Designing New Entrances for the Restored Emscher River Valley in Germany
In the student workshop “New Futures for the Emscher Area,” 43 German and American students created design concepts in close cooperation with the Emscher Water Management Association that highlighted the newly accessible river. Led by Dr. Michael Roth of Dortmund University of Technology’s School of Spatial Planning, the students explored how engaging entrance areas for the Emscher Valley could contribute to the revitalization of this previously industrial and uninviting area.
The Emscher River has been inaccessible for over a century. Heavily regulated, diked, and set in a concrete bedding, the waterway was used as a canal for transporting sewage because the underground mining of hard coal and subsequent subsidence in the Ruhr district—one of Germany’s most densely populated metropolitan areas—made an underground sewage system impossible.
As mining activities shifted further to the north and the ground settled, new uses were envisioned for the Emscher River. Advances made in the 1990s in wastewater treatment and discharge meant that the river and valley could now be restored to a more natural and inviting state. In a multi-generation project that will last more than 20 years, the former industrial canal will be converted into a continuous ecosystem. In addition to the construction and upgrading of wastewater treatment facilities, more than 400 km of underground sewage canals will also be built so that the ecological reconstruction of the Emscher River can begin.
What was once the neglected backyard of the Ruhr area will now become its front garden. The Emschergenossenschaft (the Emscher Water Management Association) plans to link the hydrological reconstruction of the Emscher River with the design of the area’s open spaces and urban development. A comprehensive design that includes both the river’s restoration and new public spaces that are easily accessible will both enhance local residents’ quality of life and be a boon to the environment. On the river’s shores, important habitats as well as high-quality recreation areas will be created. New urban waterfronts will also allow for residential and office areas to be built with proximity to the water as an amenity, making this a much more attractive place to live and work.
For this year’s one-week workshop, 16 landscape architecture undergraduate students from Michigan State University’s School of Planning, Design and Construction, led by Professor Jon Burley, and 12 landscape architecture undergraduate students from North Dakota State University’s Department of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, led by Professor Kathleen Pepple, visited the Ruhr area. Together with 16 German graduate students in the spatial planning master’s program at Dortmund University of Technology and the ecosystem-based water management program at the University Duisburg-Essen, workshop participants spent one day exploring the Emscher Valley, which is now in a transitional phase. Students were able to develop their initial impressions and ideas on-site.
For the remainder of the workshop, students designed specific entrance and access areas to the new Emscher Valley, taking into consideration the characteristics of the surrounding urban districts and interactions with adjacent neighborhoods. Using the master plan Emscher Zukunft (Emscher Future) as a foundation, the designs developed during the workshop aim to create local identities, facilitate access to the water, emphasize the new Emscher, and reflect and strengthen connections with the surrounding urban area and landscape.
During a 3-day charrette at the Dortmund University of Technology, students continued to refine their designs, focusing on how to encourage closer connections–both physical and intellectual–between people and the newly restored river. Given a limited budget, students had to think creatively, using low-cost strategies and working with existing structures. The innovative plans they developed had to overcome the century-old divide between the Emscher River and the surrounding landscape, breaking down the barriers created by levees, the concrete river bed, and pumping stations.
Students also incorporated plans for what is known as Emscher Island–the area between the Emscher River and an adjacent canal–into their designs. To do so, they had to investigate neighboring urban areas and consider multiple entrance situations for a variety of sites. Keeping both local residents and tourists in mind, students devised creative plans to convert the once forbidding area around the Emscher River into a vibrant and welcoming space with a wide range of uses.
The workshop was part of a joint program between Dortmund University of Technology’s School of Spatial Planning and Michigan State University’s School of Planning, Design, and Construction that has run for 28 years, allowing for the regular exchange of students, faculty, and ideas.
by Dr. Michael Roth, a senior scientist and lecturer in the Department of Landscape Ecology and Landscape Planning at Dortmund University of Technology, School of Spatial Planning. His work focuses on visual landscape quality issues, GIS-based methods in environmental planning, the use of new media in planning, cultural landscapes, and urban agriculture.