Project part-financed by the European Union (European Regional Development Fund)

The Interreg IVB North Sea Region Programme

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The tidal Elbe - a people's perspective

3. 3. The Elbe Estuary – Perception of a Cultural, Ecological and Economic Area

In answer to the question “How would you describe the region you are living in to a friend or visitor?” people on the tidal Elbe drew a varied picture of their region. Many name different types of landscapes such as river meadows, mudflats, moorlands and water as characteristic elements of the region. Overall, respondents take their region to be a worthwhile place to live; they enjoy the beautiful landscape, helpful people and mostly good infrastructure. The region also offers a variety of leisure opportunities and sightseeing options. On the one hand, life is quiet and in tune with nature, on the other hand, the advantages of a big city like Hamburg are within easy reach. 10% of the respondents mentioned negative aspects concerning the region. Life in rural areas appears to be dreary for some people, there are complaints about the weak economic situation in parts of the region, and inhabitants of several communities feel abandoned by the city of Hamburg and underprivileged (see Fig. 2).

Just 15% of all respondents mention the river in their description of their region. Asked to name three terms that spontaneously spring to mind when thinking about the Elbe, respondents make clear that the river is mainly seen as a busy waterway which is used by residents only for leisure. Negative images of the Elbe include an obstacle to traffic, a threat (e.g. through storm surges) and a polluted river suffering the impacts of industry, intensive agriculture and shipping. Positive images of the Elbe are drawn in the context of leisure activities. Only 7% of all respondents associate the river Elbe with plants and animals, and only 12% think of typical landscapes. Altogether, the Elbe is primarily perceived as a cultural and economic area and less so as a natural environment (see Fig. 3).

The telephone survey in Hamburg showed that perception of the Elbe differs between the city population of Hamburg and the other Elbe residents. When thinking about the Elbe, Hamburg respondents mostly focus on the river within the city, predominantly associating the Elbe with the port, shipping, the city and the deepening of the river. Personal answers concerning leisure activities and memories as well as critical comments are given rather rarely.

People along the tidal Elbe river have different views of nature. Some respondents understand nature as untouched where humankind has not yet intervened. Others include man-made objects or heavily altered areas in their understanding of nature, such as agricultural land, dikes, villages and the river Elbe itself. The Elbe quiz revealed that special elements of nature on the tidal Elbe are widely unknown to the public. This applies to the highly protected endemic plant Elbe Water Dropwort (Oenanthe conioides), as well as to twaite shad (Alosa fallax), a rare type of herring that comes to spawn in the Elbe. The term Natura 2000 is also mainly unknown. Natura 2000 constitutes a European network of nature conservation areas, and large parts of the tidal Elbe are protected as Natura 2000 sites. In another question people were asked to evaluate to what degree their surroundings are characterised by nature conservation. Analysis of these answers, differentiated by location within the Elbe region, reveals a big gap between people’s perception and the real presence of nature conservation areas. Analysing people’s perception of the tidal Elbe as an ecological area thus reveals severe knowledge gaps within the public. You can find both an overestimation and an underestimation of actually protected areas in the surroundings.

More than two million people live along the tidal Elbe, about 1.8 million in the city of Hamburg alone. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Elbe estuary is an important economic area. Respondents mainly see their region characterized by agriculture; several industrial centres complete the picture of the region. A small number of communities, mostly those close to the coast, attract tourists. Fishing used to be important but nowadays only plays a minor role. Flood protection measures characterize the whole region from Geesthacht to Cuxhaven. However, the survey shows that some people have integrated dikes into their mental map of the natural landscape, with their original function no longer consciously perceived. Surprisingly, there is hardly any perception of shipping as a key economic factor in the Elbe region. According to the respondents, the many ships passing by their communities on their way to the port of Hamburg have little relevance for the economic structure of these locations. Just about 50% fully agreed that the region is characterized by shipping.

Nevertheless, the importance of the port of Hamburg as an economic hub for the whole region is widely accepted. At the river mouth in Cuxhaven and Friedrichskoog more than 75% of all respondents agree that the port of Hamburg is important for the economic development of the region. Another question was “What significance does the port have for you personally?” This shows that similar to the river Elbe, the port is more or less a place to spend leisure time (see Fig. 4). However, the answers also reveal understanding of the port’s relevance in terms of jobs and economic strength of the region. At present, there is a contentious debate on the deepening of the river Elbe, which is arguably needed to maintain the port’s competitiveness and to protect the jobs it generates. Within the research area, views of this topic are controversial. Respondents gave much thought to the question of whether the further deepening of the Elbe is important for the economic development of the region, and carefully weighed the pros and cons. On the one hand, residents are aware that the deepening of the river is important for the future of the port and regional economic development, on the other hand they consider these interventions to have unpredictable impacts on the whole region.

Economically, the region is not seen to be uniform either. It is clear to respondents that the interests of agriculture, industry, tourism and shipping need to be balanced – a considerable challenge for integrated estuary management. The main interest of the respondents is to preserve and create new jobs within the region, which means compromises between sectors. There is the view that support of one sector should not be at the expense of others. The river Elbe not only serves Hamburg, and the consequences of deepening the waterway mostly affect the riversides in Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein which are used by agriculture, tourism and industry. The widespread appreciation of the Port of Hamburg as a key to regional economic development might be a starting point for open and honest dialogue with the population affected. According to the respondents, residents are still waiting for the promises to be implemented that were made during the last phase of deepening. This situation marks a loss of confidence and explains why some respondents feel abandoned by authorities and politicians. Mutual trust is essential for implementing integrated estuary management. Sustainable economic development of the whole region can only be successful if all communities and economic sectors take part in the discussions on future strategies and directions of economic development.

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