Reinventing Port Cities: the case of Hamburg

Last week, we made a trip to Hamburg. Local city planners and architects gave us an extensive update on the status of city building in Hamburg.

Across Northwestern Europe, port cities are reinventing themselves. As the requirements of the shipping industry changed, old inner-city seaports were no longer functional. As new docks and harbors were constructed just outside of the city that could accommodate container trade, older ports became obsolete in the port cities of Rotterdam,  Amsterdam, London, Birmingham, Hamburg and Antwerp. Thus, city planners in these cities had the exciting opportunity to redevelop these former port areas that are, for the most part, immediately adjacent to city centers. Canary Wharf in London’s Docklands is a renowned example, and so is Rotterdam’s Kop van Zuid redevelopment (which includes the recently completed Meusetower or Maastoren, the new tallest building of the BeNeLux).

Rotterdam's Maastoren, the new tallest structure in the BeNeLux

However, Hamburg’s redevelopment, titled Hafen City (Harbor City) is one of the largest ones in scope and in size. Being situated immediately adjacent to the current city center, this redevelopment project is going to increase the total size of the city center by 40%. It is one of the largest rebuilding projects in Europe. Because of its sheer size, it was impossible to plan for every detail of every parcel right from the start. Rather than pursuing a rigid form of “blueprint planning” for a final, fixed situation, a general development concept was adopted which gave direction to the redevelopment of the area. The plan divided the area up into ten quarters which were then designed in more detail. Each of these quarters is being developed independently, which allows for the flexibility to adapt the pace of the overall development to recent developments in the financial markets. This bit-by-bit type of development also leads to more architectural diversity.

Site model of Hafen City

Hamburg is susceptible to a strongly changing tide, the water-level changes by as much as 6 to 7 meters between low and high-tide. Then there’s the ever-present risk of flooding, which will only increase in the future with rising sea levels. To deal with this risk, all buildings have been built on elevated, (7.5 to 8 meters high) flood-secure plinths. There are elevated walkways that connect these plinths, providing (pedestrian-only) access to the elevated buildings in case the streets are flooded. In the absence of a flood, the spaces below the walkways provide additional open spaces.

The buildings in the new Hafen City, sitting on flood-secure, elevated plinths.

Elevated walkways in Hafen City

A social gathering space below Hafen City's elevated walkways

At this point, just a fraction of Hafen City has been completed. Along two docks, new buildings have emerged that showcase a strong piece of contemporary architecture. It is mixed use. Though the buildings contain mostly apartments, there are restaurants, shops, bars and the like on the first floor. There also are some office buildings, including a few high-profile corporations. Particularly impressive is the new Unilever building.

Apartments in Hafen City

The new Unilever building

Public space takes up 40% of the total surface area in the new Hafen City. Half of this is publicly owned; the other half is in private hands. However, the privately-owned open spaces essentially function as public ones: any use is allowed, even uses that are often banned in privately owned open spaces (such as journalistic and political activities or even begging). In part because of private investments, the open space is highly crafted. Though the developed part of Hafen City is very young, it has already attracted a ton of people when I visited it on a recent, sunny Sunday afternoon, when one particular open space was the stage for a host of tango-dancers. Lastly, the open spaces are just as diverse as they are plentiful.

Floating public space in a dock

Sunday crowd watching the tango dancers

Local youth playing basketbal in Hafen City's open space

Open space in Hafen City

The volume of the buildings in Hafen City is pretty constant; nearly all buildings are of the same height, around 20-25 meters tall. This mirrors the skyline of the inner city of Hamburg, where buildings are mostly of that same height.  One notable exception is the new concert hall. This is an 8-floor addition that is being built on top of an (already tall) old warehouse, designed by the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron. Due to its height, it is the dominant structure of Hafen City. It’s nearly as tall as it could be: In Hamburg, no building can be taller than the spire of the city’s medieval cathedral (much like in Utrecht, where the unspoken rule of development is not to build any taller than the dome).

The design of the Elbphilharmonie Concert Hall (middle)

Hafen City's Concert Hall was recently topped-out.

With such a cultural landmark, one begins to wonder whether Hamburg doesn’t just want to compete with Rotterdam or Antwerp, but with Sydney’s Harbor as well. It’s a little bit too much like the Opera House in my opinion, even though the combination of a new structure and an old warehouse is taken to the next level here. It reflects the high ambitions Hamburg has with its newly revived port area. And, even though it is by all means too soon to judge the redevelopment efforts, what I have seen on the site last week was an impressive attempt at large-scale urban redevelopment. It is an example for other port cities in Northwestern Europe, for they too will need to recycle their inner city port areas in one way or another. Finally, much like how Potsdamer Platz is a new archetype for open space in the 21st century, Hafen City offers a model for redevelopment of urban areas in the 21st century. Not just in terms of the planning process, but also in terms of financing. Hafen City has been largely privately financed. In an age of fiscal crisis amongst government agencies at all levels, Hamburg seems to pull this redevelopment off just because of its private financing.

With a few years of construction ahead for Hafen City, this is definitely a place to keep an eye on. I know I’m returning in a few years to see how the overall development turned out.

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One Response to Reinventing Port Cities: the case of Hamburg

  1. Thami Manyathi says:

    Very informative.

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