The fourth in a series of Keystone Crossroads’ posts from German cities.
I’m spending a few weeks in Germany as part of a German/American journalist exchange program through the RIAS Berlin Kommission and the Radio Television Digital News Foundation. During the trip, I’m sending back lessons on urban planning and revitalization from German cities. Today’s topic: how cities in the Ruhr region are embracing their heritage by repurposing industrial sites.
When I think of quintessentially European cities, I imagine cobblestone streets, historic brick buildings, magnificent cathedrals, sidewalk cafes and chocolatiers on every corner. I think of cities with history stretching back hundreds and even thousands of years. Paris. Or Brussels. Or Rome, or Prague, or Vienna or Hamburg…
But of course, Europe has all kinds of different cities, each with their own unique aesthetic and history.
Last week, I visited several cities in Germany that don’t fit the mold. What’s most prominent about them isn’t ancient history, but rather, their more recent, industrial heritage.
The Ruhr region of Germany is a sprawling metropolitan area, with 5.2 million people and 53 cities with boundaries that blur together. For decades, the region was dotted with thousands of coal mines, steel mills and other industrial sites.
Many of the mines shut down in the 1960s through 1980s, as Germany (like Pennsylvania) couldn’t keep up with the competition from other countries.
That meant there were thousands of empty industrial sites. At the time, people didn’t see any value in them, said Andreas Müller, manager of land use planning and development in the city of Essen.
But little by little, that started to change, Müller said.
Cities in the region began to understand that old buildings can have historic value, even if they haven’t been formally declared landmarks, he said. And that former industrial sites, even though they’re not beautiful cathedrals, museums, palaces or parliament buildings, are worth preserving.
Slowly, Ruhr cities began repurposing these gritty, grimy, industrial sites into public parks and cultural spaces.
Now, there are dozens of repurposed mines, factories and other sites throughout the region. One is Landschaftspark Duisberg-Nord, a coal/steel production plant-turned public park that inspired the president of ArtsQuest to create Steel Stacks in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Another is Maximilian Park, also a former coal mine. It now has open space where kids can play, a butterfly garden and even a large glass elephant made from the site’s former coal washing building.
One of the most well-known sites in the region is Zollverein, another former coal mine that was turned into a park and cultural space and named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001. I visited it last week. Here are some of the highlights.
The view from the top of Zollverein’s former coal washing facility. (Marielle Segarra/WHYY)
Zollverein has several museums, including one that focuses on the industrial history of the Ruhr. The coal mining aesthetic has been incorporated into all aspects of the building.
The staircase, for instance, evokes flowing hot coal.
When you’re walking through the stairwell, you also hear the sounds of coal mining (clanking, machine noises).
The museum is located in the site’s former coal washing facility, and the architects have left much of the original machinery in place for visitors to wander past.
As you climb around the old building, there’s a floor with an interactive exhibit about the many other industrial heritage sites in the Ruhr, which are all reachable by bike or public transit.
A map of the region’s former industrial sites. (Marielle Segarra/WHYY)
On that same floor, there’s a theater showing a film about the history of the Ruhr.
Outside, the coal mine’s infrastructure is still in place. Here, for instance, people are dwarfed by the giant structures.
At the same time, wilderness has begun to encroach on these metal structures, giving the whole site a Jurassic Park feel.
The park isn’t just frequented by tourists. When I was walking over to the old cokery building, I met two young men who live nearby and come here to play soccer.
Robin Fischer (left), 20 years old, is studying to be a police officer. Julian Baum, 18, just finished high school. (Marielle Segarra/WHYY)
There’s a café at the old cokery.
There’s even a ferris wheel on the same side of the park. You can see it in the background below.
Nearby, there’s a swimming pool amidst the old structures.
These industrial heritage sites don’t exist in isolation. There’s a bike path connecting them.
The paths were relatively easy to build, Müller said, because there are defunct railroad tracks that run between the cities. The outdoor spaces at Zollverein incorporate these tracks.
Men run along a path next to railroad tracks at Zollverein. (Marielle Segarra/WHYY)
Pennsylvania already does an especially good job of converting rails to trails, according to the Washington Post.
There are also many ways to get to the sites using public transportation.
Former industrial sites-turned-parks like Zollverein can bring tourism dollars to a post-industrial area that’s struggling to create jobs and restart its economy. Zollverein alone attracts 1.5 million visitors a year and generates an estimated €12.5 million a year in taxes, according to the foundation that runs the site. Zollverein is also home to about 39 companies, which employ more than 950 people.
Landschaftspark in Duisberg attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.
At the same time, these sites had a high price tag. Zollverein’s redevelopment, for instance, cost German taxpayers at least €160 million euros (or perhaps double that, according to the German publication Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung).
An industrial heritage network in Pennsylvania
Would something like this be possible in Pennsylvania? What would it take to create networks of industrial sites in regions throughout the state and connect those sites via bike path and public transit?
Müller said the Ruhr region has a history of cooperation, as well as a regional organization that manages the bike paths and preserves open space in the region.
So it sounds like to start, Pennsylvania cities would have to work together. Some cities, like Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton, already do a good job of this. The cities or the state would also have to find the money to repurpose these sites.
More importantly, though, Pennsylvanians would have to embrace this idea that recent history, and specifically the grit and grime of our industrial heritage, is worth preserving.