In the town of Biesenthal near Berlin, Heike Müller and Claudius Loga are working on making their community greener. Their initiative is based on Agenda 21, the UN’s 1992 action plan on sustainable development.
Global Ideas: Could you tell us what Agenda 21 is?
Claudius: At the time, the participating countries wanted to create an environmental action plan for the 21st century that would include individual communities. So it was intended to be a bottom-up plan rather than a government-led initiative. And over the last 20 years, that has inspired a global movement to effect change on a local level.
You started your initiative 10 years ago. What does it involve?
Claudius: For us, it’s important to get everyone involved. Residents have to feel like they can take responsibility for their region. It’s also important for us to show local politicians that people in their district do indeed care about what happens in their town. That’s why we have a citizens’ forum where people can share their ideas and opinions and we can decide together what should be done here.
What drives your decisions?
Heike: Our most basic principle is the three-point sustainability plan: every town decision should consider ecological, economical and social aspects and weigh them against each other.
The citizens’ forum is just one aspect of your work. How else do you support sustainable development?
Heike: We have a project called “Biesenthal – a city full of energy” where building superintendents are trained on saving energy. We went throughout the city and looked at which public buildings were wasting energy. We discovered that one gym had two massive uninsulated tanks of water that were kept hot all year round, even though nobody showered there. That was changed. And we helped a school get access to a solar panel. It now provides a small percentage of the school’s electricity and has even become a part of the curriculum.
What do the residents of Biesenthal think of your project?
Heike: A lot of them take part in the programs. In spring, for example, we always clean up trash in the forest. That’s especially fun for the kids because they like to gather things and outdo each other.
You don’t only clean up the trash there, you also plant new trees. Why is that?
Claudius: We planted oak and beech trees so that the forest becomes mixed once again. That restores the eco-system and makes the forest more resistant. Not to mention that it looks good too.
You can only effect change if you get involved. The citizens’ forum gives locals in Biesenthal a chance to do just that
You want to establish that ecological balance in your private gardens, too. How do you do that?
Heike: We rely on bees – they’re very important for maintaining biodiversity because they pollinate flowers and trees and ensure that they bear fruit. But the bees are starting to die out, and there are fewer beekeepers too. Thankfully we now have five or six young beekeepers in our area.
A lot of people don’t get involved in sustainable development because they think they can’t make a difference on their own. What do you say to that?
Claudius: We’re not alone at all! We continue to grow. This is a global grassroots movement. If we keep it up, soon we’ll see that our efforts will pay off. I read in the paper that ozone holes are starting to shrink. Not too long ago, nobody would have thought that’s possible. But it gives us hope.
Do you think the willingness to get involved has to do with age? A lot of your helpers are young.
Claudius: No that doesn’t seem to be the case. As time goes on, of course it gets a bit tougher and when you have a family there are certain compromises you have to make. But those people still stay involved. You might not see them on the front line at demonstrations, but they participate in other ways.
What do you want for the future?
Claudius: More than anything, we hope that people don’t give up. They need to have a more long-term perspective instead of looking for instant gratification. It would also be great to have Agenda 21 incorporated into the local by-laws. That would oblige local authorities to consider sustainability when they take decisions.
Heike: I hope that the culture of participation grows. Decision-makers should involve citizens and citizens should express their opinions and ideas when they want to change something.