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From a coal industry stronghold to a green oasis

Dusty air, polluted rivers and contaminated soil are now a thing of the past in Essen. Since the decline of the coal and steel industry, the Ruhr metropolis has converted itself into a model ecological city with plenty to teach other regions.

Franz Hubik, Handelsblatt (Germany)

Read more on Les Echos (in French).

Franz Hubik

Simone Raskob’s green wonder extends over twenty-one kilometres and is fully paved. Along the former tracks of the Rhineland’s railway, the woman heading the city of Essen’s environmental department is building something resembling a bicycle motorway. Along the junction-free route, which, when completed, will run from Duisburg through Essen all the way to Dortmund, bicycle enthusiasts can pedal freely – with no cars to bother them.

“Everyone should be able to get to work in an environmentally-friendly way,” explains Raskob. The vivacious politician hopes her bicycle fast lane will encourage commuters to leave their cars at home, eliminating the endless traffic jams found in Germany’s most heavily populated region. It is typical of Essen that the cycle route is being built in the exact same place that trains, fully-laden with coal and heavy metals, once chugged along on their way to the Phönix ironworks or the Zeche Carl coal mine.

“It’s a symbol of our city’s capacity for transformation,” says Raskob. Industrial wastelands like the old railway tracks are being resolutely revitalised all over the Ruhr metropolis. The city discarded its image of smoking chimneys and coal miners long ago, and is now characterised by office blocks and landscape gardeners. The former industrial hub can almost be described as an ecological oasis. This successful transformation is being used as a model for other cities still struggling with structural upheavals.

For 150 years, Essen was completely absorbed by the coal and steel industry. When the coal crisis happened in 1958, and cheap crude oil ousted expensive Ruhr coal for the first time, tens of thousands of workers lost their jobs.

Anyone able to leave Essen left. The city has been losing inhabitants for fifty years, but in the last four years more people have moved to the city than away from it. The cliché that Essen has nothing to offer besides rusting factories and high debt is proving to be false. The city will be out of the red in 2017, for the first time in twenty-five years.

The city’s last coke plant, the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex, shut its doors in 1986. Today the coal relic has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and welcomes thousands of visitors drawn by its concerts, museums and restaurants. But it’s not just the cultural impetus that is making Essen a better place to live. A good fifty-four per cent of the city is green. That makes Essen the third greenest city in Germany, after Magdeburg and Hanover. And there are new economic prospects too. Some of the greenest companies in Germany are based in Essen. The energy giants Eon, RWE and Steag have their headquarters here, as well as the industry giant ThyssenKrupp, the chemical company Evonik and the supermarket chain Aldi Nord. In the last few years, around 14,000 jobs have also been created in the environmental technology sphere.

“For historical reasons, there is an enormous amount of expertise to be found here, such as how to dispose of old contaminated waste in an environmentally-friendly way, or how polluted water can be treated,” explains Rudolf Juchelka. The economic geographer at the University of Duisburg-Essen remembers how Essen’s coal and steel industry deposited toxic waste from factories in big dumps. Over the decades, heavy metals seeped into the soil and contaminated the ground water. There are already dozens of firms specialising in cleaning this old contaminated waste. “These are skills that Essen can usefully export,” says Juchelka. In this city of around 600,000 inhabitants, the ecological baggage of mining and heavy industry is not seen as a burden, but as an opportunity.

This approach has recently been commended by the EU Commission. Essen has been awarded the title of ‘European Green Capital’ for 2017. The authorities in Brussels praised the Ruhr metropolis for having worked to improve its environmental standards over many years. For the Commission, it was Essen’s plans for the future that made an impression. The Emscher, the second largest river in Essen after the Ruhr, is planned to be fully restored to its natural state by 2020. For decades the Emscher was the sewer of the Ruhr area, an above-ground drain. “Everything flowed into it – all the industrial grime and the residential sewage,” explains Raskob.

With the restoration of the Emscher, Essen and the Ruhr area are now getting a modern canal system. It should help to reduce the smell and increase quality of life. “We’re giving people their city back, piece by piece,” says Raskob. The politician even wants to prove how green and clean the Ruhr metropolis is with a daring personal test next year.

Right on time for the start of the 2017 swimming season, Raskob plans to jump into the Baldeneysee, the largest of the six Ruhr reservoirs. Swimming has been forbidden there for decades, as the water’s bacteria level is extremely high. But Raskob is convinced she can improve water quality enough to make the Baldeneysee swimmable in the future. And there’s a sure sign that Raskob is serious – she’s already working on her bikini body.

La « perle verte  » de Simone Raskob s’étend sur 21 kilomètres et est maintenant complètement pavée. Le long des anciennes voies du chemin de fer de Rhineland, la directrice de l’environnement de la ville d’Essen (Rhénanie-du-Nord – Westphalie) est en train de construire ce qui ressemble à une autoroute pour bicyclettes. Une voie qui ira de Duisbourg à Dortmund en traversant Essen.

« Chacun devrait pouvoir aller travailler sans nuire à l’environnement « , explique-t-elle, en espérant que sa voie rapide pour vélos encouragera ceux qui se rendent au travail à laisser leur voiture à la maison, éliminant ainsi les bouchons sans fin qui surviennent dans la région la plus peuplée d’Allemagne. Autrefois, exactement au même endroit, les trains lourdement chargés de charbon et de lourds métaux circulaient en direction des fonderies de Phönix ou de la mine de charbon de Zeche Carl.

Dans cette métropole de la Ruhr de 600.000 habitants, la ville fait oublier son image de cheminées fumantes et de mineurs et apparaît presque comme une oasis écologique. En Allemagne, le succès de cette transformation est un exemple pour d’autres villes.

Pendant cent cinquante ans, Essen a été complètement avalée par l’industrie du charbon et de la métallurgie. Jusqu’à ce que, en 1958, l’effondrement du prix du pétrole rende trop cher le charbon de la Ruhr et fasse perdre leur emploi à des dizaines de milliers de travailleurs. Tous ceux qui pouvaient quitter Essen le firent et la ville perdit des habitants pendant les cinquante années suivantes. C’est fini depuis quatre ans. Pour une raison simple : la ville est verte à au moins 54%. Cela fait d’Essen la troisième ville la plus verte en Allemagne, après Magdeburg et Hanovre. Sans que la ville perde son attrait économique.

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