Little big town
Lively yet unflustered – Bonn has reinvented itself as an international city.
The good citizens of Bonn are used to the sympathetic or at times even somewhat derisive looks they get when they meet people on holiday and are asked how the city has been faring since the German parliament moved away to Berlin in 1999. It is abundantly clear to them that the person to whom they are talking has in their mind’s eye a Western-style town, sand and tumbleweed blowing along its one and only street – the sort of place that has been abandoned as settlers move further west.
It is tempting to set the record straight and point out that all that is untrue, nothing but fantasy. There can be no denying that Bonn is situated in the far west of Germany, yet that is pretty much all it has in common with a ghost town in the Wild West. Twenty-four years after the decision was taken following reunification to relocate the German parliament to Berlin, the city on the Rhine finds itself at the heart of a thriving conurbation, a lively and yet unflustered centre of politics, academia, business, culture and international institutions.
In the very centre of the city is a high-rise building known as “Langer Eugen”, which means “tall Eugene”. Exactly 117 metres high, this former house of deputies on the Rhine was built in the 1960s and for many years was the symbol of Bonn parliamentarianism. Its nickname was an ironic play on the somewhat diminutive stature of Eugen Gerstenmaier, president of the Bundestag at the time it was built. Following extensive modernisation, “Langer Eugen” – which was to become the centre of the United Nations (UN) Campus – was officially handed over to the then Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan in 2006 by Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel, Bonn having already borne the title of UN city since 1996. The objective of the United Nations University, which has one of its four worldwide sites in Bonn, is to find scientific answers to questions relating to the future of humankind.
Eighteen of the 26 UN institutions in Germany with their 1,000-strong workforce are based in this city of around 320,000 inhabitants, giving rise to a whole host of conferences with international participants. The latest institution to move here is the secretariat of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which was opened in July 2014. Following the example of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the IPBES is dedicated to providing scientific policy advice in the field of biodiversity and its protection. Further bodies that conduct global operations from their base in Bonn include the secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the secretariat of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification and the secretariat of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals. Bonn has evolved to become an international hub for issues relating to the environment, climate and sustainable development.
This little big town is in any case highly international in its orientation: around 150 non-governmental organizations are headquartered in Bonn, while the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development – among others – have retained their primary headquarters here too. Leading academic organisations like the German Research Foundation (DFG), the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation – all of which are at home in the same district of Bonn – likewise enjoy the short distances and relaxed atmosphere of this Rhineland city.
The relocation of the German government from Bonn to Berlin actually served to enhance the city’s profile as a centre for science and scholarship. Today, Bonn boasts no fewer than three Max Planck institutes: international teams at the Center of Advanced European Studies and Research (Caesar) conduct research in the neurosciences, cell biology and biophysics, while the University of Bonn – which is particularly popular with international students – is home to the Center for European Integration Studies (ZEI) and the Center for Development Research (ZEF). The ZEF, the site of the Right Livelihood College campus since 2011, caused quite a stir in May 2014 when its secretariat relocated the headquarters of the Alternative Nobel Prize – the Right Livelihood Award – from Malaysia to Bonn.
The European Union has an even longer history in Bonn – 50 years, to be precise. In March 1954, the journalist Karl Mühlenbach moved into the community’s first ever liaison office here, with offices being set up shortly afterwards in Paris and Rome. Today the Bonn office is the EU regional representation.
While anyone looking out across Bonn from the nearby Siebengebirge hills these days can hardly fail to spot “Langer Eugen”, the Post Tower, the headquarters of the Deutsche Post DHL logistics giant, stands significantly higher at 162.5 metres. Less striking architecturally, Deutsche Telekom AG’s building plays an even more important role in the city as the workplace of 20,000 people. Bonn, the home of the gummy bear, is also famous for these brightly coloured little bears that are at least as well known as the major DAX-listed companies: in November 2013, the world’s first Haribo Store opened here, attracting countless visitors every day. Ironically, the confectionery manufacturer announced in summer 2014 that after nearly a century in Bonn it would be moving its headquarters to the nearby small town of Grafschaft for reasons of space. It’s comforting to know at least that the new shop and doubtless also the name Haribo – an abbreviation of “Hans Riegel Bonn” – look set to remain. In any case, “Harigra” would sound pretty strange – or so the people of Bonn think. ▪