How Hamburg Became Europe's Greenest City

A spate of new development projects will make the city more walkable

Last year the European Union began honoring cities for exemplary environmental efforts by designating one each year as the "European Green Capital." Stockholm won the designation for 2010, and Hamburg won it for 2011. The tenth largest city in Europe (city population 1.8 million, metro area 4.3 million), Hamburg earned the award by showing that it had both a typical range of urban environmental challenges and an ambitious program of solutions for addressing them. 

I am particularly impressed that Hamburg’s application led with redevelopment, demonstrating that the city is directing growth inward. HafenCity Hamburg, for example, is Europe’s largest city development project, on 388 acres of former industrial land in between Hamburg’s downtown and the Elbe river. When completed, it will add 5,500 homes (some subsidized to be affordable) along with shops, parks, entertainment, schools and daycare, offices, and a university on what has basically been a massive brownfield.  All, of course, will be walkable, transit-accessible, and compliant with the city’s green building standards.

Courtesy of Hamburg's European Green Capital application

Meanwhile, across the river, the Wilhemsburg quarter, home to some 50,000 residents from 27 countries, is being transformed into a showcase of green redevelopment.  Christopher Scheutze writes in The New York Times:

A second set of projects seeks to remake one of the most struggling parts of the city through urban densification on an island called Wilhelmsburg, across the Elbe River south of HafenCity. Hamburg is funding both environmentally and socially conscious building projects with a view to stoking a vibrant community life, a more efficient urban infrastructure and greener living. The goal is to improve the quality of life and attract new residents.

By embracing largely experimental design, city leaders hope to transform an area shared by factories, a garbage dump, the working harbor, public housing, and mostly working-class Turkish immigrant neighborhoods, into a model of so-called green community living.

(I’m not sure why Scheutze felt the need to drop the pejorative “so-called” in there, given that he clearly approves of the project.)

Courtesy of Inhabit

Mark Boyer notes in Inhabitat that the Wilhelmsburg project includes conversion of an ugly, 130-foot-tall concrete bomb shelter (above), built during World War Two, into a renewable energy power plant that will serve 3,000 households. Boyer writes that a heating and power system fueled by wood chips will begin operation inside the structure next year, followed by the installation of 30,000 square feet of solar panels on the exterior.

Hamburg's most visually dramatic green project, though, may be the plan to cap a two-mile stretch of a major freeway with woods, parks, trails, and garden plots for city residents. The green cap, which will also reconnect neighborhoods split by the freeway, will be over 100 feet wide and as much as ten feet thick in places.

Courtesy of Inhabit

Hamburg is also one of Europe's busiest industrial ports, and greening the port is a key part of the city's environmental agenda.  Central to the concept is the use of "container taxis" on the river that, the city says, will each displace 60 trucks from point to point, substantially reducing pollution. The port authority is also reducing fees for ships that meet environmental standards. 

For passenger transportation, Hamburg is expanding its public transit system with a new light rail line expected to be operational in 2014. The city is aiming through these and other measures, including building standards, to reduce carbon emissions 40 percent by 2020 (the EU standard) and 80 percent by 2050 from 1990 levels.

Next year, the Basque city Vitoria-Gasteiz will be the European Green Capital, followed in 2013 by Nantes

One of the most fun things to emerge from Hamburg’s term has been the “Train of Ideas,” a traveling exhibit of interactive environmental innovation and education that went from Hamburg to quite a few European cities before returning home. Check it out in this video (parts in German, but mostly in English):

This post originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard blog.

About the Author

  • Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. More
    Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. He is the author or co-author of Once There Were Greenfields (NRDC 1999), Solving Sprawl (Island Press 2001), Smart Growth In a Changing World (APA Planners Press 2007), and Green Community (APA Planners Press 2009). In 2009, Kaid was voted one of the "top urban thinkers" on Planetizen.com, and he was named one of "the most influential people in sustainable planning and development" in 2010 by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. He blogs at NRDC's Switchboard.