How a German environmental regeneration brought nature back to one of Europe’s most polluted waterways, the Emscher River

Find out how a major German environmental regeneration project revitalises a once heavily industrialized part of the Ruhr Valley.

  • New infrastructure allows the river to become a haven for leisure and wildlife
  • Wastewater pumps move 20,000 litres per second
  • Land returns to nature after decades of heavy industrial pollution

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Future Europe features a podcast episode from each of the EU’s 28 Member States. Each episode tells the story of a project that illuminates the way Europeans will live in the future. All the stories are told through the voices of people involved in the projects.

Dark brown and smelly

Uli Paetzel gazes out across the still waters of Lake Phoenix in Dortmund. The water is flanked by grassy fringes and meandering paths.

“Ten years ago there was a steel mill here with three thousand workers,” says Paetzel, chief executive of Emschergenossenschaft, a public water utility company charged with the transformation of the area. “It was dark brown and smelly. Now it is a beautiful place where you are happy to spend your time.”

For many years, Dortmund was best-known for its production of coal, steel and beer, but now it is part of a huge German environmental regeneration project that, with the decline of mining, has set out to change the face of the once heavily industrialized Ruhr region.

This three-decade-long project is one of the largest infrastructure schemes currently being undertaken in Germany. It has the ambitious and far-reaching goal of restoring the region and its river to a near natural state.

Lake Phoenix is a prime example of the project’s ambitions and achievements. It serves as a place of leisure for locals and as a flood basin for the city. The new attraction has also led to new homes and businesses in the area.

There is even a vineyard a few metres from the shores of the lake, initiated by the local community.  

German environmental regeneration goes from industry to ecology

The area of the Ruhr valley was historically Germany’s industrial heartland. The Emscher River became a dumping ground for waste from factories, slaughterhouses, mines and the people who lived in the region.

A key part of the environmental regeneration has been the involvement of local communities, which has led to imaginative undertakings. In the Berne Park, a beautiful green space created around an old sewage plant in Bottrop, visitors can even stay the night in hotel bedrooms made from unused concrete sewage pipes.

Sebastian Ortmann, a landscape planner for Emschergenossenschaft, comes from Bottrop. He says that the project has been personally and professionally satisfying. “I am very proud to be part of this. When we create this new river, the people here will be prouder of their cities and the surroundings and really like they are a part of this area.”

A milestone in German environmental regeneration

The European Investment Bank’s loan to Emschergenossenschaft has assisted in four key areas:

  • development of new leisure and housing facilities in the place of former industrial plants.
  • installation of 430 km of new underground sewers.
  • “re-naturalization” of more than 320 km of river banks and landscapes
  • construction of four wastewater plants.

The EIB has lent €1.3 billion to the Emscher project. According to Peter Bernsdorff, an EIB loan officer responsible for the public sector in Germany, involvement in the project has been a great challenge and a great fit for the Bank. “It is a task of exceptional dimensions – technically and financially, and that is why the EIB wanted to be on board from day one.”

The collaboration between Emschergenossenschaft and the EIB has been valuable for Germany, the region around the Emsher River, and its more than 2 million inhabitants. Uli Paetzel says the positive effects of the project will be felt for many years to come. “Europe’s got a brilliant future if we can work together, if participation is really lived,” he says. “We changed the region through water management and without help from the EIB it wouldn’t have been possible. This project could be a model for Europe.