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Urban Future Making in HafenCity, Hamburg

In June, 2023, COGITO researcher Amy Phillips had the pleasure of joining the first edition of the Urban Future Making Interdisciplinary Research Exchange at HafenCity University, Hamburg. In this post, her experience of this inspiring week is shared, highlighting both the uniqueness of the context and the organizing research group.


Hamburg, a sustainable frontier


Hamburg is a frontier city for sustainable transition and has already undertaken many sustainability pilot projects, particularly in the realms of transport and building energy supply. The city aims to be carbon-neutral by 2050, a goal they plan to reach, in part, with an ambitious mobility transformation. This involves not only the electrification of the taxi fleet, but the city is also exploring the potential for Electric Autonomous Transportation (i.e. self-driving vehicles) as public transportation (1).


Within Hamburg, HafenCity is a particular peculiarity. It is a new development that aims to serve as a model for a modern environmentally and economically sustainable waterfront city. The development of this site began around the turn of the century and is expected to be completed in 2030. Once an industrial port, the space now integrates commercial, residential, and office space. It is an extension of Hamburg’s inner-city, and, upon completion, will expand this inner-city urban fabric by 40%, making it Europe’s largest inner-city urban development area (2).


HafenCity pushes the boundary for sustainable development. The group overseeing hte development, HafenCity Hamburg Gesellschaft für Hafen- und Standortentwicklung ("Company for port and site development" - or GmbH), have developed their own ambitious sustainability standard, the HafenCity Ecolabel. Buildings given the Ecolabel have high energy efficiency and a life-cycle approach to building, which encourages the use of regenerative (e.g. timber, clay) and recycled building materials. The site is home to a timber-built high rise and zero-emissions houses. HafenCity is a very walkable and cyclable space and it is well-serviced by public transport. Reducing car mobility and ownership is an explicit goal for development; buildings integrate large underground garages, many of which have fewer parking spots than residents. Given the lack of on-street parking, this means inhabitants are discouraged from private modes of mobility, and are encouraged instead to make use of soft-mobility, public transport, and car sharing systems. As the project continues to roll-out in the coming decade, HafenCity will look for other advances to continously make their development more sustainable (4).


Caption: This image displays the interesting and playful architecture of HafenCity. The concert hall Elbphilharmonie (center-right), completed in 2010, is a popular tourist attraction. Its prominent glass construction reflects the sky, water, and old city across the waterway.


Urban Future Making Exchange


The Urban Future Making Interdisciplinary Research Exchange brought 11 international researchers from around Europe together with the researchers from the Research Training Group of HafenCity University, the Hamburg University of Technology, and the University of Hamburg (5). The young researchers were all engaged in topics surrounding sustainable urban transition. Several researchers were researching topics related to justice in urban transition, both in Global North and Global South contexts, making this a particularly relevant exchange for the COGITO team.


It was a full week with a broad range of activities. Along with sharing and discussing their own work, participants were guided along several tours around HafenCity led by architects and urban planners. A panel discussion was held with members of academia, practice, and governance, which illustrated the challenges and tensions that occur in Hamburg's transition, as well as the city's pathway forward. Topics of discussion included mobility and energy transitions, policymaking, citizen involvement, and climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies.


The organizers of the exchange (the researchers of the Research Training Group themselves) displayed a great willingness to engage with creative methods to help the researchers engage with, think about, and discuss the city and their own research in new ways. For instance, in small groups, participants took a dérive through the city. The word "dérive" translates to a “drift” or “wander”, and is a continuous and unplanned journey though a city, following a particular protocol or ambiance. Amy's group chose to follow the ambiance of “discomfort”. They quickly found themselves in unpleasant parts of town – they were led on foot across a busy bridge (pictured below) and into the old industrial part of the city. It was a very hot day and they had little cover. Upon reflection, the group realized that, although these spaces were very unpleasant for them, they were spaces that others occupied frequently, such as the many long distance truck drivers who drove past. Traveling through the city in this way and paying particular attention to the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings experienced, was an interesting and novel way to view the city. The dérive elicited energized discussions around urban transition.



All in all, it was more than just a week to discover a new context. The exchange provided an opportunity for young researchers to engage with their own research from different perspectives and to gain inspiration from each other and from the HafenCity context. The exchanged highlighted the value of using creative methods to think about urban transition, as well as the need to communicate across disciplines to arrive at holistic solutions to urban challenges.


For more information:

(2) About HafenCity: https://www.hafencity.com/en

(5) More about the organizers of the event: https://www.hcu-hamburg.de/research/dfg-graduiertenkolleg

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