Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Denmark’s capital wants to put 10 manmade islands along the shoreline of its inner-city harbor. But opponents warn it will end up a "rich man's ghetto."
Any city can build a new neighborhood. Copenhagen is going one step further by building entirely new land, then planting a new neighborhood on top.
If plans green-lighted by city hall committees last month go through, Denmark’s capital will soon build 10 artificial islands along the shoreline of its harbor. Called Enghave Brygge, the new islands will cover an area of 72 acres in total, strung along the quayside of an inner-city waterway that flows south into the Baltic. They will become the base for up to 2,400 new homes, contained in buildings between four and nine floors high. Renderings make these homes look very pleasant indeed. To maximize views of the water, apartment buildings would be constructed around the edge of each island to form a C shape, surrounded by stepped boardwalk promenades that allow easy access to the water. This building around the edges would free up each island’s core for a sheltered garden.
Promising though these look, it’s the actual construction of the islands themselves that takes the project to the next level; they can’t simply be summoned, Atlantis-like, from the waters. To help provide the materials for their foundations, a deep, navigable canal will be excavated along the current waterline. Following already successful Dutch models, little bridges will traverse this canal, creating smaller, navigable channels for recreational use. Altogether, the islands and canal will push the shoreline 120 meters (almost 400 feet) out into the harbor.
Copenhagen’s plan isn’t simply a ploy to get more inner-city land. It’s part of a major urban- and social-engineering project that could end up transforming the city, just as the redevelopment of its Eastern Docklands has done for London since the 1980s. The port area where the islands will lie—called Sydhavnen, or South Harbour—is around the back of the city center, miles away from the better-known waterfront where tourists mill disappointedly around the Little Mermaid statue.
Sydhavnen as it stands doesn’t fit the pristine, orderly Scandinavian cliché. The old port, dominated by a huge power station, is yet another of those urban waterfront areas that has lost its ships, leaving brownfield land that isn’t in the best of condition. The neighborhood behind, scythed off from the rest of the city by a major road, houses one of Denmark’s poorest communities (yes, they do exist). It’s far from being a hellhole—most streets are lined with decently built interwar tenements—but it’s no coincidence that when Danish cop series like The Killing or The Bridge have characters fish a corpse out of the water, they’re often shown doing it here. New office buildings and condos have been creeping along the waterfront, but they still stand apart and looking away from the old neighborhood behind.
A new string of islands here would be more than just a cash injector and grime blaster. If successful, it could shift the entire focus of Copenhagen to the southwest. The city is actually already on the move in that direction. Just north of Sydhavnen is Vesterbro, an 19th-century inner-city tenement district that has been getting all sorts of coverage in Europe as Scandinavia’s ultimate hot spot for rapid gentrification. Now packed with bars and spiking real estate (and home to this excruciating paean to hipster urbanism), Vesterbro is already drawing Copenhageners from across the city. A new waterfront neighborhood just to the south would push this trend further, helping to redraw the city’s wealth map and luring more visitors in. On a lighter note, the new islands could also look pretty good, sitting like a row of shiny white teeth sparkling on the quayside.
Opponents, however, insist that the breath coming from between the gaps will stink. Environmentalists point out that the islands' site is effectively poisoned, contaminated with coal and oil used by the power station there since the 1920s. As the canal is excavated, pollution will leach into the harbor’s water, as it did when Denmark constructed its Oresund link. They say that losing a large chunk of the harbor waters for private housing is a poor deal and that the islands themselves will become a displacement-boosting “rich man’s ghetto” in a city that is crying out for more social housing.
It isn’t necessarily the role of private developers to think about social housing provision of course, but 42 percent of the land to be used belongs to the Danish State. And while there will be parkland laid out around the power station, some people are asking why this collectively owned land isn’t being used to create a genuinely public recreation facility in an area that has few. Fears that this is a dirty project biting a chunk out of public land won’t be easy to dispel, but it seems certain that what gets built here will have a central role in reshaping Copenhagen entirely.