The name ‘Ruhrgebiet’ (Ruhr Area) is definitely connected to the former heart of the German steel industry and by that with the centre of the wapen industry in WWII.
But the chimneys have stopped casting their smoke across the surrounding cities. The noises of the machines are just memories. Most of the factories have been closed. What is left is a large number of fast areas of rusted industrial objects, surrounded by green taking over control. But some of the sites are gradually changed into free accessible ‘museums’ of the industrial past, partly restored, partly wrapped up in lush green. Places to eat and drink, to take tours (ones own behalf or guided), and of the giant constructions to be climbed it is all there to impress any visitor.
The Ruhr Area: green and cultural
The Ruhr Area is not know for its green and cultural highlights. Tourists visiting the area are mainly from Germany of neighboring Netherlands. The Ruhr Area is a fast area of cities and home to 5.3 million inhabitants. It lies between the river Ruhr in the south, Rhein in the west and Lippe in the north. The eastern border reaches all the way to Hagen and Hamm. It stretches over 110 km from west to east and almost 70 km from north to south.
After the slow decline of the German steel industry during the ’70’s and the ’80’s the numerous impressive structures were left unattended. So many of these areas to be taking care of. The money failed and there was little interest to restore all of it.
First attempts to save one of the former plants from further deterioration, Zollverein in Essen, was awarded when in 2001 the United Nations designated Zollverein to World Industrial Heritage.
Although Zollverein is one of the best known sites in the Ruhr Area, ‘Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord‘, is of the of same magnitude, impressing its visitors for its enormous structures of the old steel production facilities. But most remarkable is the creative outcome of a slow transition process.
Visitors can climb the 70 m tall ‘Hochofen’ (blast furnace) if they don’t fear the narrow stairs and heights of the small platforms on the way to the top.
‘Hochofen 5’ was closed on April 4th, 1985. Some 4 years later ideas emerged to turn the site into an industrial park that measures some 200 ha. Step by step works started for a long term transition.
The park was opened to the public in 1994. People use the park for all sorts of activities: walking, cycling, climbing, diving and to visit concerts.
The by far most creative re-use is that of the ‘Gasometer‘. The round structure is filled with 20.000 cubic meters of water and used as diving center. Another part of the site is used by the German Alpinists Community. Climbers can chose from 400 climbing routes (grades 2-9).
After sunset the impressive steel structures are illuminated until 01:00 am.
Lessons to be learned
Sites such as Zollverrein and Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord teach us some valuable lessons:
- Even the biggest sites can be re-developed if done in stages. The slow proces of transition makes people to return again and again in order to see what has changed;
- Not a new central plan, but a number of smaller plans and ideas make up for an exiting mixture of functions that keeps attracting new visitors and users;
- No plans for a specific structure? Leave it. Stabilize it or fence it off if safety is at stake. Or permit temporary use. Someday an idea will come by;
- Tell visitors that it is not a normal play ground. The use of the area is on ones own risk.
Not all desolated structures are suitable for a second life. A period of non-surveillance and laisser-faire is not possible at all locations: dangerous situations, attraction of criminal activities might make this a bad idea.
Nonetheless a large number of structures do not need to be taken away from our cities, but given time to wait for a new future.