Copenhagen: becoming unrecognisable, or just growing up?

Looking at the glass towers and expensive apartments that are popping up around Copenhagen, it's easy to be pessimistic about Copenhagen's urban development. But architect Helle Søholt believes that the city is constantly learning from its mistakes to ensure that it maintains its character even when developers profit

Copenhagen has developed rapidly over the past three decades. Brand new districts such as Ørestad on Amager have risen out of nothingness, while deprived inner-city neighbourhoods Nørrebro and Vesterbro have had thorough makeovers.

Not all changes have been successful, however. Vesterbro’s gentrification was so rapid that many residents were suddenly forced to seek cheaper housing and, while Ørestad appears impressive from afar, its lifelessness makes it a textbook case of how not to build a social and liveable city.

As the next stage of the city’s development gets underway with the creation of new districts in Carlsberg, Nordhavn and Sydhavn, it is worth investigating whether the mistakes of the past have been learned.

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Some insight can be gleaned from architect Helle Søholt, founding partner and CEO of Gehl Architects, an urban research and design consultancy that advises cities and developers on how to manage the relationship between the built environment and its users’ quality of life.

Søholt was a central player in the genesis of Carlsberg City in 2006, and was on the jury that choose the winning design for the first phase of development at the brewery’s old factory site on the outskirts of Vesterbro. She has since criticised later phases that made the towers bigger than envisioned and drastically increased the number of apartments.

At the offices of Gehl Architects in Vesterbro, Søholt starts by explaining that much of Copenhagen’s urban redevelopment has its roots in the city’s close shave with bankruptcy in the late 1980s. The resulting Capital Development Strategy understood that Copenhagen needed to become a driving force for Denmark’s economic development.

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“That’s when the idea to build the bridge to Sweden came up, as well as the plan to expand the airport and build the metro. In terms of planning however, the issue was that Copenhagen hadn’t made any master plans since the 1960s, so they lacked experience. They ended up tackling it in an incredibly conventional way by creating a competition for the Ørestad district in the 1990s, which resulted in a masterplan that reflected a post-modern and almost de-constructivist approach to urban planning, rather than a continuation of the urban midrise and compact urban block structure, with large public spaces and streets that characterised Copenhagen. So Ørestad is a bit weird because in one sense it isn’t really urban and the plan hasn’t been adaptive enough to change.”

The municipality established the company By & Havn to develop Ørestad and other parts of the city. Do you think they’ve learned anything from Ørestad when it comes to how they’ve approached Nordhavn?

Yes, By & Havn [see fact box on page 30] has certainly learned what not to do – for example not to gather all commercial activities in a shopping centre, or have housing developments constructed like a massive figure eight. These huge developments are not such a good idea because you don’t get the fine details, or the human scale.

The approach was different in Nordhavn, where the plots are smaller, the density is higher, and the proximity and human scale is a little bit better. They are buying back the ground floors to get more control, so they can rent them out and have shops around the main streets. They also kept some of the old buildings like silos, so there are signs that Nordhavn will be better in terms of urban form.

Helle Søholt, founding partner and CEO of Gehl Architects.

Sluseholmen in Sydhavn is working well too. One of the issues we have in developing Copenhagen is that there are very few people per apartment, so there is quite a bit of space per individual – we are spread out over a bigger area. But if you want to create life, you actually have to squeeze people together and make them meet in the same spaces.

Sluseholmen addressed the issue well by compressing pathways and introducing canals that minimised the public space and forced people to walk in the streets together. Their courtyards are actually livelier than we in this office thought they would be. We were actually a little sceptical about the open courtyard concept, but there are a lot of young families that have moved out there, and the courtyards are used and the streets are pretty lively.

How much can the municipality influence what developers do with their land?

The city cannot decide how an area is designed. They can try – through comments and criticism – to push the plan in a direction where they will get higher quality. But it is up to the developer or building owner to create the actual design. Then it’s up to the municipality to approve it or not. So the city cannot design a development, it can only comment and say yes or no.

One of the problems in the city is how expensive it is to buy a home. Aren’t these neighbourhoods in danger of gentrification?

Nordhavn has an issue with being too expensive, and there is a lot of talk about gentrification. But gentrification is not the problem – the problem is displacement. Gentrification in itself is a good thing because the city develops as society does, and it’s difficult to stop that completely.

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

The city has been through various cycles of urban renewal, and it has become better at integrating people. When you look at the first plans for Vesterbro, a lot of people were displaced compared to later urban renewals in the Prags Boulevard and Holmbladsgade area of Amager, where most of the original residents still live. The city has been able to tackle the process better over time.

In Vesterbro, renewal has led to better kitchens and bathrooms, but rents that are terribly burdensome. You’re saying that planners have recognised the problems here?

Yes. Some of these processes have been too hurried and managed in a way that people were essentially replaced. The very first urban retrofitting that took place in Copenhagen was in the late 70s and early 80s, and involved ripping down entire city blocks and building new buildings, for example in inner Nørrebro around Blågaards Square. That model of urban renewal was heavily criticised all over the world.

The second phase was like what we saw in Vesterbro, where they kept the old buildings and used renewal funds to join a lot of small apartments together into bigger apartments, renewing kitchens, and connecting courtyards.

Sluseholmen is a new city district built along the harbour. Helle Søholt argues that developers succeeded in producing a vibrant social space by introducing canals that minimised the public space, which forced people to walk in the streets together and spend time in common courtyards. Photo: Payton Chang / flickr

Some of that has been amazing, but the process of putting apartments together happened a little too quickly. They became too big, and there weren’t enough small apartments left for people with modest means to remain in the area. Upgrading inner Vesterbro ended up displacing a lot of people to outer Nørrebro.

And then the city learned again. They saw that first-generation Blågaardsgade and second-generation Vesterbro weren’t good models. So when they moved on to Prags Boulevard on Amager, the process was slowed and focused much more on engagement. That process has been taking place over 10 or 12 years instead of five.

It seems like there is a tension between long-term interests in liveability and inclusion on the one hand, and commercial interests on the other. It also seems like the city and By & Havn bow to commercial interests and quick returns on investment.

No, I don’t think you can say that. By & Havn is extremely strategic and thinks very long-term. When the idea for the company was first suggested in the early 90s, it was one piece of a 50-year strategy to build a Metro and more train lines while properly developing public land. It remains a very forward-thinking model.

One possible criticism is that it is a very infrastructure-led strategy – a very building-led approach. Perhaps they haven’t placed as much value on social infrastructure. Even though they have tried to learn from their efforts to create public life and lively areas and so forth, I think they could have been better.

Is there a poorly-conceived building that stands out for you, where you think, this doesn’t make much sense?

One thing that is important is the placement of schools. Sydhavn School is a fantastic example. The building is great, and in many other countries you wouldn’t see public schools built by the waterfront. It’s a public place, it faces the water, and it becomes a meeting hub for the new district in Tegleholm. However, because it’s placed where it is, it’s not functioning well as a social connector between old Sydhavn and new Sydhavn. If you had thought differently about placing the school where it could become a social integrator between new and old urban districts, you could have actually socially engineered or programmed that area quite differently.

That’s one case where By & Havn could have done better. Again, seen from an international perspective, the model of a national government in partnership with a municipality in order to finance infrastructure is a very sensible model. It’s long-term thinking, but then once it’s actually being implemented, I think we could have seen more focus on the social infrastructure of Tegleholm and Nordhavn, and I think we could have seen more focus on the adaptability and the resiliency of the plan. I’m also very worried about some of these huge towers. They were designed like sailboats or something, very tall with huge foundations.

In terms of infrastructure needs, liveable spaces and affordable housing, where do you see Copenhagen in ten years’ time?

I really hope the city stays on the track it’s been on. Copenhagen has been improving public spaces and schools, the social infrastructure of the city, for almost 30 years as part of its strategy. It has done quite a lot to cope with market forces, and prices are still lower than Stockholm and Oslo. But it’s still not enough. I’m very impressed with Vienna, for example. They have one of the most progressive housing policies in Europe. About 50 percent of their housing stock is social housing. They are very progressive in terms of social housing and gender strategies, and focus a lot on equality between men and women, also in public life. They measure how spaces are used and try to mitigate inequalities as much as possible. There is much to be learned in the public life sphere, and if we can merge that with a focus on resiliency, I hope we can still make progress in Copenhagen.

I’m worried about some recent national policies that are very counterproductive and disappointing. They talk about smart cities and then go out and make it easier to have bigger cars, which is so illogical. M

Features, Urban

By Bradley Axmith

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

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