Essen, located in western Germany's long-established industrial Ruhr area, has spent most of the last 150 years soiled by pollution, stained by dirty mines and belching factories, and bordered by poisoned streams. A study conducted in the 1960s found that 1.5 million tons of harmful dust, ashes, and soot were rained down on Essen residents, along with four million tons of sulphur dioxide. But, in a spectacular turnaround, Essen has gone from being Germany's ugly duckling to one of Europe's greenest cities.
Essen's most visible "Green" initiative is the restoration of the Zollverein industrial complex, previously the world's biggest coal and coke manufacturing facility, from a toxic industrial blackspot to an inspirational eco-park designated by Unesco as a World Heritage Site. The spectacular Ruhr Museum enthrals visitors with exhibitions on the site's history and development amongst towering ancient machinery inside its massive former coal washing plant. The Red Dot Design Museum, a short walk away, shows examples of creative worldwide design in a former boiler house building repurposed by famous architect Norman Foster.
Since the closure of mining in Zollverein and the surrounding area in the late 1980s, woods has grown throughout the large site, and its trail-laced expanses are now home to over 800 animal and plant species. "The slag heaps are so cool now, too!" said Florian Hecker, an Essen city council green specialist. "You've got biking trails on them, concerts on them and art on them." Meanwhile, one of the Zollverein slag heaps has been transformed into a 60-meter-high winter ski slope as well as an ice skating rink.
"Zollverein is a role model for structural transformation not only in Essen, but in the entire Ruhr area," said Hanna Lohmann, communications officer of the Zollverein Foundation. "It vividly shows that everything is possible - going from mining coal to climate protection and culture."
Essen, on the other hand, is not resting on its green laurels and is expanding its eco-friendly projects. A 100-kilometer cycling "superhighway" (named the Ruhr RS1 and more colloquially "Route 66 for cyclists") is gradually taking development atop abandoned industrial lines. Since the highway's first 6km segment, which connects Essen and Mulheim a der Ruhr, was finished in 2015, it is anticipated that carbon dioxide emissions have been cut by 16,600 tons per year. When completed in 2030, it will connect the cities of Hamm and Duisburg with a network of walkways that will traverse the larger Metropole Ruhr area.
After a two-decade clean-up effort, trout returned to the revitalized river in 2015. A recent survey discovered over 1,000 different fish and animal species along the Emscher, including formerly endangered lapwings, kingfishers, and beavers. The Emscher is also the hub of a 51-kilometer network of wastewater pumping stations, making it Europe's largest wastewater project.
Though people are not yet invited to join the trout in the Emscher, Lake Baldeney, a large area of water formed behind a 9m weir on the equally cleaned-up Ruhr river, is buzzing with activity. Swimming was officially permitted on the Ruhr for the first time in 46 years when swimmers splashed here in 2017.
Essen's green-and-blue strategy is not only benefiting outdoor enthusiasts and the environment, but it is also presenting a bright example of how other cities may turn to their industrial history to embrace a cleaner future.