From Germany to Lansing: Redeveloping the Ruhr Rustbelt

In many respects, comparing the Capital region to Germany’s Ruhr District is like comparing Lollapalooza to the “Grapes of Wrath.”

The political, demographic and economic differences between Germany and Michigan are considerable. But there are similarities, too.

Both are struggling to reinvigorate cities that have been decimated by major industrial recessions, for example.

I visited the Ruhr District in the fall of 2010 as part of the Transatlantic Media Dialogue, organized by the Ecologic Institute and sponsored by the German Federal Foreign Office through the Transatlantic Climate Bridge. The goal was to introduce German and American journalists so they could discuss aging manufacturing sectors in their respective countries.

By the Numbers

The Ruhr District in northwestern Germany includes 53 units of government and is recuperating from considerable job loss in its main industries: coal and steel. In 1960, 670,000 people worked in Ruhr District coalmines.

Today, 35,000 workers remain. The existing mines are scheduled for shutdown by 2018, which will naturally wipe out the remaining jobs.

In the early 1980s, Lansing’s Capital region had approximately 44,000 manufacturing jobs. By 2000, roughly 28,000 jobs remained and today, the region has 17,000 to 18,000 manufacturing jobs.

The industries are different, but the stories are the same. Industry shutdown, job loss, structural breakdown, economic upset and flight of the creative class.  

Last year, the Ruhr District was named the 2010 European Capital of Culture and as such, worked within a €62.5 million budget to showcase 300 projects and 2,500 events designed to attract and retain talent and new industry.

The trip was short, but we saw some pretty significant innovations. I’m not suggesting any or all are suitable for the Capital region, but there’s certainly no harm in listening. Or reading.

Case Study: Zollverein Coal Mine
Location: Essen, Germany

The redevelopment of the 247-acre Zollverein Coal Mine in Essen, Germany is a photojournalist’s dream project and writers’ nightmare because it’s so aesthetically overwhelming.

Founded in 1847, the mine closed in1986 and the North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) governmental entity bought the property and memorialized one of the shafts, setting the site up for preservation.

The site has more than 80 structures and includes a restaurant, museum, outdoor ice rink, café, lecture space, lavish art museum, office space, indoor and outdoor space used for performance art, weddings and other cultural events and outdoor recreational areas, many of which were developed on mine-refuse heaps.

The Zollverein Coal Mine attracts more than one million visitors a year and is listed as a United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Grangerization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site.

This is a cop out, but the only way to comprehend the scope of this project is to see it for yourself.

Case Study: Gasometer
Location: Oberhausen, Germany

The Gasometer in Oberhausen, Germany is a inspiring example of using art to breathe life into a regional eyesore. Standing at more than 380 feet, the Gasometer was Europe’s largest disc-type gasholder.

It was decommissioned in 1988 and is now an exhibition space. It currently houses the “Out of this World — Wonders of the Solar System” exhibit. The world’s largest manmade moon hangs from the main exhibit hall and is captivating, in an Alice in Wonderland-like way.

The Gasometer overlooks the Emscher River, which flows past some of the region’s most impressive works of art as well the Metronom Theatre, a large shopping center, athletic pavilion, restaurants and a landscape park.

Case Study: W.K. Prudden Company
Location: Lansing, Michigan

Developers in the Capital region are similarly making efforts to enliven abandoned manufacturing facilities.

In 1996, local developer Harry Hepler started commercial and residential redevelopment of the former W. K. Prudden Company site. The company was the world’s largest producer of wooden and steel wheel,s but now the site, which includes the Motor Wheel Lofts, is a desired living space for Lansing’s young professionals.

Case Study: Ottawa Street Power Station
Location: Lansing, Michigan

The rehab of Lansing’s Board of Water & Light’s Ottawa Street Station is the most significant example of industrial rehab in Lansing.

The Accident Fund insurance company took over the 333,000, square foot building, which has clearly been a catalyst for additional structural and recreational improvements along the riverfront.

The building is scheduled to open later this year.

800-Pound Gorilla(s)

Yes, the Ruhr District examples are nice, but a bit Pollyannaish for the Greater Lansing region. Putting government, culture and social systems aside, let’s take a quick look at the two big hovering gorillas — money and collaboration.

One glaring difference between the Ruhr District and the Capital region is collaboration. The Ruhr District includes 53 municipalities and 5.5 million people, but considers itself a metropolis: The Metropole Ruhr.

The collaborative efforts in the Capital region, which includes Clinton, Ingham and Eaton Counties, are improving. But the region is really a “region” in name only.

According to data gathered by Andy Schor, associate director of state affairs for the Michigan Municipal League (MML), the Capital region has 75 units of government, which is exceptional for a region of approximately 453,603 residents.

Aside from municipal red tape, the region has countless business groups and organizations that don’t always work together and/or duplicate efforts.

Funding is also a huge issue. Germany’s economy is strong, while Michigan is consistently noted as having one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. For the Zollverein Coal Mine rehabilitation alone, the European Union (36 percent), the City of Essen (2 percent), Germany (6 percent) and the NRW (56 percent) invested approximately €165 million.

Imagine if one Michigan project — Capital region-based or not — received that kind of support from federal, state and local government? It’s a nice thought.

The regions have very different financial structures, but I didn’t see dozens of economic development organizations or municipalities in Germany running around with a big rubber stamp poised to lay claim to innovative projects. Collaborative efforts are being made, but the Greater Lansing Region could try moving as a metropolis.  

Editor’s Note: A new regional Blue Ribbon panel targeted improved regional collaboration in the Capital region was announced by Mayor Virg Bernero in his State of the City speech at the Knapp’s Building in Downtown Lansing.

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Ivy Hughes is a Lansing, Mich.-based freelance writer and can be reached via email or website.  

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.


Out of this World - Wonders of the Solar System” exhibit in the Gasometer in Oberhausen, Germany

The rehabilitated Zollverein coal mine. The water is now an ice rink. 

Lansing's Accident Fund construction site

Cultural and sports sites that have been developed on former industrial areas. The view is from the top of the Gasometer in Oberhausen, Germany. 

Rehabilitated Zollverein coal mine in Essen, Germany.

Lansing's Motor Wheel condos

Lansing Photographs © Dave Trumpie

Germany Photographs © Ivy Hughes

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