Friday, January 29, 2010

An urban showcase lacking street life

COPENHAGEN/BRANDING A CITY. Riding Copenhagen’s sleek, driverless metro into the new development Ørestad (see video clip here), you enter an ultramodern urban landscape full of architectural highlights.
As the train leaves the tunnel and continues above ground on the island of Amager you see a celebrated new concert hall, a great new conference center where the United Nations held its climate summit in December, and some of the most exceptional residential buildings anywhere.
But when you get off the train you sense that there is something missing, especially if you linger around at night.
Streets are empty, except for cars moving rapidly along the main boulevard. People hurry into their modern dwellings. Even the huge shopping mall in the center of Ørestad feels desolate.
“There has been too much focus on the architecture of individual buildings, but not enough thought has been given to the urban space as a whole. Everything is in the same scale, and that scale has been adapted to cars”, said landscape architect Jacob Kamp when I met him in Copenhagen last year.
I looked him up after reading a very critical op-ed article he wrote in the Danish daily Politiken, where he described the horror of living a few months in a borrowed apartment in Ørestad last winter.
We met at a popular café in bustling Nørrebro, the lively, multicultural neighbourhood of Copenhagen that stands as a contrast to modern developments like Ørestad. Nørrebro is his home and represents everything that Jacob Kamp (right) loves about Copenhagen.
“This neighbourhood includes everything that a big city should be. There is a scale from the public to the private sphere that makes it very pleasant. And the neighbourhood is not suited for cars”, said Kamp.
In his long and passionate op-ed piece he wrote about the coldness and lifeless atmosphere he experienced while living a few months in Ørestad while his apartment in Nørrebro was being renovated.
It was just one of many stories that have been published in Danish press discussing the lack of life in some of the city’s new developments. The critics, and Jacob Kamp is one of them, do not object to the modern and often spectacular architecture as such (even though there has been criticism of what is seen as a focus on luxury homes). It’s the failure to create street life among the architectural marvels that’s in question.
Ørestad is a huge development on the widespread fields of Amager island, towards Copenhagen’s international airport. When construction began in the late 90’s it was presented as the “crossroads of Scandinavia” because of its proximity to the new bridge/tunnel to Sweden (opened in 2000) and Kastrup airport.
Construction is still on-going. When finished, Ørestad is (according to its original plans) expected to house 20,000 residents, 20,000 students and some 80,000 places of work.
Ørestad is divided into three separate parts, connected by the metro and with vast green areas separating them.
Ørestad North, the initial part of the development and closest to central Copenhagen, is dominated by the university and the vast complex of Danish Radio and its marvellous new concert hall.
In Ørestad City lies some of the celebrated residential buildings, most notably Bjerget (the Mountain) and VM-husene (left), both of which contributed to the fame of rising star architect Bjarke Ingels whom we wrote about in the previous report on Copenhagen.
Here you also find a huge shopping mall called Field’s, which many feel is a big part of the problem with Ørestad. Shops and restaurants that should have been spread out at street level to create urban life are gathered under one roof in a sterile mall environment.
The latest addition, Ørestad South, is still under construction with yet another spectacular building by Bjarke Ingels and his team as its main attraction.
“No matter what you think of Ørestad as such, it has given us architects a lot of opportunities to experiment”, said Ingels, who lives in one of the buildings he helped create, when I asked him about the criticised development last year.
I also asked Helle Søholt of world famous Danish urban designers Gehl Architects of her view on Ørestad.
“We haven’t taken our urban culture with us to some of our new developments. There is no activity on street level. Sometimes people living in Ørestad call us and asks us to do something, but it doesn’t work that way”, said Søholt.
“I don’t think Ørestad will turn into a ghetto, but it must absolutely be improved.”
In fairness it must be said that Ørestad is far from completed. The Danish real estate market has suffered as much as real estate everywhere during the financial crisis. A lot of the high-end, expensive homes are empty and it will take time to fill Ørestad with the number of people it is intended for.
City architect Jan Christiansen, who oversees architectural matters for the City of Copenhagen, thinks it’s too early to pass judgment on Ørestad.
“I think everything eventually will turn out for the better. It takes time for a new district to develop.”

This is the third in our series of reports on Copenhagen. In the next, and final, story we will look at plans for yet another mega-project aiming to be a masterpiece of modern, sustainable urban development.

The Metro arriving at Field's shopping center.

VM-husene with its characteristic balconies.

The "House Snake", one of many exciting buildings in Ørestad.

Riding the metro in Copenhagen

COPENHAGEN. I shot this film while riding Copenhagen's modern, driverless Metro into Ørestad, a hailed and criticized urban development in the Danish capital.

Congestion charges expected to rise

STOCKHOLM. Regional planners in the Swedish capital foresee a need for a steep rise in congestion charges if climate goals are to be reached, reports Stockholm daily Svenska Dagbladet today.
The present maximum daily charge, or congestion tax, of 60 crowns (6 Euros or 8 US dollars) must be nearly tripled before 2030, according to estimates from the Office of Regional Planning if goals to reduce traffic and CO2-emissions are to be reached.
The estimates are part of the new Regional Development Plan for the Stockholm Region, called RUFS 2010, to be adopted later this spring.
Congestion tax was introduced on a permanent basis in Stockholm in August 2007. Drivers pay a charge, varying through the day with a maximum daily charge, for entering and exiting a zone surrounding central Stockholm.
The purpose is to reduce traffic and improve the environment of central Stockholm.

A pay-station with automatic number plate recognition.

"Green" Denmark slumps in new ranking

ENVIRONMENT. Copenhagen calls itself Climate Capital of the World, and Denmark may be seen as an environmental leader. But in a newly released global environmental index, Denmark falls far behind its Nordic counterparts.
In the Environmental Performance Index, compiled biannually by Yale and Columbia Universities in the U.S., Denmark finishes in a meagre 32nd place. Fellow Nordic countries fare much better, with Iceland in first place, Sweden fourth, Norway fifth and Finland is number twelve.
“When it comes to emissions of greenhouse gases, you are not as much of a leading country as the Danes themselves might think when they look out the window and sees people putting waste in recycling bins or riding their bicycles to work. The blame can be put on the way you use and produce energy”, says Christine Kim, a researcher at the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy to Danish daily Politiken.
Denmark still uses fossil fuels – oil, coal, natural gas – for most of its energy production. Even though Denmark and perhaps Copenhagen in particular has high ambitions, there is still a long way to go.
“We must retrofit our houses and invest more in public transportation and renewable energy. In the past few years CO2-emissions have been allowed to grow and grow”, says Christian Ege, head of The Ecological Council, a Danish NGO promoting sustainable patterns of development, to Politiken.
The Environmental Performance Index ranks 163 countries on their performance in ten categories, from environmental health and air quality to fisheries and agriculture.
Both the United States and China drops in the new ranking, to 61st and 121st place, respectively.
“Countries that take seriously the environment as a policy do improve, and those who don’t deteriorate”, says Daniel C. Esty, director of the Yale Center to the New York Times.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The mayor who tore down a highway

CHICAGO/AMERICAN URBAN VOICES. We met in the heart of one of America’s great urban centers, in an old building that’s an important part of Chicago’s proud architectural heritage.
When he looks out his office windows in the Marquette Building, John Norquist can point out a number of other buildings that contribute to the fascinating urban landscape of a metropolis that escaped the fate of so many other U.S cities.
Downtown Chicago survived decades of American urban decline.
Today John Norquist (right), the former mayor of Milwaukee who now heads the Chicago-based Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), looks at the future with optimism.
“Cities are gaining popular support. The exodus to the suburbs has slowed down or stopped”, said Norquist when I met him for the first in a series of interviews with urban thinkers and activists in Chicago last fall.
“I’m quite optimistic, actually. Sprawl has been an aberration. It was created in a historic transition that now has lost its force. I’m optimistic and I think things will be turned right again.”
Recent statistics back up his optimism. Cities like Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, Washington, to name a few, have challenged population estimates and gained considerably in population lately. It has been called an urban comeback.
“The public is reverting more and more to what they always have sought. They want to live in more interesting surroundings with entertainment, music, commerce and all the other pleasures of the city”, said Norquist, who for decades has been fighting for urban revival in America.
This trend now has strong support in the White House. President Barack Obama, who has made Chicago his hometown, has been called the first urban president. Norquist sees the president as an “urbanist who understands these issues”.
“These issues” cover everything from revival of urban centers, putting a stop to sprawl and congestion, retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency and investments in public transportation and infrastructure. The bottom line is climate concern and a more sustainable lifestyle in America, which is a matter of global interest.
Multi-car dependency for transportation to and from oversized homes in distant suburbs has become the American way of life. President Obama takes a political risk if he is seen to challenge this lifestyle.
Conservative opponents of the president are already talking about a “war on suburbia”.
John Norquist and his non-profit organization CNU promotes walkable, neighbourhood-based development as an alternative to sprawl. Its members are planners, developers, architects, engineers, public officials, activists and others who share this view of a “new urbanism”.
This might not sound like controversial ideas, but the “new urbanists” are used to criticism both from the right and the left of the political spectrum.
“The controversial thing with new urbanism stems from two things. On the right it’s about the environmental issue. The right wing in America perceives environmental concerns as anti-American. The American way is to consume resources to the maximum capacity, and questions like global warming or peak oil are just fantasies. They are just getting weirder and weirder”, said Norquist.
“But we are also attacked from the left because of the doubts many of our members express when it comes to the modernist movement. They may like modernist buildings (Norquist points out his window at some of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s celebrated works, one is pictured left), but they don’t like the modernist’s obsession with separate zoning and sterilizing of the cities. The left doesn’t want to admit that the modernists did that.”
So where does this leave Norquist & CNU politically?
“We are radical left and right”, he said, laughing.
When Norquist resigned as mayor of Milwaukee in 2004, after 16 years in office, he was called an “interesting character, a tight-wallet socialist” by the Economist. Like many others the British magazine hailed him for the transformation that had made Milwaukee a much more pleasant city in the “new urban” mode.
His most spectacular achievement as mayor was to order the destruction of a piece of downtown highway called the Park East Freeway. It is said to be the largest highway ever purposely destroyed in the U.S. and it gave Norquist headlines all over the country.
“I enjoyed doing it. It is one of the things in my life I’m proud to have done. It was a great act of creative destruction.”
The 60-year old Norquist, whose ancestors came from Sweden, can talk forever about the destruction America’s focus on cars as the main means of transportation has lead to. His favourite example is Detroit, the heart of the American car industry.
“If cities became rich by building big highways, then Detroit would be the richest city in the world. But it’s in ruins”, he said of what is known as America’s biggest urban failure.

This is the first in series of interviews I made with American urban thinkers and activists in Chicago last fall. I will publish the rest in the weeks to come.

The joy of urban living; Millennium Park in Chicago.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Aiming for the best in architecture

COPENHAGEN/BRANDING A CITY. If there was a genre in entertainment called stand-up architecture, 35-year old Dane Bjarke Ingels would surely be one of its stars.
When he talks about the projects that brought his firm BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) to the world stage of new, young, exciting architecture there is lots of laughter, enthusiastic rounds of applause and the occasional “wow!” from the crowd.
Below you can find a video clip giving an example from a recent performance by Bjarke Ingels (left).
He is one of the young architects that have come to personify the Danish capital Copenhagen’s image as a breeding ground for modern architecture and urban development.
“This has nothing to do with nationality or ethnicity. More than half of the staff in my practice comes from other countries. They are extremely talented. What we have done is perhaps to send out the right signals to attract them to come here”, Ingels said when I met him briefly after a lecture, or should I say show, he gave in Copenhagen last year.
But there is no doubt that the Danish capital is a good place for architects, which Ingels confirms.
“I think one important reason for this is that we during the last couple of years have built entirely new parts of our city, which gave us the opportunity to try new things without having to worry about surrounding buildings”, said Ingels.
This, he adds, has been done in a spirit of “everything is possible”.
One example of this is Bjerget, or the Mountain (right), perhaps the most celebrated of BIG’s work, a combined residential building/parking garage that in 2008 was awarded a price as “Best Residential Building” in the world at the World Architecture Festival.
Ingels often tells the story of how they were asked to build an apartment building and a parking garage next to each other. Instead they came up with the unconventional idea of building the homes on a slope on top of the garage. All is done with the latest in design and sustainability in mind.
The exterior is a work of art, displaying a huge panorama of the Himalayas created by holes of different sizes in the wall of the parking garage.
Projects like Bjerget fits well with the ambitions of the city of Copenhagen when it comes to architecture.
Local authorities recently adopted a renewed version of the city’s architectural policy. In a document called “Architecture City Copenhagen” it is clearly stated that the ambition is to foster constant renewal while aiming to become a world-class city in architecture.
This shall be done with a respect for the city’s distinctive character (no skyscrapers in the old downtown) and with sustainability and environmental concern as a central part of all new plans.
The policy also clearly points out that local authorities want a lively public debate on the city’s architecture, and aims for developing the creative processes leading to urban development.
City Hall encourages tough competitions between architects to make sure the city gets the best on offer, domestic or international. At the same time the policy states that new and younger architects will get a chance to take part in the development of the city.
Copenhagen aims not only at being a green city. It also wants to be blue, which stands for reconnecting with the water. This process has been going on for the last ten years or so, with old harbour and industrial areas being converted into residential and commercial district.
A symbolic part of this was the “harbour baths” at Islands Brygge, where people now flock to swim and lay in the sun on warm summer days. This was one of the early projects by Bjarke Ingels and his colleagues.
Another feature in the architectural policy is to, when possible, use old industrial buildings and convert them into modern homes or offices. There are several spectacular examples of this, like the Gemini Residence (left) in Islands Brygge that was built in old silos, and the old Navy torpedo hall on Fredriksholm, converted into exclusive condominiums.
One of the most eagerly awaited projects in Copenhagen is the planned transformation of the old Carlsberg brewery in Valby, a gem of industrial architecture, into a new neighbourhood of 4,000 homes.
To top it all, Copenhagen now boasts four new cultural masterpieces that have received international attention. The new Opera house from 2005 and the Royal Theatre’s new Skuespilhuset (Royal Danish Playhouse) from 2008 stand opposite each other on the harbour inlet.
Further along the inlet stands the “Black Diamond”, the intriguing addition to the Royal Danish Library from 1999.
The latest masterpiece is the celebrated new concert hall (2009) by Jean Nouvel in DR-Byen in the new development Ørestad.
When I met Copenhagen city architect Jan Christiansen last year, we stood on a quay overlooking the Opera house and Skuespilhuset while talking about the dramatic development that began around the year 2000.
With the opening of the new bridge and tunnel to Sweden in the summer of 2000, the first permanent link from Denmark to its neighbour in the north, began a period of intense growth in what is known as the Øresund region (after the strait between the two countries).
With Copenhagen being the center of this region, money and resources gave the possibility to implement many plans.
“The money was there and it was used in a good way. We got some attention and things sort of fell into place all at once”, said Christiansen, but quickly points out that he doesn’t get carried away.
“”To be able to swim in the harbour or ride your bike on the streets is nice and romantic. But we stand before a great challenge in dealing with segregation in our city. That question is first and foremost on our minds”, said Christiansen.
But surely he must be proud to oversee architectural matters in a city that many call “the best place to live” in the world?
“There are many good cities. I’m satisfied if we are seen as the world’s best city for architecture”, answered Christiansen with a glimpse in his eye.

This is the second in a series of reports on Copenhagen. In the next article we will look at an on-going development that has been hailed for its architecture but criticized for its lack of human life.

City architect Jan Christiansen has a lot to be proud of.

The Opera house from 2005, one of several cultural gems.

An old Navy torpedo hall turned into luxury homes.

Bjarke Ingels talks architecture

ARCHITECTURE. Danish architect Bjarke Ingels presents his work during a performance in Amsterdam a few months ago.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"Cities are in a profound transformation"

URBAN PLANNING. In an interview for the latest issue of Metropolis Magazine, prominent Toronto architect and urban designer Ken Greenberg talks about the profound transformation he sees going on in cities around the world right now.
“I’m pretty convinced we’re in the midst of a transformation which is probably as profound as what happened immediately after the Second World War, when we got all excited about automobiles and in a sense turned our backs on cities. There are all kinds of things that are propelling this. Some of it has to do with environment; much of it has to do with the cost of energy”, says Greenberg in the interview.
He sees “almost everything” that we have inherited and put into practice in our urban areas after the Second World War now becoming obsolete, which leads to huge tasks for cities reequipping themselves for the future.
“For urban areas, it’s about recycling the huge reserves of obsolescent industrial land in the hearts of cities, about cities growing much denser than we had ever anticipated, finding all kinds of solutions for rewiring them, for introducing new sustainable infrastructure, for consuming less energy. It touches on pretty much every aspect of life”, says Greenberg in the Metropolis Magazine story.
He mentions Stockholm and Copenhagen, cities he recently visited, as examples of places that are “five or ten years” ahead of North American counterparts on the way to the future.

Stockholm ready for "heart surgery"

STOCKHOLM. For years, Slussen has been a pulsating heart transporting people to and from the center of Stockholm. But this narrow connection between the Old Town and Södermalm, and between the waters leading to the Baltic Sea and the Lake Mälaren, is literally falling apart and in dire need of reconstruction.
Authorities in the Swedish capital now finally seem to be ready to begin what is perhaps the most important urban development in the city center for a long time.
Yesterday City Hall presented a revamped proposition by Foster+Partners and Sweden’s Berg Arkitektkontor, joint winners of last year’s competition for the new Slussen.
Residents immediately started gathering at a new exhibition showing what this important transportation hub will look like in the future.
Reconstruction of Slussen (in English: the Sluice or the Locks) is long overdue. Discussions have been going on since the beginning of the 90’s, and several architect competitions have been held without local politicians being able to decide what to do.
Delaying reconstruction further is now described as a safety hazard, since parts of the complex is beginning to fall apart. Slussen, inaugurated in its present shape (right) in 1935, connects underground and bus-lines from suburbs south of Stockholm. For residents on Södermalm, a popular and trendy neighbourhood, Slussen is the only direct way to reach the Old Town, and further on the city center, by foot or bicycle.
The new proposition points out three main functions for the new Slussen – traffic, water and urban life.
Connection to the water will be an important part of the future Slussen, with new public spaces along the quays. New bridges for walking and bicycling will improve safety. New facilities for public transportation will be added, as will new buildings on the south side of Slussen.
A delicate problem has been the water situation, with increased risks of floods in the future. But that hasn’t been to the only challenge.
“It is hard to find the right balance between people and traffic. You cannot ignore traffic in a dynamic big city. That’s why we need the broad bridge. But we will make sure that people and water will connect. Wherever you look in the future you will se people walking, biking or just sitting down”, said Spencer de Grey of Foster+Partners to Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter at Monday’s presentation.
Construction is planned to begin in 2012 and be finished in 2018.
That is, of course, depending on local politicians being able to make the final decision this time. Stockholm decision-makers have a sad habit of the opposite. The latest example was a recent spectacle concerning a proposed addition to Stockholm’s famous Public Library.
Today representatives of two of the parties in the ruling liberal-conservative coalition voiced conflicting opinions on the latest proposal for Slussen.
“We need more spectacular buildings”, said one liberal councilman. “The buildings must not be big. The city itself is a landmark”, retorted a coalition partner.
In a comment on, the on-line edition of the Dagens Nyheter, one reader wrote ironically:
“It’s nice to hear that they are disagreeing. Then we can keep the cosy, slummy old Slussen for another twenty years.”

Copyright: Foster+Partners/Berg Arkitektkontor
The plan for the new Slussen, leading to the Old Town.

Copyright: Foster+Partners/Berg Arkitektkontor
People and water will meet in the heart of Stockholm.

Copyright: Foster+Partners/Berg Arkitektkontor
Cafés, restaurants and new urban space line new Slussen.

Residents discussing a model of the new Slussen.

Slussen - the movie

STOCKHOLM. An animation made by architects Foster+Partner and Berg Arkitektkontor showing what the new Slussen transportation hub in Stockholm will look like. Commentaries in Swedish.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The world gets "copenhagenized"

COPENHAGEN/BRANDING A CITY. A visitor getting a first glimpse of rush hour traffic in the Danish capital will easily be overwhelmed.
Not by the number of cars, but by the number of bicycles.
The statistics are as impressive. More than a third of the city’s residents ride their bicycles to work or school. The city of Copenhagen has some 520,000 inhabitants, but local authorities estimate the number of bicycles at 560,000.
The bike-loving Copenhageners have become perhaps the strongest symbol of a city with no lesser ambition than to be the Climate Capital of the World. And the people running this pleasant city have become masters of putting a positive spin to everything about Copenhagen.
It has paid off. Copenhagen now has a reputation to be everything from “The best city in the world for bicycling” to simply “The most liveable city in the world”.
The cool and cosmopolitan magazine Monocle, which covers urban issues out of a global perspective including everything from politics to culture and design, ranked Copenhagen number one in the world for “liveability” in 2008 (the Danish capital finished second in 2007 and 2009).
It’s not only about bicycling. Copenhagen is a young and creative city with cutting-edge new architecture and world-class restaurants.
The story could easily look different (and sometimes does). Denmark is plagued by a xenophobic political climate, creating tensions particularly when it comes to Muslim immigrants.
The uproar after the publication of controversial cartoons of the prophet Muhammad by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten a few years ago has raised the fear for terrorist attacks in the Danish capital.
Gang wars leading to shootouts in the multicultural neighbourhood Nørrebro has been seen as yet a sign of tensions in Danish society, even if the reason mainly has been fights over turf in the illegal drug-trade.
But overall, the image of cosy Copenhagen prevails.
Last month the world focused on Copenhagen as global leaders gathered there for the United Nations Climate Summit. The Danes renamed their city “Hopenhagen”, and even though many hopes were crushed when the Summit failed to reach its goals Copenhagen got a chance show off its good intentions as a role model for modern cities.
I spent a couple of days at the Climate Summit for Mayors, held during the UN Summit, and couldn’t help to be impressed by how this tiny city has taken the initiative to lead the urban giants of the world towards a greener future.
During a panel discussion including the mayors of huge cities like New York and Jakarta, London and Mexico City, the participants were asked to list their climate achievements and put a number on their ambitions for reducing CO2 emissions.
As figures flew by, a 35 percent reduction by 2030 here or a 16 percent reduction by 2025 there, the host of the event, Copenhagen’s mayor Ritt Bjerregaard (right), put everything to rest with her city’s bold ambition.
“We will be the first carbon neutral capital by 2025”, said Bjerregaard to a round of loud applause from impressed colleagues from around the world.
Bjerregaard, who became Lord Mayor of Copenhagen in 2006, left office in late December after a long political career. The Mayor’s Summit was her last chance to promote Copenhagen, and she did it in grand style.
Copenhagen has a long way to go to the “carbon neutrality” Bjerregaard promised. Today, renewable energy only meets a fraction of Copenhagen’s needs. In fact, 73 percent of the city’s electricity today is still generated by fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas.
The city makes no secret of this, but there wasn’t much talk about it when the mayor’s met in “Hopenhagen”. But Copenhagen’s claim to fame in the climate field is based on more than promises and high ambition. The city was recently ranked number one in the European Green City Index, as we reported earlier, mainly because of good overall performance in all categories assessed in this environmental study by the Economist Intelligence Unit.
“Copenhagen” has also become the label to put on climate initiatives. We saw a couple of examples during the Mayor’s Summit.
When researchers from MIT presented a smart new bicycle wheel that boosts the ride with self-generated electric power it was, of course, called the Copenhagen Wheel.
An on-line register of climate initiatives in cities around the world is called the “Copenhagen world catalogue of city commitments to combat climate change”.
I was standing next to Claus Juhl, the CEO of the City of Copenhagen, during one of these presentations. He was understandably pleased.
“This is all part of our brand building. We want to be the most environmentally friendly city in the world. That can bring us new businesses and we want to be a laboratory for green tech. This has been a clear strategy for us the past three-four years. With this we are aiming to get the World Expo 2020 to Copenhagen”, said Juhl.
In fact, the term “copenhagenize” is already being used to describe a form of expertise knowledge being exported to cities around the world.
The term was first used by Jan Gehl, a Danish architect and urban designer of world reputation, whose firm Gehl Architects as “urban quality consultants” works with cities around the world to improve their public spaces.
Gehl is a pioneer in the field who was instrumental in the work creating Strøget, the famous pedestrian street in Copenhagen that for decades has been copied in many cities.
Last year I met Helle Søholt (left), founding partner and managing director of Gehl Architects, after a lecture in Copenhagen. She spoke of the work to “copenhagenize” cities around the world.
“In this field we are absolutely a role model. The quality of life in Copenhagen has a lot to do with our urban space”, said Søholt.
Gehl Architects has worked with New York to improve bicycling in the city and to create a pedestrian zone at Times Square. In another project, Gehl is introducing bicycle lanes in Mexico City. London, Melbourne and many other world cities are among the firm’s clients.
So the next time you see a new open space or a pedestrian street somewhere in the urban jungle, the city might have been “copenhagenized”.

This is the first in a series of reports on Copenhagen.

Rush hour in a Danish street.

Copenhagen shines during the Climate Summit.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Obama "in war" with suburban America?

POLITICS. In a meeting with U.S. mayors in the White House on Thursday, President Barack Obama promised to back up his urban vision when he presents the budget next month. In his remarks (see video below) Obama said that his administration will focus on creating more liveable and environmentally sustainable communities.
“”Because when it comes to development, it’s time to throw out old policies that encouraged sprawl and congestion, pollution, and ended up isolating our communities in the process. We need strategies that encourage smart development linked to quality public transportation, that bring the communities together”, said President Obama.
While this sounds nice to advocates of modern urban life, conservatives in America seem to see this as a new battleground in their struggle against the Democratic President.
“A year into the Obama administration, America’s dominant geography, suburbia, is now in open revolt against an urban-centric regime that many perceive threatens their way of life, values, and economic future”, writes Joel Kotkin in The American, the journal of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank in Washington.
He sees Republican Scott Brown’s huge upset victory in the Massachusetts senatorial race earlier this week as a clear sign of this suburban revolt against Barack Obama.
Kotkin’s article was headlined “The War Against Suburbia”.

Hamburg voters give green light to Ikea

HAMBURG. Voters in the Hamburg district of Altona have given a green light to furniture giant Ikea's plans to open a full scale inner-city outlet in a pedestrian district, reports German daily Hamburger Abendblatt.
As we wrote yesterday, the Swedish retailer plans to open its first ever “City Ikea” in Hamburg. There have been widespread protests against the plans from people who fear traffic gridlock in the area. But a referendum held this week gave a strong “yes” for Ikea. According to Hamburger Abendblatt, 77 percent of voters were positive to the plans (62,421 voters voted yes, 18,480 voted no).

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Soviet-style and now eco-friendly eastern Berlin

BERLIN. When the Berlin Wall came down late 1989 and the gates to freedom opened for millions of East Germans, you could imagine that the Western victors of the Cold War would have been tempted to tear down all those ugly communist-era buildings in the East.
No such thing happened in Berlin, luckily.
Instead authorities in the reunited German capital set out to modernize the vast building stock in former East Berlin. After 20 years of hard work, the result is remarkable.
When the Economist Intelligence Unit and Siemens recently presented results for its new European Green City Index, Berlin was tied in first place with Swedish capital Stockholm in the building (energy efficiency) category.
That is no small achievement, as anybody with experience of the building standards in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe will know. Through extensive retrofitting energy use has been almost halved in some 273,000 buildings in the eastern part of Berlin.
In conserving and modernizing much of the building stock in what was East Berlin, the German capital has added yet another dimension to its attraction as a living museum of modern European history.
Regardless of what you think of the Soviet-era or its monumental architecture that was spread throughout its satellite-states in Eastern Europe, it’s an important part of recent history.
When I visited Berlin for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall last November, I strolled along Karl-Marx-Allee (not even the name has been changed) which was the showcase boulevard of the East German communist state.
The size of this street and buildings alongside it brought back clear memories of the years when I lived and worked in Moscow, during those dramatic years when the Soviet empire fell apart.
If you go to Berlin, you shouldn’t miss this experience.
As you move along the boulevard, look out for Café Sibylle (Karl-Marx-Allee 72). It’s a nice place to enjoy a cup of coffee and a piece of käsekuche (cheesecake) in an atmosphere that has a distinct feel of the old East German days.
The café also has a small exhibition of the history of Karl-Marx-Allee.

The showcase boulevard of what was East Berlin.

Plans for "City Ikea" stirs emotions in Hamburg

HAMBURG. Shopping malls on the outskirts of cities, creating caravans of traffic, are a central part of the ills modern urban planning has to deal with.
Swedish furniture giant Ikea wants to try a new concept with plans to build its first full scale inner-city outlet in the Hamburg district of Altona. But the plans have divided local residents and led to widespread protests.
Protesters fear that the planned location of the store on Grosse Bergstrasse, once Germany’s first pedestrian zone, will create massive traffic gridlock in the area and start a process of gentrification.
Spiegel Online reports that the Swedish company thinks half of the customers to this “City Ikea” will come by train, bicycle or on foot.
A referendum on the plans is being held this week. Results are not yet known.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Living next door to Barack & Michelle

CHICAGO. Jacky Grimshaw is a respected and experienced policy maker who once worked in Chicago’s City Hall. She is now a vice president of the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), a prominent non-profit organization committed to sustainable development in American cities.
When I met her in her Chicago office a few months ago she gave me an interesting insight in the work of her organization (more about that later on in this blog).
But I couldn’t wait to pop the question that was really on my mind:
What was it like to have Barack Obama and his family as next door neighbours?
Shortly before I met her, Jacky (right) and her husband Bill Grimshaw had made the front pages of many major newspapers in America and around the world.
The reason was that they put their century-old 17-room house in Kenwood on Chicago’s South Side up for sale. No big deal, if it wasn’t for the address: 5040 South Greenwood Avenue.
The Grimshaw residence is next door to the Kenwood home of president Obama and his family.
Jacky Grimshaw is well acquainted with both Barack and Michelle Obama. But the neighbourhood changed when the Secret Service moved in well before Obama was elected president. Passing through security checks became routine for the neighbours whenever the Obamas were in their home.
Living next door to the president-elect had its advantages for someone lobbying for something as important as sustainable urban policies. Obama once shot a campaign film inside Grimshaw’s house, and Jacky got an opportunity to present her case.
“While he waited for the filming to begin I had a chance to go through material we had prepared at CNT”, said Jacky Grimshaw.
The house is still up for sale by the real estate agent, listed for $1.849.900. Perhaps potential buyers realized that they wouldn’t see much of their famous neighbour who, according to the Chicago Tribune, has made few visits to his home since becoming president.
Or maybe they didn’t pass through the scrutiny of the Secret Service.

The well protected South Greenwood Avenue.

In waiting for the urban president

POLITICS. A year ago today, when Barack Obama moved into the White House to become the 44th U.S. president, many saw this as a starting point for a new urban future in America. President Obama quickly established a new White House Office of Urban Affairs and in the summer of 2009 he presented an ambitious new urban policy agenda.
When I visited president Obama’s adopted hometown Chicago a few months later, I could sense a great deal of optimism when I met a number of prominent urban thinkers.
“We now have support for our issues in the White House, especially from Obama himself. He is an urbanist, he understands these issues”, said John Norquist, the former mayor of Milwaukee who now heads the Chicago-based Congress for the New Urbanism.
“For the first time we have an urban president who grew up in cities. Not only cities in this country, but also in Indonesia. He understands that if we don’t improve the opportunities for urban areas and aim for sustainability, it will affect the quality of life and economy of this country”, said Jacky Grimshaw, vice president of policy at the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago.
You will hear more from these urban advocates later on in this blog.
On the first anniversary of the Obama presidency, has there proved to be ground for this optimism?
It would be easy to say that expectations have not been met. At the same time you only have to mention things like health care, rescuing the American economy, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, dealing with the threat of terrorism, reaching out to the Muslim world and negotiating climate change to understand the new urban policy hasn’t exactly been on top of the president’s agenda.
Still, a lot of the stimulus money the White House has set aside for the Recovery Act to save the American economy has been earmarked for projects in line with president Obama’s urban ambitions.
This includes things like retrofitting old city buildings to make them more energy efficient, broaden access to affordable housing and investing in transit projects extending light rail-services in car-dependent cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix, just to name a few.
A few days ago, the Oregonian in Portland reported on one innovative and climate-smart transit project partly financed by stimulus money that will add to that city’s reputation as a role model for modern urban thinking.
Eventually many of the initiatives now set in motion should help the United States and its cities on its way towards a more sustainable urban future.
The White House has also started a “National conversation on the future of cities and metros”, sending high-level representatives from Washington to metropolitan areas all around the country for a new dialogue.
An unprecedented partnership between government departments like HUD (Housing and Urban Development), DOT (Department of Transportation) and EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has been hailed, like in this analysis from the Brookings Institution.
Adolfo Carrion, whom president Obama named the first director of the Office of Urban Affairs, said in an interview that there is “pent-up demand” to reverse decades of unbridled sprawl and congestion encouraged by policies that favored suburban and rural constituencies over city dwellers.
Carrion thinks Obama’s approach to urban policy brings a “refreshing perspective” to issues that haven’t gotten much attention since the 1960’s and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs.

President Obama's adopted home town.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A look at major waterfront developments

URBAN PLANNING. For years politicians and city planners from around the world have come to Stockholm to visit Hammarby Sjöstad, a showcase urban development on the southern edge of the Swedish capital’s city center.
Once part of the plans for Stockholm’s failed bid for the 2004 summer Olympic Games, Hammarby Sjöstad has since the late 90’s developed into an admired example of modern city building for a sustainable future. It now has 15,000 inhabitants, moving towards 24,000 when the project is completed in 2017.
Waterfront developments like Hammarby Sjöstad have become the model for urban expansion in major cities around Europe.
I recently visited Hamburg, the second largest city in Germany, to see the ongoing construction of HafenCity on the banks of the river Elbe. HafenCity is the largest urban development project in Europe. When it is completed sometime in 2020-25 it will be home to 12,000 inhabitants and the workplace for up to 40,000 people.
HafenCity is already changing the face of Hamburg, with a whole new modern city growing rapidly next to the old city center. Like Hammarby Sjöstad, the idea behind HafenCity is to build new life into derelict old industrial and harbour areas no longer needed for their original use.
The new developments are full of climate smart solutions in everything from heating to public transportation and waste management. Hamburg has been chosen by the European Commission to take over from Stockholm as European Green Capital in 2011.
In the months to come, this blog will take a closer look at the lessons learned from Hammarby Sjöstad and tell you more about HafenCity. I will also look at Nordhavnen, a huge new waterfront development under way in the Danish capital Copenhagen.
In Stockholm planners and developers are getting ready to pass the baton from Hammarby Sjöstad to the new Royal Seaport, set to become the next Swedish showcase for modern urban development.
We will look at that too.

Modern light rail streetcar in Hammarby Sjöstad.

Viewing construction in HafenCity.

Tunnel works will disrupt Stockholm

STOCKHOLM. Office workers and residents in parts of central Stockholm will have to endure several years of disruptions as one of the city’s biggest infrastructure projects gains full speed in 2010.
A six kilometre long new tunnel under some of the most sensitive parts of the Swedish capital will finally bring long awaited increased rail capacity to the region. The new tunnel, called Citybanan, will more than double the capacity for commuter trains passing through Stockholm’s Central station when it’s completed in 2017.
Work is now becoming more and more visible as tunnel construction gets under way between Riddarholmen, next to Stockholm’s Old Town, and Södermalm. Other parts of central Stockholm will also have to get used to underground explosions and increased heavy traffic to and from work places.
Construction of the new tunnel will not only be a key to improved public transportation in Stockholm and the surrounding region. Eight out of ten train trips in Sweden begins or ends in Stockholm, where the two tracks leading into the Central station for years have been a bottle neck affecting train traffic in the whole country.
The project is estimated to cost 1.6 billion Euro (2.3 billion US dollars).

Underwater tunnel construction near Stockholm's Old Town.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Nordic cities dominate Green City Index

ENVIRONMENT. With more than 50 percent of the world’s population living in urban areas, producing 80 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, it is clear that the future global environment depends very much on how cities and their leaders and inhabitants act.
Fortunately, positive steps are taken on a city level, while national leaders continue to find details to disagree on at the global level.
In a study assessing the environmental impact of Europe’s major cities, four Nordic capitals dominate the European Green City Index. Danish capital Copenhagen tops the list just before its Swedish counterpart Stockholm. Norwegian capital Oslo is in third place, while Helsinki in Finland is in seventh place.
The research project, which rates and measures environmental performance of 30 leading European cities from 30 countries, is conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit and is sponsored by Siemens. Read more here.
Top ten cities in the overall ratings were: Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo, Vienna, Amsterdam, Zürich, Helsinki, Berlin, Brussels and Paris.

Smart waste management in Stockholm.

Reports from the battle of Scandinavia

BACKGROUND. Last week Stockholm officially kicked off its year as European Green Capital 2010. The Swedish capital is the first city being honoured by the European Commission with this prestigious award.
Last month all eyes were focused on Denmark and Copenhagen when the self-proclaimed Climate Capital of the World hosted the United Nations Climate Summit. World leaders may have failed at the summit, but the Danish capital reached new heights in its ambition to be an international role model for modern and ecologically conscious urban development.
Stockholm and Copenhagen are two lovely cities locked in a friendly battle over the title “Capital of Scandinavia”, already used by Stockholm as an official slogan but increasingly claimed by Copenhagen when it comes to world attention for its merits.
This “battle of Scandinavia” led me to a project I’m working on, partly funded by a journalism grant from the Nordic Council (an inter-governmental forum for cooperation between the governments of the Nordic countries).
Last fall I set out to study how the Nordic capitals, mainly Copenhagen and Stockholm, have claimed positions as international role models when it comes to modern urban development in a world focused on a sustainable future.
The Nordic capitals are small cities by global standards and have fewer problems to deal with than its bigger counterparts in other countries. This is of course an advantage, but not the reason why many cities look to the north for inspiration when it comes to sustainable city development.
In the months to come I will write a lot about ongoing development and plans in Stockholm and Copenhagen. I will also visit the Norwegian capital Oslo, getting ready to challenge its Scandinavian counterparts with exciting projects following the spectacular new Opera house now rising out the waters of the Oslo fjord. Then we have Helsinki, the Finnish capital, getting ready to be the World Design Capital 2012.

Climate Capital no 1: Copenhagen.

Climate Capital no 2: Stockholm

Certain notebooks and other stuff I like

BACKGROUND. Sometimes I feel like a character out of the popular blog Stuff White People Like, a satirical look at the overambitious, conscious, modern city dweller. The list of observations hits right on target in more ways than I would like to admit.
I enjoy living by the water (stuff #51), in an on-going harbour development of the kind you will find in most cities located by a lake or the sea. As a journalist I have been travelling (#19) the world for over 30 years, occasionally taking notes in a Moleskine notebook (#122).
I’m taking a year off (#120), sort of, at a point in my professional life when it’s time to finally do some things that I really enjoy. One of those pleasures is seeing exciting architecture (#34) and cities revitalized through careful gentrification (#73).
I like America (#114) and last October when I visited Chicago I finally got a chance to go to Wrigley Field (#30) for a baseball game. Even though I have no reason threatening to move to Canada (#75) I wouldn’t mind being part of the great diversity (#7) in cities like Toronto or Vancouver.
As a journalist rooted in the old media, I enjoy when I get a chance to read the paper version of the Sunday New York Times (#46) while sipping a cup of good coffee (#1) in a neighbourhood café of a world metropolis.
More than enough said. You get the point.

Looking for visions of the urban future

BACKGROUND. My name is Anders Steinvall. I’m a veteran Swedish journalist and editor with an interest in cities and their ambitions for the urban future.
I spent 22 years as a reporter and editor at the Dagens Nyheter, the leading national newspaper of Sweden, where I covered everything from Olympic Games to international conflicts. I worked as a foreign correspondent in Moscow during the turbulent years when the Soviet Union fell apart.
I have also been executive editor of a local newspaper in Northern Sweden. I now work as a freelance writer.
Over the years I have visited more than a hundred major cities around the world, on assignment or as a tourist. I enjoy taking long walks in the urban jungle more than anything else.
With so much of the world’s future depending on how cities act and develop, I’ve become more and more interested in the visions of city leaders, planners, architects and others who shape the urban landscape we live in.
That led me to writing this blog. I hope you will find it worth reading.

Urban future in the great crystal ball...

...called Cloud Gate in Chicago's Millennium Park.