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.
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.
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.
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.