All things environmental

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

Car free living in Hamburg

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Car-free living by the canal

Last week the Squamish First Nation announced their intention to build residential towers on their land at the foot of the Burrard Street Bridge.  Predictably, some Vancouverites are looking askance at the idea of having 6000 units built there, let alone that most will not have attached parking.  (Since this is band land, it does not have to abide by Vancouver’s zoning by-laws.)

This would have been a parking lot, not a playground, if the Kornweg complex had not opted for car-free living

Is it realistic to have housing without parking?  This reminded me of some of the residential complexes I saw in Hamburg, Germany, that are similarly autofrei, that is, have much fewer parking spots than suites.

The first one I encountered was the Kornweg housing cooperative.  I discovered it by accident, in one of my walks along the Alster river.  The area struck me as unusually quiet and green.  It’s a relatively small group of clustered three-story buildings, rowhouse style.  When I enquired, I found that it was a housing cooperative that had been originally started and planned by 30 families.  The land, quite central, was not cheap, but being able to do away with the construction costs of parking certainly helped.  The buildings, fairly recent, are of course energy efficient, producing their own hot water and heat through solar energy.  There are now about 220 apartments on the 9.3-hectare site, of which the co-housing core of 60 is designed as car-free.

According to an article in the Hamburger Abendblatt, which I consulted afterwards, the system works well, as a true co-housing should:

“We were looking for a colorful settlement in which people live together instead of side by side,” says [resident Sabine] Drieschner. It was supposed to be in the middle of the city, yet calm and green. And it was intended to show that even ordinary earners can afford climate-friendly living.

The residents benefit from the usual advantages of co-housing: they look after one another (sharing daycare duties, for instance; there are many kids in the complex), get cheaper bulk deliveries of organic food, and negotiated a better electricity rate.  But being car-free has other advantages: where the parking lot would have been are gardens, an orchard, and a football pitch for the kids.  Nobody misses having a car; the commuter train station Klein Borstel is nearby, many commute by bike (there is a bike repair shop in the complex), and car-shares are available.

The Saarlandstrasse car-free complex framed by two of Hamburg’s many canals

This development had been inspired by the older Saarlandstrasse complex, which I visited afterwards.  This project, as opposed to Kornweg, was originally a city initiative from 1994 meant to turn a former 3.5 ha industrial site into a residential complex.  After polling nearby residents, the city decided to go with a parking requirement of only 0.15 parking place per unit, instead of the usual city requirement of 0.8.  The site, mostly middle-rise residential, also has a few commercial suites.  And it is gorgeous; it is bordered on two sides by canals (the Osterbek and the Barmbeker Stichkanal).  The lifestyle is fairly similar to that of Kornweg; it is also a co-housing system.  But this is a very pragmatic arrangement, not an ideologically anti-car commune, something that the Abendblatt stressed with surprise back in 2000.  According to the article,

most who live here have a driver’s license and are not afraid of driving. When [resident] Ruth Cordes and her family visit their relatives in the countryside in Schleswig-Holstein, they sometimes rent a car because they can not get there by public transport. “However, the car is unsuitable for inner-city traffic, so I do not use car sharing,” says Ruth Cordes. The car-free project works well, because the settlement is centrally located and S-Bahn and U-Bahn stations as well as bus stops are within walking distance. Everything else is handled by bike.

When I walked through the area, as in Kornweg I noticed how green and quiet the complex was. There was positively luxuriant growth along the canals.  There were toys strewn around (they don’t get run over), but also a number of canoes here and there.  Yeah, I thought, I could live here (I don’t think they’d let me, though…).  And of course, the whole was also built according to the latest energy-saving techniques.

This is no longer a new concept, and the savings that result from doing away with parking are well known.  You may want to consult Donald Shoup’s now classic The High Cost of Free Parking; but if you prefer a quicker idea (Shoup clocks in at 700 pages), here’s a short video made to stir things up in Ottawa:

It’s certainly worth comparing Vancouver and Hamburg here.  Both cities have been enamoured of car-oriented development, and then both had to backtrack.  But Vancouver is still stuck in its obsolete set of zoning regulations, mandatory parking included.  Hamburg, on the other hand, took the initiative to plan Saarlandstrasse, a development oriented around very little parking.  This was in 1994, in the face of general skepticism by planners, but the city carried out consultations, got a positive response from would-be tenants, and went ahead.  In Vancouver, we still expect the future to look like in the Jetsons.

But do these ideas apply to the Kitsilano proposal?  It may be near open water (False Creek), but this development would look nothing like the Hamburg autofrei zones I described; much bigger, taller, and denser, it’s of a different scale altogether. Part of why Hamburg’s work so well is because they are so well served by high-capacity mass transit. Not so Kitsilano. It has a decent bus service but there is no skytrain nearby.  The band says that many things are accessible by walking.  But ultimately, they can provide as little or as much parking as they like; it’s up to them.  This may finally spur the redevelopment of the nearby train tracks that were briefly used by tramways during the 2010 Olympics, among other possibilities.  It remains to be seen how this will turn out.  But if it provides, as announced, a large number of rental suites, at a cost lowered because of lack of parking, I can only say “alleluia”.  This is so badly needed in the city.  If it forces Vancouver, and its nimby neighbourhoods, into the twenty-first century with its appropriate zoning, even better. Now about that mass transit…


Written by enviropaul

November 13, 2019 at 11:17 am

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  1. […] via Car free living in Hamburg — All things environmental […]

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