The Ruhr Area

Formerly Germany’s coal-mining region, the Ruhr Area forms one of the largest conurbations in Europe with 5 million residents. Located in the West of Germany, it consists of several large, industrial cities bordered by the rivers Ruhr to the south, Rhine to the west, and Lippe to the north.

The development of the region into an urbanized industrial area started in the late 18th century with the early industrialization. By around 1820, hundreds of water-powered mills were producing textiles, lumber, shingles and iron in automated processes. By 1850, there were almost 300 coal mines in operation in the Ruhr area, in and around the central cities of Duisburg, Essen, Bochum and Dortmund. The coal was exported or processed in coking ovens into coke, used in blast furnaces, producing iron and steel.


Dortmund, Old Blast Furnace


Duisburg, Former Warehouse

The population climbed rapidly. Towns with only 2,000 to 5,000 residents in the early 19th century grew in the following 100 years to cities with over 100,000 residents. Skilled mine workers were recruited from other regions to the Ruhr’s mines and steel mills. From 1860 onward there was a large-scale migration to the Ruhr due to an urgent need of skilled workers and laborers.

The Ruhr was at the center of the German economic miracle referred to as “Wirtschaftswunder” of the 1950s and 1960s, as very rapid economic growth (9% a year) created a heavy demand for coal and steel.

However, after 1973, Germany was hard hit by a worldwide economic crisis, soaring oil prices, and increasing unemployment, which jumped from 300,000 in 1973 to 1.1 million in 1975. The Ruhr region suffered considerably, as the easy-to-reach coal mines became exhausted, and German coal was no longer competitive. Likewise, the Ruhr steel industry went into sharp decline, as its prices were undercut by lower-cost suppliers. The welfare system provided a safety net for the large number of unemployed workers, as many factories reduced their labor force.

As demand for coal decreased after 1958, the area went through phases of structural crisis and industrial diversification, first developing traditional heavy industry, then moving into service industries and high technology. The air and water pollution of the area has mostly been resolved in the past decades, although some issues take a long time to solve.

Innovation and partnership are guiding principles for the Ruhr area’s remarkable transition from a coal and steel powerhouse to one of Germany’s most cutting-edge science region. The biggest contributors to that development are the large numbers of universities and colleges making the Ruhr one of the regions with the highest density of further education establishments in Germany.

Bochum, Jahrhunderthalle

Oberhausen, Gasometer

Oberhausen, Gasometer

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