The Ruhr – Declining Region Looking for Solutions

I’ve just come back from an excursion in the Ruhr, the largest urban agglomeration in Germany. The Ruhr consists of quite large cities of which you might have heard if you are a German football fan: Dortmund, Essen, Duisburg, Gelsenkirchen and Bochum. But despite a great success in the Bundesliga, the region is declining, due to a long and painful structural transformation from an industrial economy in the 1960s to a service economy nowadays.

The Ruhr used to be a European coal and steel empire, and a job provider for many workers with basic education. The region was so focused on heavy industry, that the first university in the Ruhr, home to more than 5 million people, was opened only during the 1960s. Today young people are moving away to Berlin, Munich and Hamburg, leaving behind shrinking cities.

When travelling in the Ruhr, two phenomena struck me: vacant houses and brown fields. While the former can be seen in many declining areas around the world, the latter is pretty unique to the region, especially in Western Europe. Large un-used areas, full of abandoned factories, machines and chimneys. They used to be the region’s money maker, but today nobody needs those.

Abandoned buildings in Duisburg-Bruckhausen

So what do you do with all those empty spaces? During the trip I visited some old brownfields that were converted into museums, parks and other forms of public spaces. But these solutions can’t be practiced in every brown field, since they aren’t comprehensive economic-sustainable solutions. If the Ruhr wants to attract new residents, it has to provide them with jobs. Most people can’t afford to move to a declining area just because of nice museums.

In my opinion, an economic-sustainable solution is a delicate combination of residential, employment and leisure activities. Mixed-used development if you will. Moreover, it should be done in respect to the place’s heritage. In this case, the Ruhr is a former industrial region, and new development should be connected to its history.

There are however few good practices in the Ruhr. Take for example the development in Duisburg’s Inner Harbor (Innenhafen). It was home to the timber industry in the previous century, but since the regional decline in the 1960s, companies have left the area. The old warehouses blocked the access to the water and the region was another unattractive place in a gloomy city.

New housing in Duisburg’s Inner Harbor

However, since the early 90’s, as part of the International Building Exhibition Emscher Park, the area has been under mix-used development, including housing, businesses and entertainment. The area is still new and lacks the soul of an old city center, but it’s a good start. The housing projects look good, featuring different types of architecture, in the spirit of industrialism. I saw mixture of shops’ sizes and display windows, a virtue lacking in so many new developments. Lastly and maybe most importantly, it opened the city to the water!

Great example of some hope in a city to which not so many will predict a bright future.

(Pictures by Lior Steinberg)


Written by Lior Steinberg. Follow him on Twitter and .