When necessity sparks urban innovation

Urban life 13 May 2017 Søren Hansen

How a capital in recession and artistic Danish architects helped shape state-of-the-art 21st-century city planning. Join one of Ramboll's leading experts on a trip back in time - and into the future.

12 min

It all started with a vicious circle. “And the vicious circle was most evident right in this area of Copenhagen,” says Søren Hansen. He is the planning director of Ramboll Transport and one of the most experienced consultants in Danish masterplanning – the holistic approach by which much of the world is increasingly inspired.

Søren Hansen sits with a latte in a café in Nørrebro, a trendy Copenhagen neighbourhood. Nearby are hipster dads with long beards worthy of a lumberjack, gently rocking baby carriages while women in suits and high heels handle their laptops.

Back in the early 1980s when Hansen was studying to be an urban planning engineer, Nørrebro looked very different. Its citizens were angered by the way the municipality was tearing down century-old buildings in their cosy neighbourhood, the city was close to bankruptcy, and living a full, rich and healthy life in Denmark’s capital seemed like a distant dream.

Some chose an activist response, occupying empty apartments, while others moved or were rehoused in newly built suburbs. The latter often found a very alien environment – high-rises based on the mass housing philosophy of French architecture guru Le Corbusier, in neighbourhoods with nothing to bring people together.

“It was planning with the systems in focus, not the people. The people coming from Nørrebro had been used to bumping into friends and acquaintances on the street, but now the environment made them lonely. They got lonely and depressed”, Søren Hansen remembers.

Traffic planning was cars, cars, cars

Copenhagen was in a deep recession – well over half of its inhabitants were retirees, jobless people, students or other social benefits recipients, and the taxpayers were moving away with increasing speed.

“The city was not attractive for growing companies or for families with children. This neighbourhood still had rats in the large piles of garbage lying in dark courtyards,” Søren Hansen remembers.

He became interested by the question: how do you make cities attractive and retain people in the city? And after graduating in 1984, he got his first job answering just that question in a traffic-planning consultancy that had just been acquired by Ramboll.

“Before the 1980s, traffic planning was basically about cars, cars and cars. Other road users should just behave. And Denmark nearly made the same mistake as Stockholm and Paris – destroying their waterside recreational areas by building high-speed roads,” Søren Hansen remembers, shaking his head in disbelief.

A six-lane motorway by the lakes

We’re now driving by the Copenhagen Lakes, where a six-lane had been well underway – until the oil crises hit the Western world in 1973 and again in 1979. Sparked by necessity, an interest in holistic urban planning was ignited; planning that takes health and other liveability factors into consideration. The planners looked at integrated solutions with a variety of transport options. The car was no longer the only choice.

So the traffic planners’ first job was to make streets that accommodated not only cars but also cyclists and pedestrians.

“Bike paths, lower speed limits in certain areas, space for sidewalk cafés, you name it. This might sound banal today, but it was all new at the time,” Søren Hansen stresses. 

Planners and architects collaborated to develop a new approach to urban planning. Instead of demolishing all the buildings and trying to make people live in square boxes, they tore down the darkest rear buildings and planted trees and other greenery in the new courtyards – thus making it attractive for families with children to live in the city too. The Danish state helped with some of the financing – acknowledging that a country cannot have a capital on the verge of bankruptcy.

How to develop a prairie

Other visionary planners took a critical look at – or rather down in – the harbour. Like many other capitals in the 20th century, Copenhagen placed a lot of industry on its waterfront in order to optimise, e.g., infrastructure, but this ended up contaminating the water with chemicals, heavy metals and other pollutants.

“You could get very sick if you jumped in the harbour here. It’s difficult to believe today,” says Søren Hansen, nodding at one of the Copenhagen Harbour baths, where citizens now swim in the summer.

“Cleaning up the harbour wasn’t exactly cheap – but compared to the advantages for the citizens and the city’s image, it was peanuts,” he stresses.

We leave the inner city and drive along in a shared car to Ørestaden, home of Ramboll, several other international companies and Denmark’s biggest shopping centre. When Søren Hansen took a field trip here with other consultants and the City of Copenhagen around 20 years ago, they walked around on something akin to a prairie.

The Danish capital was no longer in recession, but companies still moved away when they reached a certain size. The city was also running out of space to house the staying families and the newcomers.

This area, Amager Fælled, had space and cheap land. But there was no reason to move out here. “So we recommended that the politicians adopt a metro and massive building plan along the road out here.

Bus lines wouldn’t have been enough, because they can be moved. A metro is stationary and a promise to entrepreneurs and private investors that the area will be continuously developed,” explains Søren Hansen.

Innovative financing of the metro

The City of Copenhagen followed the experts’ advice. The decision pushed up property prices because of the expected development – just as planned – and the City sold its properties as the metro came close to completion, when prices were high. The revenue was used to repay the loans for the metro.

“That was a world’s first: financing a metro by the expected urban development it created,” Søren Hansen says.

The next leg of the metro will reach the newest city development area – in the northern part of Copenhagen. This is where the City, Ramboll and partners are building Nordhavnen, a new sustainable and climate-resilient city area with room for 40,000 inhabitants and 40,000 jobs. Contrary to some of the older harbour apartments in the south of the city, where flooding has frequently come within centimetres of apartment floors, this urban area is planned for the future.

Parts of Nordhavnen are artificial islands made with excavated soil from the underground metro stations.

“That’s really holistic,” Søren Hansen says with a smile.

A new ring road to limit congestion

We have reached the final destination of our trip – a multi-storey carpark in Nordhavnen with a playground, a mini-fitness centre and barbecue areas on the rooftop. Søren Hansen often takes foreign delegations up here, for two reasons:

The recreational area is a good showcase for Danish holistic thinking: There is a nice view over the now clean harbour to ‘Amagerbakke’, Copenhagen’s new waste-to-energy facility, which not only emits so little pollution that it can be placed in the middle of the city but will have BIG architecture, including a ski slope on the rooftop.

Moreover, the area overlooks the places where Søren Hansen’s next vision will rise from the ground – an eastern ring road tunnel from Nordhavnen to Ørestad with strategically placed roads connecting it to the surface.

Copenhagen is about to drown in its own success; population projections talk about 10,000 new citizens every year until at least 2025 – a growth rate in Europe that is second only to Stockholm, according to the Swedish economist Peter Stein.

“Their cars will worsen the congestion we already have in Copenhagen – unless we build a new ring road to lead through-traffic under and around the city,” explains Søren Hansen. “And the excavated soil from the tunnel can perhaps be used to build more artificial islands with room for new citizens out there,” he says, pointing to the northern entrance to the harbour.

“If we combine it with a climate-resilient flood barrier it would continue the holistic tradition in a very fine way.”

Mayor of Copenhagen: long-term planning is key

Long-term planning and collaboration are two concepts characterising the partnership that Ramboll and the City of Copenhagen have nurtured. When asked to pinpoint the value of having had Ramboll as a close advisor since the early 1980s, Morten Kabell, Mayor for Technical and Environmental Affairs at the City of Copenhagen, says:

“Now more than ever, we must work for a green agenda, and Copenhagen has raised the bar here. Because of this, the whole world looks our way to see how we are working together to meet climate challenges. We try to create goal-oriented partnerships that can help spread the solutions we think we’ve got right. The best example is our co-creation with New York, which is designing its own climate quarter based on the experiences of the Danish company Ramboll.”

Written by Michael Rothenborg.