A blueprint for a green city

Essen was a byword for industrial pollution. Now it has been named European Green Capital. Here's the German city's secret for an environmental revolution.

At the time of German reunification, two-thirds of Essen's sewage drained into the Emscher River. Slaughterhouses and steel mills discharged offal and refuse, and the river was a depository for heavy metals and faeces. The Emschergenossenschaft, which 19 municipalities and numerous companies founded in 1899 as Germany’s first wastewater management association, drafted an ambitious plan to restore the river to its natural state. It was a big job, but it worked.

Emschergenossenschaft chief executive Uli Paetzel now takes his children to verdant playgrounds on the river banks. “This is Europe’s biggest attempt to restore a complete river landscape and be a driver of structural change,” he says. “We’re giving the river back to its people.”

“All the parks and expanses of water give you a real zest for life”

In 2017, the European Commission named Essen European Green Capital, an annual award for a city at the forefront of environmentally friendly urban living. The former coal-mining city now features a 23-hectare public park, high water quality and city centre traffic restrictions. “Soot, dirt, stench and billowing chimneys – this is what people in other places still associate with Essen,” says Matthias Sinn, head of the city’s environmental department. “But Essen is prettier and greener than you’d think. All the parks and expanses of water give you a real zest for life.”

Among the environmental achievements that won Essen the Green Capital prize were:
• 13,000 jobs in the innovative, green sector
• 95% of the population now living within 300m of green urban areas
• 376 km of bicycle lanes
• 128,000 m2 of road resurfaced with noise-optimised asphalt

And Essen’s setting itself ambitious targets:
• reduce CO2 emissions by 40% by 2020
• 25% of all journeys by bicycle by 2035
• 20,000 jobs in the environmental sector by 2025
• 65% of all waste recycled by 2020.

The greening of Essen includes a project to build 400 km of new underground sewers and renaturalise 350 km of river banks. “What is striking about this project is its massive regional scale, its advanced engineering work, its enhanced biodiversity,” says Sebastian Hyzyk, an EIB economist.

The cost of the operation is EUR 5.3 billion, of which the EIB is financing around 30%. After two previous loans, the Bank loaned another EUR 450 million in 2017 to continue the project.