From environmental disaster to citizen-friendly renaturalization

The Ruhr Region (Ruhrgebiet) in North-Western Germany, part of the Land of North Rhine-Westphalia, was the first and strongest engine of the Industrial Revolution in continental Europe. From the mid-nineteenth century this region founded the huge German industrial power thanks to the combination of coal mining and heavy industry. The Land of North Rhine-Westphalia currently produces over a fifth of the German gross domestic product, with a per capita income that is 15% above the European average.

The Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan region (Metropolregion Rhein-Ruhr), the central part of the Land and home to nearly 12 million people, is the largest of the eleven German metropolitan regions and among the five largest in Europe; it is the third richest metropolitan area in the European Union and the sixteenth in the world. Eleven of the largest companies in the world included in the "Fortune Global 500" list are based in the Ruhr conurbation: E.On AG, Deutsche Post, Metro AG, Deutsche Telekom, ThyssenKrupp, RWE AG, Bayer AG, Uniper SE, Evonik Industries , Lufthansa and Henkel.

All this after the closure of the coal mines at the beginning of the nineties and the heavy process of relocations and industrial closures had transformed the area into an industrial skeleton with very high levels of pollution, contamination of land and water, with bands of poverty and unemployment that persisted over time, reaching 11.5% in the Dortmund area in 2017, almost double the German average for the period, which stopped at 6%.

Today the huge urban area that runs from Dortmund in the east to Duisburg in the west, passing through Bochum, Gelsenkirchen, Essen, Oberhausen along the Emscher river, and then from Duisburg southwards to Dusseldorf, Wuppertal, Cologne and Bonn along the course of the Rhine hosts one of the largest and most successful industrial parks in the world: the Emscher Landschaftspark, 450 square kilometers of green areas structured in 85 linear km of cycle and pedestrian paths, re-naturalized rivers, reforestation, land previously contaminated and now reclaimed, landfills of remediated aggregates and the recovered remains of huge industrial plants transformed into museums, theaters, exhibition sites, gardens, sets for works of land art and so on. A gigantic tourist attraction, but also a green lung for millions of people who for decades have lived among coal, smokestacks and poisons and now seem to have finally taken a totally different path, greener and more sustainable.

It all began with the Internationale Bauaustellung (IBA) Emscher Park, a ten-year project (1989-1999) for the vast-scale recovery of the Ruhr area, and it continued with about 450 other initiatives for the rehabilitation and return to the community of industrial structures conducted by twenty local administrations, two districts and three regional governments capable of working together with a single goal for over three decades, up to current results.

The German choice to abandon nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster, with the gradual shutdown of nuclear plants in the country now almost completed (the last three will cease to produce electricity in 2023), however, has resulted in a change of strategy in German energy production in recent years, with a partial return to coal-fired power plants. Coal as an energy source is in Germany designed to operate only until 2038, the year in which the country would like to permanently shut down every coal plant to comply with the parameters of the international agreements aimed to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions and so to limit the ongoing climate change. With the Ukrainian crisis that led to the stop of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline which should have doubled gas supplies from Russia to Germany and the consequent need to quickly find new energy sources to reduce dependence from a country that is now an enemy, German green and sustainable development projects seem to become even more complicated and coal reappears, once again, as a possible protagonist of German development.

What future awaits the Ruhr dream?