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Germany: Hamburg tries to turn a toxic past green


City planners want latte-sipping visitors to Wilhelmsburg's Nazi bunker to enjoy views of the city's skyline.



HAMBURG, Germany — Most residents of this northern German city associate the island of Wilhelmsburg with two landmarks: a monstrous Nazi bunker and a pile of highly toxic waste.

Long shunned by most Hamburgers, this 13 square-mile area — which takes up an entire district surrounded by the Elbe River just south of the city center — is home to many low-income immigrants, who make up more than half of its 50,000 residents.

But a group of urban planners wants to bring new purpose to Wilhelmsburg through environmental projects intended to improve life for its inhabitants and attract new settlers.

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Guido Neumann of Hamburg Marketing, responsible for the city’s public relations, says he first visited the island only three years ago despite having lived in the city for four decades. “You can see why Hamburgers don’t want to live here,” he explains.

Nearly 70 years after the end of World War II, the island’s colossal concrete bunker still casts a long shadow here. Built by Nazi forced labor in 1943, the 140-foot windowless anti-aircraft installation housed flak guns for targeting allied bombers on nightly missions to destroy the city harbor’s oil tankers and refineries.

Partially demolished by British forces after the war, the crumbling and burned-out shell stood derelict until last year. That’s when planners for the Hamburg International Building Exhibition, or IBA, a project to develop city architecture, began a drive to convert the eyesore into a renewable power station that would provide locals with heat and electricity.

The vast roof and southern façade will be fitted with thermal solar panels after the structure has been made sound next year.

Inside, a gigantic hall will house a wood-fired power station and a combined heat-and-electricity plant. Set to be fuelled by biogas, it is designed to exploit excess heat usually wasted in conventional electricity generation for storage in a giant hot-water tank, according to IBA project coordinator Jan Gerbitz.

Excess heat from the storage tank will be fed into the heating grid during peak demand in the mornings and evenings, when more residents use hot water and central heat. The IBA estimates the revamped bunker will generate enough heat to supply some 3,000 households and electricity for 1,000 homes.

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“It will be great to use this building for something positive after all its negative history,” said IBA guide Christian Scheler, adding that public engagement will be necessary to transform the structure’s image from a relic of a terrible past. “But we can’t forget the building’s history, that it was built by Nazi slaves.”

To that end, the roof will house an exhibition of the building’s past along with a 100-foot-high viewing platform overlooking Hamburg’s skyline, where IBA hopes visitors will sip lattes on what is now a maze of muddy puddles, scattered building materials and crumbling stairways accessible only by a construction lift.

To the bunker’s east, three wind turbines stand on a grassy mound the IBA has dubbed “energy hill.”

It hides a landfill of rubble and household garbage later used for dumping highly toxic industrial waste in the 1970s. Poisonous chemicals were found leaking into the groundwater in 1983, four years after the area was officially closed. In a last-ditch attempt to seal the site, the waste was enclosed by plastic sheeting, covered with topsoil and set off behind an exclusion zone.

Officials say it remains a ticking time-bomb. “It’s a problem for the next generation,” Scheler said. “We don’t have a solution yet.”

Like the Nazi bunker, the IBA hopes its future will lie in renewable energy. It wants “energy hill” to generate enough power to meet the needs of over 4,000 households by harnessing wind, solar power and methane-rich landfill gas.

The first wind turbines erected on the site in the 1990s were replaced with larger, higher capacity models last year. The state-owned electricity utility Hamburg Energy has also installed solar panels on the southern slope.

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However planners say the site will probably remain an object of fear and disgust unless locals are involved in its regeneration. Opening the hill as a tourist attraction, they hope, will literally change visitors’ points of view.

The IBA is overseeing the construction of a raised pathway over the landfill due to open in the fall as part of its drive to decontaminate Wilhelmsburg in the collective imagination.

The city hopes the energy “attractions” will help pave the way for a brighter, greener future for the island when they open next year by enabling locals to understand the island’s shameful past.