Well, I’ve been back home in Christchurch for just a few days, but already Copenhagen (and summer) feels like a bit of a distant memory. So I’d better get my final thoughts down now before they fade completely…

 

The Red Carpet - one of the projects made by our second year Landscape Architecture students.

The Red Carpet – one of the projects made by our second year Landscape Architecture students.

The first things I’d like to share are some of the projects our students completed. These are second-year students, who completed these projects during an 8-week part-time course. Most of the course we spent discussing and trying out different modes and methodologies of site analysis and response – so the actual construction of the projects happened in just 2-3 weeks (or a few days, in one case!).

I’m pretty amazed at the calibre of work, and especially of the site analyses. Or perhaps a better word would be ‘diagnoses’: the students worked to analyse the specific site of their intervention, but also to assess the situation of Copenhagen as a city and Refshaleøen (the island/area within Copenhagen where we worked). In this process, they identified not only the characteristics (physical, spatial, historical, symbolic) of their sites but also what this city and this region was lacking. Their end projects had to navigate that difficult course of being amenable to the property owners but also provocative, attempting to change future uses of, and thinking about, the site.

The Red Carpet project is a good example. As an old shipbuilding island, Refshaleøen is surrounded by water and cut through by canals – but nowhere on the island can a human pedestrian access the water. This project, then, invites people down closer to the water, and perhaps starts the process of the area’s inhabitants and visitors desiring and demanding access to the harbour. It’s a simple, and even ‘silly’, intervention – but with some real substance and clear aims behind it.

 

Blågårds Plads in Copenhagen, one of the areas chosen for one of the city's neighbourhood renewal experiments.

Blågårds Plads in Copenhagen, one of the areas chosen for one of the city’s neighbourhood renewal experiments.

I’d also like to quickly say a few words about one model of neighbourhood renewal that is being put into practice in Copenhagen. The city chooses a target area, draws physical boundaries on a map, and allocates a chunk of funding that includes salaries for 1-2 staff to setup and run a neighbourhood renewal office. They take (or make) a small office somewhere in the chosen area – and then a steering group is created from interested residents of the area. The city (more or less) gives over the power to decide how this money is spent to this independent committee of residents. I won’t go into the details (which are a bit hazy in any case) but it’s an interesting model to think about in relation to how a very risk-averse Council bureaucracy can support worthwhile projects and actions that are a bit outside of its normal operations. At some point in August I’ll be giving a talk hosted by the Te Pūtahi Christchurch Centre for Architecture and Citymaking, and will say a bit more about this approach then.

 

Pretty typical cycling traffic in Copenhagen: something that Gehl Architects has been working on and promoting, and an important part of Copenhagen's great reputation.

Pretty typical cycling traffic in Copenhagen: something that Gehl Architects has been working on and promoting, and an important part of Copenhagen’s great reputation.

I had the distinct pleasure of visiting – and later doing a tiny bit of work with – Gehl Architects while in Copenhagen. (This is the firm responsible for Share an Idea, and the Human Scale film, among many other things.) Coralie and I gave a short lunchtime talk about Gap Filler to the 30-some of their Copenhagen-based staff who were present that day, and stuck around long enough to meet quite a few of them and hear about some of the projects Gehl are working on at the moment: in Glasgow, Tokyo, Paris, Istanbul, Mumbai… I forget where else.

They must have liked the talk well enough, because they invited us back the next week to give a longer version of the talk to a group of 30 clients from 14 countries who had travelled to Copenhagen to attend a three-day ‘Masterclass’ with Gehl Architects. That was great, and will hopefully lead to some more collaboration. (David asked Coralie to travel to Tokyo to meet with their clients there in early September, in the same week that her baby is due. Hmmm. Maybe next time, David.)

 

The venue where the Nobel Prize is awarded!

The venue where the Nobel Prize is awarded!

My trip ended with the three-day Future of Places conference in Stockholm, Sweden, organised by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN Habitat) with Project for Public Spaces (PPS) and the Ax:son Johnson Foundation for Urban Research. I was amazed by the scale of it; the opening evening event took place in the Stockholm City Hall, in the same room where the Nobel Prizes are awarded!

This was a conference and a practical policymaking event, with a mix of keynote talks and discussion groups where all of the invited guests (including me!) participated in small group work sessions making policy recommendations to United Nations delegates. These policy documents we worked on will feed into Habitat III: a major UN event in Quito in 2016 that is the 3rd in a series of UN urban policymaking events that take place once every 20 years.

The focus of Future of Places Stockholm was Public Space – and what an eye-opener! With a high proportion of delegates coming from developing countries, there was such an amazing range of different needs, problems, experiments and proposed solutions for making better public spaces in our cities. A highlight for me was hearing Dutch-American sociologist Saskia Sassen give a talk about (among other things) the ridiculous problems that arise when, as in many cities, The Land Is Now More Valued Than The People Or Activities On It. This is clearly a serious issue for present and future Christchurch, as the government has been very interventionist to preserve, and inflate, property prices – but has done very little I’m aware of that values people and our activities.

I like the final point, made by the policy group whose focus was the economics of public space: explore more methods, and spend more, on management and activation of space rather than on new paving stones and other 'hardware'.

I like the final point, made by the policy group whose focus was the economics of public space: explore more methods, and spend more, on management and activation of space rather than on new paving stones and other ‘hardware’.

With CCC recently indicating their desire to explore a new community currency, co-operative community charters and community governance of public spaces, Christchurch might just look to some of these experiments underway in Copenhagen. And vice-versa. There’s already a high level of interest in Christchurch over there; we have, rightly and wrongly, accrued a reputation as a city of interesting urban experiments. Wouldn’t it be great if we could continue and expand these experiments, and really cement Christchurch’s position as a world leader – very different to, but as progressive as, Copenhagen?