A centre for migrants in Nordvest tests the paradox of growth

As Copenhagen transforms into a proper metropolis, its vaunted liveability is in danger of becoming unaffordable for many. Grassroots initiatives like Kompasset in the Nordvest district demonstrate that it is possible to push back against the forces of commercialisation – but could they just be making the situation worse?

On a former auto body lot, nestled between a row of birch trees and a dour, two-story ambulatory care building, an urban oasis is taking shape. The skeletal remains of a fish on a grill, surrounded by benches made of wooden pallets, speaks of a feast enjoyed the night before. Adjacent to the fire pit, carpenters are installing wooden panels on the inside of a container, giving it the appearance of a conference room.

The facility will eventually include a herb garden, lounge, stage and bicycle workshop for residents on a 450-square-meter open space. But it’s more than just another urban iteration of hipsterism.

Kompasset (The Compass) is a shelter for primarily EU migrants who move to Denmark for better opportunities, but who do not have access to public services because of barriers to the Danish labour market and the wider society.

Christian Cramon, manager at Kompasset. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

At Kompasset, which is managed by Kirkens Korshær (a charitable arm of the Danish Folkekirke), its 80 daily users can find help from on-site counsellors and volunteers, and access services like legal advice, language lessons, lockers, showers, coffee and a bed to crash on during the day. Supporting the migrants is a staff of 11 – both in Kompasset and street workers – and 40 volunteers that speak several of the European languages native to the (mostly) men using the premises. The project is funded primarily by Kirkens Korshær and the EU, and is a collaboration with Emergency Architects & Human Rights (EAHR) and the volunteer neighbourhood association 2400 Hippieness.

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Kompasset is built on land that is not zoned for habitation, but the organisation has nevertheless applied for permission to house clients overnight. If approved, Kompasset will take over as a night shelter from Kirkens Korshær’s facility at Hellig Kors Kirken in Nørrebro, and provide 40 beds for use by the homeless in acute need.

The overall goal of the project is to mitigate the homelessness created by prejudice in the labour market, and to advance integration – goals that can help fill an acute shortage of labour currently affecting the Danish construction and hospitality sectors.

Christian Cramon, manager at Kompasset, argues that European migrants are marginalised by policies designed to prevent them from sleeping rough and being a burden on public services.

“There is political support for ensuring that Denmark doesn’t become a place that attracts migrants because of benefits. But they end up without any support in dealing with health issues that are not emergencies – they can’t get help for addiction, for example. They get nothing, so our job is to make life more reasonable for them,” says Cramon.

The bunks in Kompasset that will serve as a night shelter if they receive permission from the municipality. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Kompasset helps migrants understand what they can reasonably expect from their time in Denmark, such as whether they will be allowed to work. They also help translating fines or other communication from the public authorities. The migrants that show promise of settling in Denmark are given individual mentoring as well as help finding housing and work.

“You can’t just stick a homeless person in an apartment and expect them to look after themselves. You need to take a more holistic approach.”

Social diversity
The project is also helping to maintain the character of the neighbourhood, even as it undergoes rapid gentrification. 2400 Hippieness, a residential group with around 40 active members, has collaborated to create the outdoor facilities at Kompasset. By organising events like an annual block party, they hope to keep Nordvest – whose postcode is 2400 – open to everyone. Kompasset contributes to this vision by ensuring diverse social strata in the neighbourhood.

“I asked all our members what they thought of the project, and they told me they think the migrants are just really nice,” says Rune Alexander Birkvad Sørensen, who administers the Facebook page for 2400 Hippieness. He added that he hopes there will be more interaction between residents and Kompasset’s users when the project is completed.

“It’s a very positive project, and the people in our group are a bunch of idealists. When you create something good for the local area, for other people, you create something good for yourself too.”

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Copenhagen has undergone rapid growth over the past two decades, during which several formerly gritty districts have become fashionable, family-friendly areas. In the late 1990s, Islands Brygge was transformed from an industrial wasteland into a harbourside getaway with luxurious apartments. Vesterbro likewise went from a seedy red-light district to the headquarters of all things hip.

Nordvest is the latest district to undergo this transformation. Once known as a raw, semi-industrial melting pot, flashy new apartments are now springing up on empty lots. As Vesterbro and Islands Brygge become increasingly unaffordable, established design firms and thriving creative companies have been lured to Nordvest district by the appeal of lower rents and a distinctive, inspired street life – and they are bringing with them a surge of galleries, restaurants and cafés catering to the new residents.

READ MORE: Copenhagen – becoming unrecognisable or just growing up?

But, as is often the case when an area becomes gentrified, these new residents and businesses put at risk the very authentic charm that lured them there in the first place. The overheated property market that results segregates citizens based on wealth and, in worst-case scenarios seen around the world, feeds intolerance, discrimination, criminality and fear.

Not a new Vesterbro
Nordvest may escape the worst, however. According to senior researcher Rikke Skovgaard Nielsen from the Danish Building Research Institute at Aalborg University – an expert in urban studies and authority on Nordvest – the lessons gleaned from Vesterbro are not lost on residents in this area.

“One of the things we found in Nordvest is that people said, ‘We don’t want to go the way of Vesterbro and become completely gentrified. We want to continue being ourselves’. Residents are coming together and saying that they want something else for their neighbourhood,” she says, referring to initiatives such as Kompasset.

But she warns that the process of engagement has a caveat.

“These volunteer organisations are among the kinds of actors that can help create different neighbourhoods, but it is not certain that they can keep it that way. The other side of the coin is that people who buy flats prefer that the house prices go up. Especially when people start having children, they suddenly don’t want all this diversity on their doorstep as they did when they were young and didn’t have all these responsibilities.”

This is the paradox that can turn grassroots groups and startups into the very motor that accelerates commercialisation, argues Marie Stender, an anthropologist and researcher at the Danish National Building Research Institute at Aalborg University.

READ MORE: Copenhagen – Is the future taller, denser and darker?

“In trying not to gentrify the area, through urban gardens and services for locals and foreign migrants, they may in fact contribute to rendering the area more attractive in other peoples’ eyes, and hence transforming it from a worn-down working class district to something more vibrant, trendy – and, later, worth investing in,” she says.

Whether Kompasset makes the area more attractive, remains to be seen. Skovgaard Nielsen calls the initiative one of many test balloons that will indicate the direction and speed of the transformative trends taking shape in Nordvest.

Cramon says they intentionally designed Kompasset to be open to the local community, without a gate closing off its yard.

“We went the locals to use the outdoor space too. Being open creates a dialogue when conflict arises between our users and our neighbours. And it also means that people feel comfortable knocking on the door and being curious, and maybe proposing some positive collaborations.”

Since diversity is the stated goal of both the City of Copenhagen and local residents, winning approval could represent a victory both for Kompasset and the struggle against gentrification. M

Features, Urban

By Bradley Axmith

Translator, day trader, web designer, amateur viking ship builder and martial artist.

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