Archetypal "binocular apartments" on Havneholm Island in Copenhagen's South Harbor. seier+seier/Flickr

When it comes to new construction in his hometown, the veteran urbanist is not impressed.

Don’t believe everything you read about the influence of Jane Jacobs. When it comes to constructing new neighborhoods, her ideas are largely being ignored. So says Jan Gehl, the groundbreaking Danish architect, urbanist, and self-confessed Jacobs disciple as he reflects on recent development in Copenhagen. In a conversation with CityLab, Gehl argued that when comes to new construction, Denmark’s capital has taken a wrong turn.

“Jane Jacobs’ ideas are widely used in the existing fabric of cities among old structures, where they are used to clean up after the automobile,” says Gehl. “Much has been done, but an area where this knowledge for how to make good structures for people is absent—in Copenhagen or anywhere else—is in new construction. I sometimes make a joke that if we were making a book about great new towns in the 21st century, it would be the thinnest book you’d ever seen.”

Gehl makes these comments in the wake of some bad planning news in his hometown, a city where he’s not the only one to notice that things may be going awry. Local voices, among them the newspaper Politiken, have noted that new development plans for the city’s South Harbor are being watered down to create an indifferent, developer-driven final product. For some time, the South Harbor has been a major construction hotspot for new homes, some of them built on former dockland brownfield sites and some on artificial islands jutting out into the harbor waters. But while the area’s development plan started out as a model project—one section of which Gehl oversaw as an adviser—it has since been significantly diminished.

According to Politiken, a theatre, sports hall and a flea market have all been dropped from the plans. Elsewhere, as CityLab has previously reported, a planned moveable bridge may end up being fixed, closing off an area around South Harbor’s islands to watercraft, in contradiction of the original plan. These negative tweaks risk turning what could have been a vibrant quarter into a luxurious but life-lorn dormitory. But as Gehl notes—primarily discussing the portion which he helped to oversee rather than the masterplan—there are greater problems afoot than simply removing amenities.

“The idea of underground parking and a car-free surface, which we nicknamed ‘Little Venice,’ has been sacrificed and replaced with surface parking. The fine-tuned hierarchy of private, semi-private, semi-public and public spaces has also been very watered down. Instead of making a number of courtyards, there is now one very long building.”

It’s the place-making failures of these buildings’ external layouts that’s the most pressing problem, according to Gehl.

“In many of these developer-driven projects they almost don't give a damn about making a good area. They put almost everything into making a fast-selling commodity,” Gehl says. “That means that the major considerations for them are the interior orientation and organization of the apartment, plus the view to the water.”

“They try to fit in as many flats as possible, as luxurious as possible, while creating a nice climate when you go out of the door is often sacrificed.”

Copenhagen’s Orestad: visually striking apartments placed in a windy, unpeopled environment. (Rob Deutscher/Flickr)

It’s not that Copenhagen is especially bad, Gehl insists. It’s more that it is not immune to a general sea change across the West where the quest for short-term profit is allowed to override any longer term place-making goals. In fact, Copenhagen already contains perhaps the supreme example of this trajectory in Northern Europe: the entirely new, high-income neighborhood constructed at Ørestad.

Constructed from 2001 onwards largely on reclaimed wetlands just south of Inner Copenhagen, Ørestad contains some of the most eye-catching, aesthetically novel apartment buildings in Europe. Strung along a new elevated metro line, it is an unlikely collection of ziggurats, rotundas and spiked cubes in which affluent residents move through their glass-fronted, open plan apartments like so many expensive goldfish. Views and marketable aesthetics are clearly a paramount consideration. The result, however, is an under-populated, arid architectural theme park where wind howls through overly large, ill thought-out gaps and most street life is tidied away into a shopping mall. It’s a glittering but ultimately dispiriting space. For Gehl, Ørestad’s failure is due to both its funding model and its failure to think hard about how its buildings would interact.

“They made the neighborhood’s climate substantially worse than it would normally be in Denmark, by the way they built the place. In Ørestad they have succeeded in creating a very cold, shaded and windy place, and that is exactly what we Danes don't appreciate. It could have been different, but that would have meant buildings being not so high. One would also have had to moderate certain things in the layout to make the wind curve, but that might have taken away from the profit.”

This end result was arguably inevitable, says Gehl, because the neighborhood’s role was always to recoup the cost of expanding Copenhagen’s transit network. That meant breaking away from the pre-1990s model of development, when the Danish state would have taken direct responsibility for the area’s planning.

The financial crisis also accelerated Denmark’s shift to a developer-dominated construction model. The part of the South Harbor development that Gehl advised on, for example, was initially intended to be a district of rental housing, a long-term investment designed to feed a bank’s pension fund over decades. But the 2008 crisis halted development, and when things finally recovered, the projects’ debts meant that quick development of condominiums for sale rather than rent took over.

A similar process is happening away from the water’s edge at Copenhagen’s former Carlsberg Brewery. Originally intended as a mixed income creative live-work quarter, its promised amenities are being shaved away and replaced by more high-rise apartment buildings of dubious quality.

A sheltered but still public courtyard at Malmö's BO01. (brandon schauer/Flickr)

Not all new neighborhood construction in Copenhagen is terrible. One of South Harbor’s earlier projects was a new artificial island called Sluseholm, where housing came designed with an effective blend of public and private spaces, some public housing and an awareness of how best to lay out the place to minimize wind and overshadowing. Meanwhile the Bo01 waterside quarter built in 2001 in Malmö, Sweden (just 20 minutes by train across the Öresund Bridge from Copenhagen) has successfully created a new mixed-income quarter fed entirely by renewable energy, with a layout that enhances sunlight and shelters from coastal wind on a site that is densely inhabited without being squeezed for every marketable square foot of space. Taken together, however, both Bo01 and Sluseholm would not, as Gehl notes, make a particularly thick book of recent successes.

Given Copenhagen’s international reputation, the recognition that there may be something rotten even in this urban paragon might seem dispiriting. If they can’t do it right, how can we? Gehl nonetheless sounds hopeful, pointing out how well-targeted public pressure can often succeed in re-shaping official priorities. In the meantime, plans for more redevelopment at the huge site in Copenhagen’s North Harbor, which are still in their early stages, look promising in their attempts to achieve a careful layout and social mix. Still, as Copenhageners know all too well, just because a project starts with plans to build something great, doesn’t mean that that’s what the city eventually ends up with.

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