How German cities are turning former coal mines into parks [photos] – by Marielle Segarra ( – July 7, 2015)

I’m spending a few weeks in Germany as part of a German/American journalist exchange program through the RIAS Berlin Kommission and the Radio Television Digital News Foundation. During the trip, I’m sending back lessons on urban planning and revitalization from German cities. Today’s topic: how cities in the Ruhr region are embracing their heritage by repurposing industrial sites.

When I think of quintessentially European cities, I imagine cobblestone streets, historic brick buildings, magnificent cathedrals, sidewalk cafes, and chocolatiers on every corner. I think of cities with history stretching back hundreds, and even thousands of years. Paris. Or Brussels. Or Rome, or Prague, or Vienna, or Hamburg…

But of course, Europe has all kinds of different cities, each with their own unique aesthetic and history.

Last week, I visited several cities in Germany that don’t fit the mold. What’s most prominent about them isn’t ancient history, but rather, their more recent, industrial heritage.

The Ruhr region of Germany is a sprawling metropolitan area, with 5.2 million people and 53 cities with boundaries that blur together. For decades, the region was dotted with thousands of coal mines, steel mills, and other industry.

Many of the mines shut down in the 1960s through 1980s, as Germany (like Pennsylvania) couldn’t keep up with the competition from other countries.

That meant there were thousands of empty industrial sites. At the time, people didn’t see any value in them, said Andreas Müller, manager of land use planning and development in the city of Essen.

But little by little, that started to change, Müller said.

Cities in the region began to understand that old buildings can have historic value, even if they haven’t been formally declared landmarks, he said. And that former industrial sites, even though they’re not beautiful cathedrals, museums, palaces, or parliament buildings, are worth preserving.

Slowly, Ruhr cities began repurposing these gritty, grimy, industrial sites into public parks and cultural spaces.

Now, there are dozens of repurposed mines, factories, and other sites throughout the region. One is Landschaftspark Duisberg-Nord, a coal/steel production plant-turned public park that inspired the president of ArtsQuest to create Steel Stacks in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Another is Maximilian Park, also a former coal mine. It now has open space where kids can play, a butterfly garden, and even a large glass elephant made from the site’s former coal washing building.

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