4 lessons every European city can learn from Oberhausen

Petra Očkerl

By Petra Očkerl, on March 14th, 2017

> Read Petra Očkerl's articles


Oberhausen is a city in the Ruhr Area in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. It has about 211 000 inhabitants and is one of the cities still fighting to overcome its industrial past.

Over the past two years, Oberhausen has often served as an example of a German city coping with the influx of refugees, and was covered several times by the BBC in reports on the development of refugee reception and integration.

Visiting Oberhausen last autumn for the international conference With! Festive workshop series for a co-creative society, supported by New Ideas For Old Buildings and Refugees for Co-creative Cities, I learnt that the city has a lot to offer.


Oberhausen developed as an industrial city around coalmines and steel mills. In 1758, the first iron and steel works in this region were established here: Oberhausen is still known as “the cradle of industry in the Ruhr area”.

The city’s golden era was in the mid-20th century, when the steel industry was flourishing, and the number of inhabitants reached its peak of more than 260 000, almost 50 000 more than today. But starting in the 70s and until mid-90s all mining and steel producing companies closed, resulting in the loss of 40 000 jobs. This deterioration of the steel industry triggered the city’s decline.

Oberhausen is still fighting to see better days, with some successful and some less successful measures. The problems Oberhausen faces are common to many European cities. Here are some tips they can learn from.

1- Shopping centres are not a solution

Fighting unemployment and low purchasing power, Oberhausen decided to build a new development at a now unused industrial site. The brownfield, located between two parts of the city, was to become the new centre “Neue Mitte Oberhausen”, a new heart of the city.

The new development was also regarded as a foundation for a new identity and a symbol for the economic transformation of the city. It was planned to be the motor for city’s structural change from an industrial site to a service- and entertainment-based tourist destination. The works began in the early 90s with the demolition of most of the industrial heritage, and evolved to become what is today Germany’s largest shopping mall and Europe’s biggest shopping and entertainment centre.

CentrO, the gigantic shopping centre with 119 000 m² of retail space, has been gradually complemented with entertainment facilities, such as an amusement park, adventure aquarium, waterpark, and Legoland. With more than 20 million visitors per year, it is a top destination attracting people from the region and beyond.

CentrO Oberhausen_wikimedia commons

The development partly solved the problems of high unemployment and falling purchasing power in early nineties. Nevertheless, it did not considerably contribute to the city’s budget, as the cost of social services has exceeded trade tax income for the last 25 years.

In 2011, Oberhausen even became the most indebted municipality in Germany. Municipal debt amounted to 1.4 billion euro or about 9 600 euro per capita, and for some time it even prevented the municipality from doing business.

The Neue Mitte Oberhausen also contributed to the total decay of the old city centre, where in turn many jobs and successful small businesses vanished. Critics question the quality of new jobs in the shopping and entertainment centre compared to those lost in the old city centre.

According to local observers, it is hard to argue that CentrO and the surrounding facilities play the role of the new heart of the city. It does not contribute to the local identity or strengthen feelings of ownership and belonging. In addition, a shopping centre as a structure cannot offer the benefits of a high street – it cannot be the scene of a nightly walk, a pub-crawl or a window-shopping trip throughout the day.

2 – Use the remains of the industrial past

The industrial site was cleared for the new centre in the beginning of the nineties. However, not everything was destroyed. Among other pieces of industrial heritage, Gasometer, a gasholder, was left to stay as an industrial monument. The gasholder stored surplus gas during iron processing and coke production, and released it when needed.

Gasometer was build in the 1920s and was back then – and still is – the largest gasholder in Europe with a height of 117.5 m and a diameter of 67.6 m.

During the Second World War, the gasholder was one of the main targets in this area and was shut down. After the war, it caught fire and had to be demolished down to its foundations. Later it was reconstructed and used for its initial purpose until the end of eighties.

Gasometer is an important remainder of the industrial past for the whole Ruhr area as well as a landmark of the city of Oberhausen. The city has reused it wisely and developed it into a unique cultural venue for exhibitions, theatre, and music performances.

Gasometer Oberhausen_Thomas Wolf

Being near to the CentrO, Gasometer is well located to attract masses of visitors and has hosted numerous exhibitions including works by well-known artists such as Christo and Jeanne-Claude. The current exhibition Wonders of Nature consists of large format photographs representing the life of plants and animals. The highlight of the exhibition is a 20-metre large model of Earth that can be viewed from all angles, including from above.

Visiting the gigantic gasholder offers an impression of the great engineering skill and technical achievements of industrialisation as well as a fascinating experience of the exceptional space.

Gasometer is one of the main points of the ‘Route of industrial culture’, a thematic tourist route designed by the Regional Association of the Ruhr linking the most important and attractive industrial monuments in the region, and the ‘European Route of Industrial Heritage’ (ERIH) linking about sixty milestones of industrial history in several European countries.

3 – Promote cultural and artistic projects

Due to the Neue Mitte Oberhausen development, the old city centre declined significantly. In the last decade, the municipality made a great effort to revitalise the old city centre – and the situation did improve to some extent.

Still, about 20% of retail space in the old city centre remains empty. The city engaged an urban manager to attract shops and people back to the centre. The urban manager undertook several measures. People-counters were installed to measure the flow of visitors in the city centre. Soon after they started to work on the revitalisation, they realised that there was no general database of retail spaces in the city centre, so one was established in order to have an overview of vacant shops and bars.

One way to bring city centre back to life is to promote retail businesses. Interesting hints on how to do it can be expected from the URBACT network RetaiLink involving ten European cities aiming to create innovative strategies for the revitalization of the retail sector in medium-sized cities.

In Oberhausen, the urban manager wanted to collaborate with real estate agents to promote the vacant spaces in the shopping street, but it proved impossible to get their attention, as there was almost no interest for real estate here. It was also hard to promote those retail spaces. If you try to sell them as cheap, it implies bad conditions and low customer rates. Nobody aspires to have a shop or a bar in an unpopular street.

Another action that the urban manager suggested was to offer vacant spaces to artists and cultural institutions. The municipality also supported them with some incentives – and that was one of the turning points. Cultural workers, artists and NGOs have the chance to attract people and bring life back into vacant spaces. Vacant spaces are a problem, but also an opportunity. Refill, another URBACT network working on this problem, sees reuse of vacant spaces as a driving force for innovation at the local level.

One of the most fruitful collaborations of the Oberhausen municipality with artists is with kitev (Kultur im Turm e.V.). kitev is a laboratory for unusual interventions. It supports innovative, experimental and interdisciplinary artists in their work and development, encourages the dialogue between different artistic practices and engages with the local social environment.

Kitev’s headquarters are in the water tower of Oberhausen’s central train station, which they have renovated with donations and numerous hours of voluntary work. kitev works on various projects addressing vacancy, revitalisation and intercultural dialogue. Over the last three years, they have invested most of their energy in the engagement of newcomers.

4 – Treat refugees as a valuable source of hope and energy

After refurbishing the water tower at the railway station in Oberhausen, kitev started to develop projects reacting to the refugee crisis.

Together with refugees, they developed the idea of the Refugees’ Kitchen. After talking to the newcomers over coffee, lunch, and dinner, they soon discovered that food is a great medium to meet and get to know each other. It creates a relaxed atmosphere to overcome cultural differences and build mutual trust.

The initial idea was to build a kiosk where the refugees could cook their dishes. The kiosk would function on a level with the ground, and work as a symbol of equality. It should also foster communication and openness, and enable interaction between both sides – the cooks and the costumers. A kiosk, so it could be moved around and its effect could be multiplied.

Refugees' Kitchen_Christoph Stark

Since it was impossible to find a mobile kiosk that opened up at street level, kitev decided to build one from scratch – together with refugees. The planning phase took about one year, with a second year for the construction phase.

These were two years of fruitful engagement with the refugees, mutual learning and active integration. kitev says when working with people and communities you should not think about projects and results but more about process and living together.

Therefore, there was no selection criteria linked with the formal status (e.g. asylum seeker) of the people they worked with. Anyone willing to collaborate and contribute to the common goal was welcome to join. The goal was to involve refugees here and now, regardless of whether or not they would stay in Oberhausen. Some priority, however, was given to those with experience, either in food preparation or metal processing, since all existing experience and knowledge was valuable.

After overcoming several challenges, the Refugees’ Kitchen had its premiere in September 2016 in several cities in the Ruhr area. Here you can see how it works.

Refugees’ Kitchen was only one station on kitev’s mission to engage and integrate refugees. Their goal is to show that the newcomers can be the solution for cities, such as Oberhausen, with shrinking inhabitant numbers and ageing populations. These people bring new hope and fresh energy, which declining European cities desperately need.

kitev is now directing its energy into a high-rise building in the centre of Oberhausen that is severely stigmatised. They want to activate the residents and revitalise it together. Some apartments will be renovated together with refugees and will be offered to them to stay.

More ideas and good practices on refugee integration can be found in the publication WITH. Refugees for Co-creative Cities.

Small and medium-sized cities leading the way

Very often, we read about good practices and examples from the big European cities, such as Paris, Vienna or Rotterdam, which is of course very inspiring. These cities, however, are in very unique positions with their specific historical political, economic and social circumstances – and most of urban Europe cannot really relate to that. European everyday life actually unfolds in small and medium-sized cities who lack the great reserves of financial, social or cultural capital that would enable them to tackle challenges as easily as great metropoles. Therefore, examples such as Oberhausen are even more valuable and should be brought to the stage. An opportunity for that is the URBACT open call for good practices. Small and medium-sized cities of Europe, apply!


Header Photo: Christoph Stark
Image 2: Wikimedia Commons
Image 3: Thomas Wolf
Image 4: Christoph Stark

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