Finding autonomous voices in vague spaces

Cities need to be constantly updated with new ideas and culture, which can often only arise in autonomous communities. But finding space for them to thrive is getting harder and harder

A city’s most valuable commodity is space. Copenhagen is no exception, especially given that 100,000 new residents are expected to arrive over the coming decade. Their search for opportunity and experiences will increase the competition for limited space, pushing prices ever upward.

This process of gentrification, seen in cities around the world, presents urban planners with a challenge: how can they keep cities attractive to investors yet affordable for the residents that ensure the city remains an interesting place to live?

Communities like PB43 are important in keeping Copenhagen dynamic, says Jan Lilliendahl Larsen, ph.d. and co-founder of the group of urbanists, Supertanker. Lilliendahl Larsen’s research focuses on the development of new cultures and political voices in cities, and has found that they tend to arise in so-called ‘vague spaces’

PB43’s location in an derelict paint factory is a classic example – creative forces occupying a space after it was abandoned and before it is fully redeveloped. While these places are almost always temporary, Lilliendahl Larsen argues they are vital for renewing the city’s identity and supplying fresh ideas.

“When you get your own space, you create new forms of autonomy. This can be political autonomy, where people develop new goals and ambitions and demand a stake in society, or cultural, where people develop new forms of language, symbols and gestures,” Lilliendahl Larsen says.

The need for new spaces
Copenhagen has a wide variety of autonomous communities occupying vague spaces. While PB43 is entrepreneurial, others, such as theCandy Factory in outer Østerbro are non-commercial and cultural. Regardless of the specific type, Lilliendahl Larsen thinks that a new autonomous community needs to arise every five years.

“We need these spaces that enable culture to develop because they allow us to look in the mirror and reflect. This doesn’t happen in mainstream spaces, which is why these vague spaces are important.”

The problem is that Copenhagen is running out of space for them. After its near bankruptcy in the 1980s, the government forced the local authority to sell ovast tracts of land in exchange for a bailout. This marked the start of Copenhagen’s about-face and rapid development in the 1990s. The inner Vesterbro district was gentrified and the Ørestad district in Amager was built from scratch, while toxic industries were shuttered in the harbour and replaced with exclusive luxury apartments.

Lecturer Henrik Gutzon Larsen from the Department of Human and Economic Geography at Lund University explains that Copenhagen’s redevelopment was guided by the ambition to make the city more competitive and attractive to businesses. And while it has largely succeeded, Copehagen’s wealth has created tension between its residents.

“We are witnessing increased segregation, while the lives of the poor get worse as they find it harder to find somewhere to live and become increasingly marginalised. We are even seeing rich ghettos within the city, such as the Kartoffelrækkerne district, where only the super rich can afford to live,” Larsen says.

As the city’s development was driven by a focus on economic interests, the value of urban space shifted, Larsen argues, from its use value to its exchange value. Instead of land planning according to how it could best be used by residents, the focus shifted to maximising its economic value.

Spaces like PB43 are squeezed by this transition, as their value to the city is not properly reflected by their economic power. The city does recognise that these places are valuable, however, particularly in fostering creative industries and marketing Copenhagen as interesting place to live.

“The council does use some policy instruments to protect vague spaces, such as setting up creative zones where property owners are prevented from tearing down old buildings and constructing new ones. They don’t, however, support the general culture of re-appropriating vague spaces, as they’re very conservative and don’t know how to assign them broader value. The Candy Factory doesn’t make any money, so what’s its value? They don’t have a formula to find out,” Lilliendahl  Larsen says.

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PB43 is mainstream
PB43, Lilliendahl Larsen argues, is actually a double-edged sword. On the one hand it is a shining example of the necessity of vague spaces in developing new creative and autonomous communities. But its mainstream success is due to its focus on work and commercial entrepreneurialism, which not all vague spaces are interested in. Indeed, many vague spaces, such as the Youth House in Nordvest, can seem incredibly hostile from the outside.

“PB43 makes it harder for other vague spaces, because they are so nice and comforting. It puts pressure on other, more political spaces, to be more acceptable for the general public too. But that’s hard when you take a new autonomous approach, which, in its alternative and experimenting nature, can seem exclusive. The thing is that while we need both creative spaces and political spaces, PB43 would never have existed without the Christianias and the Candy Factories, because it is in wholesale experimenting spaces like those that the culture of reappropriation as such was born and is reborn in the future.”

Not only creative and alternative communities are marginalised, according to Larsen. As the poor find it harder and harder to live in the city, conflict can arise on the street level, as the different residents and their interests rub against each other. The city has been slow to address the need to build affordable housing, and these conflicts look set to increase.

But despite the disappearance of post-industrial areas, new vague spaces may arise in unexpected places as the city changes. Larsen points to the new campus for Aalborg University in Copenhagen, which took over the Nokia headquarters in Sydhavn when the company fell on hard times.

“If the welfare state continues to be attacked, public libraries might close down and stand empty, ready to be occupied. So while we currently see vague spaces in the post industrial districts, in the future we may be talking about the leftover spaces of the knowledge economy or the welfare state,” concludes Gutzon Larsen. M


By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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