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Wilhelmsburg: Hamburg’s river island

Cycling past a flock of sheep is, in itself, not that usual. These ones, though, catch my eye because they’re working like an environmentally-friendly lawnmower and eating grass on the dyke built to protect the island of Wilhelmsburg from flooding when the waters of the River Elbe rise.

Wilhelmsburg: Hamburg’s river island

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When that happened back in 1962 the dyke’s forerunner broke and Wilhelmsburg suffered a devastating flood. Some locals say it never fully recovered.

Despite being only an eight-minute S-Bahn journey from Hamburg’s central station, many of the city’s residents have never felt the need to venture the short distance to Europe’s largest inhabited river island. That’s changing this year, with many being attracted over to view the International Garden Show Hamburg on the far side of the island.

Remarkably, until the beginning of this year it would have been impossible for me to cycle along the dyke here. A razor wire-topped fence protected Hamburg’s duty-free harbour and meant locals couldn’t access the waterfront.

“You could live 20 metres from the water but not reach it, which was an absurd situation,” explains my guide Aron, a young urban planner who lives in Wilhelmsburg. Today people use the area for barbecues, walking and angling.

It’s a warm day and a cooling breeze blows over the shimmering water of the Elbe. I look over it towards the cranes on Hamburg’s docks.

Behind me, a short section of the unfriendly looking fence has been retained. Its symbolic power reminds me of the Berlin Wall. The two barriers were built for very different reasons but both had a big impact on the quality of life of people living nearby.

We’re out on StadtRAD bicycles, Hamburg’s equivalent of London’s Boris Bikes, and Aron suggests we pedal towards some of the housing built for this year’s International Building Exhibition, which locals know as the IBA, from the German term ‘Internationale Bauausstellung’.

We pass a house whose facade fascinates me; bubbles intermittently glug upwards through water in algae-producing panels. The algae are harvested to produce energy. The IBA, explains Aron, is introducing a number of innovative solutions to meet residents’ energy needs.

Pausing outside of a smart looking building, Aron explains it’s part of a project to aid social integration. I learn the IBA is part of a concerted effort to make this part of Hamburg more attractive, because for many years Wilhelmsburg had a reputation for social problems.

We cycle on towards an imposing structure made of concrete and topped with solar panels. The 138ft-high building dates from the Second World War, when it was part of Hamburg’s anti-aircraft defences.

In 1947 the Allies tried to blow up the tower but, stubbornly, the reinforced concrete refused to fall. It’s been restored as part of the IBA and is now known as the Energy Bunker, producing enough energy to heat 3,000 local homes.

We take the lift up to the top of the bunker and grab cappuccinos from the cafe occupying one of the former flak gun positions.

Sipping them, we wander out onto the 360-degree viewing platform and appreciate the view of Hamburg’s changing skyline, over which numerous cranes are at work.