A novel urban planning project is investing over two billion euros in an eco-friendly face-lift for one city in Germany's Ruhr region. Five finalists are in the running - but there can be only one winner.
Bochum, Bottrop, Essen, Muelheim or Gelsenkirchen/Herten?
The goal of the "InnovationCity Ruhr" project isn't to create a model green city from scratch.
Its agenda is perhaps even more ambitious: It aims to take an existing city - with all of its industrial facilities, green spaces, swathes of fallow land and neighborhoods both old and new - and reshape it along more sustainable lines.
The competition was launched by the "Initiativkreis Ruhr," an association of nearly 60 businesses, in the hope of encouraging the transition to the "green" economy of tomorrow.
At stake is a massive amount of investment - some 2.5 billion euros - which will be awarded to a city or district with an estimated population of 50,000 people on November 4.
Five finalists are looking to claim the "InnovationCity Ruhr" title, which would fund cutting-edge modernizations to the urban landscape aimed at slashing carbon emissions by half.
The decade-long series of renovations is seen as an opportunity to experiment on a massive scale with new technologies, building materials, forms of finance and ways of involving the public.
The former Ewald coal mine is now home to a hydrogen filling station
Bochum, Bottrop, Essen, Muelheim and Gelsenkirchen/Herten have been shortlisted for the competition, and these cities have taken their first steps to go green.
Herten and the nearby city of Gelsenkirchen, which joined forces for the application process, have pinned their hopes of winning on a high-tech hydrogen filling station.
Based at the site of the former Ewald coal mine, the location now provides hydrogen fuel for public transportation. Two buses are already running on fuel-cell technology, ferrying passengers between the cities of Herten, Bottrop and Gladbeck.
The Gelsenkirchen/Herten vision for the next 10 years involves a green transportation network, from fuel-cell-powered buses and cars to bicycles.
Public utility companies are set to take on hydrogen production at the local level starting in 2011 - with the energy for this production phase coming from other sources of renewable energy.
Herten envisions a city of fuel-cell-powered vehicles
The science of progress
Applicant cities have already found local partners in the business- and science-communities.
The Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety and Energy Technology (UMSICHT) is involved in coming up with ways to save on heat in Bottrop.
Scientists there worked to develop a system that uses excess warmth from mining waste to heat buildings.
Stone that is brought up from more than 1,000 meters below ground during the mining process retains a great deal of heat. Josef Robert of UMSICHT said the plan involves depositing the warm rock in Bottrop's Schoettelheide mining dump.
"Each day, it's filled with 15,000 cubic meters, and that's enough to heat a lot of homes," he told Deutsche Welle.
Another key component is the heat exchange system installed on the floor of the mining dump.
"The heat is transferred to the houses, and normally you need a heat pump there to turn up the temperature again," Robert said.
Disused mining facilities can also be repurposed to generate energy.
This includes plans for a 64-hectare solar power facility at the site. The sun's energy is a cost-effective source of power - but there's still the expense of installing service lines from the facility.
Josef Robert from UMSICHT described the energy efficient heating project
The move to transform city landscapes has one major sticking point: who pays the cost? Herten's Mayor Uli Paetzel said the project involves a number of stakeholders.
"The large companies that jump-started the project and belong to the "Initiativkreis Ruhrgebiet" will contribute their share," he said. "Private investment will follow, public investment, subsidies get added to it, and we want to use that to create innovative models."
This includes new approaches to contracting and creating foundations and cooperatives. Paetzel underscored that taxpayers would not have to shoulder the costs, saying the focus was on providing them with attractive financing options.
Under the scheme, energy prices for consumers would remain the same, and the savings generated through new technologies and efficiency-gains would be used to pay back the investors who financed the project.
"That's basically the idea that we have," Paetzel told Deutsche Welle.
The effort hinges on local participation, but some residents worry that the updates will lead to rent increases, meaning they could no longer afford to live in the neighborhoods they call home.
To counter those fears, municipalities still in the running for the competition are trying to win over the hearts and minds of the public.
In Bottrop, the city has collected some 20,000 signatures. Essen is organizing a street campaign, and Bochum has scheduled town hall meetings.
Herten Mayor Uli Paetzel says the focus is on innovative ways of raising funds
But some innovations started even before the competition began.
In 2008, Muelheim became the first city in Germany with a carbon-neutral supermarket.
Two years ago, the retailer Tengelmann renovated one of the company's older stores, which was originally built in the 1980s.
This meant putting a photovoltaic system on the roof, drawing on geothermal power, and installing wind turbines and LED lamps, as well as sensors that regulate lighting and ventilation.
The company also seized upon tried-and-true methods to get the job done. Tengelmann spokeswoman Jutta Meister said a simple invention, glass doors, can save a lot of energy. The store put its meats, cheeses and perishables behind glass to prevent cool air from escaping.
"Even the back of the service counters are equipped with sliding doors so that no cold air escapes," she said, adding that it's a bit of a hindrance for the staff but saves energy.
The excess warmth generated by the refrigerated counters heats the supermarket – so well so that the geothermal power system was hardly necessary. Tengelmann plans to incorporate the lessons learned in Mülheim for future renovations.
Tengelmann utilized solar and geothermal power for its market in Muelheim
A winning approach
Despite the cities' efforts to implement ecologically friendly technologies, one question remains: What happens to these ideas and initiatives in cities that don't win the "InnovationCity Ruhr" prize?
Many municipalities in the area are cash-strapped, but the competition's finalists have agreed to push forward with modernization projects, win or lose.
Without the extra funding, their projects might not be as ambitious or happen as quickly, but Bottrop's head of city planning Christina Kleinheins said the application process has already paid off.
"We've brought together all these projects and ideas and have already started to create a network between different companies and city administration," she said.
"And that will certainly continue."
Author: Matilda Jordanova-Duda, Amanda Price
Editor: Nathan Witkop