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Germany’s Designer City

Can Government Build Hamburg’s Next Hot Neighborhood?

Story by Nate Berg

Published on Dec 16, 2013

On the brick wall of a building beside the River Elbe in Hamburg, Germany, a small brass plaque reads “1962.” Above that is a horizontal line, and above that is the word FLUT. The line, about four feet off the ground, is the high-water mark of a flood that overwhelmed defenses and inundated about a fifth of the city, killing 315. It was the worst, though hardly the only, flood in Hamburg’s 1,200-year history.

The rising and falling of water is deeply enmeshed within the psyche of this city. Despite sitting nearly 70 miles inland from the North Sea, Hamburg sees a two- to three-meter rise in the Elbe’s tide daily. Following the tidal shifts is crucial in the city, which is home to the second busiest container port in Europe. The sea is its lifeblood, but its flood risk — increasing due to climate change — is a persistent worry in the back of Hamburg’s mind. It’s an intimate but fraught relationship between city and water, one that’s evolving in the face of rising sea levels and more frequent extreme weather events. The question of how this waterside city can coexist with rising tides has at least one possible answer in a new neighborhood developing just upriver from that brass high water mark.

HafenCity is a highly idealistic mixed-use, master-planned neighborhood rising on a 314-acre triangle of dilapidated and flood-prone harbor warehouse land. The ground level of the entire area has been raised more than eight feet to withstand the inevitable flooding of the foreseeable future. It’s a tabula rasa on a berm, and aims to dramatically rethink how neighborhoods are built.

Perched at the edge of Germany’s second largest city after Berlin, this new development is the biggest inner city redevelopment underway in Europe, slated to cost some $14 billion. (The city is driving the process, investing roughly $3.25 billion. Private investors will cover the rest.)

At present, HafenCity has 2,000 residents. The plan provides for housing for another 10,000.

Situated on the harbor, or hafen, HafenCity is a highly designed, carefully orchestrated and aspirational neighborhood development that will increase the central city’s footprint by 40 percent. It’s a literal stone’s throw from central Hamburg and an obvious place for the city to grow. If all goes according to plan, the project will add housing for roughly 12,000 people and create office space for more than 45,000 jobs. And it’ll do it with a fair amount of pizzazz. Big-name architects like Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, David Chipperfield and Richard Meier have designed buildings there, ranging from a flashy symphony hall to chic condos to conservative-but-modern takes on the office building. As the fashion is these days, the buildings meet high standards for sustainability; the city has even created its own green building certification for the project. The streets are clean, the walkways are pleasant and the outdoor spaces have the smooth finish of a corporate plaza outside a downtown skyscraper. Now about half-built, the neighborhood is the architectural equivalent of a storefront window full of well-dressed mannequins. Most are wearing stuff you probably wouldn’t, but they look good — in a conventional sort of way, at least.

Hamburg is a city of 1.8 million in a metro area of about 5 million. Only about 2,000 people currently live in HafenCity, and that scarcity is noticeable. There is a fair amount of people working there, but overall it feels like a part of town residents haven’t quite figured out yet. It’s on its way, though. Buses rumble through its streets, groups of skateboarders wax up curbs in public plazas, and cafés serve cappuccinos. A recent report in a Hamburg-themed issue of the French magazine Geo purported to find HafenCity’s first homeless person, an unemployed immigrant metal worker named Kamil Kossakowski. To some, this was a sign that the neighborhood is becoming more like a real place. But it will take much more than that to turn HafenCity into the sort of area where people at all ends of the spectrum interact — a living, breathing urban space.

Over the next 12 years leading up to the project’s full build-out in 2025, 12,000 residents and 45,000 jobs are expected to come and fill in the shell of HafenCity. It’s a future upon which the city of Hamburg is betting heavily.

HafenCity is one of the most ambitious urban redevelopment projects now being built across the world. Its peers are the largest megaprojects in cities like Seoul, where $28 billion is going toward a Daniel Libeskind-designed waterfront business district, or New York, with its $12 billion Hudson Yards development. The goal is to create an entirely new section of Hamburg’s downtown over the course of 25 years, converting city-owned former warehouse land serving the river port into a neighborhood. Part of the project’s logic is simple housing demand: Hamburg saw its population grow by more than 100,000 between 2000 and 2012 and has struggled to build new housing stock to keep pace, causing housing costs to soar.

“If you really want to slow down prices, you need to build new flats,” says Wolfgang Schmidt, state secretary of the city of Hamburg.

Meeting the demand for housing is only part of the project’s mission. Hamburg wants HafenCity to become its own global mini-city, a vibrant, diverse and thoroughly modern neighborhood that will lure international investors, tourists and residents. It’s Hamburg’s answer to Dubai, to New Songdo, to West Kowloon, to SoHo — places reinvented (or just invented) as dreamy urban settings to appeal to a globetrotting class of the moneyed elite. In early November, the Urban Land Institute named HafenCity winner of the 2013 ULI Global Award for Excellence, a sign not only of its perceived success in creating an international destination but also its likely economic prowess.

Winning awards, however, may prove to be the easy part for HafenCity. To create a community from nothing, its developers are employing a complex approach to social engineering that, if it works, could provide a model for other urbanizing areas. If it doesn’t, well, the state of Hamburg could end up losing billions of dollars. With so much at stake, the state has made sure to maintain a high degree of control over the physical parameters of the neighborhood, choosing an innovative yet hardline approach to standards of architectural, environmental and urban design. On paper, it is a seeming case study for how a democracy can build a city from scratch in the 21st Century.

On the ground, though, many questions still linger about whether this approach can create the type of neighborhood Hamburg wants, and whether instant large-scale urban development can be alchemized into a living, organic place.

The Problem with an Aspirational City

It’s just a quick walk over a small canal to go from the 19th-century central Hamburg to the gleaming, 21st-century HafenCity. The charm and historical veneer of the city is instantly replaced with a sparkling order and cleanliness. The streets and sidewalks seem almost freshly washed, and the environment has a carefully manicured feel. The old-style buildings of the city center are replaced wholesale with aggressively modern architecture. Rows of shiny, largely indistinguishable seven- and eight-story residential-retail mixers line waterfront quays, and clusters of office buildings sit in the more landlocked sections of the neighborhood. Glass and modern cladding replaces much of the red brick that makes up most of the older buildings in town. You can make a full head turn in some places without seeing any built thing older than a toddler.

With the first phase of development complete and the second half-built, more than 50 buildings have been constructed and another 35 or so are underway. Walking through the neighborhood, at least those parts mostly built out, is like being in some oversize showroom where the latest model of neighborhood is on display for prospective buyers.

On a brisk, grayish weekday, people stroll with umbrellas and business types head toward one of the area’s slightly upscale restaurants for lunch, though not as many as in the city proper a few blocks away. Public seating abounds and much of the space is restricted to cars, so it’s easy to imagine a time and temperature that might lure more people for a pleasant walk outside. Still, there’s not really much reason to come out to this sterile, waterfront edge of the city. With residential rents in the area double to triple the cost per square meter than comparable new flats in the inner city, there are few children or young people on the streets. The storefronts sell mostly the sort of not-so-practical stuff you’d see in an airport terminal. One place sells €99 fitted dress shirts. A place called Paris Bistro serves a bacon and onion tart for €7.90. There’s a store selling housewares and gadgets called “Nobodyisperfekt.” A lone shopkeeper stands at the counter of his empty store and waits, while the neighborhood around him takes shape all too slowly.

The sense of sterility is especially potent in the nearly complete western end of the project. Part of that has to do with the Elbphilharmonie, the $800 million-plus symphony hall often mentioned along with Sydney’s opera house, both for becoming the city’s icon and for running highly over budget. “On each angle of the HafenCity triangle, Hamburg would like to have something special,” says Tomas Kaiser, a local tour guide, as he leads the way into the Elbphilharmonie’s construction site. Seen from inside the curved windows of the symphony hall’s 18th floor, the other two angles — with the new headquarters of the German news magazine Der Spiegel at one end and a proposed high-rise development in the distance — are less impressive.

Skateboarders by a HafenCity bus stop. While much construction in HafenCity is still underway, the area is already accessible by a network of buses, ferries and a subway line.

The story of HafenCity’s development is largely similar to what’s been happening in many post- or partially post-industrial cities around the world. Industrial land — in Hamburg’s case, the port — falls out of use and presents a development opportunity. The containerization of Hamburg’s port in the 1960s resulted in a need for more space, so the complex moved almost entirely across the Elbe. The docklands remaining on the Hamburg side were converted into low-density warehouses, which remained in use for another few decades before expanded facilities across the river made them irrelevant. This warehouse space, sitting largely underused and within close proximity to Hamburg’s city center, did not go ignored for long.

In 1989, a local architecture festival built its theme around the idea of redeveloping the land. Big-name architects like Michael Graves and Zaha Hadid led master classes to come up with possible designs for using the land. For many Hamburg residents, this was the first time they’d even known about or considered the riverfront space. “It was a kind of blank place or a black hole,” says Kees Christiaanse, an architect and urban planner who led one of the master classes. Proposals for the site ranged from filling it in with high-rises to turning it into an ecological preserve. The architectural festival ended, and the ideas faded away.

But, quietly, then-first mayor Henning Voscherau unofficially commissioned a study in 1991 to more seriously consider how the city could acquire land from the harbor authority in the hopes of redeveloping. Hamburg is technically also one of the 16 German states, which gives it even more power to take on big projects. By 1997, the land rights had been secured. A project was announced and the city held an international competition for a master plan. Christiaanse, in conjunction with the architecture and planning firm ASTOC, were selected as the winners. Their plan was officially approved in 2000.

Today, a large-scale model of HafenCity fills the first floor of an old brick energy plant across the street from the project’s northern edge. It’s maybe 30 feet long, and there are scores of small wooden buildings laid out along its neat streets and beside its many watery inlets. From this vantage, the project’s scope is impressive: Spread across three phases from west to east, HafenCity comprises more than 100 individual buildings, 25 million square feet of gross floor area, nine miles of new promenades through the neighborhood and along the river, 70 acres of parks and plazas, three subway stations, a cruise terminal, a university, that flashy symphony hall and a range of amenities intended to serve the area’s eventual 45,000 workers and 12,000 residents, only a fraction of whom — about 2,000 people and 9,000 workers in 450 businesses — are there now.

A long list of cities around the world have found themselves in similar situations, turning old industrial sites and underused spaces into something new — a waterfront park, a warehouse-turned-loft, a new business district. London’s business-heavy Canary Wharf is a comparable project. But where HafenCity differs from this and many others is that Hamburg is not simply throwing up buildings, but instead is very actively developing an urban district specifically intended to function like a vibrant community. In the U.S., this has been attempted at a much smaller scale and with less government intervention. Look at Downtown Las Vegas, where Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is investing $350 million into reinventing the rundown city center with trendy destinations and subsidized office space for tech firms and other businesses that he hopes will help spur a San Francisco-like rebirth. Hsieh is curating a much smaller city-within-a-city, and doing it without the huge public investment made for HafenCity.

A recent report in a Hamburg-themed issue of the French magazine Geo purported to find HafenCity’s first homeless person, an unemployed immigrant metal worker named Kamil Kossakowski. To some, this was a sign that the neighborhood is becoming more like a real place.

Many in Hamburg are weary of the costs and potential risks of investing so heavily in such a small section of the city. Ingrid Breckner, a professor of urban and regional sociology at HafenCity University who has studied the neighborhood’s growth and development, says that these concerns primarily come from those on the political left. “They are complaining quite a lot, saying that in this part of the city there is so much investment,” Breckner says, adding that most of the complaints center on the symphony hall that anchors one corner of HafenCity. “They say we don’t need such a big music concert hall, and why do they spend so much money for it when, in other parts of the city, we have shortages of money for social infrastructure?”

“The more left groups in the city,” Breckner says, “they will never accept it.”

But others do, and with open arms. Jürgen Bruns-Berentelg is the dapper and professorial CEO of HafenCity Hamburg GmbH, a subsidiary company of the city that’s in charge of developing HafenCity. He’s been involved with the project since construction began in 2003 and has an intimate knowledge of the area’s streets, buildings and dreams. A geographer by training, Bruns-Berentelg is a close observer of cities, casually name-dropping developments like New York’s Atlantic Yards project and ruminating on the disadvantages of cities allowing developers to dictate how and where development occurs.

“The city is not only accumulating private investment or people or workspaces, but it’s a production of public good,” he says during a recent walk through HafenCity. “And that sometimes gets lost in the discussion of cities.” He speaks enthusiastically about beloved urbanist tropes such as walkability, mixed-use development and “activating” ground floors. “In a downtown area, we must do all that. We are convinced,” he says. “We could have easily built differently and said, ‘this is an office area.’ This character creates a different type of downtown space.”

Bruns-Berentelg often mentions the “fine-grained” mix of uses and spaces throughout HafenCity, and it’s a point worth making. Christiaanse’s master plan places great emphasis on grouping residential, office and retail uses near or even on top of each other, and prioritizes publicly accessible ground-floor uses. There’s a brasserie on the ground floor of an office building right across the street from the symphony hall, for example, and there’s a bar looking out onto one of the main plazas on the western end of the neighborhood. It’s a sharp contrast against the center city next door, where uses have been mostly separately and life abruptly stops at the end of the workday, a fate HafenCity’s planners and developers are trying hard to avoid. Christiaanse says the master plan ensures a more active mix, but also leaves room for change over time.

“It is highly flexible but at the same time it keeps a strong overall coherence, and this is based on a very strong public space structure,” he says.

The Marco Polo Tower, or as some locals call it, “the kebab,” was designed by German firm Behnisch Architekten.

Merely mixing residential, office and retail doesn’t turn a development into a living neighborhood. People do. During HafenCity’s early years, Dr. Marcus Menzl was an independent university researcher looking into the area’s social development, surveying residents — then a small collection of mostly middle- and upper-middle-class yuppies and young families — about what was working or not about the neighborhood.

In 2007, HafenCity Hamburg hired Menzl to use his findings to help the nascent neighborhood gel. He now serves as a liaison between residents and the developers, holding public meetings every three to six months to hear local concerns and gather feedback about how the neighborhood is developing — where traffic problems exist, which construction sites are too noisy, and the like. Menzl is also trying to help establish local groups and committees to take on projects of neighborhood concern. When parents complained that there weren’t enough places for kids to play, Menzl helped them start a group to plan for a park. They worked with the city to pick a site and propose ideas, and a new playground opened earlier this year. Another group has formed to organize sports clubs. Menzl has even helped establish a neighborhood council, called Netzwerk HafenCity, that has a number of working groups and committees focused on neighborhood issues.

Another key to HafenCity’s social growth is the existence of housing collectives, groups of families that invest in buildings and move in with what is essentially a pre-packaged neighborliness. These collectives, or baugemeinschaft, are relatively common in Germany, and a few have invested in buildings in HafenCity. Christiaanse says baugemeinschaft help provide an anchor of community stability and calls them “one of the built forms of the future.” Still, it won’t be easy to turn a posh district of costly buildings and high-minded attractions into a diverse neighborhood.

“For us, it’s very important to build up social structures that work by themselves — not only after starting, but in structures that work by themselves in one, two, three years,” Menzl says. “Structures that become strong enough to work without a company like HafenCity Hamburg in the background.”

It’s a strategy that Hsieh in Las Vegas has also employed. The official mission of his Downtown Project is to “build the most community-focused large city in the world… in the city you would least expect.” That hinges on listening to what residents and workers want and trying to provide it. A board full of Post-It notes lists some of the local desires, from cafés to yoga classes. Hsieh’s approach is to find a way to either create or attract the sort of businesses and amenities people want. With his $350 million investment in the project, there’s plenty of incentive for businesses to relocate to downtown Las Vegas. He hopes that residents will soon follow.

But an outside instigator like Hsieh or Menzl can only do so much. It will be up to the residents, as well as those in the future, to determine what type of neighborhood they create. HafenCity has tried to build diversity into the project, and new affordable housing requirements aim to create more of a socioeconomic mix.

“This is a years-long process,” says Thomas Sander, executive director of the Saguaro Seminar on Civic Engagement in America at Harvard University. “You can’t just wait six months and expect the community to be there.” Sander studies social capital and works closely with sociologist Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, a study on the decline of the American community. Sander says that it will take time for a project like HafenCity to develop the social capital evident in established neighborhoods, but that there are ways to try to speed up the process. He points to New Urbanist developments like Seaside, Fla. that use urban design to encourage neighborly interaction. He also argues that HafenCity’s community may benefit from the fact that it is brand new. He likens it to the first day of school. If nobody has their friends or their clique yet, they’re likely to put more effort into connecting with others.

A frequent criticism of HafenCity is that it’s a neighborhood for the affluent. The affordable housing requirements, introduced after the first stages of development, are trying to counteract that impression, but rental prices in HafenCity can reach up to €18 per square meter. To buy, the average price per square meter in HafenCity is nearly €4,000 higher than the Hamburg average. The street leading to the symphony hall is lined with magazine-ready buildings — condos, offices, coffee shops, undisturbed waterfront views. Some say it’s one of the most expensive streets in Germany, and the population of retirees, second-home owners and fashionable young families reflects that.

Claus-C. Wiegandt, a professor of geography at the University of Bonn, has visited HafenCity a number of times over the course of its development and, in 2012, published an essay on the project titled “Can Urbanity Be Planned?” He asks whether it is possible to afford all the publicly beneficial elements of HafenCity — its mix of uses, its abundant public spaces and original design — without making the area cost-prohibitive for the average Hamburger.

Though about 70 percent of HafenCity’s current 2,000 residents come from the Hamburg metro area, the city clearly expects foreign investors to put down roots (or at least money) in the neighborhood. A new cruise ship terminal is nearby, with more than half a million expected passengers to pass through its three terminals in 2013. Of those landing at HafenCity, cruise passengers will disembark onto the still-developing Überseequartier — Overseas Quarter — with street names like Singapurstrasse, Vancouverstrasse and Osakaallee.

The charm and historical veneer of the city is instantly replaced with a sparkling order and cleanliness.

Wiegandt worries that the goal of using HafenCity as a global showpiece is at odds with creating a diverse, livable neighborhood. “That’s a difficult question, how to fit to the role of a global city and the function of HafenCity as a part of the economic development of Hamburg and also the role of a normal small neighborhood,” he says. “That is a problem, I think. It’s difficult to solve this.”

Bruns-Berentelg believes both goals can be achieved, and that the social engineering of its residents will be critical. “The integration of different socioeconomic groups is an important element in new developments,” he says, “because when you have the size of HafenCity you run the risk, even with affordable housing, that at the end of the day it is a bipolar social structure.”

Loretta Lees, a University of Leicester geography professor, is also skeptical about whether the project’s goals for urbanity can be realized. She argues that HafenCity’s approach may only represent a new form of the old top-down planning style. “HafenCity could be charged with reinventing the modernist comprehensive redevelopment schemes of the past with all their echoes of social engineering,” she writes, “a charge that other large redevelopment projects premised on ideas about diversity and mixed use face, for urbanity in HafenCity is being socially engineered.

Meanwhile, Christiaanse shakes off the criticism that HafenCity is just for the global elite.

“It’s a district that’s governed by the market, and I think it is an illusion to think that urban production is not driven primarily by the economy,” he says. “That is really an illusion by many people — that you can do urban planning only from an affordable and housing-for-everybody perspective. Yes, it’s a marketplace, but this marketplace has a social component, and, in that sense, for me, it tends to be an acceptable balance. But it can also change over time, when the development completes, and after it integrates more with the general market mechanism of the whole city.”

How long that takes is anybody’s guess. But the bones exist to connect the area with the rest of Hamburg. The city’s subway line runs through the length of HafenCity, with two stops in operation and a third on the drawing board. Riding the escalator out of the middle stop brings you to the surface of a non-place, with empty plots on almost all sides. The one part of this section that’s almost complete is the main building of HafenCity University, a school that began operations in 2006 focusing specifically on urban planning and architecture. Though the building isn’t expected to open until springtime, it has a front row seat for what will undoubtedly be a subject of classroom discussion for decades to come.

The Donut and the Kebab

For a city with more than 1,000 years of history, Hamburg is deceptively new. It doesn’t look it, at least not in most parts. Instead, it carries that typical European veneer of sophisticated agedness, a Georgian-Baroque-Renaissance mix of styles that gives the impression that the buildings have been there for 300 or 400 years. In fact, little of Hamburg has been around for much more than 150. A fire in 1842 destroyed about a quarter of the inner city. Allied bombing during World War II leveled most of the city and its waterfront. Then there’s the repeated flooding, including some even higher (though less devastating) than the 1962 flood.

As the city rebuilt itself over and over again, it tried to maintain some of its historical patina while adapting to new conditions and realities. The flood protections and dykes grew stronger, the buildings were restored or rebuilt, and the port continued to boom. In the 21st century, Hamburg’s pulse is, by most measures, healthy. Though Germany as a whole has an aging population and a negative population growth rate, Hamburg has grown by more than 10 percent since 1980. Its economy — long a national leader, with an emphasis on business and trade — is thriving, especially in comparison with nearby Berlin, where the unemployment rate is more than 5 percentage points higher. As HafenCity grows, the economies of both cities are likely to diverge even further.

It’s not only the social strata that are being engineered in HafenCity. Buildings here are notably different than what can be found in the rest of Hamburg, and that’s mostly a result of HafenCity Hamburg’s tight control over the development process and the aesthetics of the built environment. Each property in HafenCity goes through the seemingly onerous process of an architectural competition. Any investor or developer who wants to buy a plot of land must first buy an option on the land and then go through a juried competition to select from a number of submitted architectural designs for the parcel in question. And each plot is sold separately, ensuring a mix of owners and projects. It’s a roughly 1.5-year process of planning and designing before a developer is given the green light to purchase and begin building — a timeline and regimen that might dissuade developers from even bothering. But Bruns-Berentelg calls this better for both HafenCity and developers.

“When one understands what he wants to build, potentially the costs are reduced,” he says. “At least, the costs are clearly better determined, so one can look at additional tenants at the same time, and naturally the bank financing becomes far more straightforward and reduces the risk.” He notes that, unlike in the U.S., the city is providing all the infrastructure in HafenCity. “We are generating a framework in which optimal risk-reduced development-based decisions can be made,” he says.

Bruns-Berentelg argues this reduced risk means that the competition for development sites is more about who has the better idea rather than who has more money. And the architectural competitions have so far resulted in at least some interesting projects in the district.

The idea of developing Hamburg’s riverfront was sparked in 1989 at a local architecture festival. Before then, says lead planner Kees Christiaanse, residents regarded it as “a kind of blank place or a black hole.”

More than 50 architects have built projects in HafenCity so far, and a total of 200 have projects in various states of development. They range from international superstars, like Herzog and de Meuron, who designed the delayed and costly but stunning Elbphilharmonie symphony hall, to lesser-known local firms. American architect Richard Meier designed a set of simple and elegant office buildings near the western section’s grassy public square, one a crystal jewelry box of a building, the other an inoffensive 12-story oval column. Near a waterfront plaza, British architect David Chipperfield designed a straightforward office building that seems transplanted from a hospital campus. Rem Koolhaas and OMA designed a donut-shaped science museum along the waterfront, though that project has stalled and seems unlikely to be realized. Henning Larsen Architects of Denmark designed the vaguely microwave oven-like headquarters of Der Spiegel, another of HafenCity’s intended iconic buildings. The fanciest building so far, aside from the concert hall, is the Marco Polo Tower by German firm Behnisch Architekten, which some locals refer to as the kebab skewer for its lumpy, meaty shape. Prices per square meter can top €10,000.

Not everyone thinks the bet on high-end architecture was a good one. “It’s too designed,” says Julian Petrin, founder of Nexthamburg, a local urban planning group that focuses on improving public participation in the city’s development. He raises concerns that the neighborhood will become too homogeneous, despite the starchitecture. The area was one of the city’s only public lands to come up for development in the last 20 years, according to Petrin. “It could have been more diverse, more interesting,” he says. “It’s very uniform.”

Joachim Thiel agrees. A senior lecturer in Urban and Regional Economic Studies at HafenCity University, Thiel has been following the development of HafenCity since he moved to Hamburg in 1997. “I don’t like the very chain-dominated retail and restaurant structure,” he says. “It’s very standardized.” He says there are only two or three owner-operated businesses left in HafenCity, and that two others recently had to close down. It’s simply too expensive for smaller businesses to afford.

But Thiel does think HafenCity has done some things right. He’s a fan of the public space, especially on the waterfront, and approves of the high design standards. “I really appreciate the degree of ambition they pursued,” he says. “From a professional point of view, I find it interesting what’s going on there. [But] I wouldn’t like to live there.”

The ambitions of HafenCity’s planners go deeper than design. That brass line marking the 1962 flood is an unofficial guide for urban development in this waterfront district, where city officials and planners are thinking much more carefully about how to design spaces for safer coexistence with water. In terms of environmental consideration, HafenCity is a model. All of the mini-city’s structures adhere to strict environmental and building standards. Strong floodwalls guard against future deluges, many buildings have double-layered outer shells for better installation, and each unit uses as little energy as possible. HafenCity even developed its own green building standard, HafenCity Ecolabel, because existing standards like LEED didn’t go far enough.

“The integration of different socioeconomic groups is an important element in new developments, because when you have the size of HafenCity you run the risk, even with affordable housing, that at the end of the day it is a bipolar social structure.”

HafenCity, like much of Hamburg, uses something called district heating, which uses a series of insulated pipes to distribute heat generated from a centralized energy plant. It’s one of the most carbon efficient methods of heating available. There’s even a power plant located on site to process and store energy from the various photovoltaic and wind energy generators scattered throughout the district. Vattenfall, the European energy company, is working in HafenCity to develop smart energy projects that integrate decentralized renewables, in-home storage, electric cars and hydrogen buses, and a burgeoning system of smart meters and demand-based pricing. The city serves as a testing ground for these projects, says Vattenfall innovation director Oliver Weinmann. They’re trying out ideas that work in HafenCity first, then trying to develop the business models to move them beyond the district.

HafenCity is certainly experimental. Visiting the city from the U.S., perhaps the most obvious innovation is that the government, not a group of developers, is leading the neighborhood’s growth. While this approach is increasingly common in Europe, U.S. cities often prefer (or perhaps merely allow) the private sector to take the lead.

“In terms of changing the city, developing tremendous quality of the inner city actually requires looking into the potential of market structure change. That has nothing to do with socialism,” Bruns-Berentelg says, quick to the defense if even a hint of the s-word is detected. “But it has a lot to do with an original American idea: Competition produces innovation.”

Elements of HafenCity will likely find their way into other new developments in the coming years, from its public-private foundation to its architectural competitions to its standards of green design. But Hamburg officials understand that HafenCity, with its sprawling footprint and enormous price tag, is a breed of its own. In fact, that’s part of the appeal. They’re hoping that the entire district will continue to stand out from the rest of the city, becoming something of an icon for Hamburg. But that’s part of the key issue: HafenCity is meant to become both a showpiece and a living neighborhood. How those two intended realities coexist is an ongoing struggle in this nascent district.

Despite all the talk and money, the area is still mostly a dead zone. It takes a few calls to the taxi company to get a car to come. Many of its streets don’t even show up on the map yet.

A $14 Billion Bet

Neighborhoods do not emerge in an instant. The social structures, the street life, the local economy — these all take time to develop. HafenCity is hoping to speed up this process, and in some ways it has. Its planning has included all the building blocks one would expect to see in a functioning neighborhood: The mix of uses, the inclusion of open and public spaces, the connection to the waterfront, the planned diversity of residents, the flood-resistant design so respectful of the water that surrounds it. If all goes as planned, HafenCity will be a thriving neighborhood by 2025. But things rarely go as planned.

Though critics are quick to argue that any brand new development like this will surely fail at becoming an organic neighborhood, many concede that HafenCity has a lot of the pieces that could help it get close. The project also benefits from local conditions and customs that give it a better chance of achieving some of its goals. Local ownership of the land and the unique developmental process instituted by the city give it a great degree of control over its built environment. The focus on social development will likely nudge the neighborhood and its residents toward the type of community that would otherwise emerge more slowly and organically.

With only about half the project built and less than half of its population in place, questions remain about how the neighborhood will look and function when nominally completed in 2025. One question is how the far eastern section, still in the planning stage, will connect and mesh with the western side. The eastern side will be mostly residential and carries a requirement for one-third affordable housing. Menzl says integrating this population with the more affluent sections of HafenCity will be a challenging but potentially fruitful opportunity.

“We’ll have a change in the social structure of the residents, and I think we will also have a change in the neighborhood structure within HafenCity,” he says. “It will be very interesting to see how it works together.”

Christiaanse seems fairly sanguine about HafenCity’s fate. He argues that it will continue to evolve, and that even though the neighborhood may seem totally different from the city around it, what happens within HafenCity has more to do with people than aesthetics.

“If you look at 19th-century neighborhoods in Germany, especially Berlin and Hamburg, you see that the building substance more or less stays the same, but the inner software of people and program is completely changing,” Christiaanse says. “And I think the task of people like us is to provide an urban structure that can accommodate changes in society over time in the right way.”

HafenCity has made a valiant effort at trying to mold a real neighborhood out of nothing. And it could work. But it’s hard not to be skeptical about how close it will get to achieving its goals. The major fault line may be the simple fact of its scope: The site is so big and the project includes so much that it’s difficult to imagine, even over a 25-year planning-development-construction timeline, that all of the parts can operate in conjunction. The nature of neighborhoods is that they come together piece by piece, year by year, in a constant state of evolution and change. HafenCity has perhaps too much of an endgame in mind, and is trying too hard to get there quickly.

Neighborhoods are cohesive organisms that rely on both people and places. HafenCity has the places part covered, if a bit antiseptically. The people part is the bigger uncertainty, and what shape the community takes will depend on how its people get along. In an instant neighborhood, the early days will be and already are strange. But the social networks will grow and spread, piecemeal, and the sparkling modernity of the built environment will gradually become less glaring. If there’s only one sure thing about HafenCity, it’s that the neighborhood — like all neighborhoods — will evolve over time. And that evolution will happen in ways its planners and developers could never have anticipated.

Disclosure: Travel expenses for this story were provided by Hamburg Marketing GmbH.

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

Nate Berg is a writer and journalist covering cities, architecture and urban planning. Nate’s work has been published in a wide variety of publications, including the New York Times, NPR, Wired, Metropolis, Fast Company, Dwell, Architect, the Christian Science Monitor, LA Weekly and many others. He is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities and was previously an assistant editor at Planetizen.