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The canals of Hamburg: Goldbek and Osterbek

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The great German voyageur...

The great German voyageur…?

In Hamburg, there is no nicer way to discover the city than by water. It is relaxing, soothing, quiet, and easy. There’s a whole network of canals that stem from the innercity lake, the Alster, stretching in all directions like arms from an octopus.Karte_Hamburg_Innenstadtkanäle

Our neighbourhood in Winterhude is actually an island, bordered by the Golbek and Oster, former rivers turned into canals, and connected by the Muhlenkamp and Barmbeker canals. Canoes, kayaks, and stand-up boards are all available for rental – and popular.

The scenery goes from fancy villas to high-density condos, with a lot of forested shoreline in between. As we paddle it’s difficult to believe we’re in the middle of a city – there’s nothing but willows, beech trees, ducks and coots. If it weren’t for the rumble to the S-Bahn nearby, we could be in the countryside.

Where the Goldbek meets the Muhlenkamp - in the middle of the city!

Where the Goldbek meets the Muhlenkamp – in the middle of the city!

Here and there a few people are fishing from the shore. They catch well sized (and perfectly edible) roach, bream, and perch; eel is said to be found there too.




Nobody is swimming, mind you. The waters are a bit murky and rich in duckweed, but the main reason swimming is not recommended is simple: water traffic. There are simply too many sailboats, rowboats, and motorized ferries in these narrow waters, never mind canoes and kayaks, to risk swimming. But swimming in the Alster can and does happen during sports events such as the annual triathlon. The waters are clean; I only found one spot, lake Eichbaum, where swimming is banned because of a high coliform count (it’s a small stagnant lake).

There is a web campaign called “Reclaim the Alster!” – but when I checked, I was surprised to find that it isn’t so much about cleaning up the canals as making them hospitable for swimming. The Alster, its canals and the rivers that feed them, are clean. The government is now working on converting the upper rivers of the suburbs from straight ditches back to their original meandering state to facilitate natural flood control.

A typical brick appartment from the 20's, with a small garden...and a canoe

A typical brick appartment from the 20’s, with a small garden…and a canoe

crowded in the canals...

crowded in the canals…




There are still issues; for instance, some of the sediments of the Goldbek canal showed relatively elevated levels of dioxin, 80 parts per trillion of TCDD. Nothing to sneeze at; for instance, lower sediment concentration in Howe Sound led to a crab fisherie closure. But it is still remarkably low considering the history of the site, compared to, say, the Gowanis canal in New York.


It wasn’t always so. The canals were created to facilitate industry, and the shorelines are dotted with the gritty reminders of this former purpose. For instance, along the Goldbek (just around the corner where we live) is the former manufacture of Schülke & Mayr, makers of disinfectants like Lysol, who got their start following the terrible 1892 cholera epidemic. The old buildings, to which modern wings have been added, now host a plant and garden shop, a community centre, and a fancy restaurant.

Likewise, along the Osterbek canal are the remains of a large rubber factory, now hosting the Museum der Arbeit, a unique museum dedicated to labour and workers. Nearby is Kampnagel; this complex, a former manufacture of armement and ship machinery in its former life, is now a space devoted to alternative theater. (Kampnagel is also noteworthy for its 900 m2 solar collectors, and energy storage, which saves 22,000 € worth of heating costs per year.) There were also a gasworks and an incinerator, replaced by an office complex.

Restaurant, Osterbek canal

Restaurant, Osterbek canal


The canal is is also where many of the new, energy efficient low-rise appartment blocs have been built. True to its pledge, the city has subsidized some of these Neubau along the canals, to ensure that affordable housing can be found within the inner city – and with a water view!

Subsidized, affordable housing on the canal

Subsidized, affordable housing on the canal

Paddling through this bucolic setting now, it is hard to imagine what the canals must have looked like then – or smelled like! As recently as 1961, a chemical spill of unknown nature from one of the last industrial plants killed hundreds of fish (and a ghastly stench, of course).

Now new condos and appartments are found among the more built-up shores of the canals, along with chic restaurants by the water’s edge – if the canals now smell of anything, it is the enticing aromas that waft from their kitchens. But mostly, the shores are under a natural tree cover.



What is truly mind blowing is how quickly the transformation happened: in the space of a generation, a stinky, polluted mess of dead waters has given way to fish-bearing healthy waters. And it’s pretty hard to feel depressed when lazily paddling a canoe here; give nature a chance, stop polluting, things do get better. Way better.

Osterbek canal, the former industrial area...

Osterbek canal, the former industrial area…


Written by enviropaul

September 2, 2015 at 11:08 am

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