Forging a Regional Identity

By Lavea Brachman This is the second post on Executive Director Lavea Brachman's tour of European cities as part of the "Cities in Transition:Shrinking Cities Project", sponsored by the German Marshall Fund. Please visit our blog for past and future posts on this series.  

One remarkable observation from the Germany’s Ruhr region is their leaders’ purposeful focus on forging a regional identity out of “polycentric” area -- that is, a region with at least five significant cities and multiple other smaller cities.  This effort began as early as the 1960’s at the time that the coal and steel industry in the area first began to decline.  The Ruhr experience, with its multiple proximately located cites with similar industrial histories, potentially poses lessons for Northeast Ohio and its three significant cities, related historic industrial bases, and an existing strong set of universities, community colleges, and other educational institutions. 

In meetings in the Ruhr with managers of several of the regional networks, we noted how the cities have managed to effectively restructure separate but related economies within a polycentric region, and leveraged a tradition of competition among the cities to do so (such as holding an “Innovative City” competition).  We observed how the Ruhr forged a regional identity, labor market and business sector, on the one hand, prevailing over the traditional economic loyalty to individual cities that can lead to poaching and hinder development of a common regional identity and strategy, on the other hand.  Our Ohio cities can and should take a page out of these efforts. 

One of the first actions taken to bolster the Ruhr’s flagging economy was the founding of a network of universities in the late 1960’s with the specific objective of creating engines of innovation, and more recently these universities have formed a regional alliance. Unlike in Ohio, the Ruhr area previously had no institutions of higher education, so we should more actively and deliberately leverage the advantage of existing institutions. Other regional efforts have followed suit, such as in the land use planning and corporate social investment areas.  Finally, in 2010, the whole region was selected as the European Capital of Culture (an award that usually goes to a single city), and policymakers seized on the opportunity to promote further the collection of cities as a single place, the Ruhr.