Culture and cultural heritage provide unique opportunities to imagine and advance sustainability efforts, especially at local scale. Cities, towns and regions throughout Europe increasingly acknowledge the importance of culture as the foundation that unites the social, economic and ecological pillars of sustainable development. So, how can local governments foster the cultural transformation required to achieve sustainability goals?
ICLEI Europe, the leading network of local and regional governments committed to sustainable urban development, is showing the way forward through a briefing paper: Culture and Cultural Heritage: A key asset for sustainable development and transition in cities. The paper stresses the role of the cultural sector in fostering circularity through – among others – the adaptive reuse of vacant buildings, enhancing public participation and social cohesion, redefining sustainable tourism and enhancing community resilience to climate change.
Some local governments are already strengthening the link between sustainability and cultural heritage. ICLEI Member Freiburg (Germany) is moving from theory to action by enacting a participatory process that leverages cultural heritage to engage in climate discussions.
Freiburg’s municipal lab for sustainable culture
Surrounded by the Black Forest in the Southeast corner of Germany, Freiburg im Breisgau stands as one of the first and leading green cities in Europe. Known for smart mobility solutions, energy-efficient housing projects and exemplary waste management systems, “Germany’s environmental capital” has been ahead of most European cities for decades in the race to a climate-neutral future. Yet, little is known about the city’s policy initiatives to bring sustainability to culture and vice versa.
In 2022, the City’s Department of Culture launched “Kulturlabor” an extensive participatory process aiming to adopt sustainable practices for cultural policy, production and promotion in Freiburg. The project team, consisting of Felicia Maier, Clementine Herzog and Kathrin Feldhaus, is convinced that the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals need to be deeper entrenched in the cultural sector through the provision of concrete goals and targets.
The initiative brings together artists, cultural managers, cultural consumers and local politicians, to align municipal strategy and funding for culture with future questions and the needs of the cultural and creative sector. Initiated in March 2023, and expected to be completed this July, this process encompasses three stages of consultation, experimentation and policy-making for sustainable culture: Discussion Rooms, Experiments and a Culture Code.
First, Discussion Rooms belong to a series of more than ten informative and participatory workshops aiming to engage diverse cultural stakeholders in defining questions and suggesting ideas for the city’s cultural policy and the scope of funded experiments. Key discussion topics included cultural participation, social sustainability, agile forms of work, climate protection and cultural institutions as design spaces for cooperation and communication.
Meanwhile, Experiments proposed by different cultural actors in Freiburg through an open call, supported by the Kulturlabor seed-funding scheme, enable the testing of new working approaches and the incubation of innovative ideas. The nine selected experiments include a community theatre project on social sustainability in the model eco-district Vauban; a participatory exhibition on New Feminist Movements in Freiburg; a collaborative platform to network and support the city’s independent musical scene; and a climate-neutral festival house for young people.
Finally, a Culture Code is the envisioned result of the aforementioned processes. The results of the workshops and experiments are being scientifically analysed to distil key statements that will guide renewed cultural funding guidelines for the city. This will define a binding framework for both sponsors supporting arts and culture, and those receiving funding (cultural workers, administration and policy-makers), thus accelerating the transition of the Freiburger cultural scene toward sustainable funding and promotion practices.
Ten past twelve: A climate-neutral festival house for young people
“The climate crisis and the necessary social transformation to deal with its repercussions demand new processes and a different form of cooperation and existing together. Art and culture have a transformative role to play in this challenge”, says Graham Smith, Artistic Director of Youth Dance at Theatre Freiburg.
Among the selected experiments, the project “Ten past twelve” (Zehn nach Zwölf), led by Theatre Freiburg, stands out as a pop-up off-grid space for young people to explore sustainable futures through cultural activities. Over two weeks in July 2023, an urban space in front of the theatre, and next to Freiburg’s open Old Synagogue square, is being transformed into a climate-neutral festival venue dedicated to children and young people. The experiment will provide a safe space where participatory art is used to express ideas and concerns regarding climate change. Participants will be encouraged to rethink social norms, become empowered agents of change and inspire collective action – replacing fear with the power of community and creativity.
“The temporary festival house sees itself as an inclusive, diverse and inspiring agora of shared utopias and collective action, inviting us to face hard truths about our common future”, comments Smith. “The participatory process is expected to lead to the formation of a Youth Council for Culture in Freiburg, which will implement proposed ideas beyond the project’s life cycle.”
The space has been designed based on a climate-neutral festival venue study. It is made of upcycled old stage designs from the theatre’s past productions and utilises a self-sufficient water, electricity and human waste management system. The programme was curated by young people, supported by artists with mediation experience and involved expert workshop leaders and public speakers. The main goal of “Zehn nach Zwölf” is to enhance resilience and empowerment through participatory art forms and allow young people to explore their own capacity for action.
From early in the morning till late at night, the cosy festival grounds hosts skill-sharing workshops of all kinds: writing, movement, singing, rhythm, silkscreen, performance, concerts, mini film festivals, discussion formats, civil disobedience, and the unexpected. Expertise and strategies are being shared to develop resiliency and pathways for action. Special focus is given to regenerative and sustainable processes in the areas of social, agricultural, political, ecological, and economic transformation.
How can we bridge the gap between personal and institutional responsibility for climate action?
Sophia Silverton, Culture & Just Transition Officer at ICLEI Europe.
Apart from supporting the municipal theatre’s audience development strategy, “Zehn nach Zwölf” acts as a platform to bring together diverse local stakeholders of climate action at the grassroots and official levels. The project is based on a diverse local allianceinvolving artistic groups and community centres, as well as environmental activists from Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future. In addition to the seed funding provided by the Kulturlabor, the project is supported by public funding from the Ministry of Culture of Baden-Württemberg and sponsorship from the green energy cooperative EWS.
ICLEI joins debate on climate responsibility
ICLEI Europe will proudly take the “Zehn nach Zwölf” stage to present the Urban Community for Sustainable and Just Cities project in a public discussion on climate responsibility, together with the City of Freiburg’s Environmental Office and Fridays for Future Freiburg. “How can we bridge the gap between personal and institutional responsibility for climate action?” asks Sophia Silverton, Culture & Just Transition Officer at ICLEI Europe.
The UrbanCommunity project has some answers to this question since its approach focuses on strengthening collaboration between community-led initiatives and local governments to create more sustainable and equitable cities. It has collected insights from just transition experiments conducted across Europe, including ICLEI member cities Alba Iulia (Romania) and Cascais (Portugal) on the importance, challenges, and current good examples of such collaboration, and will use these lessons as its starting point for the “Zehn nach Zwölf” discussion.
Freiburg is paving the way for cultural departments within city administrations to respond to the burning questions of our time and engage the next generation in sustainability dialogues. As the Freiburg Theatre’s project title implies, the clock is ticking for cities and their cultural organisations. To follow their example, other local governments and stakeholders must leverage the dynamism and outreach of municipal theatres, libraries and museums to accelerate climate action and actively serve the well-being of future generations.