Foreign Corres Bonn dent

 A post from the Volcanic: has been said that noone was more surprised than the residents of Bonn when the sleepy riverside city became the capital of Germany. Well then, they shouldn’t have been too fussed, nor surprised, when a few decades later Berlin was given the title. Granted, noone was more surprised than me when I learned that I would relocate from suave Sweden down the continent a tad, and over a bit, to the west of Germany – to Bonn. Not cool, hipster ridden, derelict but yet oh so sexy and enticing, Berlin. No: Bonn -the former capital. “Where?” People ask. “It rings a bell.” They add. Well, if you are 50+ and paid attention in post-war history classes it probably does.

 After living here for 18 months and now in the final fortnight of my stint, it is time to reflect a little on the forgotten former capital and speak on behalf of small to medium sized cities, which in this world are too often over shadowed by their burgeoning big brothers. Let’s face it: the world is urban. Now more people live in urban than rural areas and by 2050 predictions for populations in cities range from 70-85%. Medium sized cities will of course also grow, but the not so popular little brothers of today will no doubt be smiling in the future when the big boys are bursting at the seams, running out of power, spilling informal settlements out onto prime farm land, haven’t sussed their food supply nor transport woes, have relied too heavily on one energy source, and are generally screwed. So, what makes the little guys tick? And how can big cities learn from the middle sized ones? Reflecting on living in Bonn, I outline here a couple of take home messages.

Bonn is about the size of Wellington, straddles a lovely bend in the river Rhine and is surrounded by lush green hills, just downstream from Frankfurt and upstream from Cologne. Train tracks scenically line this prime riparian land and cruise ships and freightliners alike troll the waterways all day and night. With an array of lovely houses (picture original Germanic architecture that look like colourful cake icing decorations have been traced on the façade) that were not bombed in the war, it made the perfect place for the wealthy embassies and expats to reside as they worked in the capital.

To the city of Bonn’s credit it made the most of the situation when the capital was shipped to the other side of the country. The city needed to be savvy in its choice once it was stripped of its title. It even negotiated a special name for itself, Bundestadt, recognising the role it once had.  The City of Bonn went on to reinvent itself as the United Nations city, convincing numerous UN departments to reside here hence retaining its international flair and wealthy ex-pat culture whilst filling the abandoned office and housing space. Then it saw Deutsche Post DHL shoot up its Post Tower sky scraper eyesore (sequey – the German postal service bought out DHL), kept Deutsche Telekom headquarters, and the global media player Deutsche Welle. Pulling in and retaining these big names was a smart choice, keeping the international flair mixed with the backbones of the German corporate communications. And of course numerous NGOs were called in to plug left over office spaces. Indeed, in terms of city economic diversification, over 20 years on it is reaping the rewards: continuing to use offices and buildings, enticing visitors and setting themselves firmly on the board as a conference location and destination for international dialogues.  So, job well done: Lesson 1: If you are going to be reshaped by uncontrollable external political and economic forces: adapt, use what you have, and push forward with a new and innovative vision.

The second point worth learning from Bonn is its vulnerability to risk. As I mentioned, the Rhine, one of Europe’s biggest rivers swiftly flows passed us, humming constantly with shipping freight: an arterial lane between the port in Rotterdam and inland industrial heartland Germany. Of course it also rains a lot here. Germans paint themselves numerous shades of Goretex year round, donning bikes, Jack Wolfskin apparatus, and trudging through the wet. The river frequently floods. Current unseasonal weather catastrophes on the banks of Rivers Elbe and Danube draw this to the forefront of our minds and outside my door we still have remnants of the recent hochwasser.

Flood protection is crucial. Here, in addition to the hard infrastructure of city walls and barricades, it comes in the smart form of large riverside parks and green spaces, spanning the length of the river in the city. Near my house are 10km of parks in each direction that run into forested hills, ripe for hiking and sure enough back in the day, the setting for most fairy tales, with castles adorning every picturesque hill top between here and Frankfurt. The added beauty of that is of course that when the river floods there is permeable surface to absorb the overflow, banks protect the houses, and we don’t mind sacrificing the lower riverside pathways (currently inundated and the home for ducks) the odd 12 days a year or so, while the river is up. The great flipside of this is that for the rest of the time we have long strips of beautiful, green, paved bike lanes, car free, providing transport and recreation on both sides of the river.

Lesson 2: If you are prone to risks from natural hazards and climate change, plan your cityscape around them in an affordable and adaptable win:win way. Here ecosystem services and healthy and happy park users combine amongst cheap and effective flood mitigation and absorption. With increasing weather events and climatic changes, permeable surfaces will become this city’s best friend.

So as you can gather, the smallest international city in Europe with its medieval heart and design, is lined with parks, equipped with bike lanes, trams, and busses. Cars don’t even cross my mind, unless they are in my bike lane. The beauty of the smallness of this city means that some days I feel like I am in a quaint German village – I even spotted the Mayor hopping off his bike for ice cream at my local Eis Café on Sunday. Yet I bike to work located on the other side of the river for 15 minutes, touching barely 500m of trafficked road and cars, arriving to work with 35 colleagues from at least 20 different countries. For me, that makes a city a great place to live: accessible, fun, culturally diverse, and green.

Lesson 3: Don’t be fooled by the big boys and don’t be fooled as big boys- there is a lot to be said about medium sized cities. And big cities can and should learn from how these up and coming economic and environmental hubs are planning their ways forward to smarter, healthier and more sustainable communities.

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