All things environmental

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

The Green Network of Hamburg

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Hamburg’s green spaces

“Imagine leaving your house in suburbia and being able to walk, jog, or bike all the way downtown, following a system of interconnected wetlands and streams leading down to the major regional river.”

The Dancing Pants, public art along the Eilbeck

This sentence in an article by Celina Balderas Guzman (ref below) caught my eye.  She mentions that one would come across community gardens, sports fields, ecological reserves, as well as more technical features such as areas for sediment and runoff capture, or even energy generation. She mentions the role of wetlands in controlling pollution from urban runoff.

This sounds all fine, except for one thing: it is preceded by the heading “constructing our future”, as if this was a holy grail of urban planning, some kind of unattainable ideal of urban planning worth striving for.  In many cities, that may indeed be the case.

But there is at least city where what is described is not the future, but the reality.  That city is Hamburg, Germany.  Surely it is not the only one; but this is one city I know well, where I have walked and cycled extensively along its extensive network of trails and green spaces, so I will use it to illustrate the point.

Cycling along the Eilbeck canal (note the porous pavers)

At first glance, Hamburg doesn’t seem an obvious candidate for a green city.  It’s a prosperous merchant port city (the second largest in Europe), a manufacturing and publishing centre, busy labouring under the grey skies of the North Sea; not where you would expect a colony of tree-hugging nature lovers.  It’s also a modern city that had to rebuild itself repeatedly.  The British air force reduced the city to ashes and rubble in 1943, wiping out whatever remained of the historic city one hundred years earlier.  Before that, the occupying army of Napoleon had cut down every single tree in and around the city to ensure a clean line of fire for their guns.  That protecting nature may not have been a top priority would have been understandable.

But maybe that’s just it; after so much destruction, people get attached to what has survived, and to what can grow back.  And, true to form in a port city, Hamburgers are attached to the water.  It’s not just the shores of the Elbe river, where the port is located; every river and creek that run through the city, every canal, every lake and pond is sacred.  People have consistently refused any proposal to bury a creek, no matter how insignificant.  This is why there are so many bridges in Hamburg; but that is also why there are so many green corridors; these are the shorelines of all these creeks.

Schumacher’s connectivity plan, 1919

So when Hamburg planner Fritz Schumacher drafted his city plan in 1919, he already had his green axis delineated: the shorelines of the Elbe, Alster, Osterbek, Wandse, and Bille rivers and their tributaries.  This axial plan, with green radii converging on downtown, has broadly remained unchanged over the years.  What is new is the outer ring of (almost) contiguous green space that connect the linear corridors, like a wheel rim resting on spokes.  This outer ring is not all that different from others in cities such as Hanover or Leipzig, except that it is wholly within city limits.  The city is working on connecting the missing parts; for instance, Düppelstrasse, an ordinary street in the dense neighbourhood of Altona-Nord, will be turned into a green corridor to connect two of the neighbourhood’s parks.  The extent of this ring is remarkable: 90 kilometers long, it creates a rough circle 9 to 10 kms around the downtown area.  This supports the inner ring, which neatly defines the downtown area as it is set where the ancient fortifications were; a large part of the inner ring is the famous Planten un Blomen botanical park. Detailed maps of the rings can be found on the city website here, and details about the city’s initiative (in English) here, here and here.

The outer and inner rings of the Hamburg Green Net

What that means for the visitor is that you can indeed walk pretty much everywhere outside of downtown along a green trail or in a park, away from cars and noise.  I walked (and cycled) along the Alster and the Wandse from the centre to the city limits and further, on green paths along canals (near the lake), then through green linear corridors along a natural watercourse, with cafés and parks, wetlands, dams and weirs, including a large one on the Alster with a power station and fish ladder.  These areas are very popular for walkers of all sorts, and along the trails public art can be seen.

But I also walked along a small tributary of the Osterbek, the Seebek in the Steilshoop neighbourhood (hydrology nerds: it’s a little fourth order stream).  This is an ordinary residential neighbourhood of brown brick apartment buildings.  The creek wends its way between the buildings, alternating between wooded and grassy areas.  It’s a grey December day, there are few people around, and it’s a bit forlorn.  But I wanted to see the work that NABU, the local environmental organisation, had done to rehabilitate the stream.  Out went the concrete embankments; replacing them are natural meanders and large woody debris and rocks to increase the flow depth and make the stream effective as fish habitat.  NABU also created protected nesting habitats for kingfishers, bats, and solitary bees.  But this was done in a very German way (or so it strikes me): the environmental group works with the city and together they determine priority areas for conservation, and the city funds the initiatives and supervises the work alongside NABU volunteers.

The Seebek creek winds its way between apartment blocks

I also visited Eppendorfer Moor, a 26 hectare wetland by the Alster near the Jewish Hospital.  A friend had told me it was gorgeous; he probably visited in summer (in December, there was no sign of the endangered ferns said to grow there).  Still, I could see the control weir; this wetland, like many throughout the city, is not only a green space for ducks, it also provides storage capacity for rainstorms.   This urban pond has an interesting history.  Originally it was dug for peat, then drained for farming.  The 76th regiment had their shooting range there.  After the war, the plan was to fill the wetland with rubble.  But, in a move typical of Hamburg, locals thwarted the plan.  A night-time planting operation led by Werner Hoffmann, head of the Gardens Department, forced politicians to reconsider.  (Unfortunately this action brought in non-native species.)  What is remarkable is that this wetland, one of many in the city, is only about five kilometers from downtown.

But these are far from uncommon.  I counted twenty-six rivers, and gave up count of the innumerable lakes and ponds, public parks, nature reserves, community gardens, and connecting trails.  Even the numerous cemeteries are visited for their treed park-like appearance; indeed, the Ohlsdorf cemetery, at 391 hectares, is the biggest park-like cemetery in the world.

Eppendorfer Moor in winter

This is possible, in part, because Hamburg, despite being a large European city, is not particularly densely built; the average population density is similar to Toronto, and since much of the residential sector consists of four or five story walk-up apartment buildings, this leaves much room for green space.  There is also the fact that most of the industrial activity (the harbour, the Airbus works, the chemical and metallurgical plants) are all on the south side of the Elbe (where canals, not creeks, are the main water feature), leaving the core and the north free of heavy industry.   But the key is really in the creeks; by stubbornly clinging to their creeks, Hamburgers have ensured that green linear corridors were preserved.  This is good not only for the many who like to go spazieren, but also for the ecological integrity of the city.  Birds, insects, mammals, lizards, even plants thrive when they are not cut-off from each other by roads and buildings; and of course, the creeks themselves provide the aquatic habitat that supports the terrestrial food chain.

Imagine what Vancouver would look like if its many creeks such as Brewery Creek or China Creek had not been paved over; this may give you an insight into Hamburg’s topography.  Here we speak of daylighting creeks to restore the ecological habitats and undo the damage, whereas in Hamburg, aside from the pollution issues, there was little physical damage to most of the water habitat.  This also means that the city has much more storage and absorption capacity for large storms, and so lower vulnerability to rainstorm flooding.  This is a lesson that our own suburbs, such as Surrey, are now heeding.

Crossing the Alster on the Green Network

But if the green network in Hamburg already accomplishes much of what Balderas Guzman confines to the future (stores and clean excess runoff, provides natural habitats), there is something that it cannot do: provide a viable alternative for commuters.  Yes, some people do use the network, but it’s mostly for recreational use; the distances involved are too large for walking (or even cycling, in some cases), and – this is key – there is an excellent public transit system.  A blind spot in the much-criticized book Infinite Suburbia, where Balderas Guzman’s article appears, is the lack of an acknowledgment of the environmental problems caused by suburban development, in particular poor transportation.  This is an issue that a network of connected trails and wetlands, future or extant, cannot solve by itself.

Marvelous as it may be, as in the case of Hamburg.




Celina Balderas Guzman 2017.  Suburban Wetlandia.  In: Infinite Suburbia, edited by Alan Berger and Joel Kotkin, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, pg 489.

Written by enviropaul

February 1, 2018 at 9:56 am

2 Responses

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  1. […] meant to encourage physical activity for everyone.  And what better way for this than with a well-connected network of urban trails, especially in a country that has turned spatzieren – going for a walk – into a national […]

  2. […] a previous post about Hamburg’s green network, I mentioned an article by Celina Balderas Guzman, who enjoins the reader to imagine being able to […]

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