Category Archives: urban affairs

Our Town

by Sarah Armitage

I have recently been exploring the development of an area in southwest Copenhagen that was once home to the manufacturing facilities of Carlsberg Breweries, one of the world’s largest brewery groups.  The master plan for this site employs many of the latest ideas in the field of urban planning, seeming to serve as a model, at least on paper, for how the development of former industrial sites should proceed.

Designed by Entasis Architects, a relatively small Copenhagen-based firm that won Carlsberg’s international ideas competition for the site’s development, the plan aims to transform this 74-acre site in extraordinary ways. The new city district will be compact, characterized by a variety of users and a variety of functions. Development will be transit-oriented, with plans to renovate and even relocate the nearest train station and with provisions for plenty of bicyclists and pedestrians (planners anticipate a transportation modal split somewhere around one-third motor vehicles, one-third public transport, and one-third cyclists and pedestrians). Public gathering spots and other shared areas will abound, and the spaces between buildings will receive more attention than will the buildings themselves. And the site’s beautiful historic buildings, many of which are legally protected by Denmark’s Heritage Agency, will be preserved and integrated almost seamlessly with the new construction.  The site plan will modernize the medieval European-style compact city that has become so popular in today’s urban planning world.

Of course, the development of the Carlsberg site has enjoyed incalculable advantages that have helped to make such a remarkable master plan possible.  For one, rather than allowing the area surrounding its former manufacturing facilities to grow derelict, Carlsberg Breweries has played an active role in determining the future of the site.  Plans for redevelopment began even before Carlsberg had transferred production to its new facilities, ensuring as smooth a transition as possible between industrial area and new city district.  The site will continue to use the Carlsberg brand, ensuring not only the continued involvement of Carlsberg Breweries but also imbuing the area with 160 years of industrial history.  And the site’s location in Copenhagen, a place where progressive planning ideas have become mainstream and where citizens tend to engage constructively in planning processes, certainly did not hurt.

Perhaps most notably, Carlsberg has launched another ideas competition, this time to find suitable temporary public spaces to create and maintain vibrant city life during the interim period between industrial area and city district.  Carlsberg’s developers have evidently realized that well-designed buildings and well-planned city blocks are worthless without people.  The temporary public spaces are intended to inject life in the Carlsberg area from the beginning of the development process, to ensure that the district will have a long tradition of public life and social integration. Three proposals have been awarded a total of 7 million DKK (about $1.2 million USD) to construct 25,000 square meters of outdoor public facilities; the first of these spaces opened in June, and Carlsberg has already begun to promote a number of public events in the area.

If the site’s master plan represents a “revolution” in modern city planning for its ability to translate age-old ideas into modern language, then the site’s temporary public spaces represent a revolution in the battle against urban decay.  This initiative, combined with Carlsberg’s early involvement in the redevelopment process, suggests that it is possible to prevent industrial decay through masterful master planning and intelligent urban design.

Yet the tragedy of the Carlsberg site is that it too may become another reminder that in the field of urban planning, as with so much else, money rules all. Construction has been stalled indefinitely, as developers recover from the financial crisis and recognize that their investment horizon may be much longer than initially anticipated. Developers have already begun to reevaluate whether relocating the nearby train station, once an integral component of the transportation plan for the area, is worth the enormous expense. It is unclear what will happen with the Carlsberg site, but it now seems unlikely that the master plan will be realized in its entirety.

And so the Carlsberg project affords hard lessons about the reality of urban redevelopment projects. Even with all of the advantages in this case, Carlsberg’s developers have been unable to transition from master plan to on-the-ground reality. I do sincerely hope that they will manage to create something resembling Entasis’ plan; I would like to believe that it is possible to plan such an appealing, vibrant, magical urban space.


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Historic Preservation Meets Sustainable Development

Copenhagen's oldest buildings are an essential part of the city's character and charm (Armitage/TYG).

By Sarah Armitage

COPENHAGEN – In this city, I am trying to learn about the intersection between historic preservation and sustainable urban development, a niche issue that nevertheless touches on many contemporary issues in city planning.  Three conclusions that I have reached thus far:

1.  Europe really is further along than the United States when it comes to creating sustainable communities.  I held this idea intuitively at the outset of my trip to Denmark, but I did not feel its force until I had experienced the world of European city planning first-hand.

I expected to return from Copenhagen inspired by the city’s imaginative approaches to adaptive reuse, the practice of renovating and retrofitting old buildings to serve new purposes.  Under the leadership of the historic preservation crowd, many of the most progressive voices in the sustainable urban development movement in the United States are calling for city planners to renovate the nation’s existing building stock instead of focusing only on “green” new construction.  They cite statistics such as the 65 years necessary for an energy efficient new building to make up for the “embodied energy” lost in tearing down an old building.  And they point to Europe, where adaptive reuse has become a common way of integrating old and new buildings.

I certainly have found these imaginative approaches to adaptive reuse in Copenhagen.  I have learned through hearsay, for example, that some of the most expensive real estate in Copenhagen can be found in a former silo tower converted into apartments-with-views.  But I have also seen that in Copenhagen, the progressive voices have moved beyond adaptive reuse to recognize that even the most advanced retrofits cannot compete with the energy efficiency technologies possible in new structures.  Thus in the long term, if cities such as Copenhagen are to achieve ambitious goals like carbon neutrality by 2025, they will need to offset old buildings that are worth saving with truly efficient new construction.  While it may exist in places, I have never seen this holistic thinking on such an advanced level in the United States.

2.  At the same time, however, the existing built environment is going to provide an important interim solution.  While I have seen an ultimate goal that is more sophisticated than adaptive reuse while in Copenhagen, I think that American cities could make enormous progress by learning a lesson that Danish planners have already internalized: retrofits and renovations may not seem glamorous or spectacular, but they are essential.  And when we do permit new construction, we must be sure that it will last longer than, say, 65 years.

3.  While historic city spaces may seem dull when compared to flashy new architecture or urban districts, they actually are worth preserving.  Trying to reconcile historic preservation with sustainable urban development does matter.

For one, preserving historic city plans is often a wise decision for urban designers trying to create the dense, mixed-use urban environment so in vogue right now.  In a number of Middle Eastern cities, for example, the preservation of centuries-old city plans could create exactly the kind of city that many of today’s leading urban planners would want.

Second, history sells and can make buildings more attractive spaces in which to live, work, or play.  I recently learned about the development of a former industrial area in Copenhagen where the district’s history was used as a marketable asset.  The site was once home to the Royal Porcelain company, a producer of luxury china.  Developers have embraced the site’s former use, retaining the name “Porcelaenshaven” (a rough translation would be “porcelain garden”) and preserving architectural reminders that many of the area’s buildings were once working factories.  On my site visit, I noticed the classic Royal Porcelain floral pattern gracing the apartments’ doorways.  After all, who wouldn’t want to live in a building that once produced teacups and saucers for the queen?

Third, respecting a city’s history means respecting the intangible elements of a city–the poetry of the urban spaces–all that helps to create attachments between places and people.  I recently learned about two new developments in Copenhagen, one only planned and the other already executed.  In the former, planners have envisioned an environment in which new buildings compliment and celebrate old ones, in which the roughness and unpredictability that come from generations of use are embraced and even deliberately intensified.  In the latter, by contrast, buildings are spaced far apart in a rational manner, and the area is full of spectacular new architecture.  There is far more smoothness than roughness.  The former seems like a space for real people; the latter does not.

And while my conclusions about the importance of historic preservation in contemporary city planning may seem a separate issue from my first two points about Copenhagen as a model of sustainable urban development, I think that they are actually inseparable.  After all, preserving a city’s heritage is, in a way, just a nicer way of looking at the need to plan future city development within the constraints of the existing built environment.

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City of Cyclists

Commuters' bikes parked outside of the main metro station in the city. (Armitage/TYG)

by Sarah Armitage

COPENHAGEN — As part of our Yale-organized housing in Copenhagen, each of the eleven Yale students here received a free public transportation pass — valid for whatever trips we might take on the bus, the metro, the S train, even the water taxi.  Three weeks into the summer, however, we have all gone to great lengths to acquire bicycles.  In short, we have discovered first-hand that there is no truer way to see the city than by bike, no more authentic way to move from one point in the city to another.  Copenhagen is a city of cyclists, and we have determined that we would not become Copenhageners until we joined their ranks.

This past weekend, I finally took my first step toward bicycle ownership.  Having heard that the cheapest sale was the bimonthly police auction of unclaimed bikes, several of the Yale students forced ourselves out of our apartment by 8 AM on Saturday morning in order to arrive at the pre-auction preview by 8:30.  We set off for the police auction believing that we were privy to some little-known secret about biking in Copenhagen.  Imagine our surprise when we could barely squeeze through the door to the one-room auction house/ police station.  At precisely 9 AM, the live auction started.  I was thrilled.  My first live auction!  Buying a bike in Copenhagen!  What could be more exhilarating?  And then we realized that the auction would be conducted exclusively in Danish, that our hastily scribbled notes from the pre-auction preview were worthless, that we could not understand the verbal description of each bike’s malfunctioning parts, and that we needed to learn how to count from zero to one thousand immediately.

I came home with a bike — a beautiful city bike with big handlebars and a gracefully curved shaft and a bell.  As I wheeled my new treasure out of the police station, however, I began to notice the rusty chain and the broken brake and the seat that was too high for me to mount, let alone ride.  And so realizing that my plan to ride my bike home needed to be aborted, I found myself grateful for the city’s well-developed bicycling infrastructure.  In Copenhagen, you are allowed to bring your bike on the metro.  In fact, as I rode home that Saturday morning, there were three others in my metro car holding onto their bikes as the train sped through the city.

Biking culture in Copenhagen has benefited from a positive feedback loop that has escaped most US cities: here everyone bikes because everyone bikes.  The thousands of cyclists on Copenhagen’s streets create a city where it is safe to bike, create a political environment where the needs of cyclists are taken seriously, and create a culture where an American college student (read: me) feels that she needs to bike around the city in order to feel like a local.  Cycling in Copenhagen is the definition of a critical mass, a real-life version of the age-old proverb that there exists safety in numbers.  There are separate bike lanes on all major roads, separate traffic lights for bikes, and bike racks at every corner.  In the winter, the bike lanes are cleared of snow before the car lanes are.  Forty percent of all work commutes are made on bicycles, as are thousands of additional trips around the city in all weathers and all seasons.

Biking here is not only convenient but desirable.  Most Copenhageners have told me that they prefer biking to driving, a statement that would be unfathomable in a city like Beijing where biking is viewed as a lower class, less desirable form of transportation.  In fact, biking in Copenhagen is an equalizing force in the city, forcing politicians riding to Parliament and parents bringing their children to school to share the city streets as an open public space.  Cycling in Copenhagen is a case in point that it is far easier to revel in life’s essentials when you have already experienced its luxuries.  Rather than being a novelty item, cars have been available to the Danes for a while—and were tried en masse in the 1960s and 1970s.  Bikes are a lifestyle of choice, not of necessity.

For this reason, I really do wonder how replicable is Copenhagen’s biking infrastructure in cities around the world, at least at any point in the foreseeable future.  American cities might indeed be able to create more cyclist-friendly urban areas with some expert planning.  But as the urban development crowd often laments, cities in nations with emerging economies seem unlikely to make the voluntary sacrifices — namely, a first taste of car culture — needed to create a Copenhagen-style transportation system.  This dilemma has long raised fundamental questions about the role of public participation in city planning.  Must a city of cyclists arise organically, as happened in Copenhagen?  Or can a city planning board somehow impose this system on the citizenry through incentives, regulations, and other measures?  Living in Copenhagen has erased all of my doubts about biking as a serious alternative for mass transportation.  I have seen the end goal.  Now, with my rusty bike in tow, I have joined the chorus of people asking how we will get there.

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Stuck “Between the Walls:” The Class

By Charlotte Parker

PARIS — As part of our class’s unit on education, today we watched the movie Entre les Murs (The Class), which won the prestigious Palm d’Or prize at the Cannes film festival in 2008. With good reason.

The film, based on a book by François Béagaudeau, is a quasi-documentary/re-enactment of a year he spent teaching at a public middle school, College Françoise Dolto, in a diverse and difficult neighborhood of Paris. Béagaudeau plays himself (under the name Francois Marin), as do the children in his class, which makes for an extremely realistic portrayal of a modern day French school. Said school is located, of all places, in the 19th arrondissement, just a few blocks away from where I’m staying. My host parents told me tonight at dinner that after the movie became successful, there was a legal uproar over the production company’s reluctance to pay the children.

In any case, it’s a striking movie. Almost every student in Marin’s class comes originally from somewhere other than France; they wear jerseys supporting the Tunisian soccer team, talk of their cousins in Morocco, and express feelings of alienation from “jambon et fromage” French people in suits. They are bright, but unruly. The school was/is classified by the French government as a ZEP, or Zone d’Éducation Prioritaire, i.e. an at-risk school, and indeed, in the opening scenes, the teachers express their frustrations with the kids and the education system in general. One lets out a waterfall of swears and exclamations, paraphrased: we’re not trying to get the most out of them with these ****ing norms, they will never leave their neighborhood…

Among the brimming personalities in Marin’s class, one boy, Souleymane, struck me especially strongly. When the class undertakes a unit on autobiography and self-portraits, he is initially reluctant; he writes one sentence along the lines of “no one will ever fully know me, so I don’t want to write about myself.” He has a tattoo that reads (in Arabic script) “if what you have to say isn’t more important than silence, be quiet.” With encouragement and attention from Marin, however, gum-chewing, bling-wearing Souleymane begins to show an interest in the project. He brings in some beautiful photos of his family and friends to compose his portrait, and the shy smile on his face when Marin hangs them up as an example for the rest of the class…for a split second I saw Souleymane the photojournalist, his photos on billboards in the Metro and published in Le Figaro.

Instead, he acts out in class one day and ends up, through a long and tortured process, kicked out of Françoise Dolto. The school is supposed to do all in its power to place him elsewhere as quickly as possible, but that might not matter; his mother, who does not understand French and speaks to him rapidly throughout his trial in the Bambara language of Mali, cannot help him. According to his friends, his father will be disgraced and send him back to Mali.

What to do about students like Souleymane? How to discipline their unruliness and tap their potential and their passions? To help them become a photojournalist, or simply someone with a job?

France’s education system, like the US’s, struggles to bring students from marginalized backgrounds to levels of higher education and, some would argue, is even more discriminatory. For example, a “class council” composed of teachers, two parents, and two peer-elected students is responsible for deciding a student’s next step after the equivalent of sophomore year in high school. This can be, depending on a student’s grades, entry to the work force/unemployment, to a trade school, or to the more traditional lycées. Such early selection is inherently unequal. Children of parents with white-collar jobs make it to the lycées, and then university, with three times the frequency of children of working-class and immigrant parents. Although the trade schools are equally demanding, they are not viewed as well as the lycées and attending one can be limiting. In such a system, “difficult” students like Souleymane are so easily lost.

On the Metro on my way back to the apartment, I found a seat next to an African woman wrapped in yards of shiny, embroidered, black cloth. She spoke to her friend in what sounded (to my ignorant ear, at least) exactly like the punctuated Mali Bambara in the movie, and when our paths finally diverged at the top of the endless escalator at the Place des Fetes Metro stop, I wondered if she were headed home to her own Souleymane.

The movie’s blog is available here and includes the trailer and more background on the making of the film, as well as an email address to talk to the students themselves. Make sure to use French slang if you write them!

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New Impressions of an Old and Contested City

by Diana Saverin

JERUSALEM — In order to work for an international media organization that educates the press on Israel, I will be calling this fascinating city my home for the next nine weeks. I have just moved into a loft in Emek Refaim, more commonly called “the Germany colony” because long ago this was where the Germans lived. Our area is nice and full of little bookstores, gardens, restaurants, stores, and coffee shops. There are several old residential “colonies” throughout the city — you can tell where the old German houses are because their doors and shutters are made of wood. No Israelis use wood on their houses; all of the Israeli buildings here have to be made out of the same stone, which makes views of the city from above quite dramatic.

In the center city is the “shuk,” which is the Hebrew word for market. The shuk winds under a tarp with tons of fresh fruit, vegetables, olive oil, bakeries, ice cream, meats, fish, and anything else you would want! I have also made it to the Old City, which is next to center city. The Old City alone has four different quarters — the Muslim quarter, Christian quarter, Jewish quarter, and Armenian quarters — and the Muslim quarter leads to the Western Wall. The Muslim, Christian, and Armenian quarters consist of rows of markets in streets that wind beneath arches, and the stones on the roads have been there for at least 2,000 years.

The Western Wall offers quite a contrast, as it is an open courtyard with the area closest to the wall closed off for prayer. This praying area is divided between men and women, and there is a good deal of controversy surrounding the women praying. Apparently women who have worn the praying shawls that many of the orthodox men wear, women who have prayed too loudly, women who have not been modestly enough dressed, or men and women who have prayed together in the open area have had objects thrown at them or been subject to arrest. There isn’t as much controversy surrounding the fact that the men’s praying side is significantly larger, has more praying tables, and has an eight story tunnel next to the wall that can be used for prayer during rain. It is simply unfair in the same way that many Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewish practices are to women (i.e. women in some synagogues aren’t allowed at the front near the Torah or allowed to touch it or sit with the men).

Yesterday I returned to the Old City with a Jerusalemite who is a tour guide after an afternoon spent overlooking the area in beautiful gardens. It was previously the poorest part of Israel, because it bordered Jordan before the 1967 Six-Day War and was victim to bombs and rockets. Once it became a part of Israel, the poor were kicked out and it became the most expensive place to live, which is another controversy. Despite the controversy, it is a lovely place: there are no cars allowed, and the flowers are incredible. Vines and trees overflow onto the sidewalk, and in between the houses you can eye the walls of the Old City.

It seems that every square foot of land in this city incites debate: just outside of the Old City, there is a new parking lot where about thirty Orthodox Jewish men were protesting, screaming “Saturday” in Hebrew because the cars park there on Saturdays, which violates Shabbat. The parking lot was put there after another parking lot for those going to the old city was installed in an Orthodox neighborhood. This move has left the group equally displeased. Their numbers have dwindled over the past months; my tour guide friend recalled hundreds of them blocking the streets a couple months ago. He brought me through the Jewish quarter, which has some incredible Roman remnants and looks quite different than the alleys of the other three quarters. I walked through the same parts of town as the day before, but had a far richer understanding as my friend used his expertise to carve through the extraordinary layers of the city and dissect the significance of the each areas to the each religions. We ended at the spot where Jesus was put on the cross and buried. In one hour, we saw the most holy spot for Jews, one of the two holiest spots for Christians (the other being Bethlehem), and the third most holy spot for Muslims, and they are all within five minutes walking distance!

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