Thursday, February 18, 2010

Protests in the wake of urban development

HAMBURG/CITYSCAPE IN CHANGE. In three earlier reports we have looked at HafenCity, the gigantic urban development that will change the landscape of this Northern German port city.
During my latest visit to Hamburg I spent most of my time wandering around this construction site, the largest on-going project of this kind anywhere in Europe.
But Hamburg is so much more than a laboratory for the cityscape of the future. This city of 1.8 million residents (over 4 million in the metropolitan region) has long been one of my favourite cities in Europe.
What makes Hamburg special is the sharp contrast between the two faces of the city.
On one hand you have a very prosperous city, one of the richest in Europe, with wealthy businessmen in expensive suits driving a Mercedes or BMW. In Hamburg you will meet a more distinct bourgeois Germany than anywhere else, with elegant ladies in fur coats walking their poodles from their expensive homes on the inner-city lakes.
On the other hand, this is a city of leftist protest culture, squatters, anarchists and seedy neighbourhoods that used to be the image of European sin.
And than you have the raw power of the port, the heart of Hamburg that made the city what it is.
While I was going through my material from Hamburg I came across an interesting story from the German news magazine Der Spiegel, published here on its English-language on-line service. It tells the story of an on-going struggle over the future of Hamburg that you won’t see much of if you visit HafenCity.
In the tradition of Hamburg’s protest movements there has been a reaction against the ambitions to change and develop the city. HafenCity is perhaps not what mostly stirs emotions. This new part of the city is being built on derelict old port and industrial land, but there has been protest against the high cost of living there.
Protesters are more against on-going gentrification in other parts of the city, which they feel might change the unique character of the city.
What set things in motion, according to the story in Der Spiegel, was the ambitions of city leaders to change Hamburg in line with the ideas of U.S. economist Richard Florida and his philosophy that cities have to attract the “creative class” in order to succeed.
Buildings have been occupied and manifestos circulated. An alliance of activists called “Right to the City” has been formed. At this point the story becomes somewhat confusing. The protest movement is to a large extent made up of the “creative class” the city seems to want more of.
An opening between city authorities and protesters is said to be under way, but the tension in Hamburg reminds us of struggles that might come in many cities as they now invest heavily in the future urban landscape.
“In this sense, Hamburg currently functions as a focal lens of sorts, one in which the conflicts of the coming decades are already recognizable. These conflicts will pit change against preservation, private property against the community and, most of all, economic interests against social considerations”, writes Der Spiegel.

This is the last of four reports on urban development in Hamburg.

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