Finding places, Hamburg, Germany
Finding places, Hamburg, Germany - ©city of Hamburg

Finding Places

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Icons use case study main actors

Main actors

Local Government, City Government, Community / Citizen Group, Research Institutes / Universities

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Project area

Inner City

Icons use case study duration


Ongoing since 2013/11

The city of Hamburg has implemented a public participation process for the allocation of housing for refugees.

Finding Places supports sustainable urban living by solving pressing hardships for refugees and cities alike. The programme provides immediate and liveable accommodation options and reduces social exclusion by locating refugee communities within urban neighbourhoods. With the  direct participation of residents, who have decision-making power in the overall process, this integrative and participative approach places emphasis on the engagement and involvement of local citizens who act as debaters and decision-makers.

Running from May to July 2016, the Finding Places project involved approximately 400 participants who identified 160 locations, out of which 44 passed legal confirmation by the authorities. Overall, on a qualitative level, the project facilitated surprisingly constructive and collaborative interaction, raising awareness and a sense of ownership among participants.

Finding Places has earned wide public attention and triggered multiple follow-up activities in the city of Hamburg. It is envisioned the city administration will adopt the public participation processes used as a basis for all public urban development projects in the future.

Sustainable Development Goals

Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
Reduce inequality within and among countries
Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels

URBACT Good Practice Label

This project was awarded the 'URBACT Good Practice Label' in 2017.

Hamburg, Germany

Size and population development
2011: 1,796,000; 1990: 1,639,000; 2025: 1,940,000; 2010-2015: +0.51% / year

Population composition
German 71%, Turkish 5%, Other European 14%, Asian 6%, African 2%, Hispanic and Caribbean 1%, Other/Unknown 1%

Main functions
City-State, Capital City

Main industries / business
banking, port, media

Sources for city budget
GDP/nominal EUR 94.43 billion (2011)

Political structure
Mayor and City Council; City State

Administrative structure
7 boroughs, 104 quarters

In 2015, in response to the sudden arrival of tens of thousands of refugees in the city of Hamburg, the Lord Mayor requested the CityScienceLab (CSL) at HafenCity University to facilitate a public discussion and decision-making process to identify locations for refugee accommodation in local neighbourhoods.

With highly sensitive socio-political implications, this project demanded a well-designed technological and procedural approach. CSL employed an innovative human-computer interaction tool, CityScope, to facilitate public participation and the decision-making process and a workshop was held to help participants and stakeholders interact effectively.  For the workshop, participants from all city wards of Hamburg were invited to maintain a fair and balanced distribution of accommodation across the city. Thus, acceptance and social sustainability was ensured.

Finding Places follows an unusual comprehensive approach and horizontal integration by bringing together qualitative and quantitative methods of urban development, novel information technology and participatory approaches. In terms of vertical integration, it connected the Lord Mayor´s Office, city administration, universities, local city wards and civil society, which were all involved with dedicated roles and activities.

The solutions offered by Finding Places are twofold:
1) a methodological solution (workshop process), and
2) a technological solution (CityScope tool).

The methodological solution is a participatory workshop concept, designed especially to enable direct involvement of citizen groups in the decision-making process concerning the allocation of refugee accommodations. As the task of establishing such accommodations (emergency and long-term) used to stir up heated debate and controversy, a detailed interaction format was designed that comprised moderated group discussion and co-creation sessions, proceeding stepwise from the review of basic urban data towards precise locations of residential housing.

The technological solution consists of a novel tool for Human Machine Interaction (HMI): an interactive modelling table, based on the CityScope technology developed by the Changing Places Group of the MIT Media Lab, Boston.

CityScopes are able to represent various urban data (e.g. cadastral plans, functional zoning, accessibility information) on large projection tables, which can be augmented by simple building blocks (e.g. Lego bricks) as carriers of design information, in this case construction of refugee shelters. The visually coded blocks are scanned and digitised by cameras from beneath the table. Thus, the effectiveness and impact of the modelled solution on the cityscape can be computed and projected as a real-time response on the tables.

More than 400 citizens attend 40 workshops, hosted and facilitated by HafenCity University’s CityScienceLab. The mixed groups in the workshops consisted of up to 20 people. A key concern was to include the local expertise and knowledge of the citizens such as everyday practices like location of jogging tracks, knowledge over the school way of the children, walking areas for dogs, information about public facilties (eg parks and sports grounds) usage. Thus it was possible in the project to bring together the statistics and data of the city on potential areas with the everyday observations of the participants. This includes, for example, statements on how heavily or little a park or sports facility is actually used. 

For each city ward, multiple workshops were carried out. The invitations were publicly announced via the city of Hamburg website, newspapers, and social media. Workshops were free and open to everybody to attend. In the workshop sessions, participants were asked to suggest and debate locations potentially suitable for refugee accommodation in their respective city ward.

Workshop participants were provided with information about local conditions of the plots (quantitative data, legal constrains, emissions, zoning law etc.) prepared by the CityScienceLab and made available on the interactive CityScope tables. That way a shared and objective basis for discussion was given, and a well-informed pre-selection of potential sites for refugee shelters could be made.

In the following steps, pre-selected sites were discussed and commented in detail, and enriched with expertise from municipal authorities and planners. In the final step of the workshops, the participants decided on specific locations to be listed for the city government to execute the construction of refugee accommodations.

The lead agency for the project is the city of Hamburg in partnership with CityScienceLab (CSL) at HafenCity University. Several urban authorities were involved in the project, including Hamburg’s Authority for Urban Development, Authority for Refugee Coordination and Authority for Science and Research. The budget for the project is 300K Euro.

6480 accommodation places have been recommended as suitable places. The areas should be at least 1500 m² - this area is needed for about 50 to 80 accommodation places. These areas were located in four different districts and following the selection process, more than 600 accommodation places for refugees were established.

Finding Places has changed the scale and quality of participation projects in Hamburg and Germany. It demonstrates how citizens can quickly find suitable solutions for urgent social and urban problems.  

Finding Places has directly involved approximately 400 citizens in workshops and provided a straightforward form of citizen participation in a socio-politically highly relevant topic.

The success of the project  through collaborative work, created a sense of ownership among all participants. Throughout the city, the project has created awareness about the acute issues of appropriate refugee accommodation and understanding of the fairness issue in respect to distributing the loads and responsibilities between all city wards (independent from their social and economic status) for refugee accommodation.

Supported by publicity and press coverage, the project has changed the general attitude of Hamburg´s citizens towards refugees – from a perspective of passive hardship to an objective problem-solving attitude. Evidence was given on these results by track research carried out by the CityScienceLab (thesis projects of students, scientific publications, data analysis), by feedback from the public and from the media (local and national newspapers, social media, TV coverage).

The main challenges for the project are to secure appropriate housing offers for refugees and ensure all residents are aware the can participate in this process.

The influx of refugees and their ad hoc accommodation is a challenge shared by many cities across Europe. In this context, the availability of validated and transferable methods and technologies is highly valuable. The methodology with its choreographed sequence of participatory planning and decision-making workshops can be applied in a similar way in other European cities.
Similarly, the key tool, the CityScope, is ready for mobile application in other cities (it has been used in other cities around the world to assist in various tasks of urban development besides refugee accommodation).

With the help of the moderated workshops on the interactive city model, it was possible to view and discuss concrete areas throughout the city. All participants began to reflect on the task at hand and to make suggestions. It turned out that general (and ideological) statements decreased in the course of the workshops as the participants realized how difficult complex area discussions are in a growing city like Hamburg.

The organising and facilitating team made great efforts to document and simplify the process and procedures of Finding Places so that it could be easily adopted to other cities: manuals, guidelines and visual descriptions for easy application in workshop settings have been created.

In the face of unstable political conditions, further inflows of refugees are possible in the near future. It will be necessary to have quick and effective means to solve urgent challenges such as rapid finding of appropriate refugee accommodations. Finding Places has delivered a blueprint for quick and successful action. In a more general sense, the practice and technology of Finding Places and CityScope can be applied to a broad range of similar urban problems, especially the identification of appropriate locations for specific uses.

URBACT case study: Finding places, Facilitating public participation in the allocation of housing for refugees:

Finding Places:

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