Can we take community involvement further?

A rooftop garden in the central suburb of Osterbro (east bridge), Copenhagen, an example of a community-led project in ...
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A rooftop garden in the central suburb of Osterbro (east bridge), Copenhagen, an example of a community-led project in the Danish capital. The garden, which is open to the public, is called OsterGro. It is run by a membership-based cooperative: members pay a fee and get a portion of the harvest.

OPINION: 

I had the good fortune to be offered a short-term job in Copenhagen, the world's best city to live in according to any number of polls and surveys.

The Landscape Architecture and Urbanism research group at Copenhagen University granted me a post-doctoral position because of their interest in Christchurch's post-quake community-led creative projects, from which they wanted to learn. After three months there, I've come back convinced that we can learn a lot about community involvement from them, too.

The most striking thing is how compact Copenhagen is. Population-wise, it's a bit bigger than Auckland – but with three times the population density (and 10 times that of Christchurch).

The upshot: most people live in apartments; there's a huge focus on parks, playgrounds, and public spaces in general; and everywhere feels central.

The entire society is structured around that, so there are small supermarkets, shops, and cafes in every block throughout the city to cater for local residents.

Wherever you live, there are hundreds of amenities within walking distance and thousands reachable by bike; it's city policy that there should be a park or beach within a 15-minute walk of any residence.

The so-called outer suburbs are still just a 25-minute easy bike ride to the centre – in a city with some of the best theatres, galleries, museums, and attractions in the world.

Christchurch won't reach that size and density, and I don't think that's the lifestyle most Cantabrians are after, though it would be nice to have a more populated and compact central city for those seeking this sort of existence.

But there are other ways in which we might take inspiration from Copenhagen. Not least is the strong sense of neighbourhood, community, and local involvement in urban issues.

It's abundantly clear that Copenhagenites feel that the city is theirs, and the architects and urban designers service them. This resident-led philosophy pervades many urban planning processes.

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People have a high level of interest and understanding, and many ways of getting involved.

The most impressive, to me, are the integrated area renewal (IAR) projects. Basically, the city chooses a relatively small geographical target area for five years, allocates funding, hires a director, and sets some broad goals or themes.

Once the funding (usually on the order of NZ$5 million to $10m) gets approved, the city doesn't manage how it's spent; instead, an elected steering committee of local residents and business owners decides where the money goes.

Depending upon the area, steering committee, and specific people involved, the projects themselves vary widely – from fairly traditional-looking public squares and plazas to a bohemian shipping-container village with artists-in-residence, a pirate radio station, community welding workshop, and farm animals.

In the words of the city: "What is special about IAR is that the wishes and efforts of the residents themselves determine the course of the project. Local resources become actively involved in all phases of the development efforts."

At any one time there are about half a dozen IAR projects active throughout the city. It's a significant amount of money, but a tiny fraction of the overall urban planning budget.

Alongside this experimental planning model, a bevy of community organisations have sprung up that focus on collaborative community design.

Cantabrians tend to think of Greening the Rubble, Gap Filler, and Life in Vacant Spaces as specific to our weird post-disaster situation here. In fact, I met many similar groups in Copenhagen – several of them winning government tenders to lead new public city developments.

The wider social, cultural, and economic benefits of citizen-led development (large and small) are so accepted in Copenhagen that private developers routinely employ these groups to run community engagement activities while their big plans are being drawn up.

The Urban Interventions course I helped teach was in one such area, an abandoned shipbuilding yard on the edge of the city that is slated for major development around 2023.

We ran the whole course there, using (free of charge) one of the old buildings for lectures, another for a workshop and construction space, and a shipping container to lock our tools and materials in.

The students explored the island, conceived site-specific projects, pitched, developed, built, and installed them.

Some were decorative, some functional, some critically engaged; all were trying to influence thinking about the future development to come.

The property company's stance is that getting people engaged in the area, developing a sense of community and identity, is hugely valuable – even though it probably means that people will scrutinise and critique their proposed development more when the time comes.

Funnily enough, there's a widespread perception in Copenhagen that a strong citizen-focused redevelopment is exactly what's happening in Christchurch.

We have our small and successful experiments, of course, but we need to address the chasm between communities and NGOs on the one hand, and central government and private developers on the other.

Dr Ryan Reynolds is co-founder and chair of Gap Filler Trust, and co-founder of Life in Vacant Spaces.

 - The Press

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