The Ruhrgebiet, the engine of Western Germany, constitutes a unique social, political and architectural landscape shaped by industry. In the 1950s, during Germany's post-war 'economic miracle', few people imagined that within 50 years, the region's heavy industry would virtually shut down. Fewer still would have predicted that many of industry's remaining structures would become monuments of the German nation. Effecting the transformation from industrial wasteland to European 'Cultural Capital' has required courage and creativity. This paper demonstrates that conservation of industry's remains has been a creative tool for democratic and social progress, shaped as much by 'bottom-up' initiatives as by 'top-down' directives. Workers who took action to save their neighbourhoods and citizens who united to rescue factories sparked the democratization of conservation. In the ensuing decades, conservation created new philosophies for re-imagining a landscape permeated with traces of industry. Ultimately, conservation became a key participant in regional planning through IBA (Internationale Bauausstellung) Emscher Park, which responded to industry's decline with a comprehensive approach to attracting investment, providing better prospects for workers and solving social problems. In the Ruhrgebiet, conservation has not simply memorialized the past - by creating real social progress and democratizing the planning process, it has meaningfully shaped the region's future.