by Sebastian Schlecht and Chih-Wei G.V. Chang, ASLA
The Landscape Laboratory of Ruhr Metropolis and the First Biennale of Urban Landscape
Ruhr Region: A Continuous Transformation
For most landscape architects in the US, the Ruhr region of Germany is best known for its successful post-industrial renovation projects, such as Duisburg North Landscape Park or IBA Emscher Park. But its story of transformation did not stop there. Being one of the biggest metropolitan areas in Europe, the Ruhr region is still facing complications and challenges from its past and present. Its sprawl and polycentric urban form make energy, mobility, and infrastructure upgrades less straightforward. With the unthinkable re-opening of coal power plants due to the European energy crisis, the region is once again at the center of focus: What will Ruhr do in an uncertain future?
It is fair to say that its industrial past brings not only challenges, but also unique niches and capacities for the structural transformation of its landscape. With more land area in between the network of smaller post-industrial cities, special emphasis is placed on the adaptation to climate change effects, ecological restoration, and function as a key to economic and social progress. This of course includes the transformation of industrial heritage, the necessary livability of neighborhoods, and integrated urban landscape revitalization. The region is calling for new ideas, and exploring the opportunities and new qualities of its possible futures.
lala.ruhr: Landscape is All of Us
To enable discussion about the shape of the regional future, Sebastian Schlecht and Melanie Kemner initiated the Landscape Laboratory of Ruhr Metropolis, also known as lala.ruhr. It is a platform of networking and capacity building; it is a lab for new ideas and open collaboration; it is a celebration of an integrated, productive, and inclusive urban landscape.
#thinklandscape is the approach of lala.ruhr, but the people are the center of the platform. To bring a wider range of thinkers and stakeholders together, they hosted the first Urban Landscape Biennial September 10- 24, 2022, in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. The biennial kicked off its two-week program with lots of workshops, lectures, presentations, and panel discussions, as well as excursions focused on landscape technology and green infrastructure. In this inaugural year, the biennial had two themes: Digital Reality and Design for Urban Uncertainties.
biennale der urbanen landschaft / video: © lala.ruhr
Visioning the Future via Digital Realities
One of the biggest tools of today’s planning process is digital visualization. The biennial dedicated a whole week for a Hackathon in Residence, where hands-on experience of AR, VR, and AI were available for event participants as well as the general public. Multiple digital reality stations were scattered around the city of Gelsenkirchen, focused on various topics and envisioning different scenarios, such as energy policy changes, street traffic alternatives, and imagining a green urban future. The goal is not only to showcase the visualization capacity, but to also collect public opinions and support in a more intuitive way. Data from citizen interactions could be useful for further computation and even in the city’s digital twin.
A “Deep Dive” session and workshop hosted by Leo Stuckard and Jaka Korla from MVRDV Rotterdam also took a closer look at the evolution of the digital planning. 20 years ago, Daniel Dekkers anticipated a shift towards data-driven urban and regional planning in the Ruhr region. The project Region Maker recognized the profound entanglements of design and the tools that enable design. 20 years later, the data-modelling and simulation techniques have become common practice around the world, but the challenge is how to navigate among the sea of information, and how to collectively select the urban particularities that can be mapped, understood, and facilitated. In the future, urban policy should be less regulations-based, and more performance-based to ensure people’s needs are being met.
Transforming Barbarossaplatz, Köln, into a people-oriented place / video: © Jan Kamensky / visualutopias.com
Two car-free street advocates are using visualization to envision an alternative future. The Free Street Manifesto argued for ecologically sustainable transportation as the new normal. The manifesto approaches the topic from politics, participation, climate, economy, health, mobility, and neighborhood perspectives. Their compelling thesis and rendering tool kits are openly shared with like-minded professionals and activists. In a more humorous way, Visualutopias uses short videos to choreograph how streets can be better without cars. Believing in the power of visualization in activism, artist Jan Kamensky quoted from Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet: “Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?”
Design for Urban Uncertainties: The Next Big Thing is Many Little Things
Facing environmental and social changes, the other big topic of the biennial was how to design for the future uncertainties from both the top-down and bottom-up. Almost during the same time of the event, the Regionalverband Ruhr (RVR) Association Assembly approved the Green Infrastructure Charter. In the future, the charter should act as a development guideline, an informal self-commitment for cities and districts, and as a political declaration of intent for the Ruhr Metropolis. The charter is the result of a participatory process: the perspectives, wishes, and opinions of important stakeholders in the region on green infrastructure in the Ruhr Metropolis were collected through networking and practical dialogues.
To tackle future uncertainty, Sandra Lenzholzer of Wageningen University argued for a two-step strategy. Through her study The City of 2120: Naturally! she explained how as landscape architects, we should hold on to the things that won’t change (for example, natural sciences). Yet at the same time, design projects should allow the natural processes to engage and to help adapt the landscape for future changes. The changes are not limited to climate but could also entail social-economic changes in land management (for example, energy harvesting).
Several panel discussions on nature-based solutions (NBS) led to a similar concluding message: we need more scientific data to support decision making; the goal is to spark a social and economic transformation.
The EU-funded proGIreg project presented their work in productive green infrastructure, co-creation for urban regeneration, and self-sustaining business models from a couple of their living labs, as well as the REGREEN project‘s international exchange of experiences with China. “There are many successful NBS implementation stories, but what is even more valuable is the joint efforts of these projects for collaborative stakeholder engagement and a co-creative process,” said Daniela Rizzi, senior officer of ICLEI. “Nature-based solutions have a vital role to play in a nature-positive economy.” Student groups also offered new ideas through design workshops. Results such as “Soft is hard to break,” “Re-purposing the existing,” and “Children of today – adults of tomorrow” all showcase fresh perspectives from the next generation of thinkers.
Sebastian Schlecht is an architect and urbanist. He is the founder of lala.ruhr and leads the thematic area for green cities and regions at Baukultur NRW. Until 2022, he was responsible for the project management of the European Green Capital 2017 for the city of Essen and represented the city in the Urban Transitions Alliance. He has international expertise in green urban development issues and their interaction with mobility and climate. He is also a representative of Citymakers Europe-China, a member of JAS e.V., and teaches at various universities.
Chih-Wei G.V. Chang, ASLA, is the co-founder and director of urbangene inc, an integrated practice of landscape architecture and urban design. He is a registered landscape architect in California, and an accredited professional of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. His researches and works focus on high performance landscape, water sensitive urban design, post-industrial landscapes, and low carbon design.