Breathing life into neglected communities

Local residents are helping the city renew their neighbourhoods and, in the process, increasing Copenhagen's social capital

A place to call your own is hard to find in Copenhagen. The population is rising, and prices are going up. You move from the City to Vesterbro, then Nørrebro, and then Valby. You move further from the city centre, and the soaring prices keep up.

But beyond the rapidly-accelerating traditional housing market, there are homes that are less marketable. They exist in neighbourhoods that haven’t yet seen their first bistro or coffee shop. The apartments are small and deteriorating, and still without adequate sanitation.

Long-term residents have left for better-equipped housing, and in their place come transient students with little interest in investing. In the process, communities fall apart.

But since the late 1990s, some of these neighbourhoods have had their public spaces transformed, turning their streets into a place the residents can call their own.

This redevelopment is the result of the Copenhagen City Council’s ‘områdefornyelse’ projects. Literally meaning ‘area renewal’, the focus is not on creating new buildings as this tends to attract new investment and residents from outside the communities.

The projects instead focus on reviving neighbourhoods for the residents that already live there. Instead of knocking down homes and building new ones, the council retrofits existing structures, installing bathrooms and showers in apartments for residents that previously had to use common facilities, for example. But there’s more to it than that.

“The issues we have in these areas are related not only to their physical design,” explains Line Jensen Buch from the Urban Renewal Office in the city council’s Technical and Environmental Administration. “Much of the purpose of urban renewal is to create more trust and feelings of safety, and increase social capital.”

Rebuild and renew
Mette Dybkjær, a special consultant in the Urban Renewal Office, recommends which areas of the city will be addressed next. New areas undergo a thorough analysis after consulting professionals, service providers, residents and others using the area.

“We take a map of the area and ask, where do you think it is safe? Which parts do you like, and which parts don’t you like? Which parts do you use, and which don’t you use? What do you need that you don’t have? What is the character of the area? What do you want us to do?” Dybkjær explains.

The responses don’t always give a clear picture, however, and tend to be as diverse as the people who live and use the area. Requests often conflict with each other, or are even contradictory in nature.

“People tend to ask for a greener city. But while they want fewer cars, some of them still want more parking. That doesn’t fit very well together. In a lot of places, residents are afraid about the local shops closing down, so they ask us to help them stay and survive. But, on the other hand, many people are also shopping in larger shops and on the internet,” Dybkjær says.

The most visible projects tend to centre on public and green spaces, and are designed using methods that exercise local empowerment and identity, which Dybkjær argues pays off in the long run.

“The spaces are more unique because they are developed together with the citizens. They therefore take a greater sense of ownership over these new spaces.”

Despite the focus on inclusiveness, it is often necessary to segregate different groups in public spaces because their needs and behaviour conflict.

“Alcoholics can sometimes be problematic in communities if they choose to sit and make noise into the night near other residents. It can make children feel unsafe. So we try and find space for them, an area in the square where they can be. We don’t want to get rid of them, rather we want to find a way that allows them to stay, but also allows other people to enjoy the square.”

You can find one of these segregated areas for alcoholics in the Sundholm District, a mix of social and private housing that is nestled between Amagerbrogade and the University of Copenhagen’s Faculty of Humanities.

The renewal project in the district started around six years ago and has included repurposing the old central laundry facility into the Fabrikken for Kunst og Design (FKD) – ‘the Factory of Art and Design’. With a focus on outreach, professional artists and designers work in its 50 studios and invite in local school children and international artists alike, for workshops, exhibitions and residencies.

Øystein Leonardsen, the Sundholm renewal project director, has overseen the opening of cooperatively designed green spaces, the development of urban gardens, the painting of public murals, the opening of a community centre, and the installation of solar panels on FKD, whose excess power is shared with nearby housing. All the initiatives were guided by the district’s users and residents.

“We are reintroducing the commons, the place in the village without a single owner, that can be enjoyed by the entire community,” says Leonardsen.

While he works together with architects, sociologists, and economists, he emphasises that the needs of residents and users are kept in mind while they develop the commons. He believes that during the process they learn from each other, and get increasingly better at working together.

The people responsible for renewing Copenhagen seem to be grounded in professional self-awareness. They balance their own vision for these neighbourhoods against the needs of the residents and the city, and empower locals to bring their ideas to the table. After all, the locals are the ones that have to live with the finished results.

“We have to balance what the people want, what the municipality wants, and what, with our knowledge and professional experience, we think would be good,” Dybkjær says.

Leonardsen argues that the results of the renewal projects are ultimately related to the degree to which locals involve themselves in the process.

“If you don’t want to make a change, it won’t happen,” he stresses.

Buch, from the Urban Renewal Office, says they often encounter residents that fear the renewal programmes are the first stage of a gentrification process, which will ultimately marginalise them further.

“Many people react with resistance, saying we don’t want to be gentrified, we don’t want to be like Vesterbro, we don’t want to have a rich area,” says Buch.

But the worry might be a little misplaced. The new green spaces and stronger communities that result from the projects do not change the social makeup, levels of poverty and sense of marginalisation of these areas. These might the changes that are needed, however, before the residents can take the reins and lift their neighbourhoods from the inside out. M

Features, Urban

By Liam Duffy

Liam Duffy is a writer from Galway, Ireland, focusing on poetry, culture and urbanism.

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