Empowering Communities Through Design

A Detroit-Denmark Conversation

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The seemingly incongruous tales of Detroit and Copenhagen have, at first glance, little in common. However, under the surface, they both tell a story of urban resilience and creative reinvention: cities emerging from near-bankruptcy to become centers of vibrant revitalization driven by the arts, architecture and design.

But what can a city in crisis tell us about the community needs of today and the urban topographies of tomorrow?

Amid the threats from climate change, revolutionary technological developments, and social inequities, today’s urban environments face an increasing array of pressures — all of which conspire to make of 21st century cities catalysts for transformative urban design and laboratories for the future. According to Kathrin Susanna Gimmel, Architect and partner at the Copenhagen-based JAJA Architects, this is precisely where Copenhagen’s experiences from the past can inform the urban development of the future.

Ahead of the launch of the Danish Arts in Detroit initiative bringing together leading minds in Detroit and Denmark’s urban planning and architecture environments, Denmark In New York sat down with Ms. Gimmel, to discuss how a city like Copenhagen is sustainably adapting to its changing communities, changing technologies, and a changing climate to light a path toward the future for all cities around the world.

Denmark In New York: As a Copenhagen-based architect, you have worked to reimagine and repurpose public spaces in the city. What are some of the main considerations that you make when tackling a project that focuses on revitalizing an urban area?

Kathrin Susanna Gimmel: At JAJA we strive for making each intervention a distinct, yet natural, part of its environment, to create a dialogue between the project and the inherent qualities of the location. Our projects are built upon stories of the place, the local culture, and community. With our designs we seek to add new layers that inspire for new stories to evolve.

Let me take our project Kondi-Roof Lüders, an urban playground on top of a parking house, as an example. The warm, red tint of the building is adopted from the history of the site and gives identity to the otherwise generic concrete elements. The area is known as the “red neighborhood” because of the characteristic red brick buildings along the harbor. Instead of hiding the parking house structure, the grid is accentuated in the façade. A system of planters is hung in a pattern informed by the grid, celebrating the structure rather than masking it. These planters give the façade a rhythm that introduce a sense of scale to the building and distribute greenery across the façade. To give a strong identity to the roofscape and a common frame for the many activities, we designed a literal red thread that guides visitors around the building. Starting as a handrail it leads people up from street level to the roof and transforms into a sculptural installation that offers a palette of recreational activities. From swings, trampolines, jungle gyms, CrossFit equipment, monkey bars, and more, it attracts playful and athletic children, adults and the elderly.

The playful design inspires visitors for spontaneous and creative movement. Today it is used in many more ways than we have ever imagined. And even though the building is primarily used to house lots of cars, it is popularly known as a playground and outdoor gym.

Denmark is a highly digitalized and technologically advanced country. How is Copenhagen adapting to and designing for the new technologies of the 21st century and what are some areas in this regard where Copenhagen-based architects and city planners need improvement?

Kathrin Susanna Gimmel: We strongly believe that the technological innovation within automation and digitalization and the possibilities they provide for sharing and reorganizing space can help solve some of the urban challenges we face today. At the same time, it is important that we are not naive about this ongoing tech revolution. Constant surveillance and control create new monopolies, a redistribution of power and the disappearance of private life. And the spreading of distrust and misinformation undermine democracy and the humanist values that form the foundation of our society. Therefore, we all have to be active in calling for more responsibility and democracy within tech development and get involved!

As architects, planners, developers and politicians, we have to shift from the “predict-and-provide” approach, where we design for the predicted needs of technological innovation, to a “decide-and-provide” approach where we decide where we want to go and then make sure we provide the technologies and building typologies to get there. The housing market in Copenhagen, for example, has for decades been driven by what real-estate developers think they can sell based on previous sales experience. This has led to increasingly more diverse family structures of Copenhagen citizens all having to inhabit the same apartment typology. It is important that we make the agenda for the city of tomorrow as the driver of what we develop today. If we want to embrace the diversity of our urban communities, we need to build apartments and supply financial models that support them.

The same goes for infrastructure development. For decades the car has been taking up more and more space within our city fabric. But congestion has not diminished because the more space you provide and the cheaper the car gets, the more car ownership grows. We don´t solve the congestion and pollution problems of our cities by building bigger streets around the city center or by hiding them in underground tunnels. Instead, we have to stop private car ownership and make the car part of the public infrastructure.

How has mobility played a role in your conception of urban redevelopment?

Kathrin Susanna Gimmel: Mobility has always had a great impact on the form of the urban fabric. In Copenhagen, for example, you find the medieval city built around footpaths leading to and from the castle. The “bridge neighborhoods” — the city extension of the late 19th century — are structured by a spacious street grid dimensioned for trams and tree-lined avenues. And the post-war suburb developments of the Greater Copenhagen Area are built along transport corridors of train lines and highways.

The current advancements within automatization and digitalization allow us to rethink how space infrastructure is currently occupied and redistribute it. What today is dedicated to cars can in the future give space for buildings, public spaces and amenities, and urban nature. With newly released space we can deal with problems such as housing shortages, flooding and air pollution within our existing city fabric. But we need to make sure that these opportunities provided by the emerging technology revolution don’t end in a nightmare of private and empty autonomous vehicles clogging our cities. Instead, shared autonomous minibuses, Mobility as a Service (MaaS), safe conditions for micro-mobility such as bikes and scooters, and new mobility hubs allowing for smooth interchange from one mode of transport to another, should be the focus of our efforts.

At JAJA we are currently collaborating with a team of Norwegian public and private companies to develop a Nordic mobility coin using blockchain technology. This new mobility currency’s purpose is to make commuting by public transport and car-sharing more attractive through an incentive-based system. Subscribers can gain points by biking or walking, and those points can be used for purchasing public transport tickets. Besides that, we have made a vision for Copenhagen 2050, visualizing the opportunities that the implementation of MaaS and autonomous vehicles pose in different scenarios. We are also working on a prototype for a dynamic bus stop for a municipality in the Greater Copenhagen Area to free some of the scarce space on their main street for the pedestrians and bicycles. And with projects such as Kondi-Roof Lüders we have explored how an infrastructural necessity, such as car parking, can be transformed into a public quality. We work with the future of mobility across scales from strategy to building element.

How do we ensure that urban planning for new technological developments remains inclusive?

Kathrin Susanna Gimmel: New technological developments are only of use if they empower the community to deal with the many environmental and social challenges we are facing today. We strongly believe that the complexity of our society and ecosystems calls for a pluralistic approach where solutions have to be developed and implemented in a collective effort. The most ground-breaking invention is useless if no one uses it.

As architects and planners, we can help to facilitate this collective process. We can visualize images of dreams and ideas, making the debate of our future more accessible for the public. We work daily with collecting and mapping out interests, challenges, and potentials of projects while visualizing ideas for possible answers that can be discussed within the stakeholder group. The most successful projects at JAJA are those where you cannot tell whose signature is on it, but those where a multitude of ideas together form a strong project. We believe that an approach of curiosity, thoroughness, playfulness, and open-mindedness can bring us far in dealing with the challenges we face. We have to rigorously embrace criticism and debate to push boundaries.

What are some of the key design and planning challenges facing the cities of the future, including Copenhagen, and how do you expect they will be tackled?

Kathrin Susanna Gimmel: Today’s social and environmental challenges call for a radical change of the status quo and a reboot of how we design, build and live in our cities. Urban territories worldwide are not only having a big impact on our environment but are also among the most vulnerable areas to climate change effects such as sea-level rise, global warming, water scarcity, flash flooding, etc. At the same time, our cities — including Copenhagen — are increasingly suffering from segregation, inequality, and gentrification.

Even though it is commonly recognized that Copenhagen is more liveable today than in the 1980s and 1990s, it is a more unequal and segregated city than it used to be and if you zoom out you see that the inequality between rural areas and urban centers in Denmark has only increased. The skyrocketing real-estate prices exclude many from living in the city center and if you look at spatial demographics in Copenhagen you see that inhabitants of low-income neighborhoods also have the shortest life expectancy of all Copenhagen citizens. Furthermore, even though Copenhagen is praised as an eco metropolis our CO2 footprint per capita is far too big for our share of the planet’s available resources. We need to do more!

Copenhagen was lifted out of the economic crisis of the ’70s and ’80s with a great collective effort. Initiatives such as the metro development plan (financing metro construction through public land sales), the urban renewal plan of the 1990s, and a very active citizen participation giving resistance to a top-down planning approach have laid the foundation for the Copenhagen of today. Now, it is important that politicians, planners, and citizens continue working on making Copenhagen an inclusive and environmentally sound city. The politicians have to draft ambitious housing and infrastructure policies. The architects and planners have to challenge the status quo and imagine new typologies and spatial planning strategies dealing with both the environmental and housing crises. Finally, the citizens have to claim their city, make sure their voice is heard and contribute to a lively and diverse community.

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The Official Medium Blog for the Consulate General of Denmark in New York. For all things Danish, #DenmarkInNY.

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