Lessons from Germany’s Ruhr District, Part 3

Rust Wire correspondent Ivy Hughes recently visited Germany’s Ruhr District, a northwestern part of the country recovering from the loss of jobs in of the steel and coal industry. The district includes 53 cites and more than 5.3 million residents. The region is a 2010 European Capital of Culture, an annul EU designation awarded to a city or region for the purpose of showcasing its cultural development. As such, the municipalities within the Ruhr District worked within a €62.5 million budget to create 300 projects and 2,500 events highlighting its cultural assets and efforts to reconstruct an economy devastated by the demise a prominent industrial sector. This three-part series highlights some of the structural, economic and cultural changes a region similar to the Rust Belt in terms of industrial and economic collapse is making to facilitate economic diversification. Her trip was made possible through the Ecologic Institute and sponsored by the German Federal Foreign Office through the Transatlantic Climate Bridge. Here’s where to read Part One and Part Two.

Part Three: Cultivating Creativity

Rust Belt cities are rehabbing waterfronts, adding cultural centers and creating walkable and sustainable city centers to catch the eye of the creative class, a group of individuals who place greater importance on sense of place than previous generations.

Michigan’s working on this, but the 2010 European Capital of Culture designation propelled Germany’s Ruhr District to accelerate this concept by creating 5,5000 culture events in one year that attracted 10.5 million visitors.

One of the events that garnered extensive international attention was the “world’s biggest picnic.” For a day, more than 37 miles of the A40/B1, which is one of Europe’s busiest highways, was closed to all motorized traffic so residents could walk, bike, socialize and, of course, hangout on picnic benches lining the highway. The intent wasn’t to lower cholesterol or lay claim to the world’s largest picnic: It was to encourage residents to view an irritant — the highway — as catalyst for community building.

Plenty of Michigan communities are doing something similar without the backing of federal, state and local funding. In Lansing, Mich., the regional land bank, residents and artist overtook an old motel and turned it into an art project.

The Deluxe Inn was the entry point to REO Town, a part of Lansing that was cut off from regional commerce by a highway years ago. Before the demolition, Lansing graffiti artists took over the motel, turning it into a prodigious community art project that brought much needed attention to an up and coming neighborhood. Many of the graffiti panels have been preserved and will be incorporated into other city art projects. Now that the hotel’s been demolished, a funky sign designed by area artists serves as the neighborhood’s entry point, not a seedy motel.

Using art to showcase potential is one way to facilitate change, but in order to maintain peaked interest, communities must provide burgeoning cultural centers.

The Gasometer in Oberhausen, Germany is a inspiring example of using art to breathe life into a regional eyesore. Standing at more than 380 feet, the Gasometer was Europe’s largest disc-type gasholder.

It was decommissioned in 1988 and is now an exhibition space. It currently houses the “Out of this World — Wonders of the Solar System” exhibit and the world’s largest man made moon, which hangs from the main exhibit hall and is captivating in an Alice in Wonderland-like way.

The Gasometer overlooks the Emscher River, which flows past some of the region’s most impressive works of art as well the Metronom Theatre, a large shopping center, athletic pavilion, restaurants and a landscape park.

Out of this World — Wonders of the Solar System exhibit runs through 2010 and will be followed by the “Magical Places” exhibit which will showcase natural and historical wonders and replace the giant moon with a giant rain forest tree.

So far, Michigan doesn’t have a framework for this type of cultural center (the state also lacks Germany’s cooperative atmosphere and funding sources) but Michigan’s change agents operate on an unfunded, passionate, grassroots level. Germany’s approach is more top down and Michigan’s, at least at this point, is bottom up but either way, both regions are making cultural and economic shifts needed to captivate the nomadic creative class.

-Ivy Hughes


Filed under Art, Economic Development, Good Ideas, Green Jobs, Headline, U.S. Auto Industry

3 responses to “Lessons from Germany’s Ruhr District, Part 3

  1. Seth

    Thanks for posting this series. I had the opportunity to work with RUHR.2010 and to live in the Ruhr for several months through the Robert Bosch Fellowship. There’s clearly a massive amount of energy in the region, and it’s inspiring to see a community highlighting its industrial heritage through thoughtful re-purposing of facilities. I also find it fascinating how much the European Capital of Culture designation has led to regional collaboration. This was the first time that the title was extended to an entire region (with Essen as the lead), and the 5,500 events they coordinated occurred in 53 towns and cities. This required not only a lot of cross-municipal arts planning but also coordination that had never occurred at that scale around tourism, transit, economic development, etc. I heard many people say that this was the most regionally the region had ever behaved.

    Thanks again for the series!

  2. Special K

    Seth- You are very welcome!

  3. Pete from Baltimore

    Germany seems to be weathering the reccession better then we are. So i was looking forward to these articles.Sadly, i was somewhat disappointed. The 2nd article focused somewaht on jobs.but didnt explain how scientific labortories would provide jobs for blue collar workers that had been laid off.

    And the first and third articles only discussed art. i have nothibg aginst art. I like art quite a lot in fact. But both articles ignore blue collar workers who lost thier jobs when the mines and factories closed. Surely the author isnt suggesting that the hundreds and thousands of laid off coal miners should all become artists.

    Art is great . But i cant help noticing that the best art tends to come from countries that are wealthy enough to support art. Venice created grat art during the Renaissance . But im guessing that a lot of that art was made possible because Venice was propering because of trade. Victorian England created many fine museums.Once again, much of that was the result of prosperity brought by factories and mines and trade.

    So if art is to prosper in Germany or america, it needs a foudation of prosperity to build on. And we cant have prosperity with thousands and millions of unemployed people. Art is often beautiful.But i dont see it as a solution to the problems facing the rust Belt.
    I would personally liked to have read more about Germany’s apprentic programs or thier education system in general.Or the fact that many of thier companies are family owned. These things seemed to have helped Germany’s economy and its workers. Maybe we can learn from Germany.

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