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

The buses of Hamburg, part one: Mönckebergstrasse

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Mönckebergstrasse, with jaywalkers.  Tsk.

Mönckebergstrasse, with jaywalkers. Tsk.

When in Hamburg I would often find myself on Mönckebergstrasse.   It’s one of the busy downtown streets, a commercial artery filled with fancy boutiques and eateries, some unique and interesting, others outlets of chains found in airports the world over.  It could be compared to Montreal’s Ste-Catherine, or Vancouver’s Robson.

In a way the street is also like Vancouver’s Granville.  It is a transportation hub with subway stations and bus lines. I took a bus there many times.  Private cars aren’t allowed on Mönckebergstrasse, which is reserved for taxis and buses.  When Vancouver decided to reserve Granville for bus traffic, it was widely seen as the beginning of the end for Granville as a merchant street, with pawn and porn shops taking over.  Thankfully, the street is now healing, having reinvented itself as venue for shows and pubs.  But this near-death never happened to Mönckebergstrasse – why?

Being in a European city, you would think that the street was saved by its historic character.  But that’s not it; the street was punched through what had been a downtown slum only in 1906, making Granville street actually older.

(For that matter, being historic is no guarantee of success.  Steinstrasse, just south of Mönckebergstrasse, was the very first street paved in cobblestones of all of Germany.  This street, the heart of the ancient town, should be an assemblage of medieval and renaissance buildings, but it is just a busy street fronted by non-descript office buildings.  It witnessed three waves of destruction: the great fire of 1842; the heartless slum clearances of the 1900s, after the cholera epidemic; and, of course, the terrible firebombing of 1943.  Hamburg does not reveal its history easily; a lot of it is either scars or absence.)

Is the difference due to Hamburg being a bigger city?  Not really.  Greater Hamburg has a population similar to Greater Vancouver, and a relatively low population density for a European city, comparable to Toronto’s.

It’s not even that the street has something Germanic in its character.  Horror of horrors, Hamburgers jay-walk across Mönckebergstrasse as often as we do across Granville.  (At least the buses arrive precisely on time, but that’s neither here nor there.)

No, I remain baffled.  Vancouver’s experience says that Mönckebergstrasse should have been a failure.  It’s not.

Inside a store on Mönckebergstrasse

Inside a store on Mönckebergstrasse

Maybe it’s because of Spitalerstrasse.  This is another street, parallel and adjacent to Mönckebergstrasse, but this one is a true pedestrian mall.  Restaurants and pubs have covered tables in the street, and there’s always a crowd.  The tables are a permanent fixture, and there are outdoor patrons year-round, no matter the weather.  Hamburg does pedestrian malls very well; Spitalerstrasse probably provides some of the crowds for Mönckebergstrasse.

Maybe it’s because of some of the stores; some have a unique architecture.  Hamburg was ambitious, the gateway to the world, in the 1910s.  But this could be said of Vancouver, too, where gems like the Marine Building went up at about the same time.

Or maybe it’s because Hamburg is its own entity, the equivalent of a province.  In Hamburg, there is no need to wait for a policy on transit or store hours from some remote and indifferent capital, as between Vancouver and Victoria.  Hamburg just does what Hamburg needs to do, and can adjust its aim quickly.

Still, these are, at best, only partial answers at best.  I’ve been looking for ideas for downtown Vancouver: how do you keep a transit hub vibrant? Mönckebergstrasse should be an inspiration.  Instead, it’s an enigma.  I don’t know why it works.  But it does, and I kept being drawn to it.

Written by enviropaul

February 20, 2017 at 7:22 pm

One Response

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  1. […] my last posts on the buses of Hamburg, I mentioned that the bus system is great.  Buses flow down Mönckebergstrasse seamlessly, without impacting the retailers of the street negatively; no mean feat considering this […]

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