All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

The streets of Hamburg

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Now settled in Germany, ensconced in a nice little appartment for a few months – time to get back to blogging. I have pledged to document German environmental success stories.

Why Hamburg? Dinah, of course. I’ve been coming here with her visiting family and friends, and gradually I have to come to discover that the nice European lifestyle that enthralls tourists is also something that holds hope for the environment (yes, sitting at a patio, beer in hand, I do think serious thoughts sometimes). And Hamburg is a case in point. So let’s start with Dinah’s story, then.

Griegstrasse in Ottensen, where Dinah grew up.

Griegstrasse in Ottensen, where Dinah grew up.

The Ottensen area of Hamburg is where Dinah grew up, in one of the typical appartment blocs that make up the urban landscape here. Most of these blocs have an inner courtyard, usually with an expanse of grass and trees, and they are large enough for an army of kids to run around. Now a long-term Vancouver resident, Dinah finds it hard to understand why people insist that they need a house in the suburbs to raise their kids. Her experience was just the opposite. She remembers playing outside in the yard, unsupervised, even at a young age. There would always be someone around, other kids, somebody’s mother or Oma, somebody to keep an eye on things. And no stranger could enter the inner courtyard unnoticed.

She also remembers walking everywhere, to school, to parks, even to the nearby beach on the Elbe river (with her Oma, that). Walking everywhere was made possible by the density of the neighbourhood; there were many well-attended parks, schools, and shops nearby precisely because the population density created by these appartments made such amenities practical. For that matter, the ground floor of the appartment blocks themselves often had shops like a dentist’s office, a jewelry, or the obiquitous bakery. This mix of retail and residential gives an open, welcoming feeling to the streets, adding to the density of amenities and contributing to community safety through Jane Jacobs’ vaunted “eyes on the street”.

For Dinah it was a bit of a letdown to land in a Canadian suburb (DDO, now part of Montreal) as a nine year old. Sure, there was a nice little park behind the bungalow; but there was nowhere to walk to. Everything of potential interest was just too far; and few of the adults walked anywhere, for that matter. As for transit, forget it.

A few weeks ago we spent a weekend at some friends’ place, who happen to live in the Ottensen neighbourhood where she grew up. Going for my morning coffee, I notice that this is still a walking neighbourhood, even if the streets are now lined with parked BMWs or Opels. One Monday morning around 8am, I count three pedestrians and two cyclists for every car I encounter. People here walk or cycle more than in Vancouver; it is just more practical to do so. There’s always a bus or train station nearby. As a result, only 31% of commuters use their car – that, for the whole city, not just the centre. From a climate change standpoint, this is one of the great advantages of density: far fewer emissions per capita for transportation.

We talked to a woman renting an appartment in Dinah’s old building. She said it was extensively renovated two years ago: insulation and new energy efficient windows were installed, as well as balconies, through Hamburg’s climate initiatives. She said that it made a big change in comfort; and in winter, she barely needs to heat the place once or twice a week. And the insulation was added from the outside; the tenants could stay in their appartments during the renovations. You need to look closely to notice the renos: the insulation has a faux-red brick pattern, so as to fit with the existing architecture of the city.

Preserving a large bank of affordable rental housing has also been a priority for the city (about 30% of all housing stock in the city has a form low rent, whether co-ops or city-owned; about one third of the new build appartments have subsidized rent), and in many cases the appartments targeted for energy efficiency retrofit are the ones with rent control. The city government has made it clear that energy efficiency programs cannot be at the expense of its poorer residents.

The other thing about the neighbourhood is that it feels right. It dawns on me that part of the appeal of European cities is not just the historical aspect

Walking down an ordinary street in Ottensen

Walking down an ordinary street in Ottensen

of the old buildings; it is the proportions. These buildings are all four stories tall, and the treed streets are wide but not overly so. Art historians tell us that landscapes are about prospect and refuge: we are hard-wired to want to see what’s coming, but we also want a sense of shelter and protection. The proportions of these streets seem to hit just the right harmony between prospect and refuge, what we call human-scaled. Commercial Street is one of my favourite Vancouver street, and now I realize it’s because it has the same proportions.

Are there lessons for Vancouver here? The Hamburg mid-rise appartments with inner courtyards could be a model for liveable, high-density development; and it is clear that such complexes can be highly energy efficient. And these buildings lend themselves very well to affordable housing programs (I’ll leave that for another post).

When Dinah was growing up, her Opa would go to the basement to fetch the coal needed for heat and hot water; daily showers were unheard of. Then, as the “German miracle” reached everyone, the building saw its first set of renovations, with central heating and hot water, eventually connecting to the more efficient district heating. And now, with this latest round of renovations, it barely requires any energy, and the tenants are comfy. Germans seem to welcome change, and government leadership. Vancouverites, well…

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Written by enviropaul

August 21, 2015 at 9:36 am

One Response

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  1. […] one thing to say that the feel of Hamburgs’s streets is nice, as I did in my earlier post, but it’s another to quantify it. Here are a few numbers I’ve been able to […]


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