Exploring Transitions in Wuppertal
By rob hopkins 12th September 2016 Culture & Society
The day after the 10th anniversary of the Unleashing of Transition Town Totnes (has it really been that long?), I hopped on a succession of trains to head for Wuppertal, a city in the North Rhine-Westphalia region of Germany. Home to 350,000 people, it is sometimes called the ‘Manchester of Germany’, with its history of coal and steel, and later cloth production and other industries. Today there is less industry, although according to Wikipedia, “Wuppertal still is a major industrial centre, being home to industries such as textiles, metallurgy, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, electronics, automobiles, rubber, vehicles and printing equipment”. And also a huge Beyer factory, the Beyer who are currently trying to buy Monsanto (why would you?), as well as home of Aspirin and the vacuum cleaner. And an amazing ‘floating tram’ (see video below). And lots of rather impressive sustainability stuff too.
My first day took the form of an ‘In Tra(i)nsition Town Tour’, organized by Transition Germany and Transition Town Essen, and Transitioners from all over the Ruhr district, Bergisches Land and Emscherland. About 30 people came on the tour, although we seemed to add new people with every place we visited.
First stop was BOB Kulturwerk, a former textile factory which closed in 2012 due to insolvency but which has been reopened for 3 years as a project based on Transition-type thinking and creating a new economy in Wupppertal. An amazing space, we had a great shared breakfast and then a tour round the building.
Future plans include an art gallery, being home to an amazing scale model of Wuppertal in 1929 (some photos below), a cook school, and lots of workshop/art space. Recently they ran an ‘Urban Sports Festival’, working with local young people, coupling skating, parkour, BMX and others, alongside a DJ and cooking lessons. Very cool place, here are some photos…
We then headed to the Silvio Gesell centre and Lernort Wuppertal, whose focus is on local currencies and the solidarity economy. Beautiful place. I didn’t get that much about what they actually do, but they do a fine lunch, I had some fascinating conversations and we did a great exercise, in threes, getting out your wallet/purse and discussing its contents and what they say about our relationship to money. If nothing else, it was an opportunity to realize how much junk is in mine and to have a bit of a clearout.
Next we moved on to the nearby city of Essen, which will European Green Capital in 2017. First stop was the Siepental community garden, one of many community gardens run by Transition Town Essen im Wandel. Lots of people were there, with drink and snacks, with one person reading poetry and another giving a talk, as they do in the garden once a month, on a particular herb, this time it was Savory. There was a solar cooker demonstration, and also a fair bit of just sitting in the sunshine. Very lovely.
Our last stop was the local Volkshochschule, where I was speaking with Simone Raskob, who is a councillor in Essen who has been responsible for the Green Capital initiative in the city. Transition Town Essen have been one of the groups that has been involved in shaping the Green Capital work. The idea of the evening was to bring some Transition ideas to the thinking about the Green Capital. A few days earlier, the film ‘Demain’ (‘Tomorrow’) had been shown in Essen, attracting so many people that many ended up being turned away.
The evening started with some beautiful violin music from Katinka, and then some members of Transition Town Essen acted a short drama piece, of their gathering in a coffee shop in 2020 to reflect back on the changes that happened over the previous 4 years. The café serves a ‘regional breakfast’ and accepts the new local currency. People celebrate the greater feeling of community, the pesticide-free city, the huge drop in car numbers.
Then I talked about some of the ’21 Stories of Transition’, and suggested that indicators for the success of the Green Capital might include:
- The amount of land that has been transferred into community ownership
- The number of new enterprises started
- The amount of money that local people have invested into the local economy
Then Simone Raskob (see above) spoke about the Green Capital, what the city’s plans are … impressive stuff. The two of us debated and discussed and took questions from the audience. It was a great evening, a lot of energy in the room, and lots of people coming up to say hello afterwards. Before heading home, I joined all the members of Transition Town Essen out in the street outside the venue for a ‘checkout’ (a circle asking “how was the evening for you?”, a common practice in Transition groups), before heading back to Wuppertal on the train.
Next day was focused around the 7th International Sustainability Transitions Conference (subtitled ‘Exploring Transition Research as Transformative Science’) at Wuppertal University. The conference was hosted by Wuppertal Institute, a remarkable organisation who are doing some amazing work on making Germany more sustainable, while also doing globally-recognised research on sustainability transitions.
I arrived in time for lunch, and then I joined Derk Loorbach, director of the Dutch Research Institute for Transition (DRIFT) and Professor of Socio-economic Transitions at the Faculty of Social Science, both at Erasmus University Rotterdam for the afternoon plenary. The session was called ‘Research and Practice Perspectives on the Governance of Urban Transitions’ and was chaired by Maja Göpel, Head of Wuppertal Institute’s Berlin Office and author of ‘The Great Mindshift: Why we Need a New Economic Paradigm for Sustainability Transitions’. I recorded it, so here is the audio, and you’ll find the slides we used here.
After this I went to a session called ‘The food domain as key to accelerate sustainability transitions? Insights into urban dynamics from three European cases’, which told some fascinating stories of innovative local food initiatives in Dresden, Germany, in Budapest in Hungary, and in Genk in Belgium.
Then a group of us walked across the city to a quarter called Arrenberg, a district of the town which, with the support of Wuppertal Institute, has set out to become CO2 neutral by 2030. A fascinating variety of initiatives are underway there. We visited a few projects, some interesting stuff. The quarter was also home to a wonderful event called ‘Restaurant Day’ which happens 4 times a year.
The idea is that 24 places open up as restaurants. These include community centres, family front rooms, bars, and all kinds of unusual venues. Some public squares or business yards were transformed into outdoor restaurants with live bands. There was one called ‘Loops and Soups’, a mixture of food and local DJs. You could pick up a small map and then wander around, or just look out for the flags hanging outside each venue. I had a delicious meal in the car park of an organisation that runs an engineering centre and a supermarket for adults with mental health issues, some delicious pudding from a hat shop, some mint beer out of the boot of someone’s car, and saw some great music in different spaces. What a brilliant thing. A great project to do. The whole quarter was really alive with people in the streets, meeting, talking, eating … wonderful stuff.
My evening ended up at the conference’s party at Villa Media. Very lovely, but given the time I had to get up for my train the next day I didn’t stay late. Ah well. Another time….
Thanks to everyone I met, in particular to Steffi for organising it all so wonderfully, to Matthias and to Andreas and Marius and the violinist lady Katinka.