At first encounter, the term “creative quarter” might sound a bit awkward and theoretical. Yet the DQE focuses on hands-on practice: It aims to become a center for young, international, and possibly experimental design. Its mission is all about generating new living and work environments for creatives as well as new ideas for the former manufacturing quarter’s future post-industrial use.

Besides attracting international designers, the initiators aim to support and promote young graduates and designers from all over Germany. To this end, the quarter offers interested parties and would-be founders targeted start-up advice besides educational initiatives for children and teenagers. As a hub for all things creative, the district’s own ecosign/ Academy for Design offers courses and degrees in photography, illustration, communication, and product design – with a special focus on sustainability. In view of the world’s dwindling resources and environmental upheavals, these factors promise to play an increasingly important role in the designer’s everyday work.

Encompassing a variety of topics, the entire project nevertheless hinges on the anticipated need for widespread economic and social change. The people behind the DQE consider creative industries THE key driver of future business, relegating manufacturing or services to a status of lesser importance. “To me, design is a leading discipline that affects the face of the city as well as its processes, social aspects, and innovation,” explains project director Sabine Voggenreiter, while the quarter’s designers tackle a broad spectrum of themes ranging from fashion to graphic, product, furniture, and even urban design.

At the same time, the DQE aims to be a different kind of quarter, one guided by the principles of ecology, integration, gender issues, and intercultural orientation. Voggenreiter summarizes their goals as such: “We advocate and promote the typical Ehrenfeld mix of living, trade, retail, and green spaces.” All decided and designed in conjunction with the district’s own residents. Among Ehrenfeld’s 40,000 inhabitants, “a third are ‘locals’, a third people with a migrant background and a third more recent arrivals,” adds Voggenreiter. Any decisions involve all concerned, always aiming for a consensus.

Through workshops and events the Ehrenfeld residents gradually redesign their own quarter ‘from the bottom up,’ creating one of Cologne’s first urban gardens, the “Green Way” fruit tree grove (Obsthain Gruener Weg), as part of their on-going initiative. Since 2011, local enthusiasts have embraced this chance to grow, harvest, and occasionally process their own fruit, vegetables, and medicinal herbs. Due to the district’s industrial past, the actual top soil remains polluted and unsuitable for gardening, so those involved have switched to raised beds, flower pots, or sacks of rice.

In addition, the DQE stages communal events like the Design Parcours Ehrenfeld. Now part of the long-standing PASSAGEN design festival (est. in 1990) with an attendance of more than 50,000 guests, it – and the free popdesignfestival championing design, pop, fashion, urban art, and urbanism – continue to draw ever-increasing crowds to the eclectic district.

Four years after launch, the project has proven a resounding success. According to Voggenreiter, it has quickly spawned a “veritable creative and design tourism.” All of a sudden, the streets reverberate with “more international idioms than Cologne’s center of town” and there is no longer any need for targeted campaigns because “the events draw their own crowd.”

Meanwhile, dealing with the City of Cologne is not always an easy task. Although the DQE receives support from the Office for Urban Development, “the general thrust of creative urban development, ‘grassroots’ urban development or participation is still not a given in the city’s government, especially not in its upper echelons,” Voggenreiter regrets.

When asked about the DQE’s future in, say, ten years’ time, she pursues a clear and ambitious vision. “We aim for a district designed by the residents and neighborhoods themselves. We want a green quarter with more bicycles and less CO2 or particulate emissions; one featuring an inclusive urban park, co-operative work and construction projects, as well as its own cultural center.”

Text: Alexandra Schade
header image: Obsthain Gruener Weg, raised-bed gardening, photo: Pauline Ruehl