Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The future face of European urbanity

HAMBURG/CITYSCAPE IN CHANGE. You have to see the big picture to realize what a dramatic urban development the German port city of Hamburg has set in motion.
On former harbour and industrial lands along the river Elbe, right next to the existing center of Hamburg, a whole new city is being built. When finished sometime around 2020-2025, HafenCity (Harbour City) will have increased built-up areas in central Hamburg by an amazing 40 percent.
“The city needed a new start. There was no more room for growth in the city center when companies wanted to come here. We also needed more people living in central Hamburg. That’s how the vision of HafenCity came about more than ten years ago”, said Susanne Bühler, head of communication at HafenCity Hamburg GmbH, when I met her late last year.
HafenCity Hamburg GmbH is the city-owned company that oversees the gigantic project.
The city of Hamburg has 1.8 million inhabitants, with 4.3 million living in the metropolitan area. It’s the second largest city in Germany, after Berlin, and one of the strongest economic regions in the European Union.
In building HafenCity, the city hopes to strengthen its position further. Several big companies have already opened new national headquarters, or plan to do so, in HafenCity. In a project that wants to be a role model for sustainable urban development, there is a lot of symbolic value to the fact that Greenpeace Germany also has decided to move its base here.
Covering some 157 hectares, this is the largest on-going urban development in Europe and one of the most interesting examples of the trend to focus on dense urban development within the existing borders of a major city.
You might recall all the attention given to the mega-project of the 90’s, the development of Potsdamer Platz in Berlin after the fall of the Wall that separated east from west. HafenCity cannot match Potsdamer Platz when it comes to historic symbolism, but in size the Hamburg project is 100 times bigger.
I spent a couple of days in HafenCity late last year to look into the future of one of Europe’s leading cities.
I looked at the Elbphilharmonie concert hall, an amazing building that Hamburg hopes will match the Opera House in Sydney when finished, and I looked at architecture that has been both hailed and criticized. There will be more on those two topics in the following reports.
HafenCity is already a major attraction in Hamburg, with local residents, tourists and study groups flocking to the information center to join tours of the construction site.
The giant model of HafenCity (right) in the information center gives a clear picture of the magnitude of the project and the effect it will have on Hamburg.
Just a few years ago the city center would end as you reached Speicherstadt (Warehouse Town), the magnificent old warehousing district with its red brick buildings and cobbled streets on the banks of the Elbe. Beyond that all you saw were the seemingly endless port facilities.
Today Speicherstadt (left) connects old and new Hamburg, as you head for HafenCity.
The first parts of the project have been completed, or will soon be completed. On Sandtorkai and Dalmannkai some 1,500 residents have moved in, a number of big office buildings housing 4,000 employees have opened and more are under way. The first school opened its doors last year.
When completed, HafenCity will house some 12,000 residents and workplaces for 40,000 employees. The total private investment is expected to reach 5.5 billion Euros ($8 billion). The city plans to invest up to 1.5 billion Euros ($2 billion), more than half of that coming from sale of land in HavenCity to private developers.
The city keeps a tight control over the planning process and the development. From the beginning it was decided that HafenCity would not become a sterile commercial district. All parts of HafenCity are planned for mixed use, with apartments, offices, schools, a university, cultural institutions, restaurants, hotels etc. There will be a new terminal for cruise ships and HafenCity is being connected to the rest of the city with a new subway line. There is a clear focus on public transportation, open urban spaces and some ten kilometres of walking paths along the waterfront.
And there will no shopping malls in HafenCity. Commercial activity will be concentrated to street-level shops.
HafenCity is a huge project with small-scale components.
“I think this will turn out to be a good place. In the evenings it’s still desolate, but that will change. Now it feels like a small town or village, where everybody knows each other”, said Bryan Johns (right), who runs a tobacco store on Dalmannkai, a few blocks from where the Elbphilharmonie concert hall is being built.
“When we opened two years ago we were the first shop here, but now there are quite a few.”
HafenCity will be at its best on sunny summer days, when you can enjoy the closeness to the river. On a chilly winter evening there are few places where you can escape the empty feeling of a windy construction site, unless you live in one of the up-scale apartments on the waterfront.
With so much entertainment on offer in the rest of Hamburg, few people will choose to spend the evening in HafenCity. This will probably change when the Elbphilarmonie and other institutions open later on.
But for now the main attraction is a cosy Asian brasserie called Chilli Club, where I spent a pleasant evening contemplating over the urban future developing on what used to a more or less contaminated wasteland.
It’s not a bad change.

This is the first in a series of reports from Hamburg and HafenCity.


Copyright: ELBE & FLUT/HafenCity Hamburg GmbH
HafenCity, in the foreground, right next to the present center of Hamburg.


Following construction from a special viewpoint for visitors.


Copyright: Code Unique Architekten/HafenCity Hamburg GmbH
Plans for the future university and science center (background) in HafenCity.

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