Don’t be surprised when a German frowns when you suggest you would like to go and visit the city of Wuppertal (Germany). What is going on there, might be his reaction. As one of the oldest industrial cities of Germany it is not on top on the list of the average tourist.
But if you want to see a city (345.000 inhabitants) that is shaped by it’s turbulent city development, industrialization, war, decay after de-industrialization, pauperization and a rising self confidence by civil action, can be inspired to many new ideas.
And Wuppertal is the home of the dance theatre of Pina Bausch.
Wuppertal was big in textiles
Wuppertal is situated just outside of the ‚Ruhrgebiet‘, the former fast area of the heave industry of coal and steel in Germany. Wuppertal is part of ‚Bergisches Land’ and had not much to do with the production of coal and steel, more with textiles and later in time chemical industries. Yet coal, steel and water determined the industrial basis of Wuppertal, depending on the steel and coal from the nearby ‚Ruhrgebiet‘ for her own textile- and steel processing industries, like forgeries.
Wuppertal doesn’t exist long in its current form. After a referendum several surrounding small cities were merged to the new city of Wuppertal in 1930. After the merge the city became one of the biggest and most flourishing industrial areas of Germany.
Rebuilding and new visions on city development
The city had been heavily damaged in WWII and many of its typical Gründerzeit houses would not return in the streets of Wuppertal. That doesn’t mean that there are no such buildings left to be seen. In the northern parts of the city, in its steep streets, Gründerzeit houses can still be admired. The rebuilding of Wuppertal gave priority to private transportion, the car. The details of Gründerzeit architecture made room for the raw styles of concrete structures. In particular in downtown Wuppertal this form of ‚modernisme‘ is still widely spread.
The ‘Schwebebahn’ (overhead railway, watch our video beneath) so typical for Wuppertal and heavily damaged during the war, faced a short threat to be demolished. This plan, fortunately, was soon abandoned and the railway rolls some 116 years now.
Industrial decay and civil resurrection
Already before WWII the fast part of the textile production in the Wuppertal area left to move to far foreign countries. The production of uniforms for the German army during the war brought some relief, but couldn’t prevent a further downfall toward the seventies of the past century, when most of its factories had to be closed down. The region of Wuppertal, Solingen und Remscheid, failed the financial support from state funds to reconstruct its industries, as the cities in the Ruhr area did. The region had to take care of itself.
It was not before the beginning of this century that citizens, entrepreneurs and local politicians took their destiny into their own hands. Through smart civil and political action they managed to make headlines in the local press, turned passiveness into local action and commitment. This stimulated funds to reconstruct industries to open up for Wuppertal. In 2008 Wuppertal was granted the ‚City of versatility‘- Award, a nation wide (Bundes) award („Ort der Vielfalt“).
Video: a good impression of the ‘Nordbahntrasse’.
Civil movement ‚Wuppertalbewegung‘
In 2006 a group of citizens of Wuppertal took their destiny into their own hands. The local administration had limited financial means nor far reaching ambitions. Momentarily this powerful society (Verein) counts 1,300 members and over 3,500 supporting members.
This society aims at strengthening voluntary commitment to shape the future the city. Specifically they wish to establish ‚tangible‘ projects which are sustainable and benefit all civil groups. By doing so they influence the future of their environment in order to stay in touch with the values of its culture, history and surrounding landscapes.
First major milestone: ‚Nordbahntrasse‘
The first achievement is the so called ‚Nordbahntrasse‘ (see photoset below). This 22 km long stretch of shut down Rheinische railway has been turned into a remarkable comfortable walking-, cycling and skating track by the efforts of many active members of the Wuppertal community. The first phase of this fast civil project, that started in 2006, was opened on december 19th, 2014.
This track currently attracts growing interest of visitors from outside the region and Germany. The project is becoming the new landmark of the city, equal to the ‚Schwebebahn‘. About time, the ‚Schwebebahn‘ dates back to the year 1900. It is expected that the economy of Wuppertal will benefit from this development. The area along the route will become attractive as living- and workinglocations. The first coworkingspot for entrepreneurs has already opened its doors. And as expected, the city council starts getting interested in the area, groundprices might pickup after a long periode of value of almost zero.
Quality of life
The project is undoubtedly improving living conditions in the area, that was in a proces of a downward trend. During my visit I met happy volunteers who with great pride told the story of their ‚Nordbahntrasse‘: ‚Actually its repairday, but how can I refuse a bike to a Dutch? Take one, they are for free! Donate what you like and enjoy your ride.‘
One of the abandoned old railway stations is transformed into ‚Utopia-stadt‘. It is a meeting spot for the neighborhood, artists, entrepreneurs and tourists. It is also a center of culture, starting point for biking tours, walks, sports and activities for kids. Important to notice is the effect of corporation between the many different ethnic / cultural groups in town. Together, in times of unemployment, they worked on a common goal: to make their city and neighborhood a better place.
And the city council?
When the ‘Wuppertalbewegung’ in 2007 knocked at the door of town hall to ask for support for this ambitious project, there was a reserved response due to the poor financial situation of the city. The city was not able to invest into the project, not even to maintain things such as safety standards after realization. In particular the many overpasses, bridges and tunnels seemed to much of a risk and the obligations following the 20-year contacts with private and commercial investors.
A breakthrough came when the ‘Wuppertalbewegung’ took over the responsibilities of the 20-year contacts. The city was left with the obligations to spend €250,000 (euro’s) annually for maintaining the route and to treat the area as regular community public space.
These and other agreements, responsibilities and liabilities between the society ‘Wuppertalbewegung’ (in this acting as Wuppertaler Nordbahntrassen GmbH) and the city council where put down in a contract (pdf).
To guarantee a constant surveillance on the safety of the infrastructure, a unique partner- and sponsor concept (Streckenpatenschaftskonzept) was developed. No less than 50 organizations and private persons are now checking the route at regular intervals for waste, safety, behavior of visitors and the necessary maintenance of green and infra.
The city council showed after the first success renewed interest in taking back its administrative responsibilities. A step that has been effectuated.
Who knows, the ‘Nordbahntrasse’ might become the ‘New York High Line‘ of Wuppertal.
Video: a ride with the 13 km long stretch of the ‘Schwebebahn’.