LONGEST POST ON G+A Dream Grows in Copenhagen
COPENHAGEN — How does a city expand and, at the same time, reduce car use and emissions? Officials in Copenhagen believe part of the answer is to build and extend a modern mass transit network while trying to eliminate the need for commuting altogether.
Copenhagen, with a population of 1.2 million in the city and its suburbs, will need to find homes for a projected 100,000 new residents by the year 2025.
Fortunately, the city still has room to grow.
In 2001, the first building in a new master-planned suburb called Orestad, south of downtown and named for the Oresund, the channel separating eastern Denmark from Sweden, was completed. Work on preparing a second major site, Nordhavn, in the docks north of the city, has just begun on land freed up by the departure of heavy industry.
The Copenhagen City and Port Authority, a foundation owned jointly by the city of Copenhagen and the Danish state, is tasked with developing both plans at a cost of several billion dollars.
But the completion of Orestad and the commencement of Nordhavn are coming at a time of great uncertainty in the Danish and global economies. The European Commission has cut its growth forecast for Denmark to 1 percent this year from 1.4 percent.
Although new buildings are being put up at a slower pace than before the financial crises — Denmark is part of the European Union but not the euro zone — building in Orestad has not stopped. And officials here say it is because they must grow or stagnate.
“When the development of the new town on the Orestad site was decided by the Danish parliament in the early 1990s, the politicians realized that Copenhagen lacked the dynamic and attractions to function as the driving force for Denmark and to be able to compete with other metropolitan cities in Europe,” said Rita Justesen, chief planner at the City and Port Authority.
Orestad, a 310-hectare, or 766-acre, development, was meant to help change that, introducing new energy into this windswept city between the North Sea and the Baltic.
“We had 310 hectares on the edge of the city with no existing buildings,” Ms. Justesen said. “It could act as a testing ground for new urban and architectural ideas. For example, we had the possibility of building high-rise blocks which were not allowed elsewhere in the city.”
Copenhagen’s latest reinvention — there have been a number through the centuries — started in earnest when an international architectural competition was announced in 1994 to develop Orestad, then an empty strip of land about 600 meters, or 2,000 feet, wide and 5 kilometers, or 3.1 miles, long in the flatlands between the southern fringe of the capital and its international airport. A plan submitted by Arkki, a Finnish studio, was selected.
There was also a synergy to be tapped: in 1995, construction started on a combined road and rail bridge-tunnel to connect Copenhagen with the Swedish city of Malmo across the strait. The link, the longest such structure in Europe, gave the Danish capital the chance to enlarge its sphere of economic influence to embrace Malmo, a prosperous city of just over 300,000 people.
The link opened in 2000 and Orestad is ideally situated to benefit, as it straddles the highway that connects Jutland, the peninsula on which mainland Denmark sits, to Stockholm via Malmo.
Essentially, the City and Port Authority had two main goals: getting enterprises to set up in the city instead of on the outer fringe of Copenhagen — or abroad — and encouraging young families to stay in Copenhagen rather than buying a home in the distant outskirts.
Businesses have moved into Orestad, but the plan has not yet proved hugely successful in attracting new residents, though the wider malaise of the Danish property sector is undoubtedly a key factor: average real estate prices in Denmark have dropped about 15 percent since 2007, when the market was at its peak.
According to research provided by Danish Homes, a real estate agency, the average cost of a two-bedroom apartment of 70 square meters, or 750 square feet, in Orestad is around 2.1 million Danish kroner, or about $373,000. This compares with, for instance, 1.5 million kroner for a two-room unit of a similar size in Norrebro, a mainly working-class district to the north of the historic city center that is in the process of gentrifying.
Planned suburbs are nothing new in Copenhagen. The quarters of Christianshavn and Frederiksstad were built in the 17th and 18th centuries, respectively, following plans to expand the city into new areas. Both districts are now regarded as “natural” parts of Copenhagen, even though developers originally found it difficult to attract new residents.
In the 20th century, the architect Arne Jacobsen — internationally famous for his Egg and Swan chairs — designed Bellavista, a stylish housing estate on the Oresund coast about five miles north of Nordhavn. Completed in 1934, Bellavista’s white-washed walls, rounded corners and flat roofs are a faintly exotic take on modernism.
Less exotic but arguably much bolder than Jacobsen’s interwar project, the Orestad development deliberately mixes housing — mainly blocks of flats and compact brick single-family homes with modest backyards — with offices and stores, including the largest mall in Scandinavia.
From the automated train that connects Orestad to Copenhagen’s historic center in about 10 minutes, day and night, the visitor can glimpse the originality of the plan: broad green spaces juxtaposed with dense pockets of housing, office blocks and retailing space, interspersed with sometimes breathtaking standalone buildings. These range from the huge, squat block of Field’s shopping center to the shimmering blue form of the city’s new concert hall, which appears suspended 45 meters above the ground.
In its brochure, “Copenhagen Growing: The Story of Orestad,” the City and Port Authority includes a striking image of two cows grazing on pastureland with an angular block in the background. The building is the 8 House which, typically for Orestad, combines housing units, shops and offices — and it is beginning to fill with new residents.
All told, right now just over 6,100 people live in Orestad. In time, some of the current green spaces will disappear; when the project is complete the new suburb will be home to around 20,000 residents and may offer jobs to as many as 80,000 people. Field’s, the mall, already employs around 3,000.
But Orestad is not without its critics. A prominent local architect, Jan Gehl, says the new suburb was old-fashioned from its inception. “It was built on principles — specifically those of the modernist movement — that were popular in the middle part of the last century,” he said. “Orestad was built from the top-down, rather than from the bottom-up. Plus, there was an idea that if you got enough ‘starchitects’ on board, then things would be fine.”
The French architect Jean Nouvel designed the DR Concert Hall, which is the focal point of the new Danish TV and radio complex, and home to the Danish National Symphony Orchestra.
Images can be projected onto the building’s semi-transparent exterior facade when a performance is in progress. (Mr. Nouvel’s creation overran its budget and its final cost was around $300 million, making it the world’s most expensive concert hall.)
Meanwhile, the Polish-born American architect Daniel Libeskind was hired to design a striking 710-room hotel, the Cabinn Metro, close to the center of the district.
Arguably more beautiful than either of these is the Tietgen student dormitory, a ring-like structure designed by the Lundgaard & Tranberg firm of architects, with a copper alloy facade that is intended to change in color over time. The Tietgen building accommodates students enrolled at Orestad’s IT University.
“The thing is,” Mr. Gehl said, “when they designed Orestad the spaces between the buildings was not an area of concern. The district could also have benefited from softer edges.” By softer edges, Mr, Gehl explains that Orestad needs spaces where residents are encouraged to linger, like shops with their merchandise on view outside and cafes with outdoor seating.
“It’s the two lower stories that are the key,” Mr. Gehl said. “We see at our eye level, not much upwards or downwards.”
Ms. Justesen, the chief planner, said she was pleased the city had the vision to “think big.”
“But making a new town a lively place is always hard,” she said. “Getting from nothing to something has required a focused effort.”
Other problems include geography. Orestad sits on a plain and is very windy; additionally, in Scandinavia the sun is low in the sky for much of the year and Orestad’s high buildings create shadows.
Nordhavn, the second big project, covers 200 hectares. It is a child of this century, and overcomes some of Orestad’s negatives, like outdoor living space. It will have a denser, lower structure, with homes, offices and retailing units “on a traditional Copenhagen scale,” Ms. Justesen said.
Nordhavn’s master plan includes two large, public spaces, alongside smaller parks that will give residents play and exercise areas, drawing on Copenhagen's wider interest in so-called pocket parks: attractive, well-lit green spaces of fewer than 5,000 square meters, often created on irregular plots, where friends can meet or take a lunch break, and children can play safely.
Unlike Orestad, Nordhavn is essentially an urban regeneration plan, on and around former shipping docks.
The patchwork of harbors and connecting canals on the western side of the district — some dating from the 19th century — will one day give residents the chance not only to live at the water’s edge but also to get around by small boat, canoe and kayak.
The idea of taking a kayak to get to the office is not meant as a gimmick. Already 50 percent of commuters use bicycles in central Copenhagen, and the city is determined to cut down on car use in the capital’s suburbs, too.
But gales are also a fact of life here too; the area is exposed to often fearsome winds on its eastern edge.
Ultimately, the City and Port Authority estimates that Nordhavn will be home to 40,000 residents, with workspace for approximately the same number of people.
But, as other North European port cities with ambitious development plans have found, like Hamburg and Amsterdam, Copenhagen’s challenge is to grow without compromising what makes it livable, even unique.
“Over the years, Copenhagen has lost its provincialism and become a cosmopolitan city — which is both a gain and a loss in some ways,” said Thomas E. Kennedy, an American writer who has lived in the Danish capital since 1976.
“I regret the fact that the vertshuse, the city’s traditional brown bars, are giving way somewhat to chrome and glass cafes, the sausage wagons to fast-food restaurants,” said Mr. Kennedy, who has written a string of novels set in Copenhagen, “Falling Sideways” the most recent of them.
“When you sit in a pub that Soren Kierkegaard may have sat in, or one in which a Gestapo snitch was liquidated on Hitler’s birthday in 1944 and there’s still a bullet in the wall, your days join history and join the continuum of it,” Mr. Kennedy said.
Jens Kramer Mikkelsen, a former mayor of Copenhagen who is now managing director of the City and Port Authority, emphasizes the need to introduce an element of flexibility in new suburbs that are created from scratch.
“Nordhavn will be developed over the next 40 to 50 years,” said Mr. Kramer Mikkelsen, who expects to sell the first plots during the first half of this year.
“It is important for us as city planners and developers to plan for the unplanned,” he said. “It is important to make space for the will of future generations.”