Hedebygade, a very Danish island
How can a cluster of 19th century buildings be transformed into a showcase of contemporary urban planning, combining technical know-how and participation of inhabitants? We report from a Copenhagen “eco-district”.
It is the story of a city district looking for its identity. It is the story of a certain idea of urban dwelling. It is the story of a group of men and women wanting to try ‘something different’. Vesterbro, a 35 hectare area close to the historical centre of Copenhagen, crystallised this dynamic in a series of renovations which at same time represent a raft of shared adventures.
The district dates from the late 19th century, when the Danish capital extended considerably with the massive influx of labour from the countryside. The roads are lined with five to six storey buildings, painted in various colours, and consisting essentially of apartments, with a few scattered hotels and offices. The apartments are tiny, generally without central heating, hot water and bathrooms and sometimes even without a WC. From the 1980s onwards, the Vesterbro district became generally insalubrious, and a by-word for ghettoisation, drugs, criminality, job insecurity and unemployment. Something had to be done. And fast. The city of Copenhagen began to draw up plans to renovate it.
It is in this context that the Hedebygade project, named after a four-sided ‘island’ of houses in Vesterbro, was born. This proved to be a veritable saga, if we are to believe project head Kurt Christensen, an architect with private consultancy SBS Byfornyelse, which specialises in participative approaches. “The years have passed, and the pride of having taken part in this project remains. But in the heat of action, emotions could run high and discussions were lively and protracted…”
Option for participation
The municipality designated the area a rehabilitation zone in 1992, though the first bulldozers did not arrive until 1997. In 1994 a working group was formed of owners, ten-ants, representatives of the city authorities and the ministry of housing, backed by a firm of consultants. “Living in the 350 or so apartments were a mix of students, low income households, unemployed persons and elderly persons who had lived in the area for generations. Most were poor and without the resources to make major investments in their dwellings. Meetings were frequently epic. Students would launch ideas and propose concepts, of which the older inhabitants did not understand a word!”(1)
Rapidly, urban ecology imposed itself as a common denominator, and as a way for city dwellers of all conditions and origins to live together in a sustainable fashion. “In Copenhagen, this was the heyday of urban ecology. There was a strong political will, and therefore the resources to test, full-scale, ideas on ecological rehabilitation and participation.” Participation could prove stormy, as when the inhabitants noisily opposed the municipality’s project to reduce the total number of dwellings to increase their average size. “There were demonstrations in front of the city hall and major negotiations. Spirits were very agitated! In conclusion, the Hedebygade inhabitants achieved a slight reduction in the number of expropriations and gained a little more representation in the project coordination body.”
From the start of the rehabilitation programme, a number of people were trained to act as intermediaries between authorities and inhabitants. One of them was present every day in Hedebygade. “Local inhabitants came to ask questions and express their concerns. It was a sort of local district mediation service, and at the same time training citizens in urban ecology was part of the project.”
For the local district as a whole, the municipality set up the Vesterbro Renewal Centre (Vesterbro Byfornyelsecenter). This original body, semi-public but independent, brought together architects and social workers around a double mission. The first was to help inhabitants get involved in the project, to organise an ‘island council’ and to formalise their requests. The second was to disseminate information on building construction and ecological renovation.
A visit to the interior of the island, today a semi-private area, reveals the inner face of rehabilitation in the form of eight demonstration sub-projects linked to the rational use of resources and energy saving. “Into the facades and roofs of certain buildings we integrated solar panels, photovoltaic cells, ventilation systems with heat exchangers, passive solar heating elements, etc. More spectacular is the prism on one of the roofs. This is a sort of large mirror, known as a Heliostat, which concentrates the sun’s rays and sends them down into a light well at the centre of the building.
Even if, today, certain of the solutions are technically out-of-date, the approach remains a valid one. Aesthetically, the elements are harmoniously integrated into the facades, with the architects having taken care, for example, to work with the limited palette of colours and materials.
Inside the island, there are no private terraces or gardens. Everything is a common area. A group of women are chatting whilst watching their children play, an old lady lets out her cat, a DIY-er’s sander drones in the background. At the centre of this garden, the shared house acts as a meeting and activity centre. Fitted with a laundry room using rain water from the roofs, it forms a meeting place for the inhabitants and includes a games room for the children. All around, narrow footpaths meander between a small number of handsome trees, a pond, football goalposts, cycle shelters and discrete waste sorting zones.
On the street side, a totally different look. Nothing immediately distinguishes the houses from those of the neighbouring streets. This is intentional. “Discussions at the time showed just how attached inhabitants were to the architecture of the buildings. The emotional side of these old stones is very important to them! The facades and the atmosphere of the streets of the surrounding district have been preserved, even if, rationally, certain buildings ought to have been torn down.”
Figures and feelings
Work ended in 2002, followed by an evaluation phase in 2004. “This was the moment of truth, with the technological choices and the general management of the project being closely watched by the Ministry of Economic Affairs.” Meters were installed all over the place, providing “green accounting” of the entire island. The figures speak for themselves, with water, electricity and heating consumption, as well as waste production and CO2 emissions below national averages.
The satisfaction surveys revealed “globally positive” feelings. Certain initiatives, like the community centre and waste sorting, are a success. Other aspects, such as the day-to-day use of certain facilities, at times elicited less favourable comments. But those living here believe that their knowledge of and interest in urban ecology have grown and have created a common thread which binds them together. One of the key ambitions of the project, that of having inhabitants share in the design, is more difficult to assess. Some people were put off by the length of the operation, others felt their voices were not heard, others moved out when rents were upped, though not excessively.
Kurt Christensen remains confident: “Even if we did lose some inhabitants during and after the work, we have retained a certain social mix. Students remain a large part of the population. These low-rent dwellings often become their first family home. This is a virtuous circle, because families mean children, and children mean nurseries and schools, which were previously threatened with closure owing to a lack of clients.” With time, it is possible to take a more qualified view of this highly ambitious project. “We wanted to show that urban ecology is possible! Certain things went well, others less so. But at least we tried.”
Kirstine de Caritat