How a declining German city is reviving itself from the bottom up

Christoph Stark takes visitors to the clocktower of the Oberhausen train station, a space he and other artists and activists have renovated. Their group, known as Kitev, has used the clocktower space as a launchpad for ideas around social innovation and regenerating vacant urban spaces. (Simone d'Antonio)

OBERHAUSEN, Germany — There is no better place than this city’s quiet central railway station to understand its past, and perhaps its future.

The brick-clad station, designed in the Bauhaus style with with clean lines and a boxy clocktower, once anchored a busy industrial district where a steel factory employed thousands of workers. In its heyday, Oberhausen was a hub of the Ruhr Area, the heartland of Germany’s industrial might.

Today, the factory is gone, many of the buildings surrounding the station sit unused, and most of the commercial activity has moved to a big shopping mall a couple of kilometres away. Regional trains and buses still stop at the station, but not that many people get on or off.

Yet inside, from a converted space up in the clocktower, a multicultural group of artists and activists is turning the station into a launchpad for social innovation. They’re breathing life into the station’s empty spaces. They’re finding ways to engage refugees and asylum seekers with the community. And they’re sparking new conversations among local officials, business and civil society about bottom-up ways to build a new sense of community in a city struggling with disinvestment and long-term unemployment.

Seeing opportunity in empty spaces

The group is called Kitev, which is short for Kultur im Turm, or Culture in Tower. It was started by Berlin-based architects Christoph Stark and Agnieszka Wnuczak, who came to Oberhausen in 2005 for an art competition hosted by a local museum to make the the station’s platform areas more attractive. Their winning entry placed large sculptures on the platforms and lit up the tracks with colour-changing light tubes. Stark and Wnuczak came away from the competition with a deep appreciation for the station’s underused spaces.

They were particularly intrigued by the abandoned clock tower, which hosted huge water tanks that once were used to fuel steam engines. Backed by the city government, Stark asked Deutsche Bahn, the national railway operator and owner of the station, for permission to make some renovations. They started with the clock. Broken for years, the new clock not only told the time again, but also offered a digital display with colour-coded weather information visible at night.

Kitev revnovated the Oberhausen train station’s clocktower and fixed the clock to not only tell the time again but also the weather. (Jurgen G/Wikimedia Commons/CC & Simone d’Antonio)

Stark and Deutsche Bahn struck a deal: Kitev could use the clocktower for office and meeting space rent-free for 25 years. In exchange, Kitev would renovate and maintain the space. Funds for the restoration work came largely from the regional government of North Rhine-Westphalia, with some support from the city.

The renovated clocktower became Kitev’s base for testing and spreading ideas about urban regeneration. The group staged art installations there, including one that made music from the echoes of sound pinging off the old water tanks. In the tower, Kitev also hosted delegations of architects, artists and urban planners from around Europe to develop and exchange ideas about how to activate empty urban spaces. “We found it inspiring that is possible to have a cultural place in a railway station,” Stark says. “That is important not only for Oberhausen but also for other cities.”

[See: Essen’s award-winning blueprint for greening the postindustrial city]

Now, Kitev is returning its attention to abandoned parts of the station at ground level, where commuters pass each day. They’re starting with one vacant retail space, a high visibility area that in busier stations would be rented to a McDonalds or Starbucks, and turning it into a cultural zone. It may host exhibitions or possibly a social cafeteria concept — the details are still being worked out. Again, Deutsche Bahn has offered a 25-year contract at an almost symbolic rent of about €200 per month.

“Kitev had very creative ideas to rebuild parts of buildings where nobody wanted to go,” says Apostolos Tsalastras, deputy mayor for finance and culture of Oberhausen. “That is very important in a region where many factories and shops are empty.”

Finding solidarity in food

One idea hatched in the clocktower aims directly at the most pressing social issue facing Europe today: how to create camaraderie between local Germans and the growing number of refugees and asylum seekers arriving in Oberhausen.

About 4,000 refugees and asylum seekers are registered in the city, out of a population of 210,000. Kitev invited them up to the clocktower to co-design its next activities. “We felt that the newcomers come here with their hopes and energies as well as with the wish to become an active part of the society,” says Wnuczak. “Getting a new start for the migrants can also mean a new start for Oberhausen.”

The project they came up with, called Refugees’ Kitchen, was based on the idea that nothing brings people together better than food. Kitev’s activists joined with 20 newcomers from Afghanistan, Syria and Nigeria, as well as workers from a local manufacturer, to transform an old truck into a mobile kitchen. More than your average food truck, the kitchen could be transported to public squares for festivals or public events, and assembled at street level in a way that invites people in — not just to eat, but to cook as well.

Kitev reached out to refugees and asylum seekers to come up with the idea for Refugees’ Kitchen, a mobile space that can be set up at outdoor festivals for refugees and locals to cook and eat together. (kitev on Vimeo.)

The response from both locals and newcomers has been very positive. About 50 refugees and asylum seekers have participated in the project. One of them is Alkahteeb Feras, a 41-year old Syrian who was a chef in Damascus and owned a restaurant there. Feras enjoys cooking in the mobile kitchen and meeting people. “We were moved by the idea of showing that refugees can be active and do something for society with their skills,” he says.

Ahmad Abbas, 28, also enjoys volunteering with the project. Abbas was a law student in Damascus, and now would like to complete his studies in Germany. “In some projects, we feel like we’re just refugees,” Abbas says. “In this project, we feel like we are humans.”

[See: More than half the world’s refugees live in urban areas. Here’s what that means for cities.]

Kitev has had to navigate some bureaucratic issues related to the participation of refugees. For example, in Germany, refugees need special permission to work and cannot be paid more than €200 if they don’t want to lose welfare support. Stark says it’s been worth the trouble to produce something he calls “social sculpture”.

“It is important that the kitchen is at the same level of people and not like in a food truck,” he says. “It’s not just serving them food, but cooking together and interacting with people.”

‘Part of the structure’

Kitev is applying a similar philosophy to rejuvenating a rundown social housing building near the train station. The 12-story structure, built in the 1950s, is called Oberhaus. Notorious for broken furniture in the common areas and a pervasive smell of cigarette smoke, its 82 apartments are mostly inhabited by people poor enough to qualify for housing benefits, including some migrants.

Recently, Stark and Wnuczak moved in. “For us, it is crucial to become part of the structure,” Stark says. With the support of the company that owns the building, Kitev began engaging residents around their ideas for upgrading the living areas.

Christoph Stark (left) and Agnieszka Wnuczak (right) moved into a rundown social housing project known as Oberhaus. They have been working with residents such as Endurance, an asylum seeker from Nigeria, to improve the living spaces. (Simone d’Antonio)

At workshops in a basement office, residents prioritized common areas for renovations and small ways to improve quality of life. For example, Kitev renovated an empty shop on the ground floor, which now is a space to host community meetings or events. A new concierge near the entrance features free coffee for residents.

Kitev also is attracting creative people from all over Europe to share ideas for upgrading Oberhaus — and sparking a broader conversation about housing for the poor. In December, 18 architects and planners from Eastern Europe joined the Kitev team for a week to work on small projects, such as creating a bicycle station, rehabilitating the lobby or opening a rooftop café. Soon, a group of urban studies students from a local university will move into Oberhaus as well, and begin working with Kitev and residents on more renovations.

Ramash Imanifardazar, an architecture student from Iran who has joined Kitev’s team, sees Oberhaus as a test ground for social innovation in high-rise buildings for low-income residents.

[See: How Toronto is revitalizing its aging suburban residential towers]

“Oberhaus can be a model for big cities such as Tehran,” she says, noting the “collaborative structures and methods” that are reviving the building and helping to rejuvenate the train-station area of the city.

Tsalastras, the deputy mayor, agrees that Kitev’s approach to urban regeneration is changing his city for the better. “In the last 20 years, nothing like that has happened in Oberhausen,” Tsalastras says. “Actions such as the ones launched by Kitev are a signal that things are possible, and you can have a bigger improvement in quality of life through collaboration.”

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Simone is a Rome-based journalist who covers innovation, sustainability and urban issues.   Full bio

LEARNING FROM OBERHAUSEN

  • A group of artists and activists called Kitev has renovated the clocktower of the local train station launched numerous efforts at social innovation and urban regeneration from there. 
  • The group worked with refugees and asylum seekers to develop the idea for Refugees’ Kitchen, a mobile kitchen that can be setup at outdoor festivals and offers refugees and locals a place to cook and eat together.
  • Now the group is working with residents of a rundown social housing building to develop ideas for upgrading the living spaces.

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