The title of the debate ‘Nordic Cities – Urban Life as a Resource’ somehow sums it all up. High quality city life is an asset. That is a fact. Creating good living conditions delivers a high return on investment in so many ways. That is, economic growth, welfare, safety, health. The list goes on. And urban life has become an important competitive factor in attracting new business and highly skilled employees to the city.
This was the theme of the debate held in the courtyard packed with people outside the Danish pavilion. The participants in the panel, debating the issue of the specific qualities of Nordic cities, included architects Bjarke Ingels (BIG), Kjetil Thorsen (Snøhetta), Jeff Risom (Gehl Architects), Tina Saaby (City architect of Copenhagen), and Niels Bennetzen (municipality architect based in Greenland). The main questions the panel was trying to zoom in on was: ”How does investment in improving quality of life contribute to create economic growth? How can architecture create higher level of satisfaction among urban dwellers?”
You can have both
According to city architect Tina Saaby, urban life as a resource is an integrated part of the brand of Copenhagen. For a long time the City of Copenhagen has been promoting Copenhagen as a city where “You can have both”. The point is you can both have a career, be part of a dynamic business environment AND you can enjoy a high quality urban life style in the recreational city space with your family and friends when you are not working. According to Tina Saaby, Copenhagen has great success designing specific urban life strategies and backing it up with policies. The goal is to attract investors and make the city work better for families by establishing green areas, better infrastructure for bicycles, festivals and events. In Copenhagen, they call it “Metropolis for People”. The strategy consists basically of three goals: Creating and maintaining diversity, people should walk more, and people should stay in the city.
Harbour bath in Copenhagen. In the summer locals and tourists enjoy a swim in the clean harbour water. Photo by Lucy Reynell
Architecture that gives something back
It is not only policy makers who focus on urban life as a resource. As Bjarke Ingels pointed out, the added value you get when architecture gives something back to public space can make projects so much more interesting. A well-known example from Copenhagen is the harbour bath designed by PLOT. The project transforms the former industrial harbour, a massive infrastructure, into a blue park accessible all year round. A long effort to clean up the harbour water has made it possible to activate new forms of urban life in the post industrial city.
It is this kind of design thinking that is driving a lot of Danish and Nordic architects these days. Buildings are shaped by the way people move, creating what Ingels calls a "social infrastructure" that is provoking social interaction. To Ingels this might be what is unique about Nordic cities: physicality and movement whether on foot or bicycle is part of the design tradition.
Ownership is key
To Kjetil Thorsen from the Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta, urban life quality is not only about accessibility but about interaction and what he calls real content. When designing the Opera house in Oslo, characterized by a huge roof accessible to the public, they focused on ownership. The visitors should feel that “it is mine” because ownership means caring. If people feel they are part of urban life, they will protect and promote it.
His advice to policy makers is to be careful what you do to this feeling of ownership. As a consequence, commercial activities on the roof have been banned, because it interferes with the idea that it is a public space, owned by the individual, and not someone with a commercial interest.
Is there a flipside to the Nordic dream of city life?
Even though the debate was marked by a very optimistic consensus, it is not all rosy. Critics doubt the long term effects of this kind of city planning and whether the Nordic model of urban planning can be exported. Promoting a somehow utopian idea of city life, there are several pitfalls. A down side is the risk of segregation and housing prices going up, making it difficult for people with an ordinary income to buy a home and live in the city, and thereby threatening the cohesion of the city.
It represents a serious challenge to lawmakers: Developing the city with a sharp focus on urban life while maintaining social and cultural diversity. And - as Jeff Risom from Gehl Architects, the only participant in the panel with a non-Nordic background - pointed out “urban life in the Nordic cities, can sometimes be a bit boring...”
The coming weeks IFHP will be blogging from the Venice Biennale.