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.
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.
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.
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.