Cases: Germany

Waterfront projects
in Berlin and Hamburg

How we got there

At first glance, Berlin and Hamburg don't seem to be an evident choice for studying waterfront projects. However, our choice was not random at all! Besides, it was not only based on the fact that we were doing a Russian-German project together with our great colleagues from Germany. Neither was this choice made only because we were receiving support from the German Federal Foreign Office. The choice was inspired by the great examples in Berlin and Hamburg showing how initiative citizens can develop waterfront projects. Two cities with different history and different waters demonstrate a great potential of coastal territories and an equally great potential of people who are very innovative in creating the ways to interact with these territories.

A week-long "course" in Berlin and Hamburg taught us about:

  • the ways that waterfront public spaces emerge and develop
  • what these public spaces are like
  • difficulties and problems emerging in these spaces
  • how housing development is guided on such territories
  • legal and economic frameworks applied to implement waterfront projects (and more)
Germany 2017

Unexpected decisions of the developers, hedonism as the driving force of activism, the anthem of the river, the communities' secrets and a new perspective on the everyday role that water plays in our lives —our educational dive into Berlin in the 20-minute movie by Yulia Faizrakhmanova:

  • our excellent guides, Anya and Nike from Guerrilla Architects, told us about the civil movement "Flussbad Berlin" to transform the river Spree into an eco-friendly public space; we also received a master class from the Germans on reasons to enjoy life when your swim has been cancelled due to weather conditions
  • a conversation with the founders of the Spreefeld cooperative, which is a public space for creative initiatives, parties and gatherings of civil movements and also a neighbor to the urban savages from Teepeeland
  • the fashionable co-op Holzmarkt, which is an example of non-trivial development, is simultaneously the hero and the antagonist of the ambitious riverside transformation project Mediaspree; the Holzmarkt has made use of the illustrious past of the area with its techno clubs and the spirit of freedom
  • a fragment of the lecture by Wolfgang Knapp (Professor at the Berlin University of the Arts) about the P2P approach in education
  • we met with Anarche and Panther Ray– the teams of young and brave people who promote the idea of using a raft as a public space and build their own rafts they use for different purposes, including protests
  • the ship Station Auge with an independent energy supply and water purification system. People live on this ship by the principle of commune and plan to establish a culture center for citizens on the water.
      Yulia Faizrahmanova film

      Flussbad Berlin, a community of likeminded people (an NGO), wants to clean and equip the unnavigable section of the Spree in the very center of Berlin to make it suitable for swimming. One would be able to come here after work and swim, to participate in races and competitions or simply use the canal as a big public pool with a recreation area around it. The team worked out a plan of development and land use which they actively promote. They regularly hold events on (and in) the water, have their own anthem and are very good at merchandizing and media marketing. Attracting attention is an important part of the project strategy.


      Initially, the Spree – the canal between Fischerinsel and the Bode Museum – was used for transportation, trade links, hydroelectric power station needs and swimming. One of the latest forms in which the Spree canal was actively utilized was the pool next to the Berlin City Palace. However, the swimming zone was closed in 1925 due to hygienic issues. Since then, the access to water anywhere along the canal was prohibited.


      Nowadays, the canal is in poor condition. During the past decades, the canal has been closed for navigation, though it actively used for sewerage. The contamination is most severe when the sewerage levels become too high due to heavy rains, which happen 20 to 30 times per year. When this happens, the amount of water in the whole system is larger than the capacity of the whole Berlin sewerage. As a result, all the contents, including feces, discharge water and sanitary waste, seep into the river. After that, it takes several days for the canal to recover.


      The idea of the project is to create a system that will filter the water in the river and in the sewerage. The project was initiated by a group of architects and artists known as Realities:united. In 2014, the project gained the support of Germany's Federal Ministry of the Environment as part of the National Town Planning program, as well as the support of the Department of Urban Development and Environment. Since 2012, theFlussbad BerlinNGO is at the head of the project, enabling its implementation. Over the past few years, the interest in the project has risen. The biological filter project continues to be part of a public discussion involving mass-media and the society at large.


      The NGO Flussbad Berlinwas founded in December 2012. In November 2014, it obtained € 4,000,000 from Berlin and German governments as funding within the National Project for Urban Program Development. The urban programs and the funding allowed the Association to organize project development. In February 2015, the Association created the management unit, which now has a staff of 7 persons. In December 2015, the Association published its first annual report that contained the full description and presentation of the project.


      The project has several goals and objectives:
      - water purification in the canal
      - increasing water accessibility
      - creating attractive non-commercial public spaces in the city center
      - development of unused areas along the Spree canal and creating an ecological water environment around Fischerinsel


      The project team suggests to create three zones in the canal:

      1) The project suggests making the existing water space look more natural in the upstream area – between the bridges Inselbrücke and Gertraudenbrücke– . It is proposed to demolish some of the concrete walls along the canal in order to create a softer and smoother embankment. Some 1,8 kilometers along the canal will become a "recreation space" for the aquatic flora and fauna. This would help redress the ecological balance of the Spree river.

      2) Another goal is to provide the pedestrians with access to water. It is proposed to create a system of filtration inanother area of the canal known as Friedrichsgracht, which would involve300 meters of biological filters to purify the water flowing into the pool. The actual swimming area will be situated between the bridges Schleusenbrücke and Monbijoubrücke, i. e. in the area between the Humboldt Forum Museum (now under construction) and the Bode Museum. There are also two water access points – at the Lustgarten Park and next to the Humboldt Forum. Here, the visitors would be able to go in the water or just enjoy the view.

      3) A new spillway located at the north end of Museum Island will separate the clean water zone from the main flow of the. The project involves creating a swimming area in the canal so as to demonstrate the improvement of water quality in this part of the Spree. Thus, the project aims to become a model for similar projects for efficient ecological use of city resources.


      The main technical issue is related to the flow of a great amount of waste water during heavy rains. Despite the filters at Friedrichsgracht that purify the waste water before it proceeds into the swimming area, there remains another problem – the big interior drain near the swimming area at the Schleusenbrücke. In order to control the amount of waste water, the Flussbadteam has suggested creating a special system inside the sewer line, which will collect waste water and slowly redirect it back to the treatment facilities once the rains stop. This will protect the swimming area from waste water.


      In 2011, the project received the Holcim Award Europe (Gold) of $100,000.
      In 2012, it received the Holcim Award Global (Bronze) of $50,000.
      In 2014, funding was obtained from the LOTTO Berlin Fund to develop the project in detail and receive hydrologic certification (€ 110,000).

      In the same year, Flussbadofficially became a part of the National Project for Urban Development and obtained funding from the Ministry of the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety of € 2,600,000 and an additional support of € 1,400,000 from the Department for Urban Development (Berlin).

      In 2014, the Flussbad Associationused the funding from the LOTTO Fund in order to conduct a feasibility study of the project. The results of the study were published in 2015. According to the analysis, the water purification system and the ways to use the Spree canal suggested by Flussbadwere qualified as implementable.


      It is obvious that Germany has strong and diverse federal and municipal support for projects for urban development, including those initiated by civil movements. The case of Flussbadillustrates that even such complex and large-scale projects as full reconceptualization and technical re-equipment of the canal can become real, if various stakeholders are interested in it deeply enough and the budget is sufficient.

      Voices of participants

      Spreefeld is a partnership, building and housing co-op. People had already united at the stage of concept creation in order to register collective property rights and build the house together. One of the main goals of the community is to create a sustainable and socially diverse form of neighborhood, keeping the Spree riverside open for citizens.

      The cooperative has a unique meeting space — the Spreefeld Boothaus. This is a covered berth – a roofed boat station that is partly floating on water. The construction was built in the early 1960s as a storage unit for East German border patrol boats. An authentic telephone and some other remaining artifacts remind us of the facility's past.

      The Spreefeld cooperative saved the building from eventual demolition. Now the facility is used not only as a platform for neighborhood gatherings and parties but also as a public space to hold business and cultural events. What's more, the access to water is free for everyone. In particular, the roof of the covered berth is an open wooden platform with a view of the river.
      Voices of participants

      The Holzmarkt, a project of a new design, is a prime example of confronting the traditional practice of urban development. It is based on the initiative to develop the urban society, create a and territorial identity, and come up with a new model of governance and development for the urban space.

      At the beginning of the 2000s, the city auctioned off the area along the river Spree. This territory was supposed to become a space to implement the project MediaSpree, which involved building headquarters for global media companies, fancy hotels and lofts. After civil protests under the slogan "The riverside of the Spree is for everyone," the territory was "retaken" by the activists, and the development project was put on hold. At that time, a group of people who owned worldwide known techno clubs in that area offered an alternative model of development for the territory. Thus, a unique center of public life emerged and developed in the area — with rented housing, hotels, public space along the river, a market, clubs, food, entertainment, studios, IT startups and much more — all in the "chic trash" style typical for Berlin.
      The main idea of the Holzmarkt is not about land ownership but about creating a unique urban community and a public space with an open infrastructure and community utilities (as opposed to the commercial real estate market). The policy documents of the project specify that the core purpose of development is the well-being of the city and its residents and not the benefit of private investors.

      In terms of property and management, the Holzmarkt offers the new model of a cooperative that is "protected from the interests of the capital". Any individual or organization can become a member of the co-op by making a pledge of €25,000 or more and obtaining the approval of other co-op members. The pledge can be withdrawn no earlier than 4 years from the contribution. Those who make a contribution become co-owners of the estate and, therefore, do not experience any problems with growing rental rates but even increase their own wealth. In this case, gentrification doesn't work against its drivers but favors them instead.

      Among the initiators of the Holzmarkt project there are the theater Ding Dong Dom , the urban gardening community Moerchenpark, the restaurant Fame, the club Kater Blau, and other creative industries. They attracted the Swiss pension fund Abendrot as an investor and won the land auction, persuading the city that their economic model of territorial development is sustainable and gaining the right to lease the land on the riverside of the Spree for 99 years.
      Voices of articipants
      / Spree:publik and The Anarche

      In search of an area free of tourists, commerce and strict regulations, the Berlin group Spree:publik has settled down on water. Artists, students and activists earn their living by throwing techno parties, crowdfunding, building rafts and remaining a team with a complicated horizontal management structure. The horizontal structure is a matter of principle for them.

      The Anarche team gathers once a week between work and school to discuss various problems and plans. Their raft is the biggest in the flotilla, with an engine and equipment. When the construction was finished, guys put messages in bottles and sent the bottles to the representatives of Berlin political initiatives. The raft is a place for a free protest that does not require notification or registration. From the water, the protesters speak about G20, voice their demands to the leaders of member countries, talk about refugees and gentrification, watch and discuss political movies, and practice new forms of social relationships in this temporary autonomous zone.
      Voices of participants
      / Station AuGe

      The container ship Freibeuter is anchored in the Rummelsburger harbor of the Spree river. Once upon a time there was a youth club here. Several years ago the ship was passed to a collective that studies modern forms of communities, conducting social and ecological experiments on themselves. Its development is supported by the university and will be covered in academic publications.

      There are 5 adults and 2 children living on the ship on a permanent basis. They are trying to turn 470 square meters into a closed and independent self-sufficiency system. The polluted water from the river is purified and turned into drinking water, while domestic waste water is used in the garden, the harvest from which feeds the ship crew. Bio-toilets produce fertilizers, the electricity is generated from solar and steam energy, etc. At the same time, the community develops the principles and forms of communal life.

      Most of the spaces are used for public gatherings. The community regularly holds seminars sharing their experience of eco-friendly life and organizes cultural events. There is an academy of dance and body working on a permanent basis on the ship, a choir, a vocal ensemble and a saloon where tango, cabaret, chamber music evenings, readings and discussions take place. Once a week there is an open day with a tour of the ship, where everyone can learn about the self-sufficiency technologies and approaches used in the project, discover the results of research and meet the local crew. On weekends during the mild months of the year, the crew runs an interactive cafe with home-made bakery and ice-cream.
      Voices of participants

      Cities are at all times where the water is

      It has been used for drinking, watering cattle and crops, firefighting. It served as a guard, it was used for rafting goods and transporting people to the cities. Conquerors came by water. Water cooled the cast iron of industrial revolutions, it washed off the dirt of hydrocarbons and carried away organic and non-organic waste.

      Water whitened the cities.
      It brought tsunami, floods, plague and cholera, it destroyed houses and city blocks.
      Water threatened the cities.
      Water reflects the urban architecture, doubling both their magnificence and sordidness.

      Why do we talk about water in the city when we talk about it?

      In a city, water is the alternative to land.

      What is impossible on land is possible on water.

      Water significantly diversifies the use of urban space, but only if it is accessible in the legal field, in urban planning, and in architectural decisions as well.

      Water is a transportation infrastructure, an environment where coastal natural systems and social activities develop and exist on a self-sustained basis. This makes the usage of water or the shores equal to bearing responsibility for these social and natural systems, be they down the stream or above the flood level.

      Open water in the city, the variety of its uses, the forms of urban activities on it, its accessibility – all of this is linked to precipitation and ground water by means of infrastructure (e.g. the project Flussbad Berlin) or architecture (green and water roofs, the ZHA project to protect Hamburg from flood).

      The availability of drinking water is a privilege of modern cities.
      Vlad Dreko film
      / HafenCity

      We were fortunate to learn about an ambitious territorial development project HafenCity in the former port area on the river Elbe in Hamburg. The project was presented to us by Antje Stokman and Amelie Rost, professors at the Hafen City University who address the issues of planning waterfront spaces. It is the biggest redevelopment project in Europe.

      The strategy to develop this area contains all the up-to-date concepts of urban planning. More specifically, it involves diversity (the buildings in this area are constructed by different developers in different styles), multi-functionality (the same building can have apartments, offices and shops inside of it), well-developed public spaces, parks and promenades, cultural functions (with the much-discussed Elbphilharmonie as the flagship project), workspaces and social housing. All of this had to be adapted to the harshest conditions, where water level fluctuates up to 4 meters everyday, and occasional heavy floods sweep the coastal areas during the year. The protective structures, almost invisible, impress even those completely uninterested in engineering.

      This new city block evokes mixed feelings in citizens of Hamburg, arousing debate among professionals; it has become one of the key topics for our discussions during the trip.
      Voices of participants
      / Wilhelmsburg

      Wilhelmsburg is the largest district in Hamburg. It is located on the left bank of the Elbe. It consists of several islands and has everything usually found in a big city: blocks of older development coexisting with multistory buildings. There are many industrial and port constructions, village houses and unique natural areas. For instance, Heukenlock is twice a day flooded by the tidal wave; therefore, it has a specific flora and fauna.

      As the city center is quite remote and difficult to access, until the recent days the housing prices were lower in comparison to other districts of Hamburg. Workers, students and various groups of immigrants lived here. The noisy and crowded market square – the center of public life in the district – is a great example of how all the groups of inhabitants can happily coexist. The empty spaces of HavenCity look even stranger against the backdrop of this lively square.

      In 2004, the program Jump over Elbe was launched, and since then, the area has been rapidly developing. Its transport accessibility has been improving. Wilhelmsburg is becoming more and more popular as a place to live. The development makes the life of the residents more comfortable, however, creating a risk of gentrification. There is a threat that the diversity of local life can be displaced by new, wealthier citizens.
          Voices of participants
          / The Klütjenfelde houseboat

          We saw another amazing example of using the water space in the Hamburger Spreehafen harbor. It was one of the seven floating buildings of historic value that today perform a cultural function, maintained by the NGO HHLV Lieger-Ensemble (literally a "recumbent" ensemble). Floating studios, offices, and exhibition spaces were built between 1912 and 1938. These constructions give us an idea how the harbor functioned at the time when life and work on water were a part of Hamburg's everyday.

          The Klütjenfelde Houseboat was built in 1912 as a harbor for the Altona fishing port.

          In 1927, the houseboat was acquired from Lütjens und Reimers (L&R), the famous barge owners from Hamburg. Before that time, it lay in the Klütjenfelder harbor, not very far from its current dock Spreehafen. For almost 70 years, it served as a floating station with an office and studio, surrounded by cargo barges. The houseboat is designed as a wide pontoon with single-sided lowered exterior and wooden joist-supported structure. The area of the houseboat amounts to 400 square meters of useful space. Besides, its flotation certificate is valid until 2022.

          Since 1995, the house has been a property of the Hamburg Track and Field Athletics Association (HHLV). Today, it functions as an office and a public space for community gatherings, educational and cultural events. All this takes place in a green area on water not far from the city!
          Voices of participants
          / Geheimagentur

          Hannah Kowalski, an artist and activist, is one of the members of the Geheimagentur (lit. "Secret Agency") group. The members of the Geheimagentur create situations and institutions that suggest to critically rethink the routine. Their performances create an alternative reality, where everyone is invited. The Geheimagentur works anonymously. It is an independent label and an open community based on the principle "the art to be manifold". In other words, anyone who participated in two or more projects can create their own projects on behalf of the non-profit association Motorschiff Stubnitz. This is how new 'cells of the body' are born.

          Many Geheimagentur projects are related to water space issues. For instance, the Hamburg Port Hydrarchy (HPH) project protests against seizure of access to water by global corporations. As in many other port cities of the Western world, the access to the sea in Hamburg has been increasingly monopolized, becoming largely unavailable for citizens. The HPH studies alternative practices of port use all around the world, participates in the trade between Hamburg and Lagos organized by refugees, and takes part in the "Battle for Mau Mau Island" — the annual flotilla for radical sailors in New York. The HPH also spreads information about civil resistance against the cruise industry in Venice and visits ghost ships in the South China Sea.
          The Stubnitz ship is one of the spaces that Geheimagentur members work in.

          / Stubnitz

          Stubnitz is an east German motor carrier. It was built in 1964 in Stralsund. For several decades it served in the Baltic and North seas. Being 80 meters long and weighing 2,500 tons, the ship is now one of the oldest technically authentic sea ships of this size still afloat.

          In 1993, this historical landmark of federal importance was transformed into a mobile platform for experimental culture and communication. The former cargo holds with their great acoustics became spaces for live music, exhibitions, plays, media art, raves and parties. Every night the ship can hold up to 700 people!

          Since 1994, Stubnitz has visited 15 different ports in 10 European countries, exploring and representing innovations in culture, establishing partnerships with local cultural organizations and promoters. More than 430,000 people participated in more than 1,500 events on the ship. More than 3,000 live performances by artists from 30 countries all over the globe were recorded and saved in the audio and video archives of the ship.

          The crew lives on board. Some cabins were reequipped, becoming personal rooms, other were reorganized as art studios and guest rooms. The crew mostly works on a voluntary basis, maintaining the ship, organizing and providing services at cultural events, developing new creative activities, collaborating with other organizations, and fundraising. During the events, volunteers can join to help the crew. In this way, the community combines life on water, traditional hierarchical roles at sea, a unique work dynamic, and art collectivism. As the crew says, "Stubnitz has always remained outside of any scene or genre, open to any and all."
          Voices of participants