The current refugees crisis in the Middle-East imposes unprecedented challenges to cities all across Europe. The immediate need for massive amounts of housing, amenities, jobs and services, forces cities to rapid their planning and decision-making process. These cities are facing a twofold planning challenge which resembles the post-war era: from one hand, the emergency of the situation requires fast and easily-available solutions. But form the long-term perspective, a comprehensive planning PROCESS is necessary for successful integration of these newcomers. 

The city of Hamburg, Germany confronts similar questions in the past year. The city is projected to accept 80,000 refugees by the end of the year; Currently, a uniform distribution of asylum seekers poses major challenges to the city’s urban domain. How can a decentralized accommodation of refugees lead to successful integration? That is the main question occupying the CityScienceLab at Hafencity University, a collaboration with the MIT Media Lab Changing Places Group.

Hafencity University

In the coming few months, HCU CityScienceLab will confront these issues through the construction and deployment of tangible-digital city models. These models will allow different decision makers to come together and discuss long-term proposals for thousands of refugees city of Hamburg.  The city has already provided  39,000 places for asylum seekers; The purpose of these tools is to help finding suitable areas for another 40,000 accommodation. From the research point of view, the Lab's goal is to promote an objective and substantive data-driven discussion on land use in the city.


The city models consist of two tables: On one table, a model of the entire city of Hamburg presents previous asylum seekers accommodations. This model depicts existing and planned facilities for initial reception and the follow-up accommodation and planning frameworks  (for example, the plan designation of an area). Additionally, all district  and neighborhood  boundaries and important landmarks such as the Elbe, Alster and Bille, are featured as well.

but the overall city scale allows only a rough analysis of the area. Therefore, another model was built to zoom in on the scale of the neighborhood, showing streets, existing buildings and parcels. HCU researchers developed cartographic data base, where potential public open spaces, as well as hard and soft criterias for each plot are presented. This multilayered information can assist in finding other locations for asylum seekers accommodations in preliminary assessment stages. Together with various decision makers, each parcel could be analyzed and check for feasibility.

Replacing different 'data blocks' in the model will allow real-time increase or decrease of the numbers of accommodations at individual location. These real-time changes, initiated by decision makers and the participating public will have a direct impact on different parameters in the model, such as the number of accommodated asylum seekers in the entire city or the number of asylum seekers per district or neighborhood.

Cityscope @ HCU


The aim of this work is to promote a citywide dialogue which deals with the question of how to accommodate the present fugitives and those who are expected to arrive in 2016. It aims not to discuss only individual sites, but to promote a discourse in the context of different interests (residential / commercial / conservation) and legal planning requirements. This also allows citizens  to contribute their expertise and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the given proposals.

An urban simulation laboratory for rapid prototyping, the City Science Lab at HCU are joining forces with the Changing Places Group at the MIT Media Lab for the study of these research questions. Changing Places Group is building tools that support urban planning processes by visualizing location-based data and enabling real time simulations as well as evaluations of urban scenarios. The Cityscope platform developed at MIT consists of several components: the table, on which Lego bricks are positioned as data units; Projectors, augmenting different data on the model and a screen that displays the additional information and an overall view. The open-source nature of the Cityscope project allowed HCU researchers to rapidly integrate this system and to easily modify it to the specific needs of modeling asylum seekers in Hamburg.   


Starting in mid-April 2016, open discussions and professional moderation by “steg - Stadtentwicklungsgesellschaft”, a private urban development and communication company, will be held at HafenCity University. These will take place in cooperation with refugees coordinating staff and the Senate Chancellery of the City of Hamburg. Events will discuss both the district and the neighborhood level, along the side the implications on the City of Hamburg. Groups of 50 participants are invited to visit HCU and interactively view and discussed the appropriate framework for the city’s challenges.

Photos in this page: Walter Schisswohl, Ariel Noyman