Green living on the waterfront in Hamburg

Text, photos and video by Thomas Bay Estrup

HafenCity’s green profile has helped Hamburg earn the title of European Green Capital 2011. Yet the people who live in HafenCity are not particularly concerned about saving the planet from global warming. Hamburg still faces major challenges to supply the city with energy and cut CO2 emissions.

The waterfront is an attractive location for all walks of life

HAMBURG – Where there was once a port and industrial site, a new inner city district known as “HafenCity” is being built in Hamburg. Most parts of the HafenCity are still under construction, while other parts have been habitable for about three years.

HafenCity is being built according to low energy and sustainable standards contributing to Hamburg winning the title of European Green Capital 2011.

Yet the people living in the buildings don’t care much about saving the planet from global warming. The inhabitants move to HafenCity because of its location near the inner city, the water front and its attractiveness in terms of luxury apartments, not because of its sustainability. They are no more ecologically minded than other people, continuing to drive their Porsches and 4×4 SUV’s. More Porsches are parked along Kaiserkai, the main street through the residential area in HafenCity, than in most other places.

“People move here because of the water and because it is close to the city center,” says Uwe Diercks, real estate agent in HafenCity. The sustainability program is not what attracts people to the area, he explains.

To buy an apartment in HafenCity is only for those who want to and who can afford to live in luxury apartments on the waterfront.

Waterfront apartments easy to sell

A look at real estate windows displays show that a four room apartment of 102 m2 is selling at 590.000 euro and a 158 m2 apartment at 990.000 euro. Large houses outside Hamburg are selling at lower prices.

The high quality materials used in the buildings, the energy saving windows, and other installations that aid in the recirculation of the air adds to the price, but helps save money for heating in the long term.

According to Uwe Diercks, there has been no problems selling the apartments in HafenCity, not even during the financial crisis. That in itself can be taken as a sign of success. In other urban development areas, such as Orestad outside Copenhagen, many apartments are empty or have been for sale for a long period of time.

About 1,500 people have moved into the HafenCity. Most of them are married couples in the 50’s and 60’s whose children have moved away from home and have lived in large houses outside Hamburg. They sell their homes and buy apartments in the HafenCity because they want to move back to the city. Others are young people with a high income. The average age is around 45 years.

Susanne Enge and her son Hendrik

Energy saving is good for the wallet

Susanne Enge has lived in HafenCity for 2.5 years with her husband and son, Hendrik. They moved there because it is next to the water, they have access to a garden in their back yard, and it is a new part of Hamburg’s inner city. Their building saves energy and has solar panels on the roof. For them it is matter of economic advantage.

“For us it is a cost factor. We save money on our energy bills,” Susanne Enge says. They don’t use their car very often. Instead they walk, ride their bikes or use the underground. Another advantage for them is the area.

“It is a great neighborhood. People help each other. People here are very open minded and open for new things.”

The downside she explains is that the area was not finished when they moved in.

“You have to be very patient.”

The area now has a pharmacy but it only opened recently. Still there is no supermarket, only a shop selling organic vegetables.

Pollution from ships

Andrea Kupfer is the mother of a small girl, who goes to school in HafenCity. She rides her bike through the HafenCity to pick up her daughter but lives elsewhere in Hamburg. She is critical towards the HafenCity project and doesn’t want to live there.

“It is not well thought through. There is not enough green areas for children to play in,” she says before heading home on her bike with her daughter.

She knows people who have moved to the HafenCity including members of her extended family. Most of them are now considering moving away. One of the problems they have discovered about the HafenCity is the air pollution from the ships.

Cruise ships keep their engines running while moored at the cruise terminal in HafenCity in order to generate power for the ship. You can hear the deep noise from their engines from inside the apartments. Container ships are passing right by the waterfront of the harbour city in order to get in and out of the inner part of the port of Hamburg. You can see the black smoke from the chimneys from the quay.

I also noticed the pollution problem when I wiped bread crumbs off an outdoor café table with my hand, my hand got dirty with black dust. This is all due to the exhaust from the ships.

Kristin Friedrichs, who was one of the first residents to move into HafenCity three years ago, confirms the problem with air pollution.

“There is pollution from the ships and the chemical industry,” she says.

However, she is not concerned about it. She likes to live on the water front and is happy about her apartment. Nevertheless, when her two year old son gets older she will want to move to an area with more nature.

But people are attracted to the area. On a sunny March Thursday the place was buzzing with life. School children were playing, mothers went for a stroll with the baby carriages, people sat on the benches on to eat their lunch or enjoy one of the first days with sun and double digit temperatures (Celsius) after the long winter. Here you find business people who come out for a break from their offices, grandparents with grandchildren, mothers with babies, etc.

There are plenty of cafés and restaurants along the promenade as well as inside the residential areas to choose from. They bring life to HafenCity. A lack of people and life is something that some urban development projects, such as the Docklands in London, suffer from.

HafenCity sustainability program

While its citizens may not be very concerned about sustainability, the planners certainly are. Sustainability is an integrated part of the development project, and HafenCity is being promoted as a sustainable urban development project.

“HafenCity has a sustainability program,” Jürgen Bruns-Berentelg, CEO of HafenCity Hamburg GmbH, proudly announced while giving a presentation on HafenCity to a foreign delegation.

Yet even though Hamburg has won the title of European Green Capital, it doesn’t mean that the city has solved all its energy problems.

Heat is supplied to the buildings through a district heating system, partly from solar thermal energy. The energy supply to the western part of HafenCity, and most of Hamburg, is provided by Vattenfall, a Swedish energy company. However, they have problems providing even this part of the city with energy, not to mention clean energy.

“Why it is so difficult for them [Vattenfall], I don’t know,” says former major of Hamburg, Henning Voscherau. He suggests that selling the state owned energy company to Vattenfall was a mistake. Despite previous requests by elected city officials for a new power plant, current political groups have continually slowed the process.

Vattenfall operates a power plant outside Hamburg, the Moorburg Plant. A new coal fired power plant is under construction to meet the need for cheap and reliable energy. Once completed, it will provide district heating for more than 4 million homes in Hamburg, but will emit large quantities of CO2. This project has met fierce opposition from some NGO’s and political groups. Currently a dispute over the use of water from the Elbe River for cooling purposes is going to the court.

Other clean energy projects in HafenCity are more successful and going according to the plan. A fueling station in HafenCity will supply hydrogen for both cars and buses, including a new Mercedes zero-emissions fuel cell bus. Commissioning of the completed station is expected in 2011.

Many buildings in HafenCity have obtained silver and gold eco labels from the German association for sustainable building (DGNB). This concept has been highly successful and means that most buildings are built as low energy houses.

Hamburg and HafenCity has successfully attracted clean energy research centers. Vestas, Siemens and other wind energy research centers have moved to Hamburg. On March 25th General Electric (GE) announced that it will move its off shore wind energy research section to Hamburg.

HafenCity seems to attract not only people, but also international and German corporations and organizations. Unilever has recently moved its headquarter into a low energy building in HafenCity. The German news media, Der Spiegel, and Greenpeace will also relocate to the new city district. Just recently, Germanischer Lloyd moved into a newly built office building.

The HafenCity is expected to be completed in 2020-2025. By then 12.000 people will live and 40,000 thousands more will work in HafenCity.

Part of HafenCity's maritime history has been preserved


  • Hamburg is building a new inner city district, the HafenCity.
  • HafenCity is Europe’s largest inner-city development project.
  • Total area: 157 hectares.
  • HafenCity will expand the area of Hamburg’s city center by 40 percent.
  • HafenCity will provide 5,500 homes for 12,000 residents and office space for 40,000 employees.
  • By March 2010 about 1,500 people live in HafenCity, about 6,000 people work there.

EuroViews visited a resident of HafenCity to find out how environmentally minded the people living in the sustainable buildings are. Watch the video here.

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