Hamburg, Germany—It was late morning when I stepped out of my hotel lobby and into the jostle of Kirchenallee Street in Hamburg's city center. I checked my watch, jotted down the time in my notebook and set out for the nearest subway station (U-Bahn in German).
The sidewalks were packed with people enjoying the glorious spring weather on May Day, a public holiday similar to Labor Day in the United States. When I arrived at a stairway beneath a large "U," I checked the time. The walk from my hotel to Hauptbahnhof Süd station had taken one minute and 30 seconds. Seven minutes later I was on a subway car speeding smoothly south.
A trip across Hamburg is like visiting the launch pad of Germany's renewable energy revolution, or Energiewende. Planners call it the "built environment," a term that includes buildings, parks and the transportation system that connects them. How a city handles these ho-hum elements determines everything from energy usage to greenhouse gas emissions to the quality of life enjoyed by residents.
This is Chapter 5 of a six-part series on Germany's remarkable clean break with coal, oil and nuclear energy. Click to read Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4 and Chapter 6. Or read it all now as a Kindle Single ebook on Amazon for 99 cents.
Without this carefully designed platform, the Energiewende would have never left the ground. So my subway ride wasn't just a way to explore Hamburg's built environment, it was an essential part of it, starting with my short walk to the U-Bahn stop. Ninety-nine percent of Hamburg residents live within 300 meters (328 yards) of a rail or bus stop, a figure that bests any major city in Europe or the United States. It's also one of the primary reasons Hamburg was crowned European Green Capital in 2011. Germany's second largest city, which is also its busiest port, shows "how an industrial city can help lead the green revolution," as an editor at Architectural Record put it.
Click here to view the slideshow of Germany's switch to renewables.
The success of the Hamburg model can be seen throughout Germany. According to transportation writer Eric Jaffe, 88 percent of Germans live within a kilometer (a bit over a half mile) of public transportation. The comparable figure for Americans is just 43 percent. In urban centers, writes Jaffe, Germans use public transport at nearly six times the rate of Americans. In small-to-medium-sized towns, Germans use public transportation at a rate 18 times that in similar-sized American cities.
My destination on May Day was Jenischpark, 110 acres of beautifully landscaped hills created in the late 1700s. Nine minutes after boarding the subway, the cars pulled into my first transfer point—Landungsbrücken station on the banks of the river Elbe. A quick walk from the station over a pedestrian bridge and down a flight of stairs and I was ready to catch my next ride: a two-deck ferry. My Hamburg Transport Association day-pass, which cost about $5, bought me unlimited travel on subways, light rail, commuter trains, buses and ferries. The "one ticket, one fare" concept, which links all forms of public transportation into a single network to prevent long waits between transfers, originated in Hamburg in 1965.
On the pier, a guard in a wilted blue uniform was attempting to keep the boisterous and larger-than-normal holiday crowd in line. Probably because of the crowds, I had just missed a ferry and the weary guard said the next one would arrive in 10 minutes.
I didn't really mind the delay. It was sunny and warm, and across the Elbe towering cranes were plucking 38-ton containers from the decks of some of the world's largest ships. Up river was an even more remarkable sight: Europe's largest—and greenest—inner-city development, called HafenCity. Planners say this $10 billion project along Hamburg's abandoned old harbor will nearly double the city's urban-core area, add 45,000 permanent jobs and do it in a way that is low-energy, sustainable and beautiful.
Some of HafenCity's most important features include:
• Sustainable urban structure—Mixed-use plans incorporate housing, office and commercial spaces, schools and recreational areas.
• Sustainable heat—Homes and businesses are kept warm by a combination of solar thermal panels, centralized advanced wood combustion boilers and other low-carbon sources.