An old German city shows a new green logic
During his peak, pole vaulter Sergei Bubka was his own competition. Every now and then he would increase the height ever so slightly. But come world championships or Olympics he would flex his pole definitely and spring to alien heights. Hamburg wants to become the Sergei Bubka of Green Cities, and it just spectacularly raised the bar. Integrating green and natural habitats with urban landscapes is still a niche area. In case you are thinking that it’s just a question of a few manicured parks here and there, aka DDA style, it really isn’t. It is niche because it needs a complete overhaul of the current thinking on urban development and city living. It is niche because it needs a reorientation of the way we understand the spatial and territorial dynamics of urban spaces. It’s niche because it needs us to abandon our cars. Yes, it’s that niche.
At a time when India and China are proudly showcasing their car collections, like a kid unveiling his dinky ones, Hamburg wants to go car-free in 10 years. During the same period both Mumbai, at one million cars, and Shanghai, at three million, are expected to double the number of cars on their roads. So how does Hamburg plan to do something that seems unthinkable in the first place? In unraveling the ‘how’ of the German city’s intricate plans lies many a lesson for growing Asian cities with global aspirations. There are four fundamental pillars upon which Hamburg is so confidently placing its audacious goal.
The first is conceptual and deals with the assiduous manner in which Hamburg has integrated green and open spaces into its urban thinking and planning, administrative mechanisms, zoning tools and overall city development.
The benefits of green spaces are no longer disputable. There are numerous scientific studies linking the presence of green spaces to better mental health, lower absences at work, cleaner lungs, and even stable marriages and personal relationships. Any city with global aspirations cannot afford to ignore green and open spaces as part of its larger urban development plans. Hamburg already has close to 25 percent green cover, and wants to increase it to 40 percent by 2024. But that’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is the manner in which the city wants to integrate its existing green spaces, and the new ones that it’s establishing, by a network of pathways that would be exclusively designed for walking and cycling. In short, Hamburg wants to promote our two legs to do all our travelling.
Building a city as a network of green and open spaces, Hamburg represents a handful of cities – Copenhagen is the leader – which are fundamentally redefining the conventional thinking on urban development. The traditional approach is to develop a city around its business districts, industrial-commercial centres and residential areas. Hamburg is chucking this cluster-based linear approach out of the window. Hamburg is saying let the city grow around its green areas and urban forests. It’s a radical change of perspective and thought process. To understand how radical, consider this: the green network will even connect animal habitats allowing bugs, insects and, of course, animals to crisscross the city without running the risk of being run over.
The second is operational and deals specifically with how the city has been promoting walkable and bikeable urbanity, integrating it gradually as part of its larger urban development plans. The city has taken a leaf out of Copenhagen, networking the entire city with cycling paths, walking trails and no-vehicle zones. Like Paris, Hamburg has also started experimenting with ‘hop-on hop-off’ cycle stands. Actually it’s quite simple. The idea is to have cycle stands in each neighbourhood from which people can just borrow one, ride it to wherever they want to go, and park it elsewhere. It’s becoming a popular way to travel from home to the transportation hubs like railway and bus stations. Of particular note in the city’s evolution as a green and sustainable urban habitat is the HafenCity. It’s a new large urban development project in the Hamburg-Mitte district.
What’s impressive about the entire project is not the primary focus on walking and cycling tracks, but the manner in which sensitive environmental zones of the area, rich in coastal life, rivulets, streams and channels, are nurtured, maintained and integrated with daily life. The third is technological and deals with how the city has increasingly integrated its contemporary built environments with a suite of digital technologies. These range from integrated smart cards based upon Radio Frequency Identification, cards that allow access to information, facilities, civic amenities, geolocational services and systems to increasingly sophisticated immersive and emotive display systems that allow an average citizen to access varied information in all environments.
What this means is that a resident of Hamburg can go to any automated information booth and choose from a variety of display and audio systems to get specific information. It’s innovative in itself, but what’s even more so is the way the city is embedding such systems in all sorts of green spaces (parks to forests), making a citizen curious to know about various birds, trees and historical facts. In fact, one can actually listen to podcasts and audio clips to know the sounds of each bird, giving a citizen a unique opportunity to become an aware and involved stakeholder.
The fourth relates to governance, specifically electronic governance. The city has in the last 30 years meticulously dematerialised large chunks of the governance processes. This has removed several layers of bureaucracy, putting the people directly in touch with services. Not many know, but the German bureaucracy is notorious for its wheel-within-wheels processes. So, for instance, the Hamburg hop-in, hop-off bicycle system can be accessed with the same integrated travel smartcard that’s used for trains, buses, shuttle services and any other form of public transportation, including Segways.
Again, there are plans to ensure that citizen has the option of registering at any of the city council’s various web interfaces and can in a safe and secure manner access personalised pages from any public terminal. Think of a Google+ kind of single sign on, a dashboard of personalised civic services that displays everything from the status of your travel card to your electricity bill. Over the years, Hamburg has brought together a host of services under a common digital umbrella, removing physical bureaucratic mediation. Taken together, these four fundamental pillars are converting Hamburg into a city of the future. It’s becoming an urban habitat equipped to fight climate change. It’s involving people in daily governance in new ways. It’s also showing that a green logic not only makes conceptual sense, but also makes for practical logic for sustainable living and improved quality of life for every citizen.
By arrangement with Governance Now
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