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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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