Alistair Mackay returns from Germany, with fresh insights on urban regeneration in the country, in particular in Hamburg. He looks at how this Germany city is doing more than just ticking the boxes of densification, development and urban improvement. He wonders why perhaps District 6 masterminds aren’t looking at things from this perspective.

Model of HafenCity. The areas in brown are under construction or planned, with the iconic Elbe Philharmonic in the foreground.

by Alistair Mackay

Highly industrialized, urbanized, densely populated and old – Western Europe is not the kind of place you expect to see massive new urban development projects. The cities there have had their explosive growth – often centuries ago – and now just tick along, tweaking a building here or there as needs change.

Hamburg is a city that seems not to have gotten the memo.

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The city is embarking on an enormous urban development project with a sort of Dubai or Shanghai-like energy anf fearlessness, right next to a historic city centre that dates back many hundreds of years.

The HafenCity precinct (Hafen = “port” in German) is taking the old docks and quays of the port of Hamburg and turning them into high-density, luxury residential areas, complete with cafes, bars, restaurants, schools, museums and some retail and commercial space. The dirty work of Europe’s second largest port has been moved across the river to the islands of the Elbe. 

It’s exciting because the planners seem to have given a lot of thought to making the precinct as highly livable as possible. The area is best traversed on foot or on a bicycle, and construction of new metro stations is taking place before the area is even fully built. Almost all the buildings have retail space or restaurants at street level, ensuring the space feels utilized and human. Care has been taken to create public spaces in such a small area, with a landscaped park and terraced viewing points of the river. And the history of the port has been preserved in the neighbourhood in interesting ways (a giant coffee bean sculpture, and blocks named ‘Java’, ‘cinnamon’ and ‘Ceylon’ commemorate the warehouses that used to stand there, for example.) 

And the architecture, of course, is awesome. Despite the scale of the development, none of the buildings just tick the densification criteria: each is interesting, unique and memorable. Of course, it helps to have an economy like Germany’s to make this happen: the world famous Elbe Philharmonic, by Herzog & de Meuron (under construction in HafenCity) is estimated to cost in the billions of rand now. Unilever’s German headquarters (also in HafenCity) has won numerous environmental awards for its outer skin that regulates the building’s temperature. 

Wouldn’t it be great to get some of these HafenCity masterminds involved in the District Six reconstruction? Or, if not, at least to take some of their lessons on board.