The Ruhr Transition

The Ruhr area has transitioned from major coal and steel production into one of the “green” guiding lights of Europe

Today, we began with a wrap-up discussion of our time in Eindhoven. We then travelled to the town of Essen, which is in the Ruhr area, which is considered the old industrial heart of Germany. There, we visited the Zollverein Industrial Complex, an old coal mine transformed into a museum and took a tour led by guide Peter Reuter. Walking up to the museum I was struck by how huge the physical infrastructure of a coal plant is.

We begin our tour by looking at a small scale version of the complex.
The building of Zollverein Industrial Complex.

Beginning in the early 19th century there was a huge steel and coal mining industry that moved into the Ruhr area. It completely industrialized the small farming area, which led to a huge economic boom. It also led to horrible pollution. In the 1950’s pollution was so bad that you could only see 17% of the sunlight on the ground during the day- they had to keep street lamps on at all times. The typical life expectancy for miners at that time was only 25 years, so they were encouraged to get married and reproduce young. This brought up an interesting point. Our guide said that industrialization led to the realization of human rights as more than a philosophical argument.

We got to look into the coal mines’ mills, which used to crush coal into smaller pieces with its own weight.
Students look at examples of the size of the coal before and after milling.

Soon, technology progressed to the point where miners were no longer needed. They became almost completely replaced by machinery, something that is continuing to happen in the coal industry in America. Misplaced miners were reeducated and highly valuable in industries similar to coal, such as steel. However, it still took time for acceptance. Many old mines were turned into event venues, art galleries or restaurants. Old miners would refuse to go to these places at first. Now they are some of the most popular venues in the Ruhr area. This was a really great example of ways to reuse old infrastructure and avoid razing and rebuilding. Many of the old railroad tracks that went to pick up coal have been repaved into bike paths and other forms of transportation infrastructure.

On the rooftop, we could see the many surrounding towns and cities making up the Ruhr area. Because they were originally small farming communities before industrialization, many don’t have a city center.
Old mines have become some of the most popular event venues in the Ruhr area.

As one of the poorest areas of Germany, many things still need to change for the Ruhr region. The outsourcing of steel in the 1980’s left many out of work. Now, much of their economy comes from the over 1 million tourists that visit the region each year. While there are still many large businesses based there, the majority of work is mechanized. Most jobs are minimum wage, and are service oriented. Despite this, there are many new initiatives that are hoping to bring more vitality to the region. The Ruhr area is incredibly diverse, thanks to the many international investors and diverse cultures that have moved there, which allows many different paths and innovation to occur there.

In 2017, Essen was given the European Green Capital Award, which is given to one European city that consistently meets environmental standards and is committed to improvement and development of sustainability. Our guide explained the way that Essen got the award as being just letting all of the plants grow nonstop, except to add biking paths and pedestrian areas, which led to trees and wildlife areas springing up everywhere. They have also completely redone their wastewater management system. Originally a manmade system of open sewers, they have converted it into enclosed underground sewers while retransforming the original water systems into near-natural bodies of water.

The 150-year transformation from polluted coal and steel industrial area into the Green Capital of Europe is inspiring and provides a beacon for cities trying to redevelop.

From Black Coal to a Green Role

A look into Essen’s history as a coal powerhouse and how the city turned green

We started out the day with a recap of the prior week we spent in The Hague and Eindhoven. We mainly discussed smart city aspects involving innovation and technological advancement. Then we made our way to Essen which contained Zollverein, the most modern coal mine in Europe during the 1930s. Many countries and coal producing regions would take visits to Zollverein to study the techniques used that made the coal mine more efficient than other mines. The facility was incredibly large and industrial. The inside housed large machines, conveyor belts, coal carts, and mine shafts. We started atop the main building overlooking the town of Essen and surrounding area. It was easy to see the vastness of the mine and understand how long it took miners to get to and from the wash station where they would start and end the day.

Overlooking a large portion of Zollverein, which was one of the most modern coal mines of the 20th century. Also pictured is some restored green space.
A view from the “ceremony place” where marriages took place in the mine. It was surprisingly common for workers to get married in the mine despite their daily involvement for work.

Next we took a look at one of the mining areas and sampled some of the tools miners used in the mines. Work techniques for breaking off coal evolved from a simple hammer and chisel to a safer more complex hammer and chisel to the jackhammer. The jackhammer was the heaviest and most dangerous tool. It kicked up a lot of dust which caused black lung and also sent workers home still shaking from the vibrations. Bad working conditions in mines was something I had known for a while but getting to see the environment out of context firsthand was startling. Eight hours a day would be spent in the mines and an additional 4-5 hours was spent traveling and washing causing many miners to just sleep in the mines for multiple days. We also learned how horses were used in the mines to carry loads of coal. Horses would stay 4-5 years at a time in stables in the mines. We concluded the visit to Zollverein by going to the loudest part of the mine where coal was dumped to lower level and sorted by workers. The noise was 118 decibels which is 2000 times louder than moderately loud speakers. Workers spent 8 hours a day here with no ear protection in shifts of 18 months at a time which left many of them practically deaf.

The loudest place in the mine. Tons of coal was dumped from here to lower levels daily at a volume of 118 decibels.
A look at some of the tools used to break off coal. Hammers and chisels were used first and then the jackhammer became more popular because of its efficiency.

Zollverein was an important part of the history of Essen and prompted us for our next small tour which was an exhibit dedicated to Essen’s prize of being Europe’s green capital of 2017. This is surprising considering throughout the 19th and 20th century the area was a major contributor to global warming. After much destruction of the environment in the 19th century Essen recognized the problem and put in conservation and restoration programs to achieve a healthier environment. The exhibit featured park plans, animal exhibits, gardens, and forest samples. Essen and the Ruhr area actually took grade pride in leading the green revolution. A lot of the initiatives have come from locals with garden initiatives. The Ruhr area also plans on putting in a cycling superhighway as a main means of transport. The main goal the greening of the Ruhr area is for all citizens to live only a couple minutes from any parks or green space. This exhibit concluded our journey for the day.

An overlook of the Essen ‘Green Capital of 2017’ exhibit. After many years of environmental destruction, the city recognized its new role in green restoration and focused an exhibit on some of the projects put in place.
Some local species on display in the Essen exhibit. Deer, bobcats, fox, squirrels, and fungus are all featured.
An overview of a park project in the exhibit. The major goal of the revitalization was to have green space within a few minutes of every citizen.

Both Zollverein and the Essen exhibit were located on the same industrial grounds which is a unique way to display the change in mindset that has occurred in the area. What used to be an industrial area has shifted to an eco friendly hub for green space. If it was not for the industrial roots and environmental degradation caused it is likely that Essen would not be the green capital of Europe. This is a prime example of how an old town has changed from high impact to low impact on the environment and maintained citizen participation. I think the US can use Essen and the Ruhr area as a guide to creating livable healthy environments from old unusable coal mines.

-Charlie Garnett