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Lessons from Germany's Rust Belt

Marc Lefkowitz  |  04/27/09 @ 4:00pm

What lessons should we take from Germany about saving megaliths of industry as hot spots for regeneration?

Our mental picture of Europe's narrow cobblestone streets and grand piazzas doesn't jibe with the industrial cooling towers in Germany's Ruhr Valley, which is more like Northeast Ohio than the storied cultural capitals. Ralf Ebert is part of the effort to reshape the Ruhr's old industrial sites into active spaces or 'landscape parks' ? and to redefine culture. They're tapping into the Ruhr region's love of sports (Dortmund, the region's biggest city, has a huge soccer following) and flipping the perception of shuttered plants as scary places into really cool backdrops for sports centers (think Steelyard Commons as a sports complex) and performance spaces. An old colliery in Essen converted into a museum with an ice skating rink, the walls of a mill were converted into a rock climbing gym, the holding tanks of a refinery are dedicated to scuba diving ? 260 projects in all focused on ecological restoration through conservation of industrial heritage.

Ebert shared lessons at CSU's Levin College last week, remarking that community development and arts organizations need to work together with artists to participate in rethinking spaces.

"You need the people who support the idea and the ones with the power to do it. Concentrate on a few places and have both a top down and a bottom up strategy."

It helped tremendously that the German government invested tens of millions of euros into getting it off the ground. The effort began in the late '90s with an international design competition that led to investment in what Ebert calls 'flagship projects' like the Emscher industrial landscape park. Emscher is the poster child for landscape parks, and has inspired other industrial reuse like the High Line in New York City. It also put the Ruhr on the map and lead to its European Capital of Culture award where the European Union invests tens of millions into celebrating and enhancing the cultural assets of one place.

"We need to be strategic about where (as planners we encourage) artist districts so they have the biggest impact," says Terry Schwarz at the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative. "We need a critical mass, and a center or meeting space for conversations."

Schwarz explained how UDC's Pop Up City book and 'temporary use' events are intended to draw people from diverse backgrounds and open their minds. We need to continue the performances and art installations at cool old industrial sites in the Flats and Tremont that celebrate our history, create that critical mass of artists and urbanites and provide free space for art that is joyful, can be experienced and built together and woven into everyday places.

Artists are able to move beyond passť images that Clevelanders are resistant to new ideas. They will think of new uses for shuttered churches, steel mills or industrial warehouses. "Artists are really small businesses who bring investment and are willing to invest sweat equity," says Kristin Tarajack who wrote an important white paper for Community Partnership for Arts and Culture titled, "From Rust Belt to Artist Belt". The paper was recently cited in a Wall Street Journal article. "Rust belt cities are interesting to artists because of the variety of (old) buildings and as an attractive alternative to the high price of living on the coasts."

  • CPAC will hold their second Rust Best to Artist Belt conference this September.
  • Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative's book Pop Up City, which includes a handy guide on how to organize a temporary use event, can be viewed in its entirety online.
  • Cleveland State University Levin College will continue its forum series on moving "Beyond Foreclosure" with Transforming Cleveland by Building a WorldClass Waterfront this Thursday.

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