Since the end of the Ruhr region's industrial era, efforts have been made to breathe new life into the area. In 2010, as one of Europe's Capitals of Culture, the Ruhr will seek to present itself in a new light.
A coking-plant-turned-skating-rink is one way the Ruhr is redefining itself
With more than 5 million inhabitants spread over nearly 4500 square kilometers (1700 square miles), the Ruhr region is the largest metropolitan area in Germany. Nowhere else is the country as densely populated.
For decades, the coal and steel industries brought thousands of people to the Ruhr. When the coal ran out, the area attempted to redefine itself and to create new forms of employment. Many disused mines have become cultural centers or museums. The city of Dortmund, however, has opted for yet another strategy at the site of the former Phoenix steel plant.
Pascal Ledune of the Dortmund Economic Development Agency stands at a fence, behind which the land drops down into a huge pit about the size of 30 football fields. Excavators busily pile soil on to trucks. In 2001, a steel mill stood here in the district of Hoerde, on the outskirts of Dortmund. Now the developers hope to turn the area into a lake promenade offering a variety of residential and commercial zoning options.
The Phoenix steel plant site will be a vibrant area to live and work, developers hope
"This area, Phoenix Lake, is being designed in tandem with Phoenix West, which is being developed about three kilometers away from here as a technology park," Ledune said.
Hoerde is currently considered a rough area - but with the technology park and Phoenix Lake, the district will improve, or so Ledune hopes. But few residents of Hoerde are enthusiastic about the changes.
All the eggs in one basket
The departure of the steel industry is still a bone of contention in Hoerde. When the steel mills were active in the area, people said the air was so dirty that drying their clothes outside would only make them dirtier than before they washed them. But there were jobs and a common identity. Franz Lehner, director of the Institute for Employment and Technology in Gelsenkirchen, has focused his research on the structural changes in the Ruhr area.
"The main problem is that the Ruhr region was once a fairly homogeneous economic landscape made up of mining, steel, energy and chemistry," Lehner said.
"So when the industry collapsed, the whole regional economy just went broke or was badly damaged. The only thing that's special about the region today is its size - and the large number of unemployed."
In the economic boom times of the 1950s, there was a large working class in the Ruhr area, Lehner said. As German coal and steel became less competitive internationally, thousands lost their jobs. Including these people in the restructuring of the region has been only partly successful. In some parts of the Ruhr region, entire streets and neighborhoods are inhabited by long-term unemployed.
What comes after the Capital of Culture in 2010?
"And the second problem is that we are drifting apart more and more. The Ruhr region is not uniform but it would like to act as a unit and that does not work, and so we get bogged down," Lehner said.
"We did that particularly badly in the last few years. Whenever someone had a good idea, be it in the field of micro-electronics or healthcare - if someone had a great idea, everyone wanted to benefit from it. So we mutually handicapped ourselves."
Not so harmonious
The "Ruhr Metropolis" does not exist, Lehner said. On the contrary, every town in the area is in competition with the other 52 cities in the cultural capital region. Lehner said the Ruhr region as a whole should have tried much earlier to become an attractive place for business.
"If we are going to save the Ruhr, then we must start there. We have to make it attractive to the so-called creative class: then these well-educated young people who are highly skilled will move to the Ruhr area if it is perceived as a great region to live. Other cities have made this happen: Barcelona, Dublin and Austin, Texas have done it."
This year, the Ruhr region is one of the European Capitals of Culture. The cultural event is a phenomenal opportunity, according to Lehner. The problem is that concerts, theater, film and art originating in the area are rarities. Lehner predicted that by 2011, the spectacle will be over without having left any lasting effect.
At the Dortmund Economic Development site in Hoerde, Pascal Ledune tok a more upbeat approach. "There will be an interesting promenade that will bring quality of life. And I do indeed think that Hoerde will develop very positively and that this is a very interesting location for working and living,"Ledune said. "This will bring relief for the people here."
Author: Sola Hülsewig (sjt)
Editor: Susan Houlton