“No one says Duisburg is lovely,” laughed my host who had grown up in the area.  Yet, to someone who spent years wandering around the abandoned grain mills of Buffalo, New York, the city of Duisburg, Germany not only has a working class atmosphere that is genuine and approachable, but also an antiquity not found in many much younger American cities.  Additionally, Duisburg is home to a significant and unique amenity of the late 20th century: a 220 hectare (543 acres) industrial park, Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord.

Landschaftspark was developed from 1990 – 2002 as part of a larger redevelopment project, the International Building Exhibition (IBA) Emscher Park, which spans 450 kilometers (280 miles) of defunct industrial landscapes in the Ruhr Valley.  The IBA Emscher Park project was aimed at re-imagining the industrial heritage of this region in a way that would attempt to clean up some of the environmental damage caused by industry and invite a new image of progressive ecological and social engagement for the valley.

Landschaftspark set a precedent in site re-development by retaining its historic ironworks structures while also introducing public recreation and a complex landscape plan.   Alongside the former industrial structures are both ruderal species that have taken over more or less on their own accord as well as obviously designed gardens and pathways.

As one of the most talked about projects of post-industrial regional and site rehabilitation, there are countless analyses, critiques, and historic accounts of Landschaftspark. Without too much effort one can find out about the competition that kick-started the project or the designer Latz and Partner’s contribution to ideas of “minimal intervention” or the project’s experimental foray into phytoremediation.  As someone keenly interested in the history, ecology, and social value of derelict sites and their potential transformation, I was eager to visit Landschaftspark to gain a first-hand understanding of how it has settled into itself nearly twenty-five years after the project began.

Landschaftspark extends 180 hectares (450 acres), and the access points throughout the site offer different atmospheres and experiences for the visitor.  The western end of the park is defined by large stretches of open fields full of primarily self-pollinated grasses but punctuated with rows of trees, walking paths, benches, football goals, and, of course, large rusted infrastructure running overhead and stretching out beyond your field of vision.  This juxtaposition between “wild” and man-made is what defines the park and exists throughout the site in varying degrees.   With minimal signage at the western edge of the park and no physically accessible ironwork structures, the “wild” dominates this area. In general, this section seems to serve the locals who are looking to kick around the football or take their dog for a walk more than tourists slinging cameras or following tours.

 This juxtaposition between “wild” and man-made is what defines the park and exists throughout the site in varying degrees.

As you move towards the central part of the park through the Wildnis (Wilderness) area, flowers and shrubs mingle with remaining rail structures.  Throughout this area intervention by Latz and Partner is discrete.  By now railings that were installed when the park initially opened to ease access over rail platforms or over canals have themselves become worn.  These railings still speak of a newer era but lack the glitz of something freshly painted or foreign to the space.

The central area of the park is where most of the cultural programming is concentrated alongside the largest and most accessible industrial structures.  Despite the increase in historic structures and visitor activity, the park does not become overly patrolled and remains exceptionally approachable.  Visitors are free to travel to the top of one of the blast furnaces through multiple paths which maintain a sense of exploration and adventure far greater than something one would find on a tour of the Swiss Family Robinson house at DisneyLand.  

As one of the locals in the area explained, “I always recommend the park to visitors as something unique to the area but had no idea that people from outside of the city really knew much about it.”  After visiting the park, this is not surprising.

There is a brighter painted railing system to guide people in this area and, despite having a fresher coat of paint than in other areas of the park, the blue is still a visually laid back indicator of visitor access.  Not to say that this part of the park is lacking in information or signage. The entrance way has information pillars that are very effective at contextualizing the site in the greater Ruhr Valley and as well as with parts of the Industrial Heritage Trail within Duisburg.  Additionally, tucked alongside the structures is information on the former workings of the factory for those who are curious.  The designers have done well to incorporate signage in such a way that wandering about can feel as much like an imaginative adventure or an informative tour as one would like.  

Likewise, there is a visitor center in this central area and two eateries that also seem to cater as much to locals as to visitors.  Both the more casual and more formal food options are reasonably priced.  Landschaftspark does not come across as somewhere that is trying to gouge visitors nor run itself like a theme park.  As a resident dining at the restaurant pointed out, “this restaurant is a lot more of a neighborhood spot than you would think.”  Despite the international acclaim, it stays true to a mission of providing an amenity for residents of the area.

In this same vein, the high activity recreation areas do not seem to be gimmicks or token publicity stunts.  Although I can’t speak for the rigor of the diving tank, the climbing walls provide much more access than could be expected.  The climbing area is not just a children’s playground wall (although there is a children’s section) but offers a wide selection of walls of varying difficulty.  In a region without quick access to real rock and with just two indoor gyms, the walls at Landschaftspark are a staple for climbing recreation to locals in the area.

Likewise, on the east end of the park, there are two more areas of distinct character.  The first is full of regular staples in twenty-first century park recreation including a volleyball court, half-pipe, basketball court, and dirt bike courses.  The second offers large expanses of grasses and winding paths that are perfect for bird watching and butted up against apple orchards and cow pastures.  All of them were occupied by groups of people at different times on sunny days and into the nights.  Perhaps more unique was the woman who had drawn her camper to the nearby parking lot to test out her cats’ tolerance of camper life.  Amidst an urban setting, the significance of the opportunity to come to a park and disconnect from urban life and reconnect to nature of any sort cannot be underestimated.

In the same way that the park caters to a variety of high-activity recreation options, it also has cultural activities throughout the area both day and night.  A short list of activities witnessed over the course of 48 hours include: exhibition of a very large sand castle; a screening of a new film ‘Manifesto’ starring Cate Blanchett; a drama performance; and a looped video of workers from the factory’s functioning days projected larger than life onto one of the walls of the bunkers.

As one of the locals in the area explained, “I always recommend the park to visitors as something unique to the area but had no idea that people from outside of the city really knew much about it.”  After visiting the park, this is not surprising.  Although tours were visible in the central area and crowds gathered by eateries, it was not overwhelmed by tourists but comfortably crowded with locals.  And that is what seems to have made Landschaftspark so successful – it’s ability to tap into the needs and interests of the community while also exploring new territory and establishing itself as a global landmark.