UN City Bonn: centre of sustainability
The city on the Rhine has developed a profile as a centre of global dialogue. Twenty UN institutions are based here.
Viewed from below, Langer Eugen – or “Tall Eugene” in English – appears even more impressive than it already is. 115 metres of steel, glass and wood present a strong symbol, an architectural exclamation mark on the bank of the Rhine in Bonn’s former Bundestag district. When you pass the security checks and walk the short distance down towards the high-rise tower, you immediately sense the special charm of this place. Once, while it still contained the offices of members of the German Bundestag, signals emanated from this building for the whole country. Now, 20 years after the Federal Government’s move to Berlin, messages are developed here for the whole world. Instead of only one nation, today (almost) all nations work here to make the earth a much better place. Twenty four United Nations institutions have settled in Bonn and form the core of a synergetic network: surrounded by federal authorities and ministries, international governmental and non-governmental organisations, research institutes and globally active business enterprises, UN employees are putting all their energies into implementing the 17 objectives formulated in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the so-called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
These goals are also being pursued by the Bonn-based headquarters of the UN Secretariat of the Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and the UN Volunteers (UNV) programme, as well as the offices of several species protection conventions. The Global Festival of Action, which organises the SDG Action Campaign every year at the World Conference Center in Bonn, demonstrates the dynamism and enthusiasm with which people from all over the world are addressing this challenge for the future. The 2017 Climate Change Conference (COP23) at the headquarters of the UN Climate Change Secretariat in Bonn was the largest intergovernmental conference ever held in Germany.
With the “Bonn Convention”, a UN agency, the Secretariat of the Convention for the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animal, moved into Bonn headquarters for the first time in 1984. A decade later, the “Berlin/Bonn Law” laid down the role of the Federal City as a location for development policy and international institutions, and on 20 June 1996, in front of Carstanjen House and in the presence of the then UN Secretary General Boutros Ghali, the then Environment Minister and the present Chancellor Angela Merkel, a ceremony hoisted the UN flag. The federal government had officially given the small castle directly on the Rhine as an office building to the United Nations, which settled further secretariats and institutions there and thus made Bonn an official UN city. Since then, the agency has developed into a global player in climate protection and sustainability issues. The Secretariat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), headed by the Mexican diplomat Patricia Espinosa, is the largest UN agency in Bonn, with around 500 employees, and is charged with promoting the worldwide implementation of the Paris Agreement.
Around 1,000 people now work at the UN campus, which has accommodated most of the UN organizations since 2006, and the number is rising. In addition to “Langen Eugen” (Tall Eugene), another high-rise building with 330 offices has been built for the UN, which is due to be completed in 2021 (in Bonn, people now speak tongue-in-cheek of “Kleine Eugen” or “Short Eugene”). The Climate Change Secretariat of the United Nations will have its seat there. And the timing is right, for Bonn is celebrating this year its 25th anniversary as a UN city. “The United Nations has long been an integral part of our city and underscores the international character and cosmopolitanism that have marked Bonn for decades”, emphasizes Mayor Katja Dörner. “I’m particularly pleased that all the institutions are dealing with the topic of sustainability, the topic of the future par excellence.”
Search for global answers
Bonn does indeed have a lot to offer. Situated directly on the Rhine roughly 30 kilometres south of Cologne, it is bordered on one side by the Siebengebirge hills and on the other by the foothills of the Eifel mountains. With some 330,000 inhabitants, Beethoven’s birthplace may not be a major metropolis, but at the same time it is large enough to offer a varied cultural life. One UN body, the UNCCD Secretariat, has even become active in this area itself since it began supporting Over the Border, a world music festival, in 2017. “It’s an excellent opportunity for us to draw attention to our mission,” explains UNCCD spokesperson Marcos Montoiro. “Desertification, drought and soil degradation are problems that are not only limited to the desert regions of Africa,” says the Spaniard. “We need a global answer and must champion it at every available opportunity.” The Over the Border festival is just one part of that. “On one hand, it’s an opportunity to thank the City of Bonn for giving us such a cordial reception. On the other, the collaboration also gives us the chance to win great artists over to our cause.”
With the UNCCD, even a UN secretariat has been engaged in this area by supporting the world music festival Over the Border since 2017. “This is an excellent opportunity for us to draw attention to our mission”, explains UNCCD spokesman Marcos Montoiro. “Desertification, drought and soil degradation are problems that aren’t limited to desert areas in Africa”, says Montoiro. “We need a global answer and we have to fight for it whenever the opportunity arises.” The Over the Border festival, which in 2020, like all major events, fell victim to coronavirus restrictions, is only one component of this. “The pandemic has permanently changed our priorities and our perception of other people. This is exactly where the festival can help, because it allows us to empathize with those who have a different culture, a different way of life. At the same time, the cooperation gives us the chance to gain the support of great artists for our cause.”
This commitment is appreciated and reciprocated on the part of the city. It advertises itself with the slogan "Sustainable Bonn", supports “climate ambassadors”, is active in the international network Fair Trade Town and is one of four "Network Sustainability Points" in Germany. Bonn exploits the locational advantage offered by the presence of the UN and the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation and the Society for International Cooperation (GIZ). The same applies to the University of Bonn, one of the most important institutions in the city, with 34,000 students; for instance, the “Geography of Environmental Risk and Human Security” course enables the world’s first joint master’s degree between a university and the UN University. In addition, the UN University has joined forces with the Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Sciences and other institutions in the city to form the “Bonn Alliance for Sustainability Research”. And the current Bonn council coalition of Greens, SPD, Left and VOLT emphasizes environmental protection and plans, among other things, to make the city centre car-free, strengthen bicycle traffic and initiate a climate investment package. “As a city, we see ourselves as bearing responsible, especially when it comes to important issues such as environmental and climate protection, sustainable development goals and peace and justice in our world”, explains Mayor Dörner. “It’s therefore always important to us to support the work of the United Nations in Bonn and to make it visible."