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Copenhagen’s liveability put to the test

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Words:
Saloni Parekh, Samaneh Sadri, Danila Lampis

Denmark has been acclaimed for its people-centric planning, but how has its capital fared during lockdown? Architects Saloni Parekh, Samaneh Sadri and Danila Lampis report

Copenhagen, a laboratory for the Danish model of urbanism is recognized for its people-centric and democratic planning principles. Over spring/summer 2020, urban areas designed to converge flows of people and foster human interactions had to adapt to accommodate COVID 19 restrictions. Through qualitative observation and analysis, architects Saloni Parekh, Samaneh Sadri and Danila Lampis set out how the Danish model enhanced or undermined the pandemic experience in three types of neighbourhood.

Introduction

Over the past seven decades Copenhagen’s urban form and development has been guided by a ‘Finger plan’ drawn up in 1947 that steered growth along linear mobility corridors outwards from the centre, reserving in-between wedges as green areas. The model ensured access to mass mobility and recreation space. Subsequent regional plans expanded on this through station areas, business and priority planning and by enlarging/connecting green areas. At the turn of the millennium, under ‘cognitive capitalism’, these were consolidated. Ecological sensitivity encouraged the casting of a ‘green glove’ around the city, the qualitative aspects of which influenced by architect Jan Gehl’s work on defining the catalysts for public life. The pandemic has, however, imposed new social and health protocols and norms, forcing us to re-examine how urban spaces are structured.

Credit: Saloni Parekh, Samaneh Sadri, Danila Lampis

Saloni Parekh: The walkable centre without people

Sankt Annæ Vester Kvater is an old residential quarter near the city centre, composed of tightly packed five-storey blocks around shared courtyards. The area is abutted by a busy main street with many commercial and retail shops, frequented by locals and tourists. Consistent planning has nurtured a vitality through the design of pedestrian-first streets, wide pavements, cycleways, plazas and green areas.

During lockdown, the neighbourhood served its residents as essential services including the supermarket, chemist, food outlets and recreational spaces were all within five minutes’ walk in a 350x130m unit. The area’s livability ranked well even under distress as the walkable city eliminated reliance on public/private transport and contained virus exposure. Access to open areas became an essential as wider reduced mobility reduced the usual footfalls of the neighbourhood. Grand public spaces became accessible only to locals. The pandemic predicament of personal need versus crowds was not an issue here. At first, I attributed it to the triumph of ‘people-first’ planning that dispersed people across a choice of many open spaces. But after a few weeks of rarely seeing anyone, it became apparent that the area was desolate not only because of missing traffic but also missing residents. Whether people chose to lockdown in summer houses away from the city or whether it was a reflection of the strength of the neighbourhood, the pandemic exhibited the paradox of the ‘livable’ centre with the fact very few people choose to live there. 

Redefing livability

Contemporary planning in the city centre has focused on enhancing commercial and leisure qualities, conjuring an environment with umpteen opportunities to stroll down streets, pause and indulge in retail. However, high levels of noise and intense use has restricted residential appeal largely to visitors, students and young people. This is not unique to Copenhagen but symptomatic of many European city centres that have become reservoirs of history and culture catering for shopping and tourism. This left them largely unused during the pandemic as users retreated. While the centre embodies the ‘livable city’, the fallout from the pandemic means Copenhagen’s ‘livability’ must be redefined to include residential users and its programming must be diversified through strategic zoning to anchor non-transitory functions. A residential friendly environment should be cultivated through demarcated quiet streets, children’s play areas and by upgrading/adding housing. This will not subdue its role as a focal point of activity, but would expand its utility and resilience. 

  • Essential services and leisure were within the blue 350x130m unit in the city centre. Recreational spaces used by Parekh are yellow.
    Essential services and leisure were within the blue 350x130m unit in the city centre. Recreational spaces used by Parekh are yellow. Credit: Saloni Parekh, Samaneh Sadri, Danila Lampis
  • The urban form of Copenhagen's centre showing the public spaces and monuments alongside essential services, everything within walking distance.
    The urban form of Copenhagen's centre showing the public spaces and monuments alongside essential services, everything within walking distance. Credit: Saloni Parekh, Samaneh Sadri, Danila Lampis
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Redefing livability

Contemporary planning in the city centre has focused on enhancing commercial and leisure qualities, conjuring an environment with umpteen opportunities to stroll down streets, pause and indulge in retail. However, high levels of noise and intense use has restricted residential appeal largely to visitors, students and young people. This is not unique to Copenhagen but symptomatic of many European city centres that have become reservoirs of history and culture catering for shopping and tourism. This left them largely unused during the pandemic as users retreated. While the centre embodies the ‘livable city’, the fallout from the pandemic means Copenhagen’s ‘livability’ must be redefined to include residential users and its programming must be diversified through strategic zoning to anchor non-transitory functions. A residential friendly environment should be cultivated through demarcated quiet streets, children’s play areas and by upgrading/adding housing. This will not subdue its role as a focal point of activity, but would expand its utility and resilience. 

  • Public space in newly built Havneholmen is contained to intermittent nodes between buildings without meaningful use.
    Public space in newly built Havneholmen is contained to intermittent nodes between buildings without meaningful use. Credit: Saloni Parekh, Samaneh Sadri and Danila Lampis
  • Residents in newly built Havneholmen had to stretch out into other areas to find the green spaces they need. Congested nodes are shown in yellow.
    Residents in newly built Havneholmen had to stretch out into other areas to find the green spaces they need. Congested nodes are shown in yellow. Credit: Saloni Parekh, Samaneh Sadri, Danila Lampis
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Samaneh Sadri: Ample space but over-crowded nodes 

Havneholmen is a redeveloped mixed-use harbour area in south Copenhagen. Clean cut buildings stand tall in a well-defined, sanitised district of residential, commercial and office blocks with connections to the harbour-side and a shopping mall.

However, hardscaped open spaces interspersed with green areas covered in reed do not invite use as they are impossible to play/sit on. Neat benches that line pathways with restricted views or visual interest remain sluggish. Consequently, for outdoor activity during lockdown, people used either their balconies or the Islandsbrygge promenade. This is a vibrant area with bathing facilities and playing fields, which continued to draw Copenhageners from all parts of the city, eventually making it unsafe for social distancing. Forced to find an alternative, I discovered Amegærfælled, an urban forest adjacent to Havneholmen that emerged from the Finger plan, but one I had rarely used and did not attract people outside the area with its unprogrammed space. It became clear that while Copenhagen allows a constant interplay with nature, people were still compelled to the larger functional open spaces.

Need for meaningful public space

Havneholm is made up of nodes and connecting pathways which result in a concentrated pockets of activity. The popularity of Island Brygge despite the stretch of waterfront in-between is rooted in its livable qualities. Its success provides proof for more meaningful waterside spaces with catalysts for public life, over large barren plazas and nodes. Real estate companies have erected well-designed apartment blocks in Havneholm but disregarded people-centric public spaces in favour of economic yield. The in-between spaces fulfil an urban code requirement rather embed purposeful use. They do not invite residents to linger, thereby thwarting casual encounters. Instead, the design of semi-public spaces in new developments need to be re-sensitised for community-building, encouraging social bonds in troubled times or otherwise.

Danila Lampis: 24-hour suburban model and void

Rødovre is a suburban municipality of 40,000 inhabitants. It comprises private villas and apartment blocks next to Damhussøen Lake, and has a shopping mall containing public health services, retail and hospitality services that acts as the physical and metaphorical town centre. 

Ordinarily, I split time between office and home. During the lockdown, suburban life became 24/7 and the lack of contrast made the privileged private villas and stillness feel more isolating than secure. They curtailed human contact, thereby intensifying loneliness. The shopping mall was also impacted as most shops shut for safety. Robbed of its core function, unsafe for social and recreational use, the mall and its empty car park became a void. Less resilient mom-pop shops connecting the lake and mall remained shut despite the business opportunity. With the shopping mall inaccessible, the lake and surrounding park became the area’s focal point. However, as a natural reserve lacking infrastructure, the pandemic demonstrated it is not designed for high-intensity use. Thus, the mall and lake which lend Rødorve its character, were weakened by the pandemic, unable to accommodate the needs of local people.

  • The diagram shows yellow public areas and Lampis’s access to Damhussøen Lake, the only meaningful public space available in Rødovre during lockdown.
    The diagram shows yellow public areas and Lampis’s access to Damhussøen Lake, the only meaningful public space available in Rødovre during lockdown. Credit: Saloni Parekh, Samaneh Sadri, Danila Lampis
  • Suburban life: the shopping mall, closed street shops, crowded public spaces and isolation.
    Suburban life: the shopping mall, closed street shops, crowded public spaces and isolation. Credit: Saloni Parekh, Samaneh Sadri, Danila Lampis
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Reshaping the public realm through commerce

The architecture of commerce in suburban areas is often captured by large-scale enclosed malls and supported by less-resilient local shops. In a digital world, the pandemic accelerated existing trends, further highlighting the obsolete nature of bricks-and-mortar retail that may need to be scaled down and reshaped to become more extroverted with outdoor connections. They showed the need to accommodate more mixed-uses and operating times to avoid crowding or closure. But the future of suburban retail lies in accommodating new demands and moving more to on-street commerce. Identifying a web of streets for retail and supporting them with pedestrian-friendly pillars would disperse and localise activities. Retail streets could then tie into green networks to create a lively, safe, public common. While the idea of the commercial street is not revolutionary in suburban districts, it possesses new challenges and possibilities. The commercial core and residential peripheries would not be as distinct, with work and living developing a more intimate relationship. This presents the post-pandemic city as an opportunity to rethink the distribution of programmes, services and capital. 

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