12 November 2021

Two years ago Bonn city council recognised the climate emergency and took the decision for the city to become climate neutral by 2035. This came after the Fridays For Future movement had already caught on, sharing a belief that change is possible. Nonetheless, change takes time, and for a while actions lay thin on the ground, as ideas fomented under the surface.

Last year, around 60 mainly smaller organisations clubbed together with local people to prepare a funding application to the city, which the city backed. Bonn4Future was born: the first example of its kind in Bonn of citizen participation being organised jointly by the city administration and civil society.

“It was not a planned process after that decision, but we did understand the level of transformation we’re talking about cannot happen from the top down, or from the technical or financial side alone. We needed to work through communities, neighbourhoods, and personal behaviours,” says Alex Wernke, who works for the citizens’ initiative Bonn im Wandel (Bonn4Future).

The project aims to find different ways to help people participate in the green transformation, including through big events, such as climate action days, the first of which took place in July 2021.

Alex Wernke, Bonn4Future. Photo credit: Jo Hempel

It was “a great moment,” according to Wernke, taking place as it did after the first lockdowns seemed to be behind us in July 2021. “It was an opportunity to connect and to motivate over 150 people and give them the chance to make their ideas visible,” he adds.

Ideas that local residents came up with included a photovoltaic bus touring through Bonn’s districts with all the information you need for energy-efficient district renovation, and a play to bring ideas to life on the stage.

Climate forums are the core participatory concepts of the fledgling organisation: 100 randomly selected citizens work together with experts from business, science, civil society, and the city administration to find collective ways to transform their city to become a more just and sustainable place, able to deal with the necessary upcoming large scale changes.

The first forum, which took place in September 2021, helped to set out a strong future vision of how local people imagine their future city in 2035. Participants focussed on the need for vibrant neighbourhoods that offer a higher quality of life to all people, living in a car-free city with plentiful and safe bike lanes, and cheap public transport. They also discussed how climate-neutral living could be made easier, and therefore possible, for different people to achieve, including by developing a more robust local sustainable food system and focussing on key elements of the circular economy, such as recycling and upcycling.

Of course, not everything that is discussed can become a reality. Sometimes pragmatism or a lack of resources mean ideas will not see the light of day. But already, several ideas are emerging, and people are engaged.

“We say information is not enough. We need people to be empowered to act,” explains Wernke.

The next forums, which will continue through to summer 2022, aim to look in a more targeted way at different sectors and areas, such as traffic, consumption or agriculture to decide what can be done to reach climate neutrality.

Climate Action Day, Bonn. Photo credit: Jo Hempel

A further development is current work to create a digital sustainability platform, the Communication Academy, which will connect different organisations, making them visible on a map, and allow people to share events and other information.

The events will be educational, for example offering people new skills and showing people how to get involved.

During his work with Bonn4Future, Wernke says he has noticed that “the social topics are at the core. Any discussion about something like transport emissions, would necessarily include a discussion about affordability, because people discuss these topics from their own daily perspective.”

“And crucially, people in Bonn are beginning to feel like they are involved and take ownership of the process,” says Wernke. That’s just as well, because as he points out, “we have only 14 years to get there”.

Find out more about Bonn4Future here.

Main image: Jo Hempel


Alex Godson Eurocities Writer