Essen in Western Germany, once famed for its role in the industrial boom of a post-WWII Europe, is still recovering from its polluted past. The Baldeneysee River that ran through the city was living proof of the impact industrialization had on the environment and on Essen’s residents. But the city is working hard on reversing the damage that reigned over the city in decades past – the results of which we can see in 2017. In June of this year, Essen was named Europe’s capital Green City of 2017. This German city, reborn from a history of war-driven industrialization, is proof that cities can turn things around and build a greener future – no matter how polluted their past may be.

The coal industry was once Essen’s most notable feature and was the city’s biggest contribution to the industrialization of Germany. Major corporations like ThyssenKrupp and RWE were established in Essen in the late 19th century and contributed to Germany’s war economy well throughout the 20th century. These very companies, both of which can be blamed for years of air and water pollution in the city, are today contributing to making Essen a “green city.” 

post-industrial cities

Aerial view of Essen’s skyline overcome by large masses of greenery and water bodies (CC: Johannes Kassenberg)

Essen’s residents today can recall a time when the Baldeneysee River was too toxic for swimming and when coal residue would soil their laundry that was out being air dried. “When I was a little boy in the 70s, every morning we used to sweep coal dust and ash off our window panes,” said one of Essen’s residents. After the closing of the last coal mining factory in 1980, it didn’t take long before Essen hopped on the go-green bandwagon, following continental Europe’s move towards a more eco-friendly future for European cities.

The title of Europe’s Green Capital is part of a larger scheme commissioned by the European Union in an attempt to organize and award efforts to move European cities towards improving the environment, the economy, and quality of life in cities. Every year, a different European city is given the title of green capital of Europe. Essen follows Ljubljana and Bristol as the green capital of Europe of 2016 and 2015 respectively.

Essen’s move to becoming a greener city was achieved through numerous projects that, quite literally, turned the city green. Among these projects is the construction of a 100-kilometer-long bike highway which cuts through the city, making bike riders safer and relieving congestion in the city. Another project, one that is being implemented on a bigger scale, is the repurposing of old mining factories that once made up a great deal of the city’s identity. The Krupp steel factory now hosts a park and is the site of a new lake, while the Zeche Zollverein has become a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is in addition to the mass planting of trees and the building of parks all around the city.

post-industrial cities

Portion of the bike highway that runs through the center of Essen (CC: Jochen Tack)

Essen was once known as Germany’s “Graue Maus” (German for “grey mouse”) – a nickname that is all too true of the city’s past. However, Essen has made milestone gains in terms of investing in the future and health of its residents. Since the end of the city’s era as one of the forerunners of industrialization, it has struggled to find a place for itself in Germany’s economy, since Essen ranks as Germany’s 9th biggest city. Accordingly, the city’s leadership has decided to market Essen as a student-friendly city with an environment welcoming to start-ups and entrepreneurs alike in an attempt to boost its employment rates and economic returns.

Other European cities have also been trying to claim their air and water bodies back from their polluting pasts. This past summer was the first time since 1923 that Parisians were allowed to take a dip in one of the French city’s many waterways. A temporary floating structure on the La Vilette canal in Paris was constructed to form a pool-like body of water on the side, allowing Parisians to take a dip in the canal as a part of the city’s summer “Paris Plages” initiative. Reasons for the ban on open swimming, similar to swimming in Essen’s Baldeneysee River, was high levels of bacteria and pollution. In lieu of an unfulfilled promise made by one of Paris’ mayors, Jacques Chirac, the people of Paris may soon be able to swim in the River Seine itself.