Sustainable Cities™

Emscher Park: From dereliction to scenic landscapes

Once one of the most polluted and environmentally devastated regions of the world, the Ruhr district has been reborn. With the "International Building Exhibition (IBA) at Emscher Park" initiated in 1989, the run-down industrial landmarks of the region have been transformed to serve new recreational uses while still preserving the area's rich history. The redevelopment has given the region a greener image, created a more cohesive community and maintained the area’s identity.

Emscher Park, Af dysturb, Flickr Creative Commons

The Ruhr district of Germany was once the heartland of Europe's steel and coal industries. Over the past 30 years, these heavy industries have been massively restructured, causing the abandonment and dereliction of many steel works and coal mining operations throughout the region. Consequently, Ruhr has been left with a legacy of high unemployment and the scars of environmental contamination as the old industrial workyards have slowly become brownfield sites in need of restoration.

In the face of this abandonment and decay, the State Government of NorthRhine-Westphalia created a regional redevelopment plan entitled the "International Building Exhibition (IBA) at Emscher Park" in 1989. Over the course of a ten year period, IBA Emscher Park was to encourage the ecological, economic, and urban revitalization of the Ruhr Valley and the Emscher River through several collaborative partnerships with various agencies and, notably, 17 local authorities of the Ruhr district. Specifically, the two primary objectives of the IBA were to give the region a greener image and breathe life into the old industrial plants. After the IBA expired in 1999, a successor plan to promote redevelopment called "Project Ruhr" took over the task of management and, presently, the entire project series is in its final phase, which focuses on cleaning up the Emscher River.  If all goes according to plan, this series will be completed in 2014.

Emscher Park, April 2007, By dysturb, Flickr Creative Commons

A crucial vision for the redevelopment under the IBA was an Emscher Landscape Park that would act as a "green connector" between the settlements of the Rhur valley, following the path of the Emscher River and using the abandoned industrial areas along it as a unique form of greenspace. In addition to connecting the 17 towns located along the river valley, this new east-west oriented green corridor joins seven existing but expanded north-south greenbelts. The park is composed of regenerated brownfields, reclaimed forests, and existing recreational areas that together provide a cohesive set of green infrastructure for the entire region. The specific projects that created the park system ranged from the development of large fallow land areas to small scale construction schemes to installations of biotopes to the simple planting of trees. Today, the Ruhr-Emscher district is enveloped by a beautiful green curtain that occasionally includes a historic industrial landmark standing just over the trees.

The masterplan for the region specifically targeted abandoned industrial sites so as to improve the quality of the undeveloped areas surrounding them and to save money by making use of the existing infrastructure. Once active collieries, Coca-Cola plants and steel works, the region's massive and muscular structures are now filled with art, culture, housing, commerce and offices. Concerts are staged in the aging steel frames of former factories. Grassy recreational areas, complete with hiking trails and climbing walls, have been sculpted from the old hills of coal pilings. Paths through glades of trees linking the many different components of the park follow the former industrial roads and rail lines.

After 20 years of planning and implementation, the Emscher Landscape Park has gone from a purely fantastical vision to a reality that has inspired new urban development. The project has achieved lasting improvements in the living and working environment of the involved towns by upgrading the ecological and aesthetic quality of their nearby countryside. Furthermore, by reusing and preserving the impressive relics of the industrial era, the Ruhr region has been able to keep its unique identity and has branded itself as an ancient monument of industrial society.

Regeneration of the Emscher river system

A central goal of the Emscher Park project was to clean up the Emscher River, which runs through the very middle of the green plan and stretches a distance of 70 kilometers from east to west through the region. For decades, the river had a reputation of being a biologically dead "open sewer," acting as a waste water canal since the end of late 19th century.

Now that much of the mining in the region has ceased, underground sewers have been installed to carry waste away from the river and promote its re-naturalization. Additionally, the river has been re-profiled to allow for better flooding management and, to slow the speed of the currents, part of the river's course has been changed from a straight narrow concrete channel back to a wide curved pool. Trees and native plants have been introduced along the bank, which have improved the water quality as well as the ecosystems in the area. 

Altogether, the process of river regeneration has required an investment of 4.4 billion Euros and will take until 2014.  However, it has provided a highly visible symbol of positive change that should have lasting benefits for the Rhur valley.


Funding for Emscher Park was derived from a variety of sources. The State Government of NorthRhine-Westphalia allocated 17,9 million EUR for IBA but much of the invested money in fact came from developers, private companies, non-profit groups and local town governments that worked specifically on individual projects connected to the park. By the summer of 1993, a total of EURO 2,5 billion had been invested in the redevelopment, of which about two thirds came from public funds and one third from private investments.

After finishing the IBA, Project Ruhr - a new organisation that will promote projects in the Ruhr area - took over the task of project management.

Last updated Tuesday, January 21, 2014