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Business

A new lease of life for Germany's industrial wastelands

In Germany's Ruhr area, former mining areas are being transformed and marketed as residential or commercial areas. The strategy has been a success with people flocking to the newly created neighborhoods.

The mining tower of the former Lohberg-Ossterfeld mine overlooks the old and dilapidated industrial buildings in Dinslaken, a town in Germany's western North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) state. Some of the buildings are renovated, but others have damaged masonry or windows. The buildings date back to before World War I and are designated as monuments.   

The architecture and patina of this place attracts people like Claudia Neumann, who is doing self-employed work for a Kibono factory in the old gatehouse. Kibonos are miniature plants that are rooted in moss balls.

"It has an absolute flair here. The old mining buildings, like the pay house or the adjoining buildings - that's great," said Neumann. She belongs to a group of people who have settled here with their businesses and shops. Painters, photographers, designers and developers are reviving the industrial area.

The area of the mine is partly developed. Other buildings are still demolished before they are restored. The mine is located in Dinslaken's Lohberg district, a place that has always been considered to be structurally weak.

Deutschland Leben in ehemaligen Bergwerken (DW/C. Grün)

Claudia Neumann (r) and Andreas Eickhoff (l) are new and creative users of the Lohberg-Osterfeld mining area

'Healing the city's wounds'

The coal mine site that German firm RAG Montan Immobilien GmbH wants to prepare for the commercial and residential market comprises 40 hectares. The company focuses on the overhaul and renovation of former mining areas.

"It's about healing the city's wounds," says CEO Hans-Peter Noll. "We don't want to leave behind burnt up earth." Noll is not a lawyer, economist or engineer, but a geographer, which is good for the work at hand. He takes a different approach to resolving the problems than others might.

Shaped by the Emscherpark International Building Exhibition, he places the needs of people in the foreground, while also striving to make his business a profitable venture. But, he says, he always strives to involve citizens as well.

"We always rely on the participation of the residents. Once we determine the will of the people, the political process kicks in. That involves town councils and there we have to find someone who makes it a priority. Then there will be a lot of convincing to do," Noll explained.  

About 9,500 hectares of mining areas are being managed by Montan-Immobilien, another German firm. The area consists of around 2,200 buildings. About 1,200 hectares are currently being developed, as part of city and neighborhood development as well as into creative quarters for artists and logistics parks.Existing structures are also often either used or further developed.

Deutschland Leben in ehemaligen Bergwerken (DW/C. Grün)

There has been a renaturalization at the Niederberg mine in Neukirchen-Vluyn

Own power supply

Just as in Lohberg, there is a desire here to be independent of energy companies. The mining pit of the former mine is being used. In addition, there is wind energy that's being generated from the windmills installed at a waste dump, plus the energy produced from a solar park, which has been set up at the site of a former coal preparation plant. 

All this is enough to supply the district and its nearby areas, and even after doing that there is still surplus energy left to be channeled into the grid. So it is unsurprising that in Lohberg around 70 percent of the residential units have already been sold. The market for commercial real estate also looks good.

At other locations like in Neukirchen-Vluyn or Kamp-Lintfort, former mining sites such as Niederberg and West are being renovated. Niederberg is characterized by strong residential development.

Kamp-Lintfort is the site of the 2020 state horticultural show, and by that time a city park is set to be built in the inner city area. The newly established Rhein-Waal University of Applied Sciences, a cross-border university bordering the Netherlands, has already moved into the buildings of a former coal mine. Furthermore, there are residential properties.

Soil composition critical

Emphasis is laid on the composition of the soil - to examine what has gotten into the ground over the decades and how much contamination it has experienced.

"We start with soil checks, followed by chemical analysis and drill tests. Then a grid of the area is created so that we can then fully grasp the site. Only after that can we see what we can do where. The area is constantly monitored," said RAG Montan's spokesperson Stephan Conrad.

In today's world of increased environmental awareness, land is virtually one of a company's business cards. "Once upon a time, there was a different understanding of contaminated sites. But now if we do sloppy work, we are done," said Hans-Peter Noll. In the 40 years since our company's founding, there has never been an incident where an area had to be demolished because of ground contamination.

Deutschland Leben in ehemaligen Bergwerken (DW/C. Grün)

This is the new creative quarters of the former Lohberg mine

Interest from abroad

To date, RAG Montan has invested around 60 million euros in measures aimed at the revitalization of land. In addition, almost 75 million euros of grants are provided by the state government of NRW.

Land prices are still lower compared to those in cities like Düsseldorf and Cologne. Building land costs between 200 and 240 euros per square meter. For commercial premises, the price varies between 30 and 140 euros, depending on the location.

The contaminated soil is also not removed from the areas. Instead it is processed in so-called landscaped buildings.

There, soil is lifted. Thick plastic planes, which are to last 200 years, are laid out and the affected soil is poured up.

In addition, depending on the case, up to six meters of pure soil comes available, which is then planted. The process is accompanied by a constant supply of groundwater.

The projects have also elicited interest from abroad, says RAG Montan's spokesperson Conrad.

"We are regularly receiving delegations from places like China and Eastern Europe. In China, there are nearly 70,000 mines, and some of them are always facing closure. The Chinese need the space and are very interested to see how we are doing it."

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