In the middle of the Rhine river, in the German district of Emmendingen, lies an island that has been forgotten for years. The joint German-French project “R(h)einverbindlich” (loosely translated: “Purely Binding” with an added letter “h” as a play on words with the German name of the river) plans to create a paradise for plants, birds, and people in the border region. A joint bicycle excursion to this Rhine island shows how much fun citizen participation can be.
Eight o'clock in the morning at the dam of the Elz, a river in the district of Emmendingen, deep in southwestern Germany. On one side the water rushes by, cows graze in the knee-high grass on the other. In between rides a large group of cyclists. Their destination: the Rhine island between Sasbach and Marckolsheim.
The group is led by Silke Tebel-Haas on her e-bike, her shirt embroidered with a small owl, the logo of the project “R(h)einverbindlich”. One wing black, red, and gold, the other blue, white, and red: Germany meets France.
Silke Tebel-Haas, the district of Emmendingen’s Press and European Affairs Officer is one of the group’s initiators. Together with the PETR Sélestat Alsace-Centrale planning association on the other side of the Rhine, the scheme is supported by the Robert Bosch Stiftung as part of the “Common Ground - shaping regions across borders” project. The RBS supports eight such initiatives across Germany, all intended to stimulate citizen participation across borders and enable citizens to help shape their regions. The goal of the “Common Ground” project is to promote the joint development of border regions, thereby contributing to strengthening cross-border cooperation and democracy.
Through targeted measures and projects in participating regions, local residents are given the opportunity to have a direct influence on developments in their area concerning important issues such as integration, education, environmental protection, and social justice. This always involves stimulating dialogue between communities and creating an open, more diverse society.
So today, we ride: In addition to fostering Franco-German friendship and creating shared experiences, today’s main focus is the major issue of climate protection. Of course, the goal is to also have fun – an aspect not to be overlooked in the context of citizen participation. “We want to show that getting involved in politics can be fun,” says Silke Tebel-Haas. “And what better way to do that than together on a bike?”
Silke Tebel-Haas and her colleagues planned the bike ride together. Their goal: Guide 50 citizens from the municipality of Denzlingen, with a population of roughly 14,000, to the district town of Emmendingen, then along the Kaiserstuhl towards the Rhine river. The destination island on the Rhine is close to everyone's heart. Situated between Sasbach in South Baden and Marckolsheim in French Alsace, it marks the exact midpoint between the two towns. In the past, customs inspectors were located on the island, but today, the island is deserted (apart from a hydroelectric power plant belonging to the French utility company EDF). A paradise for plants, birds, and people is to be developed and preserved at this location, right on the border.
Upon arrival at the island, the 50 German cyclists plan to meet with the same number of people from Alsace. Today, Sunday, the French project partners are also cycling towards the Rhine - on the other side of the river.
Three goals are pursued by the project, explains Silke Tebel-Haas as she steers her bike under a bridge. “We want to do something for climate and nature protection, strengthen cross-border cooperation between citizens, and establish this cooperation in the long term.” With this bike tour, she and her colleagues hope to attract even more people to the R(h)einverbindlich project - and promote togetherness.
The group stops in the small town of Riegel. There, among others, Vanessa Dinkel and Armin Braun are getting ready to depart. They put on high-visibility yellow vests with the words “Klimanetzwerk Riegel” (Riegel Climate Network) printed on the back. Vanessa Dinkel founded this citizens' initiative a few years ago and found a fellow campaigner in Armin Braun.
The two hope to gain more allies through the R(h)einverbindlich project, also in France. “It is nice to know that you are not alone in your efforts”, says Armin Braun.
"We want to show that getting involved in politics can be fun. And what better way to do that than together on a bike?"
The R(h)einverbindlich project began in November 2022 and has already passed two milestones: In January 2023, associations, initiatives, and individuals from both participating regions met for the first time to learn more about the project. They also collected concrete proposals that they would like to implement together. A cross-border citizens' energy cooperative, for example, a strategy for sustainable bicycle and ferry traffic, and Franco-German community gardens. Ideas from the community, for the community.
In their second meeting, a citizens' forum held in May, more than 100 people attended to discuss aspirations and objectives for the cooperation. Having been divided into four working groups, they are currently contributing their ideas in the fields of renewable energies, biodiversity, nutrition, and sustainable mobility.
The funding the project is receiving from the Robert Bosch Stiftung until the summer of 2025 will be used for the participation process, thereby creating a framework in which new ideas can be implemented. In this way, the foundation is making an active contribution to the promotion of democracy and regional development while supporting the eight selected regions with regular consultations and further training. Workshops and annual meetings allow participants from all border regions to get to know each other, network, and exchange ideas - key elements for the success of the program.
At almost half past nine, it’s time for the next stop: Endingen. In this quaint old town, a group is already waiting in the shade, ready to swing onto their saddle to join the growing group of cyclists. The mayor of Endingen, Tobias Metz, is among them.
Slowly, the now quite impressive crowd moves over the cobblestones out of town. The last stage leads past fruit trees through the villages on the edge of the Kaiserstuhl.
The "Common Ground" project, funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung since 2022, aims to promote cooperation and exchange in border regions. The work is focused on areas where different cultures, languages and traditions meet. The aim of the project is to create a better understanding between citizens through dialogue and cooperation and to jointly overcome the challenges in the border region.
Through cooperation, sustainable solutions are to be created, and through a common foundation, a common future and a stronger democracy. Since its launch, Common Ground has successfully connected eight border regions, contributing to a stronger coalescence of the regions.
Christa Schmidt, who founded an energy cooperative in Endingen many years ago and now hopes to find other partners on the other side of the Rhine, is also part of the throng. So is Gerlinde Schwab, riding a recumbent bike, who demonstrated for years against the continued operation of the Fessenheim nuclear power plant.
Two hours and 35 kilometers after leaving Denzlingen, the group reaches the Rhine at Sasbach. The water glistens in the sunlight and the lush green of the meadows on the Rhine island catches the eye. A wide bridge leads to the island, and Armin Braun regulates the bike traffic in his yellow hi-vis vest as the column of bicycles rolls onto the island.
In a parking lot, the two groups finally meet among many sweaty, but happy faces. Water bottles are unpacked. People greet each other cheerfully. Patrick Barbier, the president of the PETR Sélestat Alsace-Centrale, joins with 50 citizens and welcomes the German group.
Is the day already winding down? Not by a long shot: The cyclists are also here to learn about environmental protection and to assure themselves of common successes. And so, on the shore, everyone listens to the words of Eric Brunissen, an ornithologist from Alsace. He tells of a little owl, which has reestablished itself here on the island thanks to cross-border cooperation, and of the osprey, which is slowly but surely returning, as is the golden eagle. “These are good signs,” he says. “I have high hopes that, together, we can better protect some animal species.” He is looking forward to discussions with colleagues from Germany, from whom he wants to learn a lot. Together, with the power of many, a lot is possible. A sentence that inspires courage.
He then shares another vision: When he thinks of how the Rhine island might look in a few decades, he thinks of aurochs, water buffalo, and bison grazing in the stubble meadows, on floodplains full of cormorants.
Silke Tebel-Haas and Patrick Barbier distribute invitations and information for the next Common Ground events and inform the participants about how they can get involved in the project. “We hope that some who enjoy these hands-on activities will also want to participate in the discussions and projects. And that they will appeal to more people.”
The snowball principle is an important lever for the group to keep growing, he said. Today's bike ride was the first time that some participants were involved with the project. “Many participants have told me how pleased they are that people from Germany and France want to work together on climate protection,” says Silke Tebel-Haas, reflecting on the feedback. “Quite a few were also pleasantly surprised by the number of participants on both sides. They had not expected so many people would have wanted to get involved in climate protection. It's nice for everyone to see that you're not alone in your efforts.”
After a snack in front of a sailing club, the bike tour ends around noon. Some of the participants ride a few more kilometers along the Rhine island, which emanates a kind of calmness.
In the southernmost part of the island, however, the loudspeakers are rattling. An event is taking place that can be seen as a symbol for this day: Representatives of the neighboring district are inaugurating a new bicycle bridge over the Rhine. Germany and France are moving even closer together.