Leader of the pack(aging-free)! With more zero-waste shops than Berlin, Hamburg or Munich – more than any other city in Germany, in fact – Cologne can truly claim to be Germany’s zero-waste capital. Specialist shops such as Veedelskrämer, Tante Olga and Migori can now be found all over the city, including the recent arrival of U wie unverpackt in Mülheim on the other side of the Rhine. These shops are more than just local retailers where Cologne locals can buy food and other everyday necessities free of packaging; they are part of a zero-waste movement that aims to inform urban society about the consequences of packaging waste and draw attention to alternatives for everyday consumption. For instance, they also hold regular workshops where people can learn how to make their own cleaning products or cosmetics – and organise fun ‘Yoga & Clean-up’ events on the banks of the Rhine. The Zero Waste Köln initiative, which brings together many local zero-waste players, was awarded the Environmental Protection Award by the City of Cologne in 2020.
This zero-waste movement is just one high-profile example of the active and varied commitment to sustainability and the environment in Cologne, which has gained momentum in recent years. Cologne seems to be taking an ecological U-turn and the further everyday life in the loud, cramped and unhealthy city gets from nature, the more its residents are yearning for more natural surroundings. And this is also manifesting itself in the cityscape.
The places where both the contrast and interaction between city and nature are most obvious are the two best-known urban gardening projects in Cologne: Neuland and Pflanzstelle were created on brownfield sites and are still surrounded by relics of Cologne’s industrial past. Neuland is located on the grounds of the former Dom Kölsch brewery in Bayenthal, a district in the south of the city. After the construction of a technical college on the grounds fell through in 2011, it was unclear what would happen to the unused federal state-owned land. However, local residents were quick to reclaim the abandoned site and, over the past ten years, have transformed it into a green oasis where green-fingered amateur gardeners grow fruit and vegetables in raised beds and greenhouses that they built themselves. As well as this, the association that was founded to look after Neuland holds events where anyone who is interested can learn about the basics of gardening – and also organises open-air film evenings and projects with educational institutions.
Pflanzstelle has an even more symbolic location to its name. This urban garden is situated on the former grounds of KHD – an engine manufacturer founded in 1864, which was instrumental in establishing the district of Kalk as a working-class area and industrial centre in the 20th century. Over the coming years, the area around the listed KHD production buildings – also known as Hallen Kalk (Kalk Halls) – is to be the setting for a new urban quarter complete with school, apartments and offices. Local policymakers have decided to retain Pflanzstelle on the grounds. In the shade of the giant factory halls where diesel engines once rolled off production lines, people now come together to keep bees, cook and, of course, tend to the gardens.
Environmental protection and sustainability are becoming more of a priority for policymakers and city administrators, who are actively protecting and promoting ecological projects and initiatives such as Neuland or Pflanzstelle, the most high-profile of around 20 urban community gardens in Cologne.
In some cases, the administration even takes on board the ideas of private players in its own urban strategy. The Ernährungsrat Köln (Cologne Food Policy Council) was set up back in 2015 by not-for-profit association Taste of Heimat and aims to draw up a nutrition strategy for Cologne. The Council’s best-known idea was the Essbare Stadt (Edible City), which grows food for local people and animals. Also associated with these are ‘Edible Spaces’ in the various districts. Today, they can already be found in a number of popular locations in the city: figs growing on the edge of Brüsseler Platz in the Belgian Quarter and apple trees on Rathenauplatz in the city centre. Over the next few years, many other food crops are to be planted at central locations in Cologne. Although sceptical to begin with, the city administration is now putting its weight behind the Edible City’s idea of enabling people to experience nature, learn about the environment and work together as a community in the heart of the city.
At the same time, committed Cologne locals continue to promote the vision of a sustainable city: in 2017, Nicole Klaski opened The Good Food in Ehrenfeld – a small store where consumers can rescue food items that would otherwise go to waste. The Good Food sells food that has passed its best before date or day-old baked goods at cost price. However, it also stocks fresh fruit and vegetables that are too small or too out of shape to be sold at conventional stores and supermarkets. The Good Food calls it “love at second glance”. Which, if you think about it, is also a fitting description of the City of Cologne’s relationship with nature.
Körnerstr. 2-4, 50823 Cologne
Neusser Str. 44, 50670 Cologne
Berrenrather Str. 406, 50937 Cologne,
Viersener Str. 6, 50733 Cologne
Bonner Str. 66, 50677 Cologne
U wie unverpackt
Wallstr. 81, 50969 Cologne
Koblenzer Str. 73, 50968 Cologne
Neuerburgstr. 4, 51103 Cologne
The Good Food
Venloer Str. 414, 50825 Cologne
(by Jan Lüke)