The most quintessential symbol of modern Copenhagen, must be the construction site. Copenhagen’s urban renewal is visible everywhere, as the city reinvents old squares, vamps up central stations, and lengthens its subway system, all to a steady chorus of jackhammers.
What’s increasingly less visible in the public space are marginalised Copenhageners – the rough sleepers, the individuals struggling with addiction, the unemployed.
While London garners criticism for planting spikes in doorways to deter the homeless from taking shelter, Copenhagen is celebrated for designing with a social conscience. It provides injection rooms and shelters. This is Jan Gehl’s ‘humanist city’, peppered with bike lanes and designed for the people, an ethos developed by the Danish architect and taken up worldwide.
But in the face of rapid gentrification, are the city’s urban ‘touch-ups’ could be indirectly pushing its most vulnerable citizens out of the public space?
A city of transit spaces
For over a decade, Copenhagen’s central station has blasted marching band tunes outside its back entrance to discourage local drug users from loitering. However, today’s spate of new projects proffer subtler signs about who is, and isn’t, welcome.
“It’s hard to point to concrete examples of exclusionary design in Copenhagen. I wouldn’t say it is necessarily planned,” says Esben Neander Kristensen, project manager at Gehl Architects, a firm concerned with inviting citizens to use the public realm. “Crass efforts such as the obviously anti-homeless spikes in London would cause an uproar here.”
That doesn’t mean citizens aren’t being excluded from the city’s spaces by the indirect consequences of design, however. Around town, benches are disappearing from public squares, church properties and metro stations, or are being rebuilt as long metal planks, unfit for rest. These are spaces that discourage lingering, and move citizens along to nearby cafés, parks and bars.
“It’s true that many of the metro stations don’t currently invite users to linger or to stay. They function as transit spaces,” says Kristensen.
This makes life increasingly difficult for Copenhagen’s homeless.
“Many years ago, you would hear about rough sleepers in the airport or bus shelters, but that’s becoming more difficult to find,” says Ninna Hoegh, Director of Projekt Udenfor (Project Outside), which provides support to the homeless and marginalised.
“There is also no financial district per se in Copenhagen,” says Kristensen. “People actually live in the city centre, which means it doesn’t become dead at night. That can make it harder for rough sleepers to find abandoned areas after midnight.”
When a refurbished Israels Plads was unveiled last year, the central square offered a vast open space with circular benches separated by metal dividers. While it’s a perfect strolling spot for revellers from the neighbouring upscale food market, the bench design means it’s not a place to rest.
For Hoegh, catering urban design exclusively to the needs of the middle class in this way sends an implicit message about whom the city values.
“Increasingly, it seems that you have to buy something to enjoy a space. You can’t just go out and sit when you’re not spending money,” she says.
“The city makes you feel unwanted if you’re not a consumer.”
Middle class city
Part of the problem is that vulnerable citizens lack the economic power to assert their ongoing use of an urban space in the face of gentrification, which wants them unseen.
“The middle class are better taxpayers,” explain landscape architecture academics Bettina Lamm and Anne Wagner, who have carried out research together.
Nowhere is this tension between competing urban needs more apparent than in the formerly-dicey-cum-trendy neighbourhood of Vesterbro, a rapidly gentrifying area that is quickly burying its working-class origins in organic burger bars and artisanal bakeries.
Urban design has invited the rising middle class population in while further pushing away the area’s traditional underbelly of prostitutes, drug users and homeless.
Per, a local in one of Vesterbro’s old bodegas, recalls the local square Halmtorvet before it was refurbished in the early 2000s.
“It was a square, there were lots of prostitutes and drug users. Then they built a roundabout, so there was nowhere to stand around anymore. Today it’s full of young families who can afford to buy apartments in the area.”
For Lamm and Wagner, this kind of indirect exclusion is inevitable as demographics change. Inner Copenhagen is increasingly made up of families, and urban planners need to keep their interests in mind.
“Places where you have gatherings of alcoholics might intimidate children and families, who are growing in population.”
While many Copenhageners agree that the city should be more socially inclusive, few want to be exposed to the trappings of marginalised people – drug addiction, poverty and homelessness.
It’s this “not at my front door” attitude that pushes out the original inhabitants of the neighbourhood.
“It’s a dilemma. People buy apartments in an urban area to be part of the city, but then they don’t want city life outside their doorstep,” Lamm and Wagner write.
Vesterbro, however, is also the site of several urban development initiatives aimed at social inclusion. The area’s injection rooms have been hailed as a success, providing drug users with a safe place to inject. Police report less open drug use, and have credited the initiative with Vesterbro’s syringe-free streets.
Lamm and Wagner also point to the drinking shelter in Enghave Park, a collaboration between local alcoholics and artist Kenneth Balfeldt. The group worked together to provide a space for the drinkers, who used to congregate in Enghave Plads before the square was closed for metro construction.
Similarly, Folkets Park (The People’s Park) in Nørrebro was designed for all users to feel welcome. Created in 1971 from a demolished social housing estate, it was rebuilt this year for the second time in five years after research found that it was unused because people felt unsafe there.
“The area has many different minority groups, so the challenge was to create a park and a design where all felt included,” write Lamm and Wagner.
They add that while we don’t yet know whether the redesign has been a success, the city has attempted to include everyone and to balance the competing interests. Kristensen agrees.
“Most people would get a voice in Copenhagen’s urban design, although some groups have louder voices than others. There are strong examples of urban design in Copenhagen being enjoyed by different groups.”
As plans for further injection rooms are being met with resistance from Vesterbro locals, Hoegh still fears that the city’s urban planning is not inclusive enough.
“It’s not as if the goal is to keep people on the streets. But the cityscape is not providing enough viable alternatives.”
There’s concern that another square will suffer the same fate as Halmtorvet. Mozarts Plads in neighbouring Sydhavn has long been a gathering place for individuals with various social problems, as well as for Greenlanders struggling to adapt to Danish society. However, with plans to build a metro station on the space, this community might also find themselves excluded from their former haunt.
Back at the bodega, I ask Per what happened to the former denizens of Halmtorvet. He doesn’t know. Hoegh believes they have been pushed into a more disruptive, nomadic lifestyle. “They move around. Find an area that is less attractive, get pushed around the city.”
It seems that may well end up paying a moral price for safer and more attractive urban design, as it can undermine the values of inclusivity and community support embedded in Denmark’s welfare system.
“We can all agree that we want a safe city and a fun city,” Lamm and Wagner write. “But we might end up with a very boring city if it consists only of people who all belong to the same middle class, and who are never confronted with ‘the other’.”
Kristensen wonders how the spaces will change after urban renewal. “It will be interesting to see Enghave Plads return to a public space after construction is finished, and to observe whether use of the space will change.”
As for those who find themselves shunted out of the city space, “they are there somewhere,” says Hoegh, “but unseen.” M