District design lessons from Copenhagen

IT began with a scoping exercise, which fed into the brief of an ideas competition, and continues with constant dialogue with the general public.

Some 5,000 people now live on land reclaimed from the sea to the north of Copenhagen city centre.

By the time Nordhavn is finally completed, in about 40 years’ time, 5,000 will have increased to 40,000 – about the same size as Greenock.

If Scotland has anything to learn from the story of Nordhavn, it is that large-scale developments don’t have to be simply racks of housing.

The scoping exercise was to help shape the ambitions of an ideas competition that was open to all and which attracted 180 entries, including from abroad.

The competition was two-stage. From stage one, two Danish teams and one Norwegian team were selected as tied winners. From stage two, a team consisting of solely Danish practices – Cobe, Sleth and Rambøll – was selected as the final winner.

At any one point, it is a hothouse of architects, engineers, landscape architects and urbanists, their ideas kept in the spotlight courtesy of regular exhibitions, talks and presentations, all lapped up by a local populace eager to learn more.

Edinburgh architect, John Kinsley, has just returned from a cycling holiday in Denmark, and encountered Nordhavn, in the flesh.

He said: “I would defy anyone not to be utterly blown away by it. It felt so different to Scotland where, somehow, we seem to end up with large-scale housing with barely a pub, GP, tennis court or shop between them. 

“If you want to see the concept of the ’20-minute neighbourhood’ – now seemingly popular in various government circles in Scotland – in its full glory, you need to see Nordhavn. People don’t need to jump in their car to get a pint of milk; they simply walk around the corner. 

“A combination of extremely well-designed landscaping, together with ‘active’, commercial/office ground floors, gives the public realm a quality beyond what we typically see here in the UK. 

“Generous balconies to the flats – together with a diverse palette of materials, creatively applied – completes the scene.”

The land is being created from the spoil from other major construction projects, including the city’s metro system (which has a line going into Nordhavn). The site is former derelict land, from a previous, more industrial age.

The client is the Copenhagen City & Port Development Corporation (CPD) – created in 2007 following a merger of Ørestad (a district of Copenhagen) Development Corporation and the Port of Copenhagen. Ninety-five per cent owned by the city government (the remaining five per cent, the national government), it is widely credited as being the main driving force behind the city’s regeneration.

Ground works for this first phase of Nordhavn were paid for by the sale of individual plots. But it’s not a free-for-all as to what is built: the masterplan requires strict compliance to a design code (with penalties imposed for non-compliance) which will eventually deliver a mix of residential (40-60 per cent), business and recreation.

One of the most striking physical elements of the masterplan is the creation of a canal network, within the boundary of the land being reclaimed from the sea.

In time, a quarter of the housing in Nordhavn will be ‘social rent’, reflecting a recent adoption of ‘affordable housing’ policies by the city.

The thinking – says Rune Boserup, associate project director at one of the masterplan architects, Cobe – has always been about the long-term. Indeed, it was well over a decade ago that the founding principles (many of them concerning environmental sustainability) of the masterplan were presented during the city’s hosting of the United Nations Climate Change Conference – COP15, in 2009.

Says Boserup: “It’s about taking a holistic approach, with an overall and coherent plan for the area, across a long timeframe. This is an opposite approach to short-term and sporadic development.

“At an organisational level, the city of Copenhagen is very strong at setting out demands and standards as to how they would like the city to evolve. The client is publicly-owned, which allows for a long timeframe. CPD was tasked by the city to come forward with a structure plan with a 50-year timespan and also a development plan for the first phase, over five-to-ten years, which we have now almost completed.

“The ideas competition was preceded by public hearings and meetings, to allow people’s views to be integrated into the competition brief. Of course, at the point when any tangible design is being proposed, there is another opportunity for the public to get involved, at the planning application stage.

“In Copenhagen, people have become very interested in urban design. When Nordhavn was first thought about, that appetite wasn’t so much, but it has grown since. Because the original site was derelict and previously industrial, there weren’t many objections; no-one really had any relationship with the land.

“There’s quite a lot of niche media in Denmark about urban design and the mainstream media is now picking up on that. There’s currently quite a lot of debate and argument about another proposed new island district, Lynetteholm, to the south of Nordhavn.”

Boserup was recently qualified as an architect when he joined the Nordhavn project, 14 years ago, beginning with Cobe’s competition entry. It has since been pretty all-consuming.

“One of the key aspects to Nordhavn’s success is how many people have a sense of ownership. Not only do you have the design team – which I think at one point involved as many as 15 architects alone – but you have the officials from the city and the from the client. 

“We don’t work all under the one roof, but we have these gatherings, to periodically bring everyone together to have these process meetings. We set up these two projectors, one showing an idea and the other being used to write down people’s comments. And we also have physical models.

“Ultimately, it’s down to how demanding the client is. We, as architects and planners, can come up with our ideas. But it’s the client that sets the standards. And in the case of Nordhavn, the client has spearheaded the necessary political footwork and collaboration, to ensure very high standards of design.”

Mike Wilson is a member of the Place Design Scotland team

Picture credit: Rasmus Hjortshøj – COAST

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