It is tempting to start this article with a quip: what do Athens and Essen have in common? At first glance, the only answer seems to be that they are both in Europe. Athens is the capital of Greece and the birthplace of Western civilization, whereas Essen is in the heart of the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial powerhouse for almost two centuries. However, both cities have been designated European Capitals of Culture by the European Union. Athens was the first city to gain that honor in 1985, while Essen won the title for 2010.1 For those who have never considered visiting Essen—a category that undoubtedly includes the vast majority of humanity—now is the time to go. A plethora of festivals, exhibits, and other events will enliven this postindustrial city for the rest of the year.

That Essen is the third German city to receive the Capitals of Culture award—after Berlin in 1988 and Weimar in 1999—calls for some explanation. Some might suspect that the decision involved backroom shenanigans, but, in fact, Essen won the title after a fierce nationwide competition. The key sales pitch was the postindustrial transformation of the region, which made for a dramatic narrative that convinced the jurors: an area that has borne the stain of coal, iron, and dirt since the nineteenth century has miraculously become an attractive region with clean air, beautiful sights, and a vibrant cultural scene. Germany’s Cinderella County has finally shed its smog-stained identity to shine in full splendor, and now it even has an official EU testament to its beauty.

Fairy tales do happen, but in the real world they usually come at a price. There is little outright evidence to counter the success story; environmental conditions have dramatically improved in the Ruhr in the last few decades. However, this success was rooted in an elite vision of environmental policy: the cleanup was courtesy of industrial leaders, politicians, and experts, with the general public expected to provide little more than friendly applause. Such top-down reform is not necessarily a bad thing. However, elites tend to have their own interests; and in the case of Cinderella County, these interests are increasingly diverging from those of the public.

Cleanup efforts in the Ruhr began in earnest in the 1950s. The five million residents of the region had been coughing and complaining about industrial dirt since the nineteenth century, but the area’s powerful industrial leaders had other priorities. However, the stain of Nazi collaboration significantly reduced the power of industrial elites. At the same time, growing postwar affluence made the demand for a cleaner environment ever more urgent. Beginning in the mid-1950s, officials and industrialists came to agree that it was time for some improvements, and they energetically set about passing laws, convening expert committees, and installing filters on smokestacks. By 1960, the amount of airborne dust started a long-term decline. So far, so good.2

Cleanup was slower when it came to river pollution. Around 1900, the Ruhr had settled on a neat division of tasks for the region’s two main rivers, the Ruhr and the Emscher. While the Ruhr became the area’s freshwater resource, the Emscher was designated as an open sewer. Cities and industries were required to draw water from the Ruhr and pour their effluent into the Emscher, which was regulated and streamlined to optimize waste removal. The Emscher soon became the dirtiest river in Europe, and possibly the world. The sludge was so heavily contaminated that one particularly enterprising utility tried to use it as a fuel.


Richard Morin/Solutions

Discussions about cleaning up the region’s rivers began in the 1950s, but the effort was exceedingly slow. The effluent disposal system was simply too convenient, and downstream complaints were easy to ignore because they came mostly from another country, the Netherlands. It was not until 1977 that a treatment plant opened at the mouth of the river. The Emscher continued to run through the region as an open sewer, but at least some cleaning took place before the effluent reached the Rhine. Characteristically, the polluters proved reluctant to pay the costs, thus forcing the state government, which had pushed for a treatment plant since the 1950s, to bear about a third of the expense.3

All the while, the Ruhr’s industrial base was eroding. It was a familiar story: all across the Western hemisphere, traditional areas of coal mining and steel production went into a downward spiral, under pressure from cheaper imports and alternative, cleaner fuels. Subsidies provided some respite for industry, and for years many harbored the illusion that the economic downturn would be temporary. Weren’t coal and iron the essentials of Germany’s industrial might? However, it gradually dawned on the region’s leaders that the future lay elsewhere.

In the 1960s, the state began to promote white-collar jobs in the Ruhr. Universities sprang up throughout the region—previously, it had been official policy to create them elsewhere because of fears among conservatives that intellectuals and revolutionary workers would form a dangerous mix. In order to attract and entertain the middle class, politicians began to change the region’s reputation as a cultural backwater by organizing concerts and building theaters. Beginning in the 1980s, a burgeoning museum and history scene started to preserve industrial monuments, many of which are now all the rage in this new cultural capital of Europe. Slowly, a new Ruhr was emerging from the smoldering industrial ruins of the past.

However, the Ruhr’s outward appearance changed more rapidly than its political structures. Power remained situated in familiar places; Social Democrats ruled by safe margins at both the state and municipal levels and, thanks to the party’s good relations with trade union leaders and managers, politics remained an elite affair. The emerging middle class was mostly apathetic in political terms. Therefore, while nongovernmental organizations and local citizen initiatives came to influence environmental decisions throughout the rest of Germany, the Ruhr remained stony ground for civil society.

In the 1990s, the resurrection of the Ruhr was reaching an impasse. On the one hand, the area did develop a life beyond industry, and while unemployment and other social problems remained above the German average, the Ruhr was spared the ghost town fate of other former mining regions. The air had become remarkably clean, there were new museums and theaters, and a dense network of parks and recreation areas encouraged residents to enjoy the fresh air. In addition, tourist bureaus were eagerly inviting visitors to enjoy the region’s festivals and its new bike paths. On the other hand, the political elite was running out of ideas. The remaining problems, not surprisingly, were also the most intractable. For example, after decades of neglect, the public transport system was a mess (at least by German standards). However, correcting the legacy of the region’s automobile culture would be very expensive.

Thus began the age of white elephants. The state government advocated the construction of a monorail, with ultramodern magnetic levitation technology, between the Ruhr’s main cities and Düsseldorf, as if it were some kind of panacea. Never mind the protests along the route or the fact that the line, which ran mostly along an existing high-speed railroad link, did little to improve the paltry state of public transportation. The old industrial past continued to lurk in the background: a key project partner was ThyssenKrupp, a giant Ruhr industrial conglomerate. The train probably would have been built swiftly in the 1980s, when the political elite was still largely unchallenged. However, from 1995 until 2005, the state’s Social Democrats governed in a fragile coalition with the Green Party, which balked at the project due to its costs and its dubious environmental credentials. After years of internal struggles, the project was finally shelved in 2003.4

By that time, cracks were visible in the glorious rebirth of Cinderella County. The service sector was not as vibrant as hoped. The much-sought-after tourists refused to come in droves. Museum attendance was far below expectations and heavy industry continued its long-term decline. After spending billions on subsidies, the federal government decided in 2007 to phase out coal mining in the Ruhr. Along the course of the Emscher on the northern fringe of the Ruhr, depopulation was especially strong, and some areas were looking ever more like the dreaded ghost towns. It was time for new ideas. Or, better yet, old ideas in a new guise.

The political elite thus came to embrace a new pet project: turning the Emscher back into a wild running river. Planners had been fantasizing about this since the 1980s, but the project quickly proved difficult to realize. Constructing a new sewer system, a function hitherto performed by the river, required massive investments, including a new waste collection network and a big underground tunnel through the region. The estimated cost was a staggering 4.4 billion euros.


Ruhr’s Zollverein XII Coal Mine Industrial Complex was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.

Under normal conditions, the project would not have had the faintest chance, and not only due to its costs. The vibrant civil society networks present throughout much of Germany were largely absent along the Emscher, and residents barely cared about the project, an unsurprising fact given the depopulation and social malaise of the region. Furthermore, the Emscher was by no means an impressive river, with a meager water flow that in dry times ran at less than two cubic meters per second. Finally, the newly restored “wild” Emscher would, in its own way, be just as artificial as the industrial river. The preindustrial Emscher region had been a swampland with endemic malaria, and there was neither the space nor the political will to get back to that kind of nature.

However, to a political class in crisis, things looked considerably different. The cleanup project was a great chance to ask for additional subsidies. It was technologically challenging—and perhaps engineers would learn something that they could then sell elsewhere. Best of all, after the monorail debacle, environmentalists were reluctant to oppose a project that turned an open sewer back into a natural-looking river. In order to extinguish any remaining pockets of resistance (or simply out of habit), the “wild Emscher” boosters included generous funding for all sorts of cultural projects.

The result was that rarest of beasts—a multibillion-euro infrastructure project without meaningful opposition. Even when the Social Democrats finally lost office in 2005, the new coalition of neoliberals and conservative Christian Democrats could not muster the courage to kill the project. Construction has started and is probably beyond the point of no return. As it stands, completion is scheduled for 2020. Nobody knows what the area will look like by then, but at least the water should be clean.

One does not need to be a visionary to foresee that the project is likely to have a mixed reception when it is finally completed. Environmentalists will likely be blamed for the new river’s artificial appearance and for the project’s enormous costs. The effort is also unlikely to stop depopulation along the banks of the Emscher or the decline of the region’s economic base. Neoliberals will have a great showcase for the excessive cost of environmental regulation, while environmentalists will wonder about all the wonderful things that 4.4 billion euros could have bought elsewhere. Worst of all, critics will refer to this as an environmental project even though it was not proposed by—and did not have the wholehearted support of—environmentalists. Thus its green veneer is merely camouflage for the political and economic forces behind the new Emscher.

In making sense of the Emscher project, it is helpful to look at the landscape design closely. The “Masterplan Emscher-Zukunft” describes it as follows: “Human settlements along the Emscher are diverse and complex.… A lot is currently changing. Therefore, the New Emscher puts an emphasis on clear, linear structures.”5 One could hardly imagine a better illustration of the project’s fundamental error: landscape restoration is not part of a general plan for reviving the area—it is merely a surrogate. The New Emscher is supposed to provide at least a semblance of certainty where none is in sight. Clearly, when environmental restoration is simply the last hope, and not part of a more encompassing vision of life in the northern Ruhr, something has gone astray.

Nevertheless, it is not hard to understand why environmentalists have failed to criticize the project. Given the tough battles over environmental restoration in so many places, it is hard to oppose it when it miraculously emerges all by itself. But who ever said that smokescreens couldn’t be green?


Frank Uekoetter

Frank Uekoetter is deputy director of the Rachel Carson Center in Munich, Germany. He has published widely on environmental issues in Germany and beyond. His books include The Green and the Brown:...

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