Tag Archives: Germany

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




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Lessons from Germany’s Ruhr District, Part 2

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. Read Part One of her series here.

Part Two: Alternating Alternative Models

Green. It’s no longer a color or even a buzzword; it’s criteria for tax credits and the genesis of a lifestyle. It’s also an industry, one aging manufacturing regions are relying on for economic recovery.

It took the desecration of Michigan’s prevailing economic driver (autos) and the Ruhr district’s (steel and coal) for the regions to recognize the impossibly of expecting one or two industries to be the economic panacea for an entire region or state. Today, both regions are diversifying economic portfolios rooted in alternative energy.

Michigan is handing incentives to alternative energy companies, persuading them to fill empty industrial facilities and hire unemployed, skilled manufacturing talent. The state has had some success, but replacing one industry with another without creating a pipeline for talent or new enterprise, could propel Michigan into a solar powered unemployment hike.

Michigan has some effective business incubators, but they lack continuity particularly as it relates to fueling the alternative energy sector. Incubator tenants have access to resources and cheap workspace but when they expand outside of the incubator, they are, in a manner of speaking, on their own.

The Science Park in Gelsenkirchen, Germany is the most comprehensive example of incubation that I’ve seen because it was developed as a cyclical, rather than a linear, business model. Everything in the park and the surrounding area   — landscape, structures, housing stock, education, talent and industry — move together. The park and Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (FhG ISE) churn talent and support business; alternative energy businesses power the park; and new companies use the park to test new products.

The Science Park sits on the former 5.4 million square foot Rheinelbe coal mine in southern Gelsenkirchen. The coal mine opened in 1929 and closed in 1984. In 1989, plans were laid to turn the area into a hotbed for alternative energy enterprise and research.

Thanks to a €44 million investment, the Science Center opened in 1995. Several energy-based companies moved into the park and in 1996, construction of what would be one of the world’s largest roof top solar fields, began on Science Center. During its 30-year life expectancy, the field is expected to prevent the emission of 4,500 tons of carbon dioxide.

The Science Park is aesthetically appealing — it looks out onto a lake and recreational space divided by a 300-meter glass lift, it’s located on contaminated industrial property, and includes a biomass park — but it works because it’s the nucleus of something much greater.

The Science Park is part of International Building Exhibition Emscher Park (IBA) Emscher Park Project, a 10-year regional plan to implement 120 alternative energy-based projects in 17 cities with a population of approximately 2 million people. The Science Park is surrounded by former industrial neighborhoods turned into solar villages; a solar power plant developed on former ore and coalbunkers; alternative energy companies; a biomass park; the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (FhG ISE) as a lab; and R&D space. It’s an alternative energy Petri dish.

Michigan is working on something similar….sort of. Renovation of the approximately 4.7 million square foot former Ford Wixom Assembly Plant is the state’s first full scale push for an alternative energy park. The three alternative companies committed to the “Ford Renewable Energy Park” — Xtreme Power, Clairvoyant Energy and Oerlikon Solar — are expected to start producing photovoltaic panels, advanced battery storage technologies and other renewable energy components by 2012.

A “regional center for jobs training and education” is planned for the complex as is some model to bring spin-offs to market, making the “Ford Renewable Energy Park” the state’s most ambitious attempt at creating a genuine alternative energy incubator. Not surprisingly, funding is an issue. The companies are waiting on additional funding for the approximately $725 million renovation.

Completion of the complex would be a huge feat for Michigan but it’s hard to imagine the Ford Renewable Energy Park impacting the Detroit Tri-Country region like the Science Park did the 17 cities included in the Emscher Park Project.

Approximately four million people live in the Detroit Tri-County area, which includes 200 cities and towns. It’s difficult to conceptualize even half of the Detroit Tri-County population (2 million people) and half of its municipalities (100) coalescing to develop a 10-year plan to foster the region’s alternative energy sector. Michigan is one of the most politically and racial divisive regions of the country and, obviously, economics is a major issue.

However, resident-driven cultural, economic, environmental and development projects are popping up all over the state and the groups pulling these projects together, are much more adept at collaboration than the spider web of Michigan’s political factions, business groups and unions.

But the state has to start somewhere and no one knows where alternative energy is headed. Michigan is assessing its assets and is taking a risk on the Ford Renewable Energy Park and for a state with one of the country’s highest unemployment rates, that’s something.

-Ivy Hughes

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Lessons from Germany’s Ruhr District, Part 1

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.


Part One: Transforming Industry

Exchanging vows, eating dinner and ice-skating on one of the thousand abandon manufacturing sites in Michigan is an imaginative stretch at best, but it’s an idea and if the Rust Belt needs anything, it’s vision and money.

Michigan has 20,000 abandoned commercial buildings that will remain empty, meet a wrecking ball, or be repurposed for alternative energy, healthcare, film or biotech businesses. Even though some will be repurposed, it’s impractical to suggest emerging industries have the capacity to reinvigorate even one-third of these sites, some of which include millions of acres of contaminated space.

So if industry can’t take it, the wrecking balls are worn out and vacancies red flag potential investors, what else can the state do with the 60,000 square feet to more than 5 million square foot sites?

The state can examine how other regions facing similar challenges have innovated and progressed.

Germany’s Ruhr District is similar to Michigan in that it relied on blue-collar industry for economic stability. In 1960, 670,000 people worked in Ruhr District coalmines. Today, that number sits at about 35,000 but additional job loss is eminent. Three of the remaining six mines are set to close in the next six months, with a final shutdown expected by 2018.

Though Michigan hasn’t been dealing with large-scale job loss for quite as long, the last 10 years have been extremely difficult. According to the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, from 2000 to 2008, the state lost 315,000 manufacturing jobs.

Both regions are reeling from industry specific job loss, but differ greatly in terms of strategic planning, funding sources, government involvement and political cooperation. However, that doesn’t mean Michigan can’t borrow a few things from Germany, specifically as it relates to rehabilitation of abandoned manufacturing sites.

The City of Essen, Germany, the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and the European Union committed to marrying historical preservation and innovation by turning the Zollverein Coal Mine, a 247-acre site with more than 80-structures, into an extraordinary culture center.

The Zollverein Coal Mine was founded in 1847. When it closed in 1986, the North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) governmental entity, bought the property and memorialized one of the shafts, setting the site up for preservation. In 1993, the cooking plant closed and was slated for sale to China. The deal fell through and rather than demolishing the cooking plant, the NRW pegged it as a future exhibition site.

By 2008, the European Union (36 percent), the City of Essen (2 percent), Germany (6 percent) and the NRW (56 percent) invested approximately €165 million to rehabilitate the site.*

Today, the grisly, iconic structures include a restaurant, museum, outdoor ice rink, café, lecture space, lavish art museum, office space, indoor and outdoor space used for performance art, weddings and other cultural events and outdoor recreational areas, many of which were developed on mine-refuse heaps.

The site is a cultural destination attracting more than one million visitors a year and is listed as a United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Grangerization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site.

The sheer amount of collaboration involved in preserving such a site is mind boggling, but the way in which developers created cultural cohesion without duplication is striking. Though municipal collaboration in Michigan is improving, it is, at this point, fantastical to believe enough units of government would sideline hubris long enough to plan a project of this magnitude.

The closest thing Michigan has to a manufacturing-site-turned-cultural-center is the old General Motors Centerpoint business campus in Pontiac. Raleigh Michigan Studios purchased the property in 2009 after the state passed ambitious film tax credit legislation. Raleigh Michigan Studios plans to create a 200,000 square foot sound stage for TV and movie production on the site, which is good news for Michigan, but far from a cultural center.

Unlike Germany, Michigan isn’t being tapped to carry the economic weight of failing governments and as such, the financial mechanisms needed for a project like the Zollverein Coal Mine are depressed. The feds are throwing some money at Michigan, but environmental contamination, municipal collaboration and vision quickly derail well-intentioned rehabilitation projects.

In Michigan as in the rest of the states, private sector funding is critical to substantial economic change. While some developers have looked into creating theme parks and/or wetlands on some of Michigan’s abandoned sites, a collision between ideas and the market haven’t occurred.

Though the Zollverein project has brought international attention to Essen, it’s unrealistic to assume a replication of the Zollverein rehabilitation would be economically viable on a similar site in the Ruhr region. The Zollverein has vacant offices spaces and it’s hard to imagine that the massive rooms set aside for cultural events — art, dance, performance — will ever fill, but it’s an idea.

*These are approximations compiled from multiple sources.

-Ivy Hughes

Top photo: Courtesy Zollverein coal mine, other photos by Ivy Hughes.

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How to Live in the Suburbs…Without Cars

A bike shed in Vauban, Germany

A bike shed in Vauban, Germany

This is an interesting article from The New York Times about Vauban, Germany- an experimental suburb with few cars.

It is home to 5,500 residents, according to the Times, all living within a rectangular square mile. The community “may be the most advanced experiment in low-car suburban life,” according to the story.

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