Ruhr region renaturalization

Posted on March, 01 2012

Greening Europe’s industrial heartland 

Greening Europe’s industrial heartland

IBA Emscher Park is an example of how exhibitions focus efforts for sustainability-oriented regenerations of extremely challenging situations. At the time of its conception, the Emscher Park International Building Exhibition (Internationale Bauausstellung or IBA Emscher Park) was Europe's largest renaturalisation project. The shared goals of social and economic regeneration were viewed as dependent on the environmental recovery of the area.

Keywords: building exhibition, renaturalisation, regeneration, stakeholder participation

The IBA Emscher Park exhibition started in 1989, ran for 10 years, and involved an 80-km long landscape park of 300 sq km total area in the Emscher conurbation of 17 towns and cities in Germany’s Ruhr region. Originally a pastoral landscape, Emscher Park was near-completely transformed as one of Europe’s important sites of industrialisation in the 1800s and 1900s. This was particularly because of coal mining that supported steel, iron, and other subsidiary industries. These declined rapidly after Germany's “economic miracle” (Wirtschaftswunder) of the 1950s, leaving severe environmental degradation. The Emscher River, for example, had been re-engineered as an open sewer for human and industrial waste because underground sewage was deemed impossible due to extensive mining.

Environmental repair
Along with large-scale remediation of the Emscher River, the Emscher Landscape Park focused on re-establishing connectivity between the greenspaces of the area (see also Chengdu and Seoul). The Park was designed with seven green corridors providing a framework for the entire IBA project as well as creating a robust ecological system of European-level significance. Attention has also been paid to the biodiversity advantages of industrial and abandoned sites, which provide entirely distinct habitats (see also Berlin). One of these became a recreational walking trail at Emscher dubbed the “Route of Industrial Nature”.

New life through an exhibition
An earlier example of using an International Building Exhibition for revitalisation was the Interbau in 1957 in Berlin, which created a new urban district. The Ruhr region's use of an exhibition for revitalisation came after several decades of programmes to combat economic decline achieved only limited successes. Emscher was envisioned as a “Workshop for the Future of Old Industrial Areas” and brought together a wide array of stakeholders. The project had to communicate clearly that a new phase would begin, in order to attract new economic activities, and a new profile replacing older negative images was necessary.

To achieve this, the exhibition’s developers planned how to put an end to industrial pollution problems through focused and rapid transitions toward a high-quality natural and built environment. This was consistent with the emerging political consensus in Germany that environmental goals and development goals need not conflict. Instead, these goals could work together to address the mass unemployment suffered in the Ruhr region.

Similarly, the project integrated social, economic, and environmental pillars. Historical and cultural preservation, in particular of the industrial heritage, was integrated with environmental preservation. This has involved celebrated creativity. For example, industrial structures have been turned into offices and technology centres, museums, exotic gardens, recreational climbing centres, even outdoor art. Another initiative was the city of Duisburg’s harbour regeneration through the IBA Emscher Park programme. The Ruhr region (Ruhrgebiet) became Europe's Cultural Capital in 2010.

Diverse stakeholder approach
It was also implemented at a time – the 1990s – when the sub-federal state, North Rhine-Westphalia, had decreasing budgetary freedom because of transfers to help develop poorer sections of the newly reunified Germany. In fact, project scope did decrease as a result. However, like Malmö's exhibition Bo01 it was designed as a new institutional approach. Emscher used a hybrid of public sector leadership with a diverse entrepreneurial base from the private sector. Grassroots efforts are seen to have been of primary importance. For example, the Rettet Eisenheim (“Rescue Eisenheim”), a forerunner movement of the IBA project, focused on preserving a residential area originally built for the region's labour force. One strategy for remediating degraded or contaminated sites was for the state to buy up these sites. The state then renovates and upgrades the sites, and offers them at reduced rents to attract new tenants.

Polycentric urban development
IBA Emscher is also of wide importance because it takes place in a setting of polycentric urbanisation. That is the form both of the Ruhr District, and of the North Rhine-Westphalia state (18 million pop. in several large cities). Polycentrism is potentially more sustainable, because smaller towns linked together can avoid the multiple problems of sprawl, e.g. preserving connectivity in nature. The transformation of disused industrial spaces between cities is another application of polycentrism (see also Canberra).

Another anti-sprawl characteristic of the IBA Emscher Park is reduction of pressure to urbanise into green areas by transforming former industrial areas. One criticised project, however, created a shopping mall area that, although served by public transport, increased road traffic and impacted existing town centres negatively, i.e. undermining compact urbanism.

Susan Percy, 2003, “The Ruhr: from Dereliction to Recovery”, in Chris Couch, Charles Fraser, Susan Percy (eds), Urban regeneration in Europe, Blackwell Science

Robert Shaw, 2002, “The International Building Exhibition (IBA) Emscher Park, Germany: A Model for Sustainable Restructuring?”, European Planning Studies, Vol. 10, No. 1

Kerstin Sundseth, Geert Raeymaekers, 2006, Biodiversity and Natura 2000 in Urban Areas – Nature in Cities across Europe: A review of key issues and experiences, Brussels: Ecosystems Ltd

Key data are retrieved from Metropole Ruhr,

Text by: Aaron Thomas

Emcher Park
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