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Climate-proofing the Netherlands

Emerging Leaders in Environmental and Energy Policy (ELEEP) fosters transatlantic relations, forges dialogue, and promotes leadership across energy and environmental policy landscapes. Former EGU Science Communications Fellow and ELEEP member Edvard Glücksman reports back from the Netherlands, where citizens manage the continuous threat of climate-related devastation through a combination of creatively adapted urban spaces and innovative new technologies.

In late January 1953, a storm over the North Sea wreaked havoc, causing one of the most devastating natural disasters that Northern Europe has ever seen. The surge of seawater overwhelmed coastal defences, causing extensive flooding along the Belgian, British, and Dutch coastlines.

The infamous North Sea Flood claimed roughly 2,500 lives, and damaged or destroyed tens of thousands of houses. In the Netherlands, where roughly 70% of the nation’s territory lies at or below sea level, the flood submerged over 1,300 km² of the country’s territory, destroying around 10% of agricultural land and crippling its economy.

Rotterdam is Europe’s largest and busiest port. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)
Rotterdam is Europe’s largest and busiest port. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Climate-proofing with blue solutions

The nation’s history of flooding has shaped urban design and construction initiatives across the Netherlands. This trend is particularly striking in the Dutch city of Rotterdam, which lies in a delta roughly 7 m below sea level and is vulnerable to flooding from both seawater and heavy rain. Its complex system of dikes and seawalls have a one-in-10,000 years chance of breaking, high enough for the city to take pioneering steps towards developing sustainable water management practices in preparation for the most extreme future climate scenarios.

In the offices of the Rotterdam Climate Initiative (RCI), Lissy Nijhuis, Project Manager at Rotterdam Council, depicts the city’s climate adaptation strategy as one that has recently grown to embrace ‘blue solutions’ – mitigation strategies that allow humans to protect themselves against potential catastrophic flooding events, while continuing to live with and enjoy water. 

The Watersquare Benthemplein plaza discretely weaves flood management systems into the city’s urban landscape. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)
The Watersquare Benthemplein plaza discretely weaves flood management systems into the city’s urban landscape. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

According to Nijhuis, these new solutions contrast starkly with conventional approaches, which rely on separating humans from water using the most robust and resilient physical barriers available.

The blue solutions approach means that, in recent years, the RCI has adopted a long-term strategy of ‘climate-proofing’ the city by subtly adding water management infrastructure to standard urban maintenance and redevelopment activities. Nijhuis explains that this is most effectively achieved by developing first with a practical, beautiful outcome in mind, and working backwards to adjust it to particular flooding mitigation requirements.

To that end, we visited the city’s notorious Watersquare Benthemplein pilot project, a water plaza that doubles as a flood buffer during heavy rainfall, pooling water from surrounding streets and thus relieving the most immediate pressure on public drainage systems. The construction, seven years in the making and used during our visit as a basketball court by school children, is a prime example of Rotterdam’s understated but highly effective water mitigation strategy. Other similar examples – built to reduce pressure on drainage sites in times of severe flooding – include car parks that double as water storage units and the presence of absorbent green roofing on houses.

ELEEP members gather in Rotterdam’s port area. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)
ELEEP members gather in Rotterdam’s port area. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Halving emissions by 2020

Earlier this year, ELEEP visited Hamburg and witnessed first-hand the city’s commitment to transforming previously flooded and industrial areas into hubs for the development of green architecture and urban regeneration. Likewise, the Drijvend Paviljoen (Floating Pavilion) lies at the heart of Rotterdam’s mission to climate-proof itself in a sustainable manner.

Comprising three connected, floating hemispheres, anchored within the city’s old harbour, the Floating Pavilion serves as a pilot project within Rotterdam’s ambitious plan to construct a future community of floating homes. The pavilion floats on a 2.5 m-thick layer of polystyrene, which allows for construction directly on the water and is made of materials that are hundreds of times lighter than those used in conventional buildings. The roof, for example, is made of a triple-layer of foil, filled with pressurised air that insulates and keeps the building warm.

The solar-powered Floating Pavilion is a showpiece within Rotterdam Municipality’s goal of halving energy consumption and CO2 emissions in housing by 2020. It also allows stakeholders to better understand the potential challenges involved in drastically altering the city’s urban landscape, including for example how to interpret the city plan when the harbour areas becomes living quarters virtually overnight.

Rotterdam’s Drijvend Paviljoen (Floating Pavilion), a pilot in climate-proofing infrastructure. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)
Rotterdam’s Drijvend Paviljoen (Floating Pavilion), a pilot in climate-proofing infrastructure. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Rotterdam’s port is by far the city’s most prominent industrial feature. Europe’s largest and busiest port, it covers an area of 5,299 hectares and shifts nearly 12 million cargo containers per year. It also hugely impacts Europe’s energy landscape, serving as the northwestern European hub for the arrival, production, and distribution of conventional and renewable energy. The port, which has a capacity of nearly 7,000 megawatts, powers nearly a quarter of the industry and homes in the Netherlands. At the same time, twice as much electricity will be generated by other power plants in northwestern Europe as a result of coal, biomass, and natural gas imported via Rotterdam.

In a broad-ranging talk, Ruud Melieste, an economist within the Corporate Strategy Department at the Port of Rotterdam, explains the pressures faced by the port as it strives to improve sustainability credentials. Important, he explains, is the global complexity within which EU energy issues must be understood, and the pressures faced by power, chemical, and refining industries as cheaper alternatives, such as US shale gas, are found elsewhere.

In response, Melieste offers three potential future scenarios for Rotterdam and the rest of northwestern Europe. The first, known as the ‘power’ scenario, focuses on maintaining the domination of fossil fuels through large-scale, centralised energy generation. In this scenario, big countries and companies determine future events. A second option is the ‘fusion’ scenario, which focuses on maintaining a diverse portfolio of stakeholders and solutions, and aims to gradually alter the economy towards sustainable energy use, while using shale gas as a transition fuel. The third, ‘unlimited’, scenario is based on radical innovations and the acknowledgement that climate change is a truly pressing problem. Here, the transition to renewables is seen as an economic opportunity, driven by decentralised energy systems. The Port of Rotterdam is prepared, according to Melieste, for the possibility that any of these three scenarios could play out. The one most likely to emerge, however, remains unknown.

Ruud Melieste, economist for the Port of Rotterdam, explains the dimensions of Europe’s busiest port. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)
Ruud Melieste, economist for the Port of Rotterdam, explains the dimensions of Europe’s busiest port. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Although the basic idea behind Dutch climate protection strategies has persisted for over half a decade, the sites we visited in Rotterdam demonstrate that the city’s climate adaptation portfolio is slowly changing from a “dry feet at all costs” approach to one of integrative water management, where the duties associated with climate protection and the pleasures of urban space can more freely mix. The city and its port are central features in the supply of energy, water, and food to much of northern Europe. As a result, its pioneering climate-proofing efforts are in future likely to affect millions of European citizens, ensuring that extreme weather events, such as the storm of 1953, can be mitigated in the most sustainable and least invasive way possible.

By Edvard Glücksman, Associate Research Fellow, Environment and Sustainability Institute, University of Exeter

ELEEP is a collaborative venture between two non-partisan think tanks, the Atlantic Council and Ecologic Institute, seeking to develop innovative transatlantic policy partnerships. Funding was initially acquired from the European Union’s I-CITE Project and subsequently from the European Union and the Robert Bosch Stiftung. ELEEP has no policy agenda and no political affiliation. Edvard’s current project is funded by the European Social Fund.

Counterintuitive solutions improve public transportation and urban design in Seattle

The Emerging Leaders in Environmental and Energy Policy (ELEEP) Network brings together young professionals from Europe and North America with the aim of fostering transatlantic relations. Former EGU Science Communications Fellow and ELEEP member Edvard Glücksman reports back from a study tour of the US Pacific Northwest. After describing urban planning strategies in Oregon in his first post, here he explores changing notions of social connectivity and how they play out across Seattle’s transportation infrastructure.

In a blockbuster deal earlier this week, Facebook bought messaging app WhatsApp for around €14 billion. Whatsapp, which allows people to send free text and picture messages from mobile devices over the Internet, has more than 450 million monthly users and claims that 19 billion messages are sent using its platform each day. These numbers are staggering, but the rise of Whatsapp and similar ‘chat-based’ messaging services also points to broader changes in our notion of connectivity, where even conventional SMS messages (17.6 billion sent each day worldwide) have come to be considered dated and too disconnected.

Downtown Seattle’s population grew by 4.25% from 2010 to 2012. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Downtown Seattle’s population grew by 4.25% from 2010 to 2012. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Continuous connectivity and public transit

This shift towards continuous connectivity has wide-ranging consequences, including on urban design and transportation systems. In Seattle (population 634,535), the largest city in the US Pacific Northwest, politicians and city planners are coming to terms with the rapidly changing ways by which citizens communicate with each other – using them to shift public transportation habits away from cars towards lower-emissions alternatives.

Over lunch with ELEEP members, former Seattle mayor Michael McGinn explains how mass transit policymakers in the United States are harnessing changing notions of connectivity and using them to gain acceptance for alternative transportation methods. Whereas in the past, he explains, inhabitants of a city ‘connected’ with each other by driving cars to meeting points, automobile use is now synonymous with isolation and a growing social disconnect. Public transit, in contrast, is seen more favourably in the age of smartphones, allowing travellers – by phone, text, and on the Web – to maintain social interactions throughout their journey.

When it comes to influencing policy, McGinn, known for his passion for cycling, laments that transportation challenges are not always dealt with as efficiently as they could be, with expensive, national-scale solutions often favoured over smaller, neighbourhood-level projects. This is a pity, according to McGinn, because it is precisely these smaller projects, tailored to local circumstances, that are most favourable when galvanising support for alternative transportation schemes.

ELEEP members sit down for lunch with former Seattle mayor Michael McGinn. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

ELEEP members sit down for lunch with former Seattle mayor Michael McGinn. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Biking on the rise

McGinn’s difficulty bringing biking schemes to downtown Seattle illustrates the political challenges faced by those working against the powerful US automotive lobby, where opinions are formed and decisions taken often according to political leanings rather than evidence-based policy. “The one thing worse than being in favour of bikes in this city is to be against them,” jokes McGinn.

McGinn’s mayoral strategy was grounded in a model of sustainable urban development that was successfully deployed in nearby Portland, based on dedicated neighbourhood greenways and mapped-out cycle tracks aimed at encouraging walking and biking. Although he ran into political trouble and eventually lost the mayoral election to Ed Murray in late 2013, McGinn leaves behind a legacy of a growing biking community in Seattle. The number of people biking to work grew by 42% in his first three years in office (2009-12) and interest is now high enough that the city’s first bike sharing scheme, Puget Sound Bike Share, is set to be launched later this year.

We met with the bike share’s Executive Director, Holly Houser, who walked us through the company’s ambitious goal of having 50 stations and 500 bikes up-and-running by the end of 2014, starting in the city’s densest neighbourhoods. Despite flagging direct support from the mayor’s office and red tape blocking many of the most obvious funding sources, Houser cites the city’s influential biking community itself as the project’s major strength, including ample support from city officials.

ELEEPers in front of downtown Seattle. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

ELEEPers in front of downtown Seattle. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Counterintuitive solutions

Clark Williams-Derry of the Sightline Institute, a regional sustainability think tank, echoes the suggestions of our other hosts, that profound shifts in attitude towards public transportation are possible across urban areas in the US Northwest. According to Williams-Derry, past and present transportation forecasts are biased and nearly always shown to be wrong, routinely predicting dramatic increases in car-based transportation. Policy makers, he recommends, need to pay closer attention to public transportation usage statistics and the factors shaping commuter patterns.

Whereas our conversations revealed a clear tension between the automotive lobby and low-emissions transportation proponents, Mark Huppert of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’sPreservation Green Lab’ points out that the journey to sustainable urban spaces creates a new divide; between environmentalists, wanting new and energy-efficient buildings, and preservationists, who hope to maintain and upgrade older buildings of historic significance.

Like changing connectivity patterns and transportation predictions, Huppert also strives to give voice to concepts that are not always intuitive for the public to understand. As we learned on a recent ELEEP trip to Hamburg, buildings, Hubbert argues, give inhabitants a sense of responsibility toward their neighbourhood when properly cared for, housing communal memories and evoking feelings of friendliness, social opportunity, and physical beauty. Buildings and their surroundings are home to experiences and, according to Huppert, tearing them down erases memories and, more concretely, releases into the environment the carbon used to create them. A dramatically different approach compared to Hamburg-Wilhelmsburg’s entire neighbourhoods of newly built, state-of-the-art green architecture.

Mural on the wall of the Seattle Department of Transportation, showing the city at the start of the automobile area. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Mural on the wall of the Seattle Department of Transportation, showing the city at the start of the automobile area. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Making public transport more comfortable than driving

Like Portland, the city of Seattle is relatively progressive compared with the rest of the US when it comes to regular public transportation use. The infrastructure is growing, and King County Metro already offers an extensive bus and trolleybus network. At the same time, work is underway to bring a modern streetcar network to downtown Seattle, connecting the city’s densest neighbourhoods. One line is already running and another is set to start later this year.

However, in order for Seattle and other US cities to reach European levels of public transport ridership, mass transit systems need to offer more than just a stronger feeling of connectivity, outdoing personal cars in both convenience and price. In Europe, this challenge has been overcome by creating environments that are openly hostile to cars, making their use both expensive and impractical.

Smartphones, which former mayor McGinn suggests have flipped the relationship between connectivity and transportation, can also play a large part in making mass transit options more attractive, with dedicated apps offering real-time scheduling updates, maps, and route-planning services. To that end, Seattle is exemplary, freely offering travel information streams to third-party developers and thereby encouraging a host of transit-related smartphone apps. It is now up to Seattleites to vote with their feet.

By Edvard Glücksman, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Duisburg-Essen

ELEEP is a collaborative venture between two non-partisan think tanks, the Atlantic Council and Ecologic Institute, seeking to develop innovative transatlantic policy partnerships. Funding was initially acquired from the European Union’s I-CITE Project and subsequently from the European Union and the Robert Bosch Stiftung. ELEEP has no policy agenda and no political affiliation.

Improving quality of life through urban growth boundaries, 20-minute neighbourhoods, and public transportation in Oregon

The Emerging Leaders in Environmental and Energy Policy (ELEEP) Network brings together young professionals from Europe and North America with the aim of fostering transatlantic relations. Former EGU Science Communications Fellow and ELEEP member Edvard Glücksman reports back from a study tour of the US Pacific Northwest. In this first of two posts, he describes the unique urban planning strategy employed by policymakers in Oregon, giving the state a leading position in the national battle against urban sprawl.

ELEEP members on the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) campus looking out over the city of Portland, having just experienced the city’s aerial tramway. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

ELEEP members on the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) campus looking out over the city of Portland, having just experienced the city’s aerial tramway. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

In 2008, for the first time in history, more than half of the human population was living in cities. By 2050, that proportion is expected to grow to 70%. This wave of urban growth is largely seen as beneficial, offering renewed opportunities for jobs, healthcare and education to inhabitants of shrinking rural communities. However, the physical expansion of cities into the countryside, known as urban sprawl, also has major detrimental environmental consequences, damaging and fragmenting natural habitats. That said, CO2 emissions and energy consumption per capita is lower in densely populated cities.

Densely populated cities have higher per capita. (Credit: European Environment Agency)

Less densely populated cities have higher CO2 emissions per capita. (Credit: European Environment Agency)

We recently visited the US state of Oregon, where we were shown first-hand how actions taken in the early 1970s by forward-looking policymakers helped mitigate the challenge of urban sprawl before it was too late. As a result, Portland and urban areas across the state are a unique success story in the context of what are otherwise bloated and sprawling North American cities. As urban sprawl hits global headlines, Oregon’s drastic land management strategies may become increasingly relevant in countries where the fight against urban sprawl is only just beginning.

Less densely populated cities have higher energy consumption per capita. (Credit: European Environment Agency)

Less densely populated cities also have higher energy consumption per capita. (Credit: European Environment Agency)

Oregon: a state like any other

Oregon’s progressive land use plan stems from the tireless work of Governor Tom McCall in the early 1970s, a man said to have loved Oregon more than life itself. Watching the state’s cities grow in front of his eyes, he told Oregonians they faced a choice between “sagebrush subdivisions and coastal condominiums” and towns that blended gently into the state’s stunning environment. As a result, in 1973 he signed a law requiring every urban area in Oregon to write land use plans that limited sprawl and protected farms, forests and open spaces. Cities were enclosed in strictly enforced urban growth boundaries, with the threat of heavy legal penalties for development beyond designated limits.

Governor McCall’s dramatic influence on his beloved state can today be seen on any map of Oregon’s major urban areas, characterised by the clear divisions between cities and open spaces.

Oregon’s formula for avoiding urban sprawl is remarkably simple yet highly effective, explains Robert Liberty, Director of the Urban Sustainability Accelerator at Portland State University. Liberty has worked with Oregon’s pioneering land use planning program since its inception. His key message is that half a century ago Oregon was developing like every other US state – with population density within cities in decline as urban areas spread across larger spaces, and that a similar transformation can happen anywhere given the right tools for implementation. Getting over the misunderstanding that Oregon is inherently different from other locations in the US forms the core mission statement of the Urban Sustainability Accelerator, which works with other US communities to focus on implementation of land use planning programs.

High quality of life across 20-minute neighbourhoods

Several of our hosts maintain that Oregon, which is relatively poor compared with other US states, owes its success to maintenance of existing infrastructure rather than the urbanisation of untouched countryside. According to Karmen Fore, Transportation Policy Adviser to Governor Kitzhaber at the State Capitol in Salem, this emphasis on maintenance forms an important part of the state’s development strategy.

Looking forward, Fore outlines the state’s other priorities. She explains that Oregon must focus on harnessing its economic strengths, features that make it unique as a hub for business. Although a major expansion to Portland’s shipping port could be imminent, particularly for exports of coal, oil, and natural gas, the state’s spectacular natural environment and quality of life attributes remain at the forefront of such efforts.

 A streetcar in downtown Portland. The city’s streetcar network opened in 2001 and currently comprises two lines, with a daily ridership of 13,100 (2012-2013). (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

A streetcar in downtown Portland. The city’s streetcar network opened in 2001 and currently comprises two lines, with a daily ridership of 13,100 (2012-2013). (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Quality of life, according to Fore, is tightly linked to the state’s innovative urban transport systems, particularly in Portland. The city boasts a rich portfolio of commuter trains, buses, light rail, streetcar lines, and even an aerial tramway running throughout the metropolitan area. Across the state, Fore is keen to add more passenger trains, especially on short but important routes, in order to alleviate pressure on congested roads and in the densely crowded US airspace.

Comprehensive transit systems and the preservation of natural landscapes are part of Oregon’s multifaceted, targeted approach, aiming to improve general levels of prosperity and quality of life across the entire population. To that end, Eric Engstrom, Principal Planner for the city of Portland (population 603,106), describes the city’s urban planning strategy as anchored around the concept of the ‘complete community’, or ‘20-minute neighbourhoods’, where every citizen has basic services, parks, healthy food and water, and transportation within a 20-minute walking radius.

The mayor of Portland Charlie Hales meets with ELEEP members to hear a European perspective on urban planning and sustainable transportation. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

The mayor of Portland Charlie Hales meets with ELEEP members to hear a European perspective on urban planning and sustainable transportation. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Learning from Oregon

In the middle of downtown Portland, where once there was a motorway, sits one of the city’s most popular parks, named after Governor McCall. Today, the city has a tight, dense downtown area, friendly to pedestrians aspiring to reduce car use to a minimum in favor of public transportation. The atmosphere is infectious and nearby Seattle, about double as populous, started its urban downsizing in the mid-90s. At City Hall, the mood seems to be one of optimistic realism, with Mayor Charlie Hales quick to point out that the city is a national leader in reduction of urban sprawl yet it still has a long way to go to ensure a sustainable environment for future generations.

Urban sprawl is classically a US phenomenon but is increasingly prevalent across cities worldwide. In Europe, where cities are traditionally more compact than in North America, developing around densely populated historical cores, more cities are threatened with urban sprawl than ever before. By 2020, 80% of Europeans are predicted to live in urban areas, potentially undermining the EU’s efforts to meet carbon emissions reduction targets and drastically altering the quality of life for citizens across the continent. As policymakers grapple with the range of available mitigation strategies, they would be wise to learn from Oregon’s story, the foresight of Governor McCall, and the central principle of the state’s urban transformation; namely, that only a few decisions ago, Oregon was a state like any other.

By Edvard Glücksman, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Duisburg-Essen

ELEEP is a collaborative venture between two non-partisan think tanks, the Atlantic Council and Ecologic Institute, seeking to develop innovative transatlantic policy partnerships. Funding was initially acquired from the European Union’s I-CITE Project and subsequently from the European Union and the Robert Bosch Stiftung. ELEEP has no policy agenda and no political affiliation.

“Please, in my backyard”: Hamburg-Wilhelmsburg’s low-carbon overhaul at the forefront of Germany’s energy transition

The Emerging Leaders in Environmental and Energy Policy (ELEEP) Network brings together young professionals from Europe and North America with the aim of fostering transatlantic relations. Former EGU Science Communications Fellow and ELEEP member Edvard Glücksman describes a study visit to Hamburg’s Wilhelmsburg borough, an unlikely leader in within Germany’s energy transition. This is his final post from the trip, which also included visits to the energy self-sufficient village of Feldheim and to Warsaw, for the COP19 climate change conference. 

Winter storms and floods are common along Europe’s coastline, but the memory of some remains long after the final waters recede. In Hamburg, for example, citizens are continuously reminded of the legendary 16 February 1962, the night a powerful flood unexpectedly enveloped their city. In what is known locally as the Great Flood, the Elbe River broke through its dyke system and submerged nearly one-fifth of Germany’s second largest city’s municipal areas, collapsing infrastructure and killing 315 people.

One of the city’s most damaged areas was the heavily populated borough of Wilhelmsburg, Europe’s largest river island, reduced that night to a stagnant backwater for decades thereafter. As the handful of remaining residents struggled to pry back their lives from the river, nobody would have imagined that, just half a century later, their neighbourhood would become a thriving cosmopolitan centre, home to docks, industry, green oases and over 50,000 inhabitants.

Hamburg’s Wilhelmsburg borough deep underwater after the famous flood of 1962. The recovery took decades. (Credit: Gerhard Pietsch)

Hamburg’s Wilhelmsburg borough deep underwater after the famous flood of 1962. The recovery took decades. (Credit: Gerhard Pietsch)

In fact, the Wilhelmsburg of today is at the forefront of Germany’s energy transformation (‘Energiewende’), the planet’s most ambitious nationwide commitment to a future powered almost entirely by renewables. Like the energy self-sufficient village of Feldheim and Berlin’s Energy Plus house, the borough is a microcosm of decentralised low-carbon living. Yet unlike these prototype projects, largely new creations, Wilhelmsburg impresses by sprinkling the optimism of a renewable energy future over areas historically blighted by war, industrial mismanagement and the wrath of nature.

On the final stop of our trip we visited the International Building Exhibition (IBA Hamburg) centre, a major driving force behind Wilhelmsburg’s formidable urban development. The IBA project, a real-world experiment in multicultural, sustainable living, stretches across Wilhelmsburg and on the neighbouring island of Veddel. The area comprises a total of 70 projects, urban space and building prototypes built up and offered to tenants for everyday living. The project is powered by previously dilapidated infrastructure retrofitted with the latest low-carbon energy generation, storage, and distribution technology. Of these, two projects capture the imagination, for their energy manufacturing capabilities but also for their particular place within the context of Hamburg’s inspirational rebirth.

ELEEP members scrutinise the layout of Wilhelmsburg at the IBA Hamburg media centre. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

ELEEP members scrutinise the layout of Wilhelmsburg at the IBA Hamburg media centre. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Energy generation and storage – with a view

On 25 August 1940, the RAF launched its first raid on Berlin in retaliation for the German bombing of London the previous day. As an immediate response, Hitler ordered the construction of a series of massive above-ground bunkers, known as flak towers, to house radar equipment and anti-aircraft guns, also providing shelter for tens of thousands of civilians across Berlin, Vienna, and Hamburg. With up to 4 m thick cement walls, the towers were virtually indestructible and Allied forces had to strategically work around them, ultimately sending in envoys to guarantee their submission.

After the war, these impenetrable fortresses remained standing, empty, ugly, and a brutal reminder of the German war machine. Some have since been renovated and opened up for public tours, offering a glimpse of the cramped and squalid conditions endured by so many during the latter years of WWII. Others have been completely refurbished, turned into entertainment venues and even nightclubs.

The Flakturm VI bunker, hastily erected in 1943 in Wilhelmburg’s Reiherstieg district, has undergone an even more radical transformation, from Nazi stronghold and shelter housing over 30,000 citizens, to a futuristic flagship structure of the IBA Hamburg exhibition.

We visited Flakturm VI, known as the ‘Energy Bunker’, just months after its unveiling. The once imposing eyesore, derelict since the British army gutted most of its interior after the war, now houses state-of-the-art energy generation and storage facilities aiming to reduce local annual carbon emissions by around 95%, or 6,600 tonnes of carbon per year.

Underneath the bunker’s cement exterior lays a complex low-emissions power and heating plant. The building is fitted with a photovoltaic shell: a rooftop solar thermal unit generating heat, and a south-facing system of solar panels producing electricity. Energy and heat are also produced by an in-house biogas ‘combined heat and power’ (CHP) plant. Through a clever siphoning system, waste heat from a neighbouring industrial plant is also co-opted by the bunker and fed into the heating grid, alongside heat derived from the building’s own wood chip burning facility. The 39-metre-high bunker also accommodates a massive 2,000 m³ water-based heat storage facility, which buffers the daily fluctuations characteristic of renewable energy sources.

Electricity and heat production in the Energy Bunker. (Credit: IBA Hamburg)

Electricity and heat production in the Energy Bunker (click to enlarge). (Credit: IBA Hamburg)

The resulting products supply most of the surrounding district with carbon-neutral heating whilst at the same time feeding electricity into the local grid. At peak use, the bunker will generate approximately 22,500 megawatt hours of heat and 3,000 megawatt hours of electricity, enough to heat and power roughly 3,000 and 1,000 local homes respectively.

With its historical exhibition and rooftop café (Café Vju), the Energy Bunker is a truly impressive project, and is the result of major local and European investment. Launched in 2006 and officially opened on 23 March 2013, the building’s refurbishment cost €27 million, of which €11.7 alone was spent on the technology and heating network. It was jointly funded by the European Regional Development Fund and the Hamburg Climate Action Plan, which aims to shore up the city’s future commitment to climate protection.

The ‘Energy Bunker’, one big slab of cement. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

The ‘Energy Bunker’, one big slab of cement. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Peak efficiency on a disused landfill

We continued along our tour with a climb up the Georgswerder ‘Energy Hill’ (‘Energieberg’), another of IBA Hamburg’s flagship low-carbon redevelopment projects. As we clambered atop its green slopes, amidst wind turbines churning out renewable energy and with views over all of Hamburg, it was impossible to imagine that the 44-hectare site was a landfill for much of the post-war era.

Indeed, for decades, Georgswerder was gorged to the brink with rubble and domestic waste, and served as a clay pit for brick-making. Worse still, from 1967-74, the landfill was also used as Hamburg’s primary industrial waste dump, accumulating highly poisonous remains of lacquer and paint until it was officially closed in 1979. In total, 14 million m³ of waste material was deposited at the site, forming an imposing pile over 40 m high. Crammed full of household garbage and toxins, the hill had by then been shut off to the public for decades. And the worst was still to come.

In 1983, it was discovered that highly toxic dioxins were leaching into the groundwater, prompting a lengthy and expensive clean-up campaign. The site was dried, sealed with a plastic sheet, and covered in topsoil, and any remaining seepage water was collected, purified, and drained.

A few years later, a local working group of experts and residents combined forces and decided to, almost literally, turn the rubbish pile into a long-lasting source of renewable energy. Two generations of wind turbines were erected at the hill’s summit and, more recently, its south-facing slope was covered in photovoltaics. Even the hill’s rotting core is tapped: the methane released through decomposition is collected and used by a nearby copper smelting company.

Today, the site’s photovoltaic system and wind turbines generate approximately 12,200 megawatt hours per year, enough to power around 4,000 households.

Georgswerder ‘Energy Hill’: ELEEPers admire the view on what used to be a landfill and toxic waste dump. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Georgswerder ‘Energy Hill’: ELEEPers admire the view on what used to be a landfill and toxic waste dump. (Credit: Edvard Glücksman)

Investing in acceptance

Hamburg is amassing green credentials and growing increasingly bolder as it plans for the future. Stefan Schurig of the World Future Council described to us the city’s emergence on the frontline of Germany’s energy transition, which hinges on a widespread acceptance for low-emissions projects at the community, socio-political, and marketplace levels. The shifting public perception of carbon-neutral infrastructure, from NIMBYs (“not in my back yard”) to PIMBYs (“please, in my back yard”), is therefore a vital first step in developing the country’s energy strategy. Participation triggers acceptance and, Schurig claims, acceptance triggers investment.

In Wilhelmsburg, life has never been so good. As a result, the IBA Hamburg sites we visited, though restricted to a single locality, are widely accepted by the community. Specifically, the Energy Bunker and Hill demonstrate that dilapidated infrastructure can, with some initial investment, be turned into long-term zero-emissions sources of energy and heating. Such projects guide Germany’s progression towards fulfilling the remarkable energy portfolio shift it proposes: decentralised yet scalable, flexible yet reliable; and, above all, profitable. As public support grows, further investment will surely follow.

By Edvard Glücksman, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Duisburg-Essen

ELEEP is a collaborative venture between two non-partisan think tanks, the Atlantic Council and Ecologic Institute, seeking to develop innovative transatlantic policy partnerships. Funding was initially acquired from the European Union’s I-CITE Project and subsequently from the European Union and the Robert Bosch Stiftung. ELEEP has no policy agenda and no political affiliation.