Ecocity Snapshots Real cities

Ecocity Snapshots, Chapter 3: Hamburg, Germany: The business of sustainability

Written by Rick Pruetz

Hamburg proves that “greener” and “growing” are not mutually exclusive terms. Located 50 miles up the Elbe Estuary from the North Sea, Hamburg is Germany’s second-largest city and Europe’s third busiest port. At the same time, this city of 1.8 million people is pursuing an ambitious path to sustainability. Hamburg was named the 2011 European Green Capital for its green network, for its fight against climate change, and for transforming brownfields into innovative ecodistricts. By requiring and incentivizing significant reductions in green-house gas emissions, a public-private partnership here has also spawned a renewable energy sector that greatly benefits the regional economy.

Ecocity Snapshots: Learning from Europe’s Greenest Places” is Ecocity Builders Vice President Rick Pruetz’ latest book, profiling 19 cities and their efforts to rebuild in balance with nature. We are publishing each chapter on Ecocities Emerging to make this important work available online. Visit Rick’s page for all chapters posted so far or get the paperback at Amazon.

The City’s vision of Grunesnetz, or Green Network, began a century ago when Fritz Schumacher, the City’s Chief Building Officer from 1909 to 1933, proposed a diverse system of neighborhood greenspace interconnected with greenways allowing residents access to larger parks and the countryside. The design concept resembles a web consisting of spokes radiating from a downtown lake and canal system at the confluence of the Elbe and Alster rivers. These radial spokes are linked by an inner ring created when the old city walls and fortifications were largely replaced by a system of gardens and parks, including Planten un Blomen, a botanical garden that offers a natural refuge in the heart of the City (Hamburg, undated; European Commission, 2011).

The Green Network reappeared in plan after plan during the 20th Century, reaffirming the idea of interlinked open spaces aimed at enabling people to move around the city or from the city to outlying forests using footpaths and cycle tracks undisturbed by road traffic and surrounded by greenery. On the Alsterwanderweg trail, which parallels the Alster River, cyclists and hikers travel by linked greenways from downtown to the reserves that largely dominate the northern end of Hamburg and now serve as a permanent home for numerous species. Hamburg considers the Green Network to be essential to the City’s identity as well as its recreational, mobility and biodiversity goals. As a result, Hamburg is committed to an ongoing program of protecting the existing system and closing its remaining gaps (Hamburg, undated; European Commission, 2011).

Figure 3-1: The Alsterwanderweg invites walking or biking from central Hamburg to the surrounding greenbelt.

The European Green Capital judges were also impressed with the sheer amount of greenspace in Hamburg. Almost 90 percent of all residents live within 300 meters of parkland, which largely explains why Hamburg’s 1,460 parks experience over one million visitors every week. Hamburg’s 31 nature reserves occupy roughly eight percent of Hamburg’s total land area, the highest percentage in Germany. Hamburg places 19 percent of its land area within 36 landscape protection areas that conserve cultural and ecological resources as well as landscape features. In addition, Hamburg’s ubiquitous lakes, rivers and canals are generally accessible to the public, including the 184-hectare Alster Lakes that provide habitat and an aquatic playground in the heart of the City (European Commission, 2009; European Commission, 2011; Hamburg, 2008; Hamburg, 2012).

Hamburg is growing its busy port while simultaneously restoring the health of the environmentally-significant Elbe Estuary. Although some Hamburg docks have become obsolete, the port still occupies ten percent of the City and harbor activity as a whole continues to grow. This is Europe’s third-busiest port, handling 100 million tons of cargo annually and generating over 150,000 jobs. To reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, the port minimizes truck traffic in favor of rail transfer, making the Port of Hamburg the largest freight rail hub in Europe. The Port’s shipping channel is the ecologically-important Elbe Estuary, a Natura 2000 site. Consequently, Hamburg and its partners have embarked on a unique contaminant-remediation program and created the 137-square kilometer Hamburg Wadden Sea National Park in the Elbe Estuary, now a UNESCO world heritage site, which preserves the largest mudflat on Earth and habitat for over 2,000 animal species (European Commission, 2011; Hamburg, 2008; Hamburg Port Authority, 2013).


Figure 3-2: The Alster Lakes add a blue dimension to a radial spoke in Hamburg’s Green Network.

Hamburg reduced per-capita CO2 emissions over 25 percent between 1990 and 2005 by launching renewable energy projects, forming energy-saving partnerships with private industry and expanding its already-green transportation infrastructure. Almost all Hamburg residents live within 300 meters of high-frequency public transportation. For the last half century, a single transportation association has steadily built ridership by coordinating metro, bus and regional rail services. In 2011, the Hamburg Transportation Association reported 691 million passengers, a 2.2 percent increase over the previous year (Berrini and Bono, 2010; Hamburg, 2008; Hamburg, 2012).

Although Hamburg is not as bicycle friendly as Copenhagen or Amsterdam, it nevertheless earns a place in the top 20 cities worldwide. Hamburg already had more than 1,700 kilometers of cycle lanes in 2008 when it adopted an ambitious strategy aimed at doubling bike traffic by expanding the network and improving safety. One year later, Hamburg launched StadtRAD, its bike share system that was logging over 2 million trips per year by 2012. Hamburg further motivates cycling by enforcing a 30 kilometer per hour speed limit on almost half of its street system (Hamburg, 2008; Union Cycliste Internationale, 2014).

Hamburg leads by example in reducing CO2 emissions. The City cut energy use by 22 percent in 65,000 units of public housing and recycles or incinerates all municipal waste, fueling district heating and electrical generation systems rather than filling landfills. The City converted a contaminated landfill into Energy Hill, where wind turbines and solar collectors now provide electricity for 4,000 homes. Hamburg also transformed a World War II flak tower into Energy Bunker, which generates electricity with photovoltaics and warms 3,000 homes using a massive water reservoir heated by solar thermal, biomass, wood and waste heat from a nearby industrial plant. As an educational exhibit, complete with café, the Energy Bunker attracted almost 100,000 visitors in the first six months that it was open to the public (Dezeen, 2014; Hamburg, 2008; Hamburg 2012; Hamburg, 2016).

Since trade and industry produce roughly half of Hamburg’s carbon emissions, the City has created various incentives for the private sector to reduce energy use and mitigate climate change. In 2003, the City and its partners launched the Eco-Partnership Project, which provides free consultation and the recognition of a Green Capital logo to firms that voluntarily commit to resource conservation measures surpassing standard requirements. When the 1000th firm joined the Eco-Partnership in 2015, Hamburg noted that competitiveness was motivating companies to join the partnership in addition to more conventional inducements. The Partnership also manages a Companies for Resource Protection program that provides financial support to private firms as well as technical advice. As of 2012, the energy-saving investments of this public-private effort was annually saving 163,700 tons of carbon emissions, 26,500 tons of waste and 712,300 cubic meters of water (European Commission, 2011; Hamburg, 2012; Hamburg, 2015).


Figure 3-3: A public garden in Hamburg’s inner green ring surrounding the downtown.

 Hamburg aims to contain sprawl by transforming obsolete industrial, port, rail, post office and military facilities into sustainable neighborhoods and ecodistricts. HafenCity, a former dock and industrial area, is adjacent to downtown and expands the city center by 40 percent. Served by a new metro line, this 155-hectare new town will accommodate 12,000 residents and 45,000 workers in energy-efficient buildings served by a district heating system fueled by renewable energy sources. Described as a “City of Plazas, Parks and Promenades”, 23 percent of HafenCity is public open space with another 14 percent secured by public access rights. HafenCity is also the home of Hamburg’s newest architectural icon, Elbe Philharmonic Hall, which perches atop an old warehouse and ranks as Hamburg’s tallest occupied building (European Commission, 2011; Hamburg, 2008; Kreutz, 2010).

Using incentives and regulations to minimize waste, Hamburg is growing a robust green industrial sector. More than 600 renewable energy companies were located in and around Hamburg as of 2009. To further expand this exportable expertise, the City formed the Hamburg Renewable Energy Cluster in that year, networking private firms with institutions, universities and NGOs to inspire and support ongoing research and development. By 2011, two global manufacturers of wind turbines located in Hamburg and the Renewable Energy Cluster had grown to 163 companies, putting Hamburg on the map as a world center for alternative energy innovation (European Commission, 2011; Hamburg, 2012). By building a livable city with a green network that appeals to the creative class and responding to the challenges of a finite planet, Hamburg is demonstrating that leadership in sustainability can be a catalyst rather than a deterrent to economic prosperity.

Cover Photo: Andreas Praefcke, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Chapter 3: Hamburg, Germany: The business of sustainability

Berrini, Maria, and Bono, Lorenzo. 2010. Measuring Urban Sustainability: Analysis of the European Green Capital Award 2010 & 2011 Application Round. Brussels: European Commission.

Dezeen. 2014. Abandoned concrete bunker converted into a green power plant by IBA Hamburg. Retrieved on June 2, 2016 from

European Commission. 2009. The Expert Panel’s Evaluation Work & Final Recommendations for the European Green Capital Award of 2010 and 2011. Brussels: European Commission.

European Commission. 2011. Hamburg: European Green Capital 2011. Brussels: European Commission.

Hamburg, 2008. Application for European Green Capital Award 2010-2011. Hamburg: City of Hamburg.

Hamburg. 2012. Hamburg – European Green Capital 2011 Final Report. Hamburg: City of Hamburg.

Hamburg. 2015. GALAB Laboratories is Hamburg’s 1000th Partner of the Environment. Retrieved on June 2, 2016 from

Hamburg. 2016. Four Renewable Energy Projects from Hamburg. Retrieved on May 31, 2016 from

Hamburg Port Authority. 2013. Greening the Gateway to the World: Sustainability Report 2011 – 2012. Hamburg: Hamburg Port Authority.

Hamburg. Undated. GrunesNetzHamburg: The Landscape Programme Hamburg. Hamburg: City of Hamburg.

Kreutz, Stefan. 2010. Case Study Report – HafenCity, Hamburg. Brussels: European Commission.

Union Cycliste Internationale. 2014. Hamburg: high on Europe’s list of bike-friendly cities. Retrieved on June 2, 2016 from

About the author

Rick Pruetz

Rick Pruetz, FAICP, is Vice President of the Ecocity Builders Board and an urban planner who writes about sustainability, most recently Ecocity Snapshots: Learning from Europe’s Greenest Places and Smart Climate Action through Transfer of Development Rights.