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Essen, Germany: a blueprint for turning a city green

SCIS Editor
18 Jul 2017
Stadtgarten, a public park in the city centre of Essen ©Johannes Kassenberg

Essen was a byword for industrial pollution. But in 2017 it has been named European Green  Capital. Here's the German city's secret of this recipe for an environmental revolution.

After German reunification, two-thirds of Essen's sewage was drained into the Emscher river. Slaughterhouses and steel mills discharged their offal and refuse here, and the river was a depository for heavy metals and feces.  The Emschergenossenschaft, 19 municipalities and numerous companies founded in 1899 as  Germany’s first waste water management association, drafted an ambitious plan to restore the river to its natural state and create leisure parks and new areas for economic growth on its banks. Given that the Emscher was also an open sewer filled with Essen’s industrial waste, this was and is still a big job.

The Zollverein Coal Mine is the most visible reminder of Essen’s industrial history. A UNESCO world heritage site since 2001, it has been converted into a major cultural centre for the region. In the winter, the former cookery is turned into a 150 meter long ice rink.

The Emschergenossenschaft’s chief executive, Uli Paetzel, now takes his children, nine and 10 years old, to new, verdant playgrounds on the river banks. “This is Europe’s biggest attempt to restore a complete river landscape and be a driver of structural change,” Paetzel says.

From its past as a capital of pollution in the heart of the Ruhr industrial region, Essen has changed. In 2017 it was named European Green Capital by the European Commission. How has this impressive transformation been possible?



Essen also participates as follower city in the REPLICATE project – REnaissance of PLaces with Innovative Citizenship And TEchnologies. REPLICATE is leaded by three lighthouses cities: San Sebastian in Spain, Florence in Italy and Bristol in the United Kingdom. There are also a number of other follower cities that will look into replicating interventions in their cities including Essen (Germany), Nilüfer (Turkey) and Lausanne (Switzerland). The vision is to increase the quality of life for citizens across Europe by demonstrating the impact of innovative technologies used to co-create smart city services with citizens, and prove the optimal process for replicating successes within and across cities.