Industrial Forests of the Ruhr
Plant and wildlife habitats in the middle of the Ruhr coalfields
Trees and flowers are springing up at old coal mines: In the Ruhr Area, nature is reclaiming former industrial sites.
You would not normally expect industry and nature to go hand in hand, or to find untamed forest in the middle of the Ruhr Area. But the Industrial Forests of the Ruhr project has shown that this can indeed be possible. What began as an experiment in the late 1990s in Gelsenkirchen and Essen under the unpromising name of “Residual Areas Project” has since 2002 become an official and long-term objective of the State Forestry Service. The mission: to bring nature back to the city – and in particular to former industrial wastelands.
Essen, Gelsenkirchen and several other cities, most of them located in the northern Ruhr Area, have witnessed an astonishing turnaround and structural transformation in recent times. The natural habitats of these places were destroyed during the rise of the coal and steel industries. But now that the mines and steelworks have shut down for good, nature is reclaiming its old territory – albeit in a different guise.
Scrubby bushes are usually the first to colonise the waste ground. Pale yellow or deep blue flowers begin to raise their heads from the black slag-heaps. Birch, willow, alder and other trees then gradually start to appear – separately at first and then in greater density. And while the new forest starts off with a very modest covering of plants, their leaf litter will provide sufficient nutrients so that over time mightier species like maple or oak will take root. This is how industrial forests have already become established in many parts of the Ruhr Area, some playing host to more species than many natural forests. Animals and plants are finding refuge in these habitats which would otherwise not exist in the urban environment.
Among the industrial sites where nature has recaptured some of its old territory are notable industrial heritage monuments such as the UNESCO-listed Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in Essen or the Hansa Coking Plant in Dortmund. Recklinghausen, Waltrop, Herne, Bochum and Datteln are other former industrial towns and cities where industrial forests big and small have started to establish themselves.
The new forests have become educational and recreation sites for the region’s inhabitants. The forest warden station at the former Rheinelbe coal mine in Gelsenkirchen, for instance, organises adventure hiking for children or adults by arrangement. There are also special nature walks for kids to study glow-worms and green woodpeckers, wood ants and bats. These activities are designed to develop their language abilities and creativity while having fun at the same time.
Nothing – or next to nothing – is being planted or cultivated in these industrial forests. The forest wardens merely ensure that visitors stay safe and that they can navigate the forest unimpeded on pathways. Otherwise, plants and animals are free to grow and choose their territory. In this way, nature alone will determine the appearance of the forest in ten or a hundred years’ time.