Is it possible to create a neighborhood from scratch?


    The eighth in a series of Keystone Crossroads posts about German cities and the challenges they share with Pennsylvania.

    The eighth in a series of Keystone Crossroads posts about German cities and the challenges they share with Pennsylvania.

    On the Elbe River in Hamburg, Germany, there’s a riverfront district called HafenCity. It’s made up of slender pieces of land that are divided by canals and connected by footbridges. The district is lined with modern glass buildings and futuristic-looking public spaces, but also historic red brick warehouses that have green copper roofs and look like little castles.

    The land used to be an active port, inaccessible to residents. It was “in the city center but was basically exclusive space, like a military base almost,” said Jürgen Bruns-Berentelg, CEO of HafenCity GmbH, the district’s management company.

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    Two decades ago, Hamburg decided the land was worth more as a neighborhood than as a port. The city estimated the area could provide office space for 35,000 workers and homes for 14,000 people. The city bought the land, and in 2003, got developers to start building apartments, retail shops, offices and cultural spaces here. All told, public and private investment in the district will total an estimated $12.3 billion.

    Hamburg is trying to do the same thing as some developers in Pennsylvania: turn old industrial land into a place people want to live and work. That means making this place feel like an actual neighborhood, not just a collection of buildings.

    HafenCity has appointed Marcus Menzl, a sociologist, to the task. Menzl says neighborhood building comes down to giving residents a feeling of belonging. That feeling might come from something as simple as running into people you know on the street, he says. “That type of encounter…it’s difficult to organize it, yeah?” Menzl said. But it is possible to organize festivities for neighbors to meet each other, he says, and HafenCity does.

    HafenCity also creates a feeling of belonging by getting residents to take an active role in the district, Menzl says.

    In 2008, a group of local parents wanted to build a public playhouse for kids. HafenCity said okay, under a couple conditions. The parents had to agree to operate it and to raise the money. They did, and the playhouse opened about six months later. Through this project, “it was possible to create new local actors who take responsibility for their quarter, Menzl said. “This is the idea.”

    HafenCity has also tried to foster community in the way the district is built, creating outdoor public spaces and requiring that the ground floors of buildings be accessible to the public.

    Life in the district

    Jan Ehlert and his partner Daniel Passon moved to HafenCity last year. Ehlert says HafenCity feels like home. He regularly runs into people he knows around town. “You go to the café next door and you meet your haircutter there, and you go to the haircutter and you meet your barman there,” Ehlert said. “It’s like living in a village in a way, though it’s in the middle of the city.”

    It’s not clear if that’s because of the city’s efforts. Ehlert and Passon don’t usually go to social events or planning meetings hosted by the district.

    And there are only about 2,000 residents in HafenCity at the moment, so it is likely residents will see familiar faces. Also, since many residents are new to the district, they’re open to making new friends.

    Ehlert does credit HafenCity for creating public spaces that give neighbors a place to gather.

    Other people say HafenCity has a way to go before it feels like a neighborhood. Nils Hergert, a board member at Subshell GmbH, a software company located in HafenCity, says the district is lacking a certain something. “It’s when you leave the office that you feel like you are somewhere; you’re in the middle of something,” Hergert said. “You’re not somewhere where you just work and go home, go to bed, and do your thing in your own neighborhood.” 

    A city can’t manufacture that feeling, or “force a neighborhood to happen,” Hergert said.

    That will soon be put to the test in Pennsylvania. In Allentown, developers are turning 26 acres of riverfront land into a mixed-used neighborhood. In Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, a public-private partnership, is hoping to grow its Navy Yard development to include residential space. And with Pennsylvania’s numerous brownfields, it’s likely that these won’t be the last examples of a developer — or a city — trying to build a neighborhood on former industrial land. 

    This summer, I spent several weeks in Germany as part of a German/American journalist exchange program through the RIAS Berlin Kommission and the Radio Television Digital News Foundation. I’m sharing lessons on urban planning and revitalization from German cities, including stories and photos on an urban garden in Berlin, bike-friendly infrastructure in Münster, adaptive reuse of former coal mines in Essen and an old coal city that’s trying to become a model for sustainability.

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