The special characteristics of cities and the urban way of life have been of fascination to people for a long time. But what exactly does this idea entail?
Urbanity is a concept that is classically associated with modernity, when inner-city industrial spaces became the new centers of living and working, leading to a population boom in many European cities. However, what we define as typically urban today is different from what it used to be. Due to economic restructuring, changing market forces on a global level, and new demands for mobility and quality of life, our perception of the urban in today’s context has altered and adapted to these processes.
In order to stay competitive in the global network of cities and create a social, attractive, creative, as well as environmentally friendly environment, European city planning increasingly focuses on creating truly urban spaces. But since urbanity is generally associated with a dense, diverse and vibrant area, one must ask how can such a place be created “from scratch.” In the numerous European waterfront revitalization projects which have been realized during the last century, not many have achieved the construction of a truly urban vibe. Personally, I would call most of them very attractive places to work, but not to live. In the evening, when the workers go home, the streets tend to be deserted and the shops closed.
The case of the HafenCity in Hamburg, Germany is an especially interesting example. This former, industrial harbor site is situated at the heart of the city and will, once finished, enlarge the city center by 40%. Apart from a line of former warehouses (the Speicherstadt), HafenCity was to be created on idle land. While building urbanity seems impossible, what urban planners can – and should – do, is think of tools that lay the foundation for such a place.
These are a few tools that the HafenCity used in the attempt to create urbanity:
- Diversity and Creativity - Creating functional diversity, to be experienced in great density. With a clash of different architecture, people and uses of space, a creative environment is more likely to develop;
- Public Sphere and Community - Planning of central and purposeful public spaces to lay the ground for a local community;
- Identity– Embracing Hamburg’s past as a harbor city and communicating it as a brand.
At this point, I wouldn’t describe the HafenCity as being particularly urban. Since artists living in the former warehouses had to leave, rents are high, and the university is yet to be built, it generally still embodies the charisma of a luxurious but underused ghost town. However, it seems too early to pass judgment just yet. With more than half of the area still to be developed, there is room for improvement and time for urbanity to develop.
What is your opinion – what do you believe is the most essential tool for a city to enable urbanity? How would you describe that special something, that attracts you to a city and why do some places “have it” and others don’t?
Credits: Photographs by Luise Letzner. Data linked to sources.