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© Johannes Kassenberg

The essence of Essen


Simone Raskob explains how the industrial city of Essen, Germany, became the European Green Capital 2017

The decision was made on 18 June 2015: the major west German city of Essen, with just under 590,000 residents, had achieved its goal of bringing the title of European Green Capital to the Ruhr Metropolis. For the first time in its history, the
thus awarded the title to a city that has developed from an industrial city of coal and steel into a green and vibrant metropolis. This demonstrates how much the city has changed in recent years: the history of its successful transformation into the greenest city in North Rhine-Westphalia, and third-greenest in Germany, is a role model of structural change for many cities in Europe.

The title

The title of European Green Capital is awarded each year to a European city that has demonstrated high environmental standards and consistently pursues ambitious targets to further improve environmental protection and sustainable development. Since more than two thirds of Europeans live in cities, this is where many environmental protection efforts originate. The competition is intended to motivate cities to take further action, and to offer a platform for presenting successful approaches, as well as to promote communication between European cities.

Within the framework of the competition, the participating cities are required to answer specific questions on the following 12 topics:

  • Climate change: mitigation and adaptation;
  • Local transport;
  • Municipal green areas that include sustainable land use;
  • Nature and biodiversity;
  • Air quality;
  • Quality of the acoustic environment;
  • Waste production and management;
  • Water management;
  • Wastewater management;
  • Eco-innovation and sustainable employment;
  • Energy efficiency; and
  • Integrated environmental management systems.

The winning city takes a pioneering role in environmentally friendly urban life. Before Essen, the title was awarded to Stockholm (2010), Hamburg (2011), Vitoria-Gasteiz (2012), Nantes (2013), Copenhagen (2014), Bristol (2015) and Ljubljana (2016), and its 2018 successor will be the Dutch city of Nijmegen. Winning the title has an enormously positive effect, both locally and on a European level. It offers an opportunity to communicate the future issues of climate change and environmental issues on all levels and to sustainably anchor them in the city. It also provides a special means of supporting the existing efforts of the city of Essen to guide the structural change into a ‘green future’ and to sustainably make the city an even better place to live.

Climate protection in Essen

The city at the centre of the Ruhr Metropolis takes responsibility for climate protection, and has set itself the objective of implementing sustainable thinking in its urban development. By 2020, it is planned that CO2 emissions will be reduced by 40%, and by 2050 the city aims to achieve a reduction of 95%.

In the effective implementation of climate protection, it is above all the cities and municipalities that play a fundamental role. Ultimately, climate protection can only be implemented on a municipal level by taking local circumstances into consideration. Like many other cities, Essen also accepts its special responsibility for climate protection with great commitment. When it comes to public services for its residents, the city of Essen considers the sustainability and environmental friendliness of its municipal business a critical concern. The maintenance of the municipal green areas and other local recreation areas, as well as the further expansion of the cycle paths and footpaths, is also of great importance. Furthermore, it is once again the cities and municipalities that represent the first point of contact for the concerns of members of the public. Essen was thus given the decisive task of initiating and promoting a wide range of environmental projects in the political, social and cultural sectors. In particular, those in positions of responsibility in the city consider it their duty to inform Essen’s citizens about climate protection, and to motivate them to personally make an active contribution to improving their environment.

‘Integrated Energy and Climate Concept’

There are many specific measures and projects. In 2009, for example, Essen developed its first Integrated Energy and Climate Concept (IECC), which was fundamentally reviewed and expanded in 2013. On the one hand, it focuses on the expansion of cogeneration, solar-thermal energy and wind power, and on the other hand it concentrates on the modal split and thus the proportion of traffic accounted for by cycling. In 2011, Essen pooled its entire climate protection activities under the aegis of the ‘klima|werk|stadt|essen’ project.

The success of the city in achieving its targets is reviewed annually with the help of the IECC balance report, and every two years with the greenhouse gas balance report. In the regional land use plan, corresponding targets and principles have been defined, and priority zones identified for wind power. Essen not only actively engages in climate protection but also investigates climate changes and their consequences for the city as a whole, and develops courses of action for adaptation to climate change. With the aid of the guidelines for energy-optimised urban planning, the structural plans of almost all homes have been reviewed for energy optimisation.

Natural Essen

Essen is already the greenest city by area in North Rhine-Westphalia and the third-greenest city in Germany, with more than over 3,100 hectares of green areas and woodlands. More than half of the municipal area is made up of green areas and open spaces, such as water, woodlands, fields and urban green spaces. Over recent years, a fact originally perceived as a major burden has developed into a privilege. In contrast to many concentrated urban areas, which urban planners find, for example, in Munich or Vienna, the Ruhr Metropolis has large areas of disused land, previously utilised by industry. Over the past ten years the municipal action programme ‘ESSEN: New ways to the water’ has created 150 kilometres of footpaths and cycle paths between the Emscher Valley in the north and the Ruhr Valley in the south, which have eliminated the urban separation of north and south in the Essen municipal area. Green urban development has acted as a driving force for urban development in general over the last ten years. This means that the creation of green areas, expanses of water, footpaths and cycle paths, which were networked between the district areas and regions, formed the starting point for the successful urban development of larger areas, as a strategy of integrated adaptation to climate change. Similarly, the former waste tips of the hard coal mining industry, for example, have been developed throughout the Ruhr Area into leisure landscapes with rich vegetation.

In the City of Essen there are two parks that symbolise the development into a green city in a most remarkable manner. Between 2007 and 2012 a park was created on the former grounds of the Krupp cast steel factory, forming an inviting space for local recreation at the edge of the city centre. The park includes a lake, which, amongst other things, is fed using rainwater from the roofs of the ThyssenKrupp headquarters. From the lake, the water is again fed into a natural stream. Around the Zollverein UNESCO World Heritage Site, Nature has reconquered the mine areas. The species diversity in the Zollverein Park is impressive and unique: 540 species of ferns and flowering plants, 100 species of lichen, around 60 species of birds, 20 species of butterflies, and six species of amphibians are now at home there. Some of the resident species are also exotic due to the transport of goods from around the world resulting in rare plants settling on the grounds.

In the middle of the conurbation, not ten kilometres from the city centre, are the Heisingen Ruhr Meadows, a protected area of European-level significance which has officially been declared a Natura 2000 site. The Ruhr Meadows represent an ideal sanctuary for numerous animals and plants.

Smart mobility

When it comes to mobility, a number of changes are planned in Essen over the coming years. The Ruhr Area is a region characterised by cars, and the greatest potential for cutting back on CO2 also exists in this area. The City of Essen wants to use the Green Capital title to initiate a transport transition. By the year 2035, it is planned that the following modal split should be achieved: 25% of transport users should be travelling by bicycle, 25% by public transport, 25% by car, and 25% by foot. The RS1 represents a flagship project in the region: the first fast cycleway in Germany, connecting the cities and municipalities of the Ruhr Area, from Hamm to Duisburg. When the RS1 is completed in 2020, it is planned that 52,000 car journeys can be saved per day, and thus 16,000 tonnes of CO2 per year. In the Green Capital year, a ‘green ticket’ has also been developed, making it possible to use both local public transport and a hire bicycle and electric car system.

Future plans

Essen sees its year as European Green Capital as the opening act in a green decade throughout the entire region: the Emscher conversion will be completed in 2020, the results presentation of the KlimaExpo.NRW will be hosted in 2022, and last December the region also won the bid for the International Horticultural Exhibition 2027. The Ruhr Metropolis has set itself ambitious targets; and the successful transition, which has been recognised by the European Commission, will continue. Essen will also continue to develop into a city that will be even more social, climate friendly, low carbon and resilient in the future, providing a high quality of life for its residents.


Simone Raskob

Head of the Department of Environment and Construction

Project Leader of the European Green Capital – Essen 2017

This article will appear in Pan European Networks: Smart Cities 1, which will be published in May 2017.