Bonn’s reinvention for the 21st century

Spring cherry blossoms in the old city center of Bonn, Germany. robert.linden, Flickr
22 June 2019
Ming Chun Tang

Imagine the bewilderment of the diplomats, accustomed to the metropolises of London, Paris and Rome, who were told they had to relocate to a small town on the Rhine in 1949. Bonn, then with barely 100,000 inhabitants, was thrown into the global spotlight as it, of all places, was made capital of the freshly partitioned West Germany.

And so the emissaries flooded into what they affectionately dubbed the ‘capital village,’ a name that even the locals soon proudly adopted as their own – even as their town expanded into a sprawling collection of suburbs over the course of its 50 years as the seat of government. Only in 1999, almost a full decade after Germany was reunified, did most federal officials relocate back to Berlin, and today, Bonn still holds the title of federal city and hosts a number of government ministries.

The marks left by that complex recent history are plain to see: at one end of the central market square – where everything from fresh produce to currywurst and empanadas is sold six days a week – is a pedestrianized street featuring an odd mix of pre-war and modernist architecture. At the other end stands the old town hall, a neatly preserved Rococo-style edifice dating back to 1737 that has long ceased to serve its original purpose. When Bonn annexed several of its surrounding towns in 1969, its population more than doubled overnight, rendering the town hall obsolete.

Altes Rathaus, the old town hall of Bonn. C.K. Koay/Flickr

From its balcony, facing the market, the backdrop is dominated by the universally reviled structure that replaced it: the new city hall, a concrete and glass building that rises over the pubs, kebab shops and secondhand bookstores of the city’s eclectic north side, an area that represents the city’s present and future as much as the old town connects it to its past.

The case could even be made that Bonn’s north side is a microcosm of urban Germany, with a young, vibrant and increasingly diverse and multicultural community, still in the process of redefining itself three decades after reunification. Bonners lamented the loss of the diplomats and the internationalism they took with them when they left, and one gets the impression that the city has struggled with its identity since.

Bonn’s central market square seen from the balcony of the old town hall. Ming Chun Tang

Being the capital had allowed Bonn to briefly emerge from the shadow of Cologne, whose cultural influence is ever visible, whether that’s in the Kölsch beer served in every restaurant, or in the FC Köln football shirts worn around town on match days. The two cities share a largely asymmetrical relationship – Bonn generally stays off the radar of Cologne natives and, unlike Düsseldorf, lacks the historical antagonisms with its larger neighbor to fuel any sort of intercity rivalry.

So it was clear that reinventing itself as a cultural hub, in the same vein as Berlin, was never going to be an option for Bonn. The city needed to find its own niche. And it did just that when the Bundestag, the German parliament, moved out of its high-rise in the Gronau neighborhood three kilometers south of the city center. Langer Eugen, as the steel tower is nicknamed, protrudes awkwardly from the tree-lined banks of the Rhine winding its way through the city’s southern suburbs. As central as it had been to Bonn’s status as capital, the 30-story monolith had always seemed out of place in a city this size, and it now laid vacant as no more than a memento.

Langer Eugen, the former German parliament building, now home to 20 U.N. organizations. David Kasparek/Flickr

It was all but inevitable, then, that the rebirth of that same tower would mark the renaissance of Bonn itself for the 21st century. As early as 1994, when the Berlin-Bonn Act was passed to move the seat of government back to Berlin, the German government had outlined plans to repurpose its former western capital as a scientific and cultural hub that would also play host to a number of “development policy, national, international and supranational institutions.” Langer Eugen would be the gravitational center of this new hub as officials from 20 U.N. organizations moved in to replace the departing parliamentarians and form the new U.N. Campus Bonn.

It certainly wasn’t a case of one set of bureaucrats replacing another. One of the first U.N. organizations to arrive in Bonn was the UNFCCC secretariat (UN Climate Change) in 1995, and it would soon be joined by an assortment of organizations, programs and offices all working in sustainable development, ranging from desertification to biodiversity to disaster risk reduction. Independent organizations, think tanks and research institutes followed, flooding in to take advantage of the city’s growing network of sustainability experts.

Bonn may be more of an agglomeration of once independent towns and suburbs than a single city, but one factor has clearly helped it establish itself as a global hub for sustainable development: its collection of institutions, federal agencies and businesses are all clustered into a single neighborhood, at the feet of Langer Eugen. “Bonn is a city of short distances,” says Stefan Wagner, director of international affairs and global sustainability for the City of Bonn. “There is close interaction and cooperation between federal ministries and authorities, the U.N., other international organizations, academia and business.”

The skyline of Bonn’s Gronau neighborhood, dominated by Langer Eugen and the more recent Post Tower. Thomas (baranco1)/Flickr

A prime example of such cooperation – no doubt helped by geographical proximity – has been the Bonn Alliance for Sustainability Research, a research network consisting of six local partner institutes. “I cannot think of any other place in the world where it could be possible to have such dense expertise on sustainability,” says Sandra Gilgan, the Alliance’s managing director. “A few partner institutes are just around the corner. It facilitates communication, exchanging ideas and getting together, and it creates a very unique spirit behind sustainability.”

Much of the Bonn Alliance’s research currently revolves around the pertinent yet controversial topic of digitalization and artificial intelligence. Gilgan believes the potential role of digital technologies has only been marginally covered in the dialogue around the Sustainable Development Goals and that a number of key questions remain unanswered. “What we want to do is to see how processes of digitalization and technological change in society and the dynamics of sustainable development can be intertwined on a more profound level and what synergies and trade-offs there are.”

The Bonn Alliance certainly hasn’t limited itself to working in academic and policy circles. It’s also building a platform, the Innovation Campus Bonn (ICB), to deepen collaborations with external actors from civil society, business, policymakers and other non-governmental organizations. “Whereas the Bonn Alliance is focused on sustainability research, the ICB is a platform that takes in different stakeholders and formulates research questions from a new angle – where everybody can bring in their ideas and their perspectives on sustainability issues,” Gilgan says.

Bonn’s development community is certainly tight-knit, both geographically and professionally, but the half-hour walk from Gronau to the city center can at times give Langer Eugen the impression of an ivory tower. That’s a perception that the city government is eager to change. Each year, it embarks on the SDG Days, a 17-day period spread over the months of May and June dedicated to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals at the local level, fostering public awareness in the process.

The Global Landscapes Forum, one of several major sustainability-oriented conferences in Bonn. Pilar Valbuena, Global Landscapes Forum

It also recently launched a climate action campaign, using a series of posters to engage citizens to reduce their carbon footprint. “The campaign’s protagonists represent climate-active citizens in Bonn,” says Wagner. “We want to show what each and every one of us can do, thereby demonstrating how easy climate action really is. Nobody can and must do everything immediately and perfectly – but everyone can contribute.”

The city, of course, has taken its own measures to ensure that it practices what it preaches. It adopted its first municipal sustainability strategy in February, encompassing a broad range of steps including expanding its biodiversity strategy, refurbishing older buildings to improve energy efficiency, and increasing renewable energy use. 72 percent of the electricity supplied by its municipal utilities company is derived from renewable sources, which might explain how, as of 2014, Bonn had reduced carbon emissions by 22 percent from 1990 levels, exceeding its previous commitment of 20 percent by 2020 as part of the Covenant of Mayors.

Despite these promising figures, Bonn still has substantial work ahead to make certain that it can deliver on its long-term target of cutting carbon emissions by 95 percent by 2050. Only 15 percent of distances traveled are covered by bike – a proportion that the city is keen to increase through its partnership with bike-sharing service Nextbike, which has now distributed 900 dockless bicycles across the city.

Bonn will probably never enjoy the power and prestige of being named a capital city again – but it’s taken all the steps it can to ensure that it remains relevant in the 21st century. Rather than living off its past glories, it’s successfully repositioned itself as a global hub for sustainable development, at the forefront of research and policymaking alike.



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