Hamburg in detail

Destination Today

Hamburg has always gone its own way, but the issues it faces mirror those that challenge the wider German nation. Record levels of immigration and the issue of climate change both stand at the centre of public debate in Hamburg, while good financial governance is also at the forefront of people's minds in a city that spent almost €1 billion on a single building (the Elbphilharmonie).


As a port city, Hamburg has always had one eye on the horizon, both due to large numbers of immigrants and the presence of the kind of transient residents that regularly pass through trading cities. Perhaps as a result, Hamburg has always prided itself on its openness to the rest of the world – nowhere more so than in St Pauli, the neighbourhood with the strongest connections to Hamburg's port. And yet the unprecedented influx of millions of immigrants to Germany in 2015 has challenged the way Hamburg sees itself. In 2016, Hamburg committed to accepting 40,000 refugees – more than the UK government committed to accept into the entire UK over a five-year period. By one estimate, one-third of Hamburg's population is now foreign born, an extraordinarily high number, placing considerable strain on the city's programs of public housing, welfare and integration. That many of immigrants to Hamburg come from Muslim countries – Turkey and Afghanistan are the largest and third-largest source countries respectively; Poland comes in second – has raised fears that ghettos will arise, and that the free-wheeling lifestyle of Hamburg may be under threat. Such concerns are rarely raised in more than a whisper, and the fact remains that tension between immigrant communities and Hamburgers of longer standing has been remarkable by its absence. And perhaps hope for the future comes in the model of inner-urban St Georg, at once home to a large immigrant population and the hedonistic home of Hamburg's gay community. Whatever happens next, it's a common topic of conversation among locals.

Sustainability & Climate Change

Hamburg has more to lose than most European cities: much of its landmass lies just six metres above sea level, and any rise in global temperatures will have a catastrophic impact. Even without rising sea levels, Hamburg's position on the Elbe and proximity to the North Sea makes it especially vulnerable to storm surges and other extreme weather events. While there may be little that the city can do on a global scale, it is doing its part. An overwhelming majority of Hamburgers live within 300m of public transport, 'green pathways' are an integral part of government policy – within 20 years, this network will cover 40% of the city, enabling residents to cross town on foot or by bicycle – and sustainability lies at the core of the new HafenCity development. The latter is considered a model of sustainable urban development; access is built primarily around public transport and pedestrian thoroughfares, and strict building codes require environmental best practice in all new constructions. Such policies may not protect Hamburg should sea levels rise, but Hamburgers nonetheless pride themselves on doing their bit – not to mention that their city is both more environmentally conscious and more liveable as a result.

Balancing the Books

The construction of the gleaming new Elbphilharmonie has certainly got people talking. While controversy over its cost has died down a little, with many Hamburgers enjoying the plaudits and glamour the project has brought to the city, concerns remain that the city has prioritised signature infrastructure projects over more pressing issues such as public housing. More than that, Hamburgers have been heard to complain that the city authorities have had their heads turned by the attention, basking in the glory rather than trying to govern in a fiscally responsible manner. After all, the Elbphilharmonie was originally supposed to cost €200 million – that it came in five times over budget and took six years longer than it was supposed to does not, critics argue, augur well for the financial management abilities of those in charge of the city. For the moment, Hamburg continues to buck the national trend, with the government and local legislature dominated by the left-wing Social Democrats (PSD). But Hamburg has never been averse to making the ruling party pay for its errors – Angela Merkel's CDU saw its vote plunge by 22% locally in the 2011 elections – and locals stand ready to hold the government accountable if they can't balance the books.