Hamburg's Hafencity

Susan MacVittie

HafenCity by moka studio.jpg


HafenCity, Hamburg’s new quarter covering 157 hectares – enlarging the existing city area by 40 per cent – is one of the largest urban regeneration development projects underway in the world. Situated on the harbour, or hafen, on the Elbe River islands, the old port warehouses of Hamburg are being replaced with offices, hotels, shops, official buildings, a university, residential areas, and an opera house. Big name architects like Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, David Chipperfield and Richard Meier have designed buildings and HafenCity is being viewed as the future of urban design.

The project is characterized by a horizontal and vertical mix of urban uses, public spaces, and sustainability is being initiated at a range of levels – for buildings, mobilty, and supply of energy. Indeed, HafenCity played a pioneering role in building certification, coming up with its benchmark HafenCity Ecolabel in 2007, two years before the launch of comparable certification valid throughout Germany.

With a pricetag of roughly $14 billion, the City of Hamburg, which is driving the process and investing about $3.25 billion with private investors covering the rest, the standards to ensure success are high.

The Rising Tide
HafenCity lies beyond the main Hamburg dike line and is being built with flood protection in mind, not only as a response to historical flooding, but also preparing for climate change. Despite sitting 112 kilometres inland from the North Sea, Hamburg sees a two-to-three metre rise in the Elbe’s tide daily. Following the tidal shifts is crucial in the city, which is home to the second busiest container port in Europe. Since building new dikes is expensive and would take away from the waterfront charm, a series of flood protection initiatives were incorporated into HafenCity’s design. All buildings are constructed on plinths (mounds of compacted fill) 7.5 to 8 metres above mean sea level and embankment promenades for walking and cycling are 4-5.5 metres above sea level, whilst almost all roads are elevated. Flood protection also includes water proofing parking garages, a network of pedestrian walkways six metres above the street and no residential units at ground level.

The waters have been known to rise enough to cover the waterfront promenade at the Infocenter of HafenCity Hamburg GmbH, the city-owned subsidiary that oversees the development. To address flash floods, large grey metal flood doors have been built on the outside of the building’s brick facade. “It only lasts for a few hours,” says Susanne Buhler, Head of Communications for HafenCity, “It comes in the morning and then goes away. The solution is not complicated, you just close the door. There is someone responsible for this in every building.”

But wouldn’t it be difficult to secure insurance for businesses in a known flood area?

“It’s not relevant,” says HafenCity CEO, Jürgen Bruns-Berentelg. “The insurance companies say this is a safe system. We say, we use a preventive strategy, and in North America you’re more used to an insurance-based strategy. So that’s an attitude difference.”

With a few select historic buildings preserved amidst a wide array of modern architecture, (a separate tendering process for each individual building site has led to high quality and a variety of innovative designs), Hamburg’s new downtown is taking shape. Since construction began in 2003, 56 projects have been completed and another 49 are under construction or in the planning stage. Over 1,500 living spaces have been completed and more than 500 companies have moved into HafenCity, as well as not-for-profit organizations, such as Greenpeace – whose presence in the corner unit of the red brick building across the river from the Infocenter is easily recognized by its bright yellow banner and futuristic rooftop wind turbines.

Build It and They Will Come
A solution-based attitude is prevalent in many aspects of the HafenCity development process.

The basic concept underlying transport planning for HafenCity is one of sustainability: priority goes to non-motorized modes of transport and public carriers. About 70 per cent of footpaths run separated from motorized traffic, many of them parallel to the water’s edge. There are few extended blocks of buildings so pedestrians and cyclists can make their way using private spaces between individual buildings. Site owners have been contractually obliged to make such pathways permanently accessible. The problem of stationary vehicles has been reduced to a minimum, since the interiors of the flood-secure plinths of buildings are used for underground parking. Public transport such as subway, fuel-cell buses, ferries, and a rent-a-bike system also play a role. Because of the centralized residential areas, the high quality public transport, and the mix of usage, the number of private car journeys is decreased.

The heating energy supply for HafenCity is a mix of district heating and decentralized heat: cogeneration units,  supply combined with fuel cells, and solar panels on residential buildings that will provide hot water. The goal is to achieve 175g/kWh to meet CO2 emission targets (in comparison: conventional gas-based heat supply for individual buildings produces average CO2 emissions of 240g/kWh). In the future it will be compulsory for at least 30 per cent of the residential hot water supply to come from renewable resources.

“When you talk about a green sustainable development today we are mis-led by talking about technological solutions,” explains Bruns-Berentelg. “A hundred years ago we rebuilt parts of the inner city and 35 per cent was streetscape, now we reduce that to 24 per cent, and instead of just 5 per cent public spaces, we now have 26 per cent, which are organized in a network structure. The design allows for living in a different form of relationship between public and private space. The public spaces become extremely important with the identity of the city. There is also a mix of high and low-income housing to foster diversity. Development decisions are not being made by an institutional investor, but by people joining together and thinking about how future living can be organized, and what contribution we can actually make.”

Unlike many North American developments, HafenCity calls the shots. HafenCity has insisted on design quality as equal and not secondary to cost as a major parameter for competitive tender. And it seems to be working. So far the development is on track with its timeline. Over the next ten years leading up to the project’s full build-out in 2025, 12,000 residents and 45,000 jobs are expected to come to HafenCity.

“I must say that HafenCity development is possible because we are the land owners,” says Bruns-Berentelg. “We can say, well ‘you get here if you follow our rules.’ So we are selling the land with an element of compliance as part of our joint understanding of how the future city should look.”


Susan MacVittie is Managing Editor of the Watershed Sentinel

Update May 6, 2016: Jim Hight reports here on Hafencity’s biogas system – the largest closed-loop waste-to-energy and water recycling system in the world which uses a vacuum sewer system to slash toilet water usage by 80%.

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