Hamburg: Wilhelmsburg

Scheme: Wilhelmsburg IBA | City: Hamburg | Developer: IBA Hamburg | Architects: Various | Landscape Architects: Various

Resident Feedback: ‘I’m still not sure I would bring up my children here…’


WilhelmsburgWilhelmsburg is rather like Thamesmead in London. Property values are very low. The population is largely low income. Both places are detached from their host cities and even local neighbours, feeling like a world of their own: diverse communities have developed non-mainstream ways of living there. Both have troubled concrete buildings and oversized transport arteries which cut up the area. And finally, both places have a negative popular image – ‘you don’t want to go/live there’ etc. Wilhelmsburg is the opposite of HafenCity – the other side (literally and metaphorically) of Hamburg.

Hamburg is growing at 10,000 people per year, London at 100,000 (equivalent to about 0.5-1% annual growth for each) and they are both looking to their outer districts to take the strain. Crossrail arriving at Thamesmead has caused a flurry of investor activity and the key landowner Peabody (alongside the boroughs of Greenwich and Bexley) now has the challenge of how to attract long-term investment partners and tackle the future of the whole 1200 hectare peninsula. Wilhelmsburg’s regeneration was started with a citizen-led appeal to the state for inward investment in 2001, which morphed into an IBA in 2006 (a German acronym for International Building Exhibition), a vehicle for delivering housing innovation since 1901. The Hamburg IBA seven year project recently completed, having attracted investment of about £750m (about a third of which was public sector money), built 1200 new homes, refurbished 500 more and built schools and other social infrastructure as well as executing open space projects. IMG_0395The challenge was immense: how to get people to ‘Leap Across the Elbe’ (it’s a long way, in people’s hearts) and to see the 3500 hectares of the island of Wilhelmsburg (Hamburg itself is only 2000 hectares) as a destination rather than a threat. An International Garden Show in 2013 (IGS) was an important part of getting new people over the Elbe, and it left a legacy of a now successful park and sports centre at the heart of the island. There has been some inevitable and understandable challenge to the whole IBA project from various sectors of the community, perceiving it to represent a top down and institutional model of regeneration. But as the project progressed through its seven years, local community development, participation and educational work has grown in strength. A small business park was occupied enthusiastically by local enterprises, capturing local business activity already emerging and allowing it to flourish.

The immense model in the visitor centre and the subsequent long cycle trip through the island revealed how £750m can disappear very easily. My view (see caveat below) is that the investment has been too thinly spread and that a more concentrated endeavour might have had more impact. There are definite parallels with Utrecht’s Leidsche Rijn (which has been going for somewhat longer) where the sheer amount of activity and new homes has been transformative. The IBA demonstration homes form a slightly self-conscious ‘business park’ of pavilions, eager to show their green credentials but not looking like an authentic physical neighbourhood. IMG_0398Having said all that, the IBA has plans for 4000 more homes (and a lot else besides) on the island, building on the lessons learnt from those demo projects, so maybe it just needs time. One attractor is a relatively new boat service (included on your travelcard) from the island into the mainland part of Hamburg, which takes only 15 minutes. It is an intense industrial journey past working docks, containers, cranes – something we simply do not see in London. It feels good to experience a connection with that manufacturing and distribution infrastructure, which still provides a lot of local employment, though clearly not comparable to its heyday.

The complexity and multiple narratives of Wilhelmsburg mean that a day’s visit here does not allow sophisticated analysis so I apologise to the excellent staff of the now commercial venture of IBA Hamburg, which is continuing to invest in the island, if I have over-simplified.


Thanks to Stefan Laetsch and Johannes Robert from IBA for their detailed social and technical commentary delivered whilst cycling me around their neighbourhood

3 comments on Hamburg: Wilhelmsburg

  1. Hi Claire

    Just a short note to say we at Peabody are really interested in your insights from your travels around Europe.

    Our Thamesmead team are very keen to learn about what is happening on major regeneration schemes in Europe. As you know Thamesmead is a major opportunity area for London which will benefit from the arrival of Crossrail in 2019. This is a major investment which will tie it into the centre of the city in a way it has never been before. Hopefully further transport infrastructure will follow. A key will be to retain the commitment of the existing Thamesmead community who love the place where they live and have a different perspective from less well informed people who do not live there.

    I look forward to hearing more about your travels.

  2. Very interested to hear of this example, and in particular, the role of the IBA in regenerating this district. Difficult to assess of course, but was that element important? Could the outcomes have been better or the same if this had been a more ‘standard’ regeneration model?

    1. It’s so hard to tell what impact it had. I suppose what it does is to galvanise people around the same goals, and give things a bit more energy. It attracts worldwide interest and experts come over to discuss particular themes. Without the IBA, you simply don’t have that level of intellectual activity and interest. In the end though, something still has to be investable. IBAs are now becoming more international but my sense is that they are quite a German phenomenon. The Germans seem willing to invest in and value (and take pride in) academic and experimental thought relating to making buildings.

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