Knowledge City: Rethinking Heidelberg
Heidelberg, one of Europe’s oldest university towns, is looking at its future. Here’s a firsthand account of what’s ahead and what it might means for university towns here.
With a population of 150,000, Heidelberg is only modestly larger than Berkeley. Although its university dates back to the Middle Ages, its modern fame really began in the 19th century, when the philosopher Hegel taught there. After heavy involvement with Nazism in the 1930s and 1940s, it was revived by untainted scholars along with the city itself, an important base for the US military during the Cold War. With its romantic old city along the Neckar River, Heidelberg is a popular tourist destination, but its university is an equally important center for law, medicine, and science.
In March, I visited the city to attend the launch of the Heidelberg IBA. A German institution since 1901, the Internationale Bauaustellung is a means for its cities to discuss their future development, establish a framework, and then get it built. The 1923 Stuttgart IBA gave rise to the Weissenhofsiedlung program, with participants like Mies, Corb, and Peter Behrens. The 1984 Berlin IBA similarly attracted the likes of Eisenman, Hejduk, Kleihuis, and Rossi. There’s nothing theoretical about the IBA, as I saw myself when I visited the Berlin IBA in 1984. This is real-time transformation.
The Academy: ideas for 2022
Heidelberg’s IBA and it’s theme of Wissen|Schafft|Stadt, or Knowledge based Urbanism, was divided into two parts. Part one was the Academy, a review of proposals for the future of Heidelberg by eight university teams. They did a crash course on the city’s neighborhoods, charretted for four days, then presented to the public on day one of the IBA launch. The teams suggested treating the Neckar River as a university district, to make a stronger connection between the old and new parts of the city. They suggested thinking of Heidelberg’s future development as zones of feeling—Melancholia, for example, a real German impulse, would provide places for the contemplation essential for generating ideas. And they suggested new infill strategies like Acupuncture—inserting elements of university life into other neighborhoods to cause collisions and complexity. Or like Incubation—separating the different parts (university, housing, and commerce) to give them room to grow.
These proposals were not without their paradoxes—and they sparked opposition and debate from the visitors and local citizenry—but controversy was the point.
Part two was the Summit. In between, we heard from Heidelberg Mayor Eckart Würzner, who noted that cities are shifting from work and cars to culture and urbanity—a shift that requires vision, not more of the same. Rediscovering city “quarters”—what the Berlin Germans call a Kiez, a place to identify with and even love—is one step toward Heidelberg’s “Mediterraneanization,” with a lively outdoor life. Tourists and people moving to the city are important measures of success, he said.
The Summit: compare & contrast
Day Two heard from other university cities—American, Asian, and European—that could be precedents for Heidelberg’s framework for future development. The Dutch city of Delft is joining forces with Rotterdam and The Hague to get a bigger critical mass of institutions and community life going—a knowledge region, not just a city. Montpellier in France has a similar issue—how to open up the university so its different parts form a more vibrant whole. Palo Alto, which swells from 65,000 to 125,000 people during the workweek, homed in on its opportunities (“center of the knowledge universe”) and constraints (only the wealthy can be housed, yet the city is an urban mecca amid suburbia].
Cambridge, roughly Berkeley’s size, sees the Red Line as its transit “river,” a place of informal encounter if the city’s zoning can keep pace by allowing mixed-use growth. NYU, a university city anchored by Washington Square, is trying to grow within its district without overwhelming it. Kumamoto, a university town in Japan that is Heidelberg’s sister city, is betting on the involvement of the 26,000 people who study there—not just “birds of passage,” but valuable messengers from the future.
The Summit ended with talks by UNESCO’s Walter Erdelen and Martin Lees, ex-domo of the Club of Rome. Erdelen spoke of the importance of nature—not just the river, but also of life supports, like water and power, that should be sustainable. As a center for medicine and science, Heidelberg should bring issues like health and resilience “down to the ground,” applying its knowledge to the city and its citizens. Lees said that those attending “were a privileged lot,” whereas many in the world are necessarily on the move owing to human and natural catastrophes. Cities have to figure out how to avoid “nonlinear shocks”—cities have to take the lead.
The final word came from Eckart Würzner, reminding the audience of the IBA for Heidelberg that brought everyone together and inviting us back to evaluate what promises to be an ambitious program for its development through 2022. The IBA framework for Heidelberg embraces everything from the growth and health of the physical city to the guarantors of its longer-term prosperity—university research, for example, and the incubators of new economic activity spinning off from it. To see those ideas take shape is a powerful reason to go back, and I intend to do so.