible regulation as a decisive factor why the voter turnout in Minnesota is always among the nation’s highest. This can also be seen in the actual numbers. During the last Presidential Election in 2012, the turnout in Minnesota was 76.42% compared to just 54.87% on average in the entire country.

Americans constantly talk about the upcoming elections. Even before my plane touched American soil, I had a first interesting conversation with my seat neighbor, a professor from northern Minnesota. For hours we spoke about the elections, the candidates and the topics which are important to Minnesotans, especially for those living in the rural areas in the North and North-East. In these counties many people are very concerned about job security. They often work for the strong mining industry (Minnesota is the largest producer of iron ore and taconite in the U.S.) and fear that cheaper foreign imports and possible new environmental protection laws could endanger their workplace. According to my seat neighbor, such a climate of anxiety might influence some former Democrats to support the Republican Party presidential candidate Donald Trump and his proposed protectionist policy for the American economy. Yet, Minnesota can still be regarded as one of “bluest” states in America since Minnesotans voted for the Democrats during the past ten presidential elections. They did so even in 1984 when Minnesota was the only state (except the District of Columbia), which voted for the Democrat Walter Mondale instead of the Republican President Ronald Reagan.


Booth of the DFL (Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party) on the Minnesota State Fair 2016 (photo credit: Tobias Luthe)

Both major parties have started their campaigns here in Minnesota. On the Minnesota State Fair, for example, which is one of the biggest agricultural fairs in the entire country, Republicans as well Democrats had their own booths where they informed people about their party’s and candidate’s goals. Apart from receiving flyers and first-hand information, visitors were also able to purchase merchandise of the candidates like Donald Trump’s famous “Make America Great Again” cap or Hillary Clinton T-Shirts. In the US the candidates rely on the revenues from these merchandise sales to a certain degree in order to finance their campaigns. This is definitely a point where the U.S. differs from Germany.


Booth of the Republican Party of Minnesota at the Minnesota State Fair 2016 (photo credit: Tobias Luthe)

All in all my first weeks have definitely been dominated by politics. It is interesting to see that not only the media but also ordinary people already discuss the presidential election in November. Without hesitating they often claim that this might be one of the most interesting and important elections in U.S. history. Therefore, I am really looking forward to observing how Americans, especially my fellow students on campus here in Minneapolis, will perceive the further development of the different election campaigns.

Tobias Luthe is a student in North American Studies focusing on politics and economics at the John-F.-Kennedy-Institut of the Freie Universität Berlin. He is spending the fall and spring semester 2016/17 at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities Minneapolis-Saint Paul.



gary-johnson.jpgOver the last two weeks the very emotional race for the White House has not become less intensive. But no matter what both candidates do, they remain very unpopular presidential nominees for many Americans. In a recent Huffington Post poll on the candidates' popularity scores Americans expressed their dissatisfaction for Clinton (54.1% unfavorable) and Trump (60.1% unfavorable). Neither candidate has come even close to a favorable rating of 50% or more. Back in 2008, the two major presidential nominees Barack Obama and John McCain enjoyed far more support from the American public. A month before the election Obama’s favorability ratings reached 61% and McCain’s 57%. But the current candidates rather polarize American society instead of being able to unite the country. Due to their unpopularity, a number of students here in Minneapolis tend to look for third party options in the race for the White House.

(Photo: Gary Johnson is the Libertarian Party's nominee for President of the United States in the 2016 election. He served as the 29th Governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003 as a member of the Republican party. Photo credit: Gary Johnson)

During the primaries of the Democratic Party, the self-appointed “socialist” Bernie Sanders represented a possible new chapter of American politics for younger people, in particular college students. After Sander’s defeat in the primary process and in spite of his pledged support for Secretary Clinton, his  former supporters at my university think about voting for an independent candidate. Gary Johnson, the presidential nominee of the Libertarian Party, has won support among them because he has been able to portray himself as a serious third party option. In mid-September, 8.9% of Americans expressed their support for him in ten different nationwide polls conducted from September 8 until September 21.

But this switch from Sanders to Johnson by young people is also surprising to a certain degree because both politicians only share similar opinions on a couple of social issues like marriage equality or the legal use marijuana at home. When it comes to more controversial topics like abortion, Johnson also appeals to more conservative voters by being against late-term abortions or using tax dollars for such procedures although he also wants to respect the freedom and choice of women at the same time.

Johnson also differs from Sanders on educational issues. Sanders advocated free college education which motivated many young adults to join his camp. In the U.S., college education is extremely expensive in comparison to Germany, and it is not unusual that people spend multiple $10,000 per year. Thus, students often  rely on student loans provided by the federal government, which are supposed to finance their stay at the university. After graduation, former students have to pay back substantial loans. Johnson opposes free college educatiin, but he also opposes these loans. He strongly believes  that the federal government should not pay for anyone's education. Although this seems to be not in the interest of students, a significant number of them still consider voting for Johnson. But how is this possible?

While older voters in the U.S. often care about the label of the party, which gives them a framework for what the different presidential nominees stand for, millennials don’t feel party loyalty. Since they regard both parties and their candidates skeptically, young adults have been constantly looking for alternative voting options. Hence, they also tend to overlook certain ideological contradictions between a candidate like Gary Johnson and their own position. So one gets the impression that young voters care about the candidates' policy goals only to a certain extend. What matters to them is also the candidate’s character and what each of them represents, in Johnson’s case perhaps that he is an outsider making inroads into a close race.


Tobias Luthe is a student in North American Studies focusing on politics and economics at the John-F.-Kennedy-Institut of the Freie Universität Berlin. He is spending the fall and spring semester 2016/17 at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities Minneapolis-Saint Paul.



Recently, Hillary Clinton´s “Stronger Together” campaign trail stopped by at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis which gave me the chance to attend my first rally in the U.S. Clinton herself was not present during that event and campaigned elsewhere in the country. Instead Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont, who was her biggest challenger during the Democratic primaries, campaigned for her and was highly anticipated by students.

Although the event took place on a Tuesday afternoon in our beautiful auditorium, the event location was sold out. It seems that all politically interested students found some time in their schedules to see that candidate who had captivated the enthusiasm of young voters like no other candidate during the long primary season and who has inspired political engagement and participation with his grassroots campaign.

In addition to Senator Sanders, politicians of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) ‒ the branch of the Democratic Party here in Minnesota – gave speeches to promote their races for the Minnesota State House. This year's State House election in Minnesota, which also takes place on November 8, 2016, is even regarded as one of 20 battleground chambers in the country with the Republican Party currently holding a majority of 73 to 61 seats in the State House of Representatives. The Democrats control the State Senate instead. Thus, the DFL aims at winning the majority in the House of Representatives which would give the party the control over both branches of government since Governor Mark Dayton is also a Democrat.

The most fascinating speaker of that day was Ilhan Omar, an American woman born in Somalia, who runs for district 60B in the Minnesota House of Representatives, which includes the University of Minnesota and some neighborhoods around campus.


Ilhan Omar, a Somali American politician (DFL) from Minnesota. If elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in November, she could become the first Somali-American legislator in the United States and the first Muslim woman to hold office in her state. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Omar and her family fled the country’s devastating civil war at the beginning of the 1990s and immigrated like many other Somalis to Minnesota. Today, around 25,000 Somalis live in the Twin Cities’ metro-area. After Omar’s victory over the long-serving representative Phyllis Kahn in the extremely competitive DFL primary for the seat in the State House, she now has the historic chance to become the first Somali legislator in the U.S. Especially, the support among students in the neighborhoods around campus have given her the decisive advantage over her opponents to win the nomination and possibly the race. Omar’s Republican opponent in the General Election Abdimalik Askar, who was born in Somalia as well, just announced that he is suspending his campaign, which gives Omar a huge advantage. Nonetheless, he will remain on the ballot since the Republican base in my electoral district is rather small and has not been able to find an alternate candidate. Although the race is more or less already decided, both candidates have had an important impact in energizing the large Somali community of the Twin Cities, especially in district 60B, where many of them live. Omar´s campaign reported that 5,868 people casted their vote in the primary, which is an increase of 37 percent compared to 2014.

However, the speech most students anticipated was given by Senator Bernie Sanders. Since the primaries of the Democratic Party for the presidential nomination, Sanders has become an idol for many young Americans. Therefore, I was really looking forward to seeing him in order to get an idea why my fellow students were so passionately supporting him.


Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks to young voters in support of Hillary Clinton’s campaign at the University of Minnesota on October 4, 2016.


When Sanders entered the stage, he received an incredibly warm welcome from the students. He delivered an energetic speech about social issues like debt-free college, a fairer distribution of the tax burden among U.S. citizens, and an expansion of the Affordable Care Act (also known as “Obamacare”), which has given millions of Americans access to health care. The audience did not stop applauding and cheering  for Sanders. It was impressive to see how he inspired just about everybody in the room. Thus, this rally confirmed my assumption that social questions are highly important for young Americans and cannot be ignored by any party with ambitions for the highest office in the United States. In order to benefit from Sanders’ strong support among millennials, Hillary Clinton has already adopted many of his points and included him in her election team. But despite their cooperation, Clinton remains unpopular among Sanders’ young supporters. Clinton, it seems, has been unable to inspire the same excitement and passion among this growing and increasingly important voter group. While young voters are 'fired up' for politicians like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), their relationship to Clinton is 'lukewarm', at best.

With that in mind, it will be interesting to see if Sanders is able to convince his supporters to cast their vote for Clinton and not another third-party candidate like Gary Johnson (Presidential Nominee of the Libertarian Party) on Election Day.


Tobias Luthe is a student in North American Studies focusing on politics and economics at the John-F.-Kennedy-Institut of the Freie Universität Berlin. He is spending the fall and spring semester 2016/17 at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities Minneapolis-Saint Paul.
#Election2016 #GoingGreen 

In Minnesota water has always played a central role not only for recreation but also industry. Not only is Minnesota home to more than 11,800 lakes but also huge rivers like the Mississippi, the Minnesota River and the Saint Croix River. This allows Minnesota to be the fifth largest producer of agricultural goods in the United States. But this part of the economy also accounts for a significant share of the water used in Minnesota. In total, 34 percent (87.9 billion gallons in absolute numbers) of the state´s water is just used for irrigation purposes. This is unsustainable!


Relying too much on groundwater

Since the end of World War II, Minnesota has shifted its water supply from surface water sources like the Mississippi River to groundwater pumping. Especially over the last 25 years, there has been a steep increase of 35 percent in the usage of groundwater. Although not solely responsible for this increase (an increasing population as well), farming is regarded as one of the key areas to tackle an unsustainable use of water, groundwater in particular. According to Professor Deb Swackhamer, former director of the University of Minnesota Water Resources Center, groundwater can be compared to a saving´s account for times of droughts. In contrast to surface water, which can be refilled through rain, groundwater, is replenished on a geological time scale that might take up to 10,000 years. Thus, it is clearly not sustainable to mostly rely on groundwater. If the groundwater reservoirs decline, it might take generations until they can be used again. In parts of South-West and Central-Minnesota, people have already witnessed a lowering of the groundwater level, which can cause serious water supply problems for communities, industries, and wildlife. Low groundwater in Little Rock Creek in Central-Minnesota has led to decreasing oxygen and increasing water temperatures that harm the brown trout population there. Though a regional issue, the Little Rock Creek case amplifies the importance of a more sustainable use of groundwater.


Cleaning up surface water sources

But why is it not possible to just switch back to surface water sources, which were used in the past? Today, more than 40 percent (more than 4100) lakes and streams in the state of Minnesota do not meet the federal quality standards for water, often caused by the side-effects of agriculture like nitrate and phosphorous contamination from fertilizers and animal manure. By infiltrating the ground or running into rivers, streams and lakes, these substances can negatively impact the overall water quality and foster the growth of toxic blue-green algae. Hence, it is not possible to use the contaminated water for irrigation or even drinking. Drinking contaminated water can cause serious illnesses such as the Blue Baby Syndrome, which is a blood disorder that can even be even be fatal in infants. 


Proximity to pollution sources can negatively impact the quality of water.


Thus the state, companies, as well as advocacy groups have taken steps to tackle the problems of future groundwater shortages and water contamination in the state. To reduce water consumption in industries and agriculture (together accounting for about 42 percent of the freshwater used in Minnesota), businesses are encouraged to use more conservation-based processes and equipment. A common problem in this context are leaky water pipes and other related equipment. Even a very small leak of one drop of water per minute accounts for more than 10 gallons of lost water per year. Multiplied with the remaining leaks from a farm or plant this already accounts for significant amount of water loss. In fact, both companies and nature can benefit from simple steps like fixing leaking pipes since people save money and nature suffers less from an unsustainable usage of its precious natural resource.


Leaky water pipes account for a significant amount of water loss.


Modernizing water supply and treatment

Modern efficient irrigation technology in agriculture also saves water such as low-pressure irrigation. In general, extracting water from streams, lakes or the ground is a highly energy intensive process. Today, still most irrigation systems rely on high-pressure impact sprinklers that release a large amount of water at high pressure to water fields. Thus, these systems require pumps that push large amounts of water through pipes at a very high velocity. But low-pressure systems reduce the pumping demands significantly since pumps extract less water to create the pressure necessary to supply the sprinklers. Moreover, these systems also save water by using larger droplets that are more resistant to wind and evaporation. In contrast, high-pressure rely on small fine droplets, which can spread and be carried away by wind or evaporate in dry atmospheric conditions. Consequently, these systems have to run longer every day in order to achieve the same level of irrigation as the low-pressure systems. Moreover, the short intervals of “light rain” by the low-pressure system are also not disruptive to the soil and help to maintain its infiltration capabilities.



Low pressure irrigation system


How do we tackle not only water waste but water pollution caused by industries and farming? An effective way to diminish the effect of runoff water is the creation of a living cover around ditches, rivers, streams and lakes. This living barrier holds water on the landscape, filters contaminants like nitrate, and allows water to reach aquifers while simultaneously reducing runoff. Living cover can consist off perennial crops, cover crops, prairie and grasses, wetlands as well as forests. The plants´ root systems hold the soil in place, build organic matter and keep the water clean. In 2015, Minnesota enacted a buffer law which designated about 110,000 acres of land to living cover along its rivers, streams and ditches. From now on, the law requires perennial vegetation of up to 50 feet along public waters and 16.5 feet along public ditches.

All in all these ideas area just small steps. But with the help of such efforts to reduce water consumption and enhance the quality of water, people can protect the world´s most precious resource.


Tobias Luthe is a student in North American Studies focusing on politics and economics at the John-F.-Kennedy-Institut of the Freie Universität Berlin. He is spending the fall and spring semester 2016/17 at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities Minneapolis-Saint Paul.

When people from outside the U.S. think about mobility in the United States, they often just have the picture of big cars in mind. The reality looks so much more different, especially in urban areas. Over the last twenty years, new environmentally friendly mobility trends such as biking or public transportation networks have become more and more popular in many cities across the U.S. Both of these trends can be observed in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-Saint Paul (MN) where I am spending a year abroad at the University of Minnesota. I will focus on the bike friendly infrastructure of the Twin Cities, which encourages people to change their mobility behavior.

Minneapolis-Saint Paul is the second largest urban area in the Midwest of the United States after Chicago. According to the census of 2010, Minneapolis (382,587) and Saint Paul (285,068) have a combined population of 667,655 people. By including the surrounding suburbs the population of the Twin Cities´ metropolitan area increases to more than 3.1 million. What makes this area so special in comparison to many other American cities, particularly here in the Midwest, is its well-designed bike infrastructure. Minneapolis is especially regarded as one of the most bike friendly cities in the country alongside Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington. But what factors have contributed to this development?

Bike Map of Minneapolis (see here).

In the past Minneapolis was a center of the American milling industry. Therefore, the city was connected to an extensive railway network in order to transport goods all over the country. The decline of the industrial sector over the course of time lead to the fact that large parts of the network were abandoned. But in the 1990s and early 2000s the city council of Minneapolis made a couple of landmark decisions which were supposed to promote biking as an alternative, environmentally friendly, form of mobility. Back then the city´s government decided to transform old abandoned railways into a large network of off-street bike paths. Additionally, Minneapolis was chosen as one of four US cities to receive $25 million from a federal government's pilot project to improve pedestrian and bike infrastructures within cities. Today, Minneapolis has 118 miles of on-street bike lanes and 92 miles of off-street bike paths (as of 2014). The city´s goal is to further improve the existing system until 2020 in order to make sure that every resident lives within 1 mile of off-street and ½ mile of on-street bike lanes. Due to this development, the city already has one of the highest rates of urban cycling in the entire country since nearly 5 percent of commuters use their bike every day to go to work.


On-Street Bike Lane on N Washington Ave; North Loop, Minneapolis. © Tobias Luthe

Minneapolis has an incredibly vibrant bike culture. Many biking exhibitions and festivals happen throughout the year and introduce people to the advantages of biking mobility. All over the Twin Cities, bike sharing stations (Nice Ride MN) give people the chance to rent a bike for a small amount of money. On campus, the University of Minnesota even actively promotes biking. The university´s recreation and wellness center (Rec Center) gives students the chance to rent bikes for little money. Furthermore, on-campus bike stores as well the Rec Center offer students technical support and advice with all bike related issues. Generally, bikes are not only very popular but also extremely useful because they allow students and professors to easily navigate around campus. In many on-campus areas cars are prohibited because streets are reserved for bikes and the Twin Cities´ Metro Transit (bus and light rail service). Even during the cold and snowy winter days bikes are a frequently used means of transportation. By constantly clearing the bike lanes of mud and snow the city ensures that bikers do not have to fear the winter. The Metro Transit´s buses and light rails are also equipped with bicycle racks, which allows people to take their bike with them no matter where they want to go within the limits of the Twin Cities. Due to these fantastic opportunities, I have also become one of the many bike commuters here.

Bike Path on SE Washington Ave; University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, Minneapolis. © Tobias Luthe

Minneapolis' positive experiences with biking have also inspired the city of Saint Paul to further improve their existing bikeway network. In the next couple of years, the city wants to add more than 190 miles of new bikeways, which would more than double the existing network. Thereby, the city would create another incentive for people to switch from rather environmentally unfriendly cars to environmentally friendly bikes. This could help Saint Paul  achieve its goal of increasing the bicycle mode share from 2 percent to 5 percent until 2025. Studies conducted by the city show that four out of five Millennials are interested in having more alternatives when it comes to mobility. Therefore, Saint Paul is eager to catch up with its Twin City and provide its residents with a modern bike-friendly infrastructure.

The significance of biking culture in the Twin Cities is a small but insightful example showing how many environmental initiatives in the U.S. are rather 'bottom-up' than 'top-down' in the sense that not only the States are considered 'laboratories of change' but that these developments very often rely on civic engagement by activist groups (like the "critical mass" movement), local institutions (the University of Minnesota), and the initiative of communities and their mayors.

Tobias Luthe is a student in North American Studies focusing on politics and economics at the John-F.-Kennedy-Institut of the Freie Universität Berlin. He is spending the fall and spring semester 2016/17 at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities Minneapolis-Saint Paul.


Green roofs are not only an aesthetic benefit for the city of Minneapolis but they help to reduce the city’s ecological footprint.

“Green isn´t just a concept in Minneapolis; it´s a lifestyle.”[1] This slogan by the city of Minneapolis (MN) summarizes the spirit of many people here perfectly. In general, Minneapolis always aims at being a forerunner when it comes to the issues of environmental-friendliness and sustainability. But the development is not only limited to significant investments in a bike friendly infrastructure or the provision of an environmentally-friendly public transportation network. Over the last couple of years Minneapolis has also introduced a number of green initiatives that are meant to improve the lives of the city´s residents. Many different local actors take part in these community activities making the city even greener. One such example is  the “Green Roofs” initiative of the city of Minneapolis in cooperation with other local actors.


Structure of a Green Roof


The “Green Roofs” initiative is exactly what it sounds like: replacing the traditional roof with living plants. Thereby, buildings become more environmentally-friendly by adopting many advantages of the natural landscape like plants’ ability to absorb large quantities of stormwater. In contrast to green roofs, normal roofs often have the disadvantage of accumulating heat and pollution. On rainy days, this can have severe effects on the water quality of rivers and lakes in Minneapolis. As rain pours down on ordinary roofs, the water washes out dust and pollution and transports it into rivers and lakes. But green roofs feature the ability to hold on much more rain water through the vegetation as well as the growing media and hence play an important part in the efforts to reduce water pollution. This also reduces the needs and costs for any additional expensive stormwater treatment infrastructure in the Twin Cities. The durability of green roofs is another important advantage. The waterproof membrane is below a green layer, which protects the roof from damaging outside factors such as heat, UV radiation or thermal swings. As a result, green roofs can last three times longer than the majority of normal roofs. But green roofs also serve as natural habitats for many different flowers and animals in cities. With the help of these roofs many birds as well as beneficial insects find better living conditions in the urban jungle, which allows their populations to prosper. In general, the overall living conditions for any animal and human being further improves since flowers ensure a better air quality through photosynthesis, which transforms carbon dioxides into fresh oxygen. Finally, those green roofs have positive aesthetic side-effect by beautifying Minneapolis neighborhoods as well.


Rooftop of the Target Center with the skyline of Minneapolis in the background



Different case studies around Minneapolis have demonstrated the positive effects of green roofs. Minneapolis’ basketball and event arena, the Target Center, is a stunning example of the green roof initiative. The Target Center has 2.5 acres (113,000 square feet) of greens on its roof and was the first sports arena in North America to install such a roof surface in 2009. Since its construction, the  roof has created a number of unique advantages for the city’s climate. The green roof can absorb 0.9 inches of rainfall per foot without any runoff of polluted water. Thereby, 1,000,000 gallons of stormwater are prevented from flowing into the Mississippi River each year. Furthermore, the roof’s waterproofing membrane is expected to last for 40 years. Another advantage of the Target Center´s green roof is its ability to absorb heat in the summer and hence reduce energy costs because it alleviates the consequences of the ‘urban heat island’ effect in downtown Minneapolis. This heat island effect leads to higher temperatures in cities and is caused by dark surfaces like roads or conventional buildings, which are highly concentrated in urban environments and absorb more solar radiation than natural landscapes. But with the help of green roofs cities cannot only become greener in their appearance but also in their way of tackling many of the man-made ecological problems.      


Tobias Luthe is a student in North American Studies focusing on politics and economics at the John-F.-Kennedy-Institut of the Freie Universität Berlin. He is spending the fall and spring semester 2016/17 at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities Minneapolis-Saint Paul.