Germany Greens Its 'Brownfields,' Offering a Post-industrial Model

Innovative waterfront project is among examples of renewal

The United States may be leading the way in inventing jobs for the 21st century. But Germany has a lot of expertise to offer in cleaning up the industrial messes of the 19th.

That was the impression some two dozen urban activists got during a recent week-long visit. The American activists came to check on the progress of the Emscher River environmental cleanup and rebuilding project in Germany's industrial Ruhr region.

Joseph Schilling, director of economic development for the International City/County Management Association in Washington, called the project "absolutely incredible."

Mr. Schilling works with many local government officials facing similar challenges in cleaning up "brownfield" sites - areas once used for industrial development.

Schilling says he has found it helpful to share what he has learned from his previous trips to the Ruhr. "It's great to be able to show people from an area like Green Point [a heavy industrial area] in New York ... pictures of this area so that they can visualize what can be done."

There certainly is a lot to be done here. The region is experiencing, in intense form, a process that is familiar elsewhere in the industrialized world: a difficult transition from a manufacturing-based economy to one based more on services.

For years, jobs have been disappearing by the tens of thousands as factories and mines closed. Many date back into the 19th century, before problems like ground-water contamination or hazardous waste got much attention.

But the area is being cleaned up under the auspices of the Internationale Bau Austellung or IBA, a regional association based in nearby Gelsenkirchen and involving 17 cities and towns. IBA is coordinating some 120 projects involving nearly $2 billion.

Created in 1989 and set to wrap up in 1999, it is funded by local governments and the European Union, and has some private support.

Here in Duisburg am Rhein, IBA is committing roughly $70 million to new infrastructure to rehabilitate the inner harbor. "We're building a whole new neighborhood within 400 [yards] of the old city center," says Dieter Steffen, managing director of the Inner Harbor Promotion Agency.

Like many other German cities, Duisburg is in severe financial crisis. Receipts from the all-important tax on trade are down sharply, and unemployment has reached 16.8 percent.

As a result, "All investment spending - rebuilding schools, streets, everything - is at a halt," says Frank Kopatschek, a city government spokesman. "We're nearly bankrupt."

Kopatschek says, "It's easy to make this area look bad. All you have to do is point a camera and shoot."

Duisburgers, while acknowledging a certain image problem, nonetheless take pride in their city's industrial past as the breadbasket of western Germany and a center of the timber trade.

A new neighborhood planned for development - with apartments, offices, shops, a modern art gallery, a home for seniors, and a synagogue and Jewish cultural center - is intended to recapture its historical flavor.

Israeli landscape artist Dani Karavan is designing the area as a "memory park," with silos and grain elevators and other elements of the past left standing.

The graceful curve of the section of the harbor where logs were once towed into the waterfront sawmill is to be repeated in the Eurogate, a retail, office, and hotel complex.

The Jewish community of Duisburg has increased from 300 to 1,400 in just the last three years, largely due to emigrants from Russia. The synagogue and cultural center are under construction on a site not far from where the Jews first settled here in the 13th century.

Many of the elements of the Inner Harbor project will sound familiar to visitors to "festival marketplaces" such as Boston's Faneuil Hall or New York's South Street Seaport. The American visitors say the Duisburg project and other IBA developments are interesting because of their scale, the collaboration - and their daring.

New York City Councilman Ken Fisher, whose district includes not only Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope but also the grittier Green Point area, says it is indicative of a "a stunning leap of faith" that IBA is "willing to throw money into a project like this."

Germans regularly criticize themselves for their unwillingness to take risks, but Mr. Fisher says, "When your back is to the wall, you have to take risks and innovate.... In the United States, we've had this pioneer notion that you can just keep moving west. In Germany, they have had to find ways to keep using obsolete industrial and office buildings."

A particular hit with the Americans was the Gas-O-Meter in nearby Oberhausen, an old industrial gas tank turned into an exhibition hall.

The Oberhausen City Council took a chance when it approved the funds, says Ronald Schiffmann, director of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development in New York.

"But they had a million and a quarter visitors the first year," says Mr. Schiffmann. "And the rehabilitation cost only half of what it would have to tear the thing down." He adds, "The question is: How do you take the culture and history of a place and make it the foundation for the future?"

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