How Essen has thrown off its heavy industrial past to become a model of sustainability

Making a cities eco-friendly and liveable places for their inhabitants is a challenge with which policymakers and local authorities are familiar. The good news is, there are plenty of inspiring and affordable blueprints to follow. Take Essen in North Rhine Westphalia. This former industrial powerhouse is a model of structural change for any city leader looking at boosting sustainability – and keen to deploy the power of smart technologies to do so.

Over the last few decades, Essen has transformed itself from a mining city of coal and steel into the third greenest in Germany. How? By working with partners to implement a highly replicable, integrated environmental management system that won it a coveted award. Read on to find out how this big city deployed a winning strategy to bring about an environmental vision that is not only improving the lives of its citizens, but generating economic growth.


Water. This precious commodity is at the heart of Essen’s path to sustainable development, transforming not just the city, but the entire Ruhr area. Through an innovative water management system and the promotion of green infrastructure, Essen is demonstrating how environmental, economic and social growth go hand in hand. And the benefits are multiple. Nature and biodiversity are better protected, and green urban areas have increased. Energy performance has improved – and so has the air quality. Greenhouse gas emissions have decreased, whilst new, green jobs are on the rise.

A high-tech approach to renewal

Flowing through the northern part of the city is the River Emscher. Once Europe’s foulest, it is now miraculously transformed – in part thanks to valuable collaborations with a number of corporate partners. 230 kilometres of waste water channels have been built, 90 kilometres of waterways have been converted and 15,000 prepressed sewer pipes have created the Emscher Underground Fast Track. Even though the entire conversion is scheduled for completion in 2020, renaturalisation of the water body has already led to a significant improvement in water quality, with fish returning to the river.

But it’s not just the river that has undergone change. Essen has designed and implemented an innovative intelligent water-management system that addresses key challenges that all cities face – not least the cost of water infrastructure, and scarcity and cleanliness of supply. Check out the Smart Cities Council’s Readiness Guide for tools that apply similar smart technology to achieve an economical and sustainable water supply. In Essen’s case, using multifunctional green areas for rainwater management, flood prevention and groundwater recharge means the city is well on its way to achieving 15% rainwater decoupling by 2020.

Citizens and stakeholders on board

A city isn't smart because it uses technology. A city is smart because it uses technology to make its citizens' lives better and help them realise the hopes and dreams they have for the kind of place they will leave for future generation. You can find out more about their valuable role in the Readiness Guide.

From the outset, Essen engaged inhabitants and interest groups in developing a vision for environmentally-friendly urban living. Through two calls for proposals, citizens suggested projects – of which 200 are now being financed. Thanks in part to brownfield regeneration, the city’s population of 600.000 is taking advantage of 300kms of cycle paths and a variety of high-quality recreational areas.

Measurable results recognised Europe-wide

In recognition of its achievements, Essen received the European Green Capital Award 2017. Demonstrating its evolution from vision to action by means of a strategic plan and roadmap, the city convinced the jury with impressive results in climate change, green urban areas, air quality, waste management and energy performance. The Readiness Guide can help cities break down this evolution into manageable steps for similar results.

Essen also demonstrated its future-focused plans for an eco-friendly urban environment ‘fit for life’. Job creation is integral to this continuing transformation, with the city setting itself a target of 20.000 new green jobs by 2035. With the global market for eco-industries estimated to reach around EUR 2 trillion by 2020, this ambitious goal certainly seems achievable. With such an array of concrete achievements, Essen offers a useful blueprint for other European cities eager to transition to a more sustainable future. And the Smart Cities Council offers a step-by-step Readiness Guide to help those cities get there.