Wunderbar Together: The Impact and Potential of U.S.-German Sister City Collaboration in Climate Resilience

The 2014 Climate Change Conference in Bonn

A common misconception is that international relations are defined only by national policy, overlooking the transformative influence of international collaboration on the city and community levels. Daily lives can be influenced just as, if not more strongly, by local policies and environments. International sister city partnerships, from joint projects to person-to-person exchange, therefore wield significant power in shaping individual perceptions of other countries. Sister city relationships can also fill key gaps in international relations by enabling local collaboration in areas of national policy divergence. This potential in especially evident in examining U.S.-German city collaboration in climate resilience.

As Germany announces a 54 billion Euro climate protection package while the United States withdraws from the Paris Climate Agreement, the countries’ climate priorities can appear highly divergent on the national stage. In this time of national policy divergence, U.S.-German city collaboration in climate resilience and sustainability has never been more critical. The role and potential of U.S.-German sister cities in maximizing this collaboration has also never been greater.

Solar panels and gardens line a Freiburg neighborhood

U.S.-German City Collaboration in Climate Resilience

Given their differing technologies and specialties, U.S. and German cities are well-positioned to effectively pool knowledge on urban sustainability and climate change mitigation. German cities have long served as ideal models of innovative and holistic sustainability. According to the 2018 Sustainable Cities Index by the global design firm Arcadis and the Centre for Economics and Business Research, both Munich and Frankfurt rank within the world’s ten most sustainable cities. With sustainable housing developments, cycling incentives, solar architecture, and more, the German city of Freiburg has also received considerable media coverage as one of Europe’s greenest cities. Dortmund and Cologne additionally serve as sustainable “smart city” leaders, including in automated traffic flow and energy-efficient buildings. In particular, U.S. cities can learn from the German models of efficient public transportation, the diverse array of innovative policies and practices, the sustainable urban design, and the high priority given to climate resilience.

The green roof on Chicago’s City Hall

Although German cities are more well-known for their innovative and diverse approaches to sustainable design and policies, U.S. cities have also pioneered new sustainable technologies and practices. For example, the “Sollinator Garden” in Fort Collins, CO combines renewable energy with a canopy-sanctuary for pollinators and technology is being developed in the U.S. to create solar panel windows. With Seattle’s carbon-neutral electric utility, San Diego’s green hotels, Chicago’s 5 million square feet of green roofs, and Kansas City becoming the first U.S. city with universal free public transit, cities throughout the U.S. are placing a high priority on sustainability as well. Knowledge sharing on urban sustainable practices within the U.S. is also convened, including through the U.S. Green Building Council’s recent Smart Cities Week that examined the intersection between technology and sustainability.

An integrated bike lane in Germany

Given their different areas of expertise, U.S. and German cities have effectively worked to exchange knowledge and collaborate on how to address the global issue of climate change locally. The American Council on Germany is currently organizing a Sustainable Urban Development Study Tour that enables exchange between U.S. and German urban affairs experts, given the “growing importance of cities in promoting strong transatlantic relations.” The German Marshall Fund has organized three “U.S. and German Cities for Sustainable Urban Development: Dialogue for Change” cohorts that facilitated person-to-person knowledge sharing between city leaders from the U.S. and Germany. The Climate-Smart Municipalities Program pairs Minnesota cities with German cities to learn about climate resilience strategies. Fellowships such as the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s German Chancellor Fellowship have allowed young U.S. leaders to collaborate with German hosts on projects in sustainability before bringing their enriched perspectives back to the U.S. Organizations such as City Lab, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, and Local Governments for Sustainability, all of which involve the U.S. and Germany, are built on the belief that exchanging diverse perspectives on climate resilience will ultimately generate more innovative solutions.

The naming ceremony for the “San Antonio, TX” tram in Darmstadt, Germany

The Role of U.S.-German Sister Cities in Building Climate Resilience

U.S.-German sister city partnerships serve as one of the strongest institutions available to facilitate this collaboration. Through Sister Cities International, the U.S. and Germany share 100 sister city partnerships. Many of these partnerships are founded based on similarities in heritage, size, industries, or development goals. A formalized sister city relationship, coupled with these innate similarities, creates a strong and stable framework for sustained knowledge exchange and collaboration. The solid framework of sister cities helps to both establish and strengthen U.S.-German city collaboration in climate resilience at the time when this is most critical.

U.S. and German sister cities have already begun to share strategies and initiate impactful collaborations in climate resilience. Collaborations continue among numerous U.S.-German sister cities, including those recently highlighted in SCI’s Wunderbar Together blog posts. For example, the mayors of and research institutes in San Antonio and Darmstadt collaborate on climate change, all Mooresville exchange students tour the “Hockenheim Ring” ecological project, and Nashville and Magdeburg also both participated in SCI’s #EarthtoParis discussion.

A knowledge sharing session at the regional SCI “America and Germany: Friends in Business and Community” event at the BMW Zentrum in Spartanburg

Members of Sister Cities International also have access not only to the perspectives of their sister cities, but also to the perspectives of the entire SCI network of over 100,000 citizen diplomats. SCI has leveraged its network to create broader platforms for the exchange of information and strategies of U.S.-German climate resilience. In 2011, SCI convened a panel of four U.S.-German sister city pairs to discuss climate resilience and energy. Climate resilience was also a topic of discussion at many of the Wunderbar Together events SCI convened throughout this year. The “Community Resilience and Citizen Diplomacy: A Powerful Approach to Strengthening U.S.-German Relationships” panel hosted by SCI Engineering in St. Charles, MO included discussion of how community exchanges through U.S.-German sister cities have led to solution sharing on climate resilience. At the regional event convening U.S.-German sister cities in Spartanburg, a two-hour knowledge sharing question also focused largely on the question of how the partnerships are organized for sustainability. Digital communications have also focused on showcasing and encouraging U.S.-German collaboration on climate resilience.

There has perhaps never been a greater opportunity for U.S.-German sister city partnerships to enable and to bolster bilateral collaboration on climate resilience. Given the national policy divergence, the work between cities, communities, and citizens serves as the most promising avenue for U.S.-German collaboration. Sister city relationships take this potential and add a formal foundation, along with diverse and relevant perspectives, to establish and build lasting collaborations. U.S.-German sister cities are therefore now in a unique position to build local bridges between the U.S. and Germany in climate resilience that will ultimately create a global impact.


This blog post forms part of Sister Cities’ “Wunderbar Together” series, part of our ongoing involvement in “Wunderbar Together,” funded by the German Federal Foreign Office, implemented by the Goethe-Institut, and supported by the Federation of German Industries (BDI). This year, we are showcasing stories that highlight the impact of German-American exchange on the local level, as well as the heritage, interests, and common values shared by the United States and Germany. To submit your own experience with German-American exchange or involvement in a German-American sister city partnership, please fill out our form here.