Magazine article Geographical

Building a Future: Once Looked Down upon as Nothing More Than a Home for Hamburg's Immigrant Community, Mark Rowe Finds the Island of Wilhelmsburg Is Now at the Forefront of a Green Housing Revolution

Magazine article Geographical

Building a Future: Once Looked Down upon as Nothing More Than a Home for Hamburg's Immigrant Community, Mark Rowe Finds the Island of Wilhelmsburg Is Now at the Forefront of a Green Housing Revolution

Article excerpt

Hamburg, according to the city's promotional literature, has 2,436 bridges--more than Amsterdam and Venice combined. But for many years, one of them was dismissed as the bridge to nowhere--the one that linked the city to the island of Wilhelmsburg on the south side of the River Elbe.

Wilhelmsburg is the largest inhabited river island in Europe; covering some 3,600 hectares, it's home to 55,000 people. For decades, it was here, in the shadow of Europe's largest copper plant, that Hamburg's immigrant community--for the most part hotel cleaners and factory or shift workers--was housed. Rent was cheap and no-one else wanted to live there.

Long before that, during medieval times, Wilhelmsburg was a watery archipelago, largely used for aquaculture. Later, it was protected by huge dykes from the inflowing Elbe, even though Hamburg is 104 kilometres from the open sea. Small, still ponds and reed beds can still be found inland and around Wilhelmsburg's coastal fringes, and the island has one of the last tidal riverside forests in Europe.


The lowest ebb in Wilhelmsburg's fortunes followed a great storm surge in 1962 that claimed the lives of hundreds of people. Many residents left the devastated island and the entire western section was supposed to be evacuated. Instead, many of the unoccupied houses left behind were used to house migrants and the poor.

'Around 10,000 people left, everybody who could afford to do so--only the low-income people stayed--so housing fell into disrepair, and other lower income people came in,' says Kai Dietrich, an urban designer and ethnographer who works on the island. That, in turn, had an impact on the school system; the high school closed down. People from Wilhelmsburg who applied for jobs or higher schools were turned down. Many people still have a negative view--that it's a place of dangerous dogs and prison-style schools.'

The main train line from southern Germany passes to the east of the island, as does the A1, a trunk route from Italy to Scandinavia, allowing travellers to whisk past the island in a matter of seconds. 'Everybody went through Wilhelmsburg, but no-one stopped,' says Dietrich. The area was not only overlooked, but looked down upon.

The migrant community--from Turkey, Bulgaria and elsewhere--is still there, as is immediately evident in the bakeries selling baklava and mouth-watering gozleme pastries of feta and spinach, and in the shop-window displays of nargilehs [hookah pipes].

But today, Wilhelmsburg and its residents are the subject of an eye-catching project that seeks to revive its fortunes using green energy.


The momentum for change began in 2002, when more than 100 local people outlined a vision for the island. They called for better schools and prospects for children and young people; high-quality, family-friendly, new residential buildings; and the elimination of brownfield sites. Two years later, partly in response, Hamburg outlined the concept of the 'Leap across the Elbe' project (symbolised by a figure that echoes the 2012 London Olympics logo) through which Wilhelmsburg would be more closely linked to the rest of the city.

Key to the urban regeneration that has unfolded was the International Building Exhibition (IBA), which had been held in Wilhelmsburg since 2007 and reached its final stages in 2013. The exhibition sought to attract innovative architectural designs and was among the first to look at concepts such as passive houses, textile membranes and hybrid buildings that could double as offices or homes.

The accelerator for these projects came in the year the IBA started, with the publication of the first report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 'That report showed that climate change must play a crucial role in urban development,' says Dietrich.

The storm surge of 1962 has left inhabitants very twitchy when it comes to extreme weather linked to climate change, according to Uli Hellweg, managing director of IBA Hamburg, the urban development company overseeing Wilhelmsburg's transformation. …

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