How can public planning strengthen the city?
We asked Camilla van Deurs, Chief City Architect for the City of Copenhagen
Urban planning sets the frame around everything that happens in the city, so it quickly becomes about values. You bring your own good intentions and as you turn them into practice, they encounter pragmatism, conflicts, citizen inclusion and cultural questions. On a city-level Copenhagen Municipality tries to be several steps ahead. But the necessary and often quite long processes related to politics, the administration and construction mean that it is difficult to immediately deliver what society asks for. Take the Århusgade neighborhood in Copenhagen, which in my opinion is one of the best new neighborhoods in the city. It is considered a new development, but the plan for it is already 15 years old, and so much has changed in this short amount of time in terms of the city’s political priorities. It is not surprising that we are able to find weaknesses in it by now, even though citizens in many ways have made it their own. It could be greener; it could have a higher degree of social diversity and affordable housing; there could be a higher emphasis on sustainability. Still, it is the result of the best possible knowledge and intentions at the time. So somehow the field of architecture and planning, despite all its innovations, is always reacting in retrospect. This is a paradox. When I look at the city, it is a row of parallel universes next to each other: I see the existing city; the projects that never materialized, and the current plans that will be completed in 15 years. By then, I am positive some people will find the plans old-fashioned. This kind of friction cannot be separated from my field of work, but we must try to be as ambitious as possible and plan for the years to come.
In 2024 Copenhagen Municipality will start a wide mapping and strategy for resilience in the urban space. Our main concern is to incorporate the unplanned into our planning, as crazy as it sounds. Resilience spans from planning for the scenario of a pandemic to addressing the consequences of climate change. The latter requires a new degree of flexibility, when it comes to the city’s energy supply, which will become decentralized and local together with more measures to prevent floods. These are challenges that require us to leave areas unplanned or unbuilt for future needs in the city. It depends on the political willpower to think long-term and secure this resilience in the urban plans. It also depends on a dialogue with private developers, so that other criteria than financial returns, which are necessary for the well-being and survival of the citizens, are at play. We cannot expect the market alone to make the city resilient. Just like we can’t expect it to give us enough social housing or biodiversity without a clear political direction. In this case public urban planning must be a driver together with new demands from EU and national regulation. As a city our priority is to be consistent in what we ask of the industry. If we call for minimum 20 percent use of wood for exterior facades or a lot of street vegetation, this should be required of every developer across Copenhagen. Otherwise, we will not achieve create a transparent and equal administration of the planning and building permits, and in doing so asking everyone to contribute equally to the political goals in terms of biodiversity og lowering the Co2 impact of the buildings in the city.
We need to transform existing buildings and work with circular building processes and materials before we build something new. But it is impossible to transform our way out of urbanization. Research by the Technical University of Denmark shows that converting every empty office building in Copenhagen would only cover 20 percent of the estimated housing needs over the next 10 years. And a study by Cowi highlights that we can make 5000 residences on the city rooftops, but it is not enough to even provide one year’s demand for new residences in Copenhagen. We cannot avoid building new structures, which prompts a conversation about how we reduce resources, avoid virgin ones altogether, and create smaller single residences to minimize the total impact of the built environment. Brussels and London are some of the cities that offer inspiration for a sensible approach. In these cities, if you own an existing building or a lot with several buildings, you need to first prove that transformation is impossible, before you can apply for a demolition permit if you want to build a new project. I think this way of working should be implemented widely also in Copenhagen.
Every city has different challenges that are tied to place, culture, history, and legislation. But the high-level problems - such as massive influxes of people to cities combined with lack of affordable housing and biodiversity - are challenges we share. That is why it is important that we have conversations about our learnings between cities. This can happen through organizations such as C40 or an initiative like CirCuit, a EU-funded partnership between Copenhagen, London, Hamburg or Helsinki, where we focus on building processes, legislation and material circularity. It can also happen more informally between me and my fellow city architects, for instance by a colleague from another city sharing a piece of legislation that can act as inspiration and be interpreted into local regulations addressing a shared challenge.
So much of a city’s attraction is rooted in the cracks and the unplanned. In Copenhagen citizens are fast to recognize these qualities in former industrial districts like Sydhavnen or Refshaleøen. We are also very aware of that quality on a city-level and among the professional developers. It has become a shared methodology to create temporary activation of the site before building. The challenging part is to lift the energy from the spontaneous and temporary and make it a part of the permanent development. But I prefer that task compared to starting with nothing. The most anxiety-provoking task as an architect is to have an area, where the paper is white, where there are no existing landscape qualities or buildings to act as design guides and “resistances” for new developments.
One of the most important actions in urban planning can be adding a number to an Excel sheet. Let me provide an example. When we made the local plan for Rentemestervej, a street in Copenhagen’s Nordvest district, we faced a mixed neighborhood with a lot of beautiful old industrial buildings at risk of being torn down and replaced with housing. Our solution was to limit the building density to 60 percent for new projects. This means that it will never make sense to demolish existing buildings in the area, because the existing properties have a building density between 150 and 400 percent. You will never get the same number of square meters by building from scratch. You must protect, transform and re-develop. It is a small, technical aspect of planning with a big effect. Right now, it seems to suit the creative businesses out there. But I am curious to see, if it holds up in 15 years, if our planning efforts have been resilient enough, or if it will become a place with high rents, where only affluent residents and fancy design companies can afford to be. I am not blind to the possibility of future generations finding flaws they will criticize and correct in the planning we are doing today.
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