Hearst Connecticut Special Report | Part 2 of 3
A Radical Rethink
of Germany’s blighted valley
Decaying factories become vital tourist attractions
By Hugh Bailey, Hearst Connecticut Media reporter
DUISBURG, Germany - The heavy machinery, once deafening, is silent. Today, it serves a purpose few could have foreseen a generation ago -- as a gathering place and tourist attraction.
Children now climb on the gears that powered Europe’s largest economy. Wildflowers and greenery have taken over gray concrete bunkers used for coal storage. Vast halls for power generators play host to glamorous corporate dinners.
Here in the Ruhr Valley, which for decades was defined by heavy industry, its collapse could have brought the region’s downfall. Instead, a decades-long plan has seen the valley transform its ruins into a vibrant future.
The centerpiece of the Ruhr today is Landschaftspark in Duisburg-Nord. Translated as Landscape Park, it’s on the site of an ironworks that operated for almost a century before closing in 1985. The blast furnaces, cooling tanks and water pipes were left to rust, dragging the surrounding towns and cities into decline.
In the early 1990s, the local government organized a design competition to turn the site into a park. Most of the ideas called for razing the ironworks, but the winning design was far more radical - it prioritized preservation, holding onto as much of the hulking, tangled machinery as was practical.
“The first plans were to tear down the site or sell it to China. Citizens of Duisburg didn’t want that,” said Claudia Kalinowski, a consultant for the park. Residents recognized the local heritage that stood to be lost, she said. “And they protested against that.”
Today, young parents push strollers and walk their dogs past the chimneys and girders that once kept the economy humming. Long-defunct rail lines crisscross the property. Pathways and catwalks connect sites at multiple levels.
A blast furnace has been preserved, its sharp edges sanded down so its tower can serve as an observation deck. Playgrounds and sandboxes are built into and around the foundry’s remnants.
It’s a mixture of nature and industry, decay and growth, work and play. The inevitable reclamation of manmade structures by plants and trees is encouraged.
“When the first parts of the park were opened in 1994, the public started to see the good in it,” Kalinowski said. “It was a closed site. The public wasn’t allowed to go in it, and in 1994, for the first time, the wall was opened. In Germany, this has great meaning. When the site was opened, the negativity was gone.”
Acres of iron and steel offer little of what is traditionally associated with a park. It would have cost the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars to demolish. Preserving it makes for something unique - a postindustrial engine of economic growth.
There are a few attempts at this kind of reclamation in the United States. The High Line, an elevated rail line turned park in Manhattan, is a stunning success, drawing more than 4 million visitors a year.
NYC's Concrete Plant Park once housed a concrete batch mix plant located on the western bank of the industrial southern section of the Bronx River.
Also in New York City, Concrete Plant Park on the Bronx River preserves parts of a closed factory in a densely packed neighborhood. But in a display of risk management, the structure is fenced off from the public. It’s necessary for liability reasons, but it removes something tangible. The leftover factory serves more as a sculpture, a piece of artwork beyond reach.
In the Ruhr, there is no boundary between past and present. Landschaftspark and other sites offer an up-close history lesson, allowing visitors on the machinery and inside the factory halls where workers toiled in hot, dangerous jobs for generations on end.
It is an international attraction, bringing in 750,000 visitors a year, but its main appeal is for locals. Along with similar sites around the region, it offers something once considered a lost cause _ a reason to continue living and working in the Ruhr Valley.
A few miles up the valley, the city of Bochum last year faced a modern version of industrial collapse when the Opel car factory closed. Along with the coal mines that were about to be shuttered after centuries of excavation, an entire way of life based on heavy industry looked to be disappearing.
But the city had a message for the rest of the world. It was a message of defiance, spelled out in the name of a 2014 festival designed to find a new way forward.
They called it “This Is Not Detroit.”
Detroit, the international symbol of postindustrial decay, which saw its population fall from a high of 1.8 million to barely 700,000 today, will not be Bochum’s fate, the residents proclaimed. Factories may close and the economy will change, but it will not be a death knell for the region.
Dating back centuries, blackened skies and polluted rivers dominated the Ruhr. Massive coal deposits first brought people to the valley, and iron, steel and power generation kept them there from one decade to the next.
At its peak, hundreds of mines employed half a million people. In the mid-1970s, some 25.5 million tons of raw iron emerged from the region annually.
Then, caught up in the rush of the global economy, the roar of machinery started to fade. Heavy industry moved away, the factories shut down. Eastern Europe had cheaper labor and overseas there were fewer costly restrictions. The coal mines started to exhaust themselves.
The forces driving the change are beyond the means of local residents to influence. They’re beyond the ability of the national government to overcome. The only option was to find something new or else abandon the region as a wasteland.
But it takes more than defiance. Detroit never wanted to be Detroit, either. Deciding they didn’t want to be left behind did not put Ruhr Valley residents on a radical footing.
What’s different in Germany is the ability to do something about it. Managing a postindustrial future takes time, money and manpower. It takes a plan, one that has had years to work and earned the support of the people.
Redevelopment requires resources. It’s money the state and federal governments in Germany have been willing to spend.
“It takes a very long time to change the minds. It takes a much longer time than to change the surroundings.”
official with the Ruhr, Germany regional development office
Developmentally, the Ruhr Valley is more American than European. There is no focal point; one city bleeds into the next in what this country would recognize as sprawl.
The Ruhr River gives the region its name, but it is the Emscher River, flowing west through the center of the valley until it meets the Rhine, where redevelopment is focused.
For decades, it was an environmental dead zone. The central line through the region served effectively as an open sewer.
Industry dictated the lives of every inhabitant. There were no universities; it was a given where young people were going to work. There was little economic diversification. Everything relied on taking rocks out of the ground and turning those rocks into something more useful.
When all that started to end, the choices were stark.
“It was impossible to find other industries which needed so much space and so many people,” said Gudrun Lethmate, an official with the regional development office. “More than 5 million people were depending on this coal and steel.”
It went beyond direct employment - the region relied upon those industries to sustain everything else.
“On the one hand, you try to find other companies, other industries,” she said. “On the other hand is the idea to improve the living conditions. If you go to other regions in Germany and ask people and companies, `Where do you want to live or produce?’ `Munich, Bavaria, Hamburg,’ they’ll say. `It’s very nice, close to the Alps, a good cultural place,’ something like that.”
Public opinion of the Ruhr was repellent. Residents and visitors had a hard time imagining anything but smokestacks and pollution.
“The image of the Ruhr was so bad, and it is very hard work to get another image of the region, to improve living conditions of the surrounding area and open space,” Lethmate said. “It takes a very long time to change the minds. It takes a much longer time than to change the surroundings.”
Brownfields cleanup money in the United States goes where there is a promise of economic growth. Public aid is hard to come by, but if there’s a chance for job creation and filling a community need, there’s help available.
Ruhr Valley Industrial Sites, Germany | Interactive Map
Germany and the Ruhr also made economic development a goal, one among several. The crucial difference is that job creation is considered a long-term prospect, one that will develop over decades, not in weeks and months. To clean up the land and change the image of a part of the country synonymous with soot would take years, as planners well understood.
The contrast with the American model, where cleanups go parcel by parcel and cities compete against each other, is clear. The goals are ostensibly the same, but the methods are opposing.
A movement to find a replacement for the lost manufacturing started when the first signs of trouble arose and culminated in what is known as an International Building Exhibition, a process in Germany that puts a yearslong spotlight on a region in need. From 1990 to 1999, the Ruhr was the focus for hundreds of planners, designers and architects who competed and collaborated to solve the legacy of industrial contamination and a sinking economy, with the public involved at every step.
The result is something no postindustrial economy has attempted. Rather than raze or abandon sites of industry, the Emscher River Park, as the system is known, makes them a showpiece.
The roots of Emscher Park date to the 1920s, when planners devised a series of green spaces to offer contrast to the heavily polluting industries. Drawing on that, the plan as it unfolded in the 1990s links those parks in one continuous loop of green space, with bicycle and pedestrian paths between sites and winding into cities along the way. The crowning achievement is the transformation of the abandoned factories.
“The topography of industry is the park’s trademark.”
As Karl Ganser, who directed the Emscher International Building Exposition, writes, “The topography of industry is the park’s trademark.”
Emscher Park is not one place, but a collection of dozens of sites across hundreds of acres, all with a common purpose - to re-create the image of the Ruhr. Landschaftspark in Duisburg-Nord is the centerpiece, but is by no means unique.
Zollverein in the city of Essen was once the nation’s largest coal mine. Its Bauhaus-style administrative buildings are considered architectural landmarks. Today, the sprawling property houses a museum of industrial history, a place every child from miles around is destined to visit on a field trip.
Zollverein UNESCO World Heritage Site | Essen, Germany
In Oberhausen, a massive gasometer, for storing liquid fuel, dominates the skyline. Its useful days have long passed, and it would have been a prime candidate for demolition in different circumstances. But it’s been cleaned and today it is an enormous exhibition hall - by some measures the tallest in the world.
On the site of a cast-steel production plant that had been in business more or less continuously for 150 years is Westpark Bochum, with a factory building converted into Century Hall, today one of the top performing-arts venues in Germany.
Mining tips, formed from excess rocks dug up while extracting coal and then left in enormous piles, have been landscaped and turned into recreation areas, sometimes topped with observatories and sundials. They form the topography of an otherwise flat region.
Former sites of industry have been repurposed as apartment buildings, a mall, offices and commercial space.
The Ruhr Valley is defined by its industrial legacy, but in a way that celebrates rather than makes excuses for its history.
The sites are merged into the daily fabric of life. And they are helping to turn the Ruhr once again into a place where people might choose to set down roots.
The cost of nearly every project is split between public funding and private developers, as in America.
The major difference is the division of those funds.
Reconfiguring the wreckage of industry has taken decades and the job is not over yet. But as officials make clear, the technical work of cleaning and maintaining the structures is only part of the task. Reimagining what the region could stand for is just as difficult.
For modern audiences who have no memory of working foundries, seeing the machinery up close allows them to visualize the often-terrifying working conditions of their predecessors in a way that reading about it never could.
Around the world, ruins are some of the most visited tourist attractions, from Rome to Machu Picchu. Ancient ruins provide a glimpse at a lost way of life. Industrial ruins do the same. It is history in living memory, but still a reminder of something that is gone and not coming back.
Like any undertaking of this scope, the necessary resources are enormous. In Emscher Park, the cost of nearly every project is split between public funding and private developers, as in America. The major difference is the division of those funds.
In the U.S., a state investment of as little as a few hundred thousand dollars is supposed to be leveraged into what might be a multimillion-dollar project. In Germany, the split is heavily tilted toward public money, accounting for half to two-thirds of the overall cost of Emscher projects, which have run into the billions of dollars.
“This is not Detroit.”
According to officials, all funds to finance the projects of Emscher Park came from existing state aid programs. These were funds that targeted urban renewal and ecological health, as well as business development. Help is also provided by the European Union, which has special funds for regions facing an economic crisis.
A regional park made from industrial detritus was not always an easy sell. It has succeeded by catering not just to tourists and outsiders, but to the needs of the community.
“Some uses have evolved out of ideas that have been laughed at earlier, that people weren’t sure could ever be successful,” said Kalinowski, of Landschaftspark. “But now they are. It took a bit of trying, being brave enough to try it.”
Today, though cities in the Ruhr struggle by German standards, the contrast between what could have been is obvious.
In Bochum, for instance, they know well what the closing of a car factory might have meant to their city, and they have rejected that outcome. “This is not Detroit.”
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Part 1: Breaking Free - Abandoned factories leave toxic legacies, discourage redevelopment
Part 3: Icons of the Past - Reimagining Connecticut's Route 8 corridor
ABOUT THIS PROJECT
Bailey spent eight months exploring the challenges of cities whose long-ago reliance on heavy industry has saddled them with blighted buildings and contaminated soil.
In this multi-part series, appearing on consecutive Sundays, Bailey illuminates the problem — so prevalent in our area — and finds some surprising solutions.