Urban Innovation Dispatches: Aarhus, Denmark

Instant city, instant community, and the future of a garden

Ø Haven, the largest community garden in Denmark. Photo: Matthew Claudel.

By Matthew Claudel, a designer, researcher, and writer affiliated with the DesignX urban innovation accelerator at MIT, where he is a PhD candidate

“Urban Innovation Dispatches” are snapshots of my ongoing investigation of three cities — Boston (United States), Aarhus (Denmark), and Reykjavik (Iceland) — and their new seaport redevelopments. Read my introductory overview. The project documents how these areas are being reimagined, shifting from a focus on heavy industry to the creation of “innovation districts,” and how the catch-all vision of “innovation” actually plays out in practice. Each dispatch will spotlight a particular element that is vital to one of these new districts.

The making of a new seaport district

A sharp white crystalline form dominates the horizon, jutting out of a windy outcrop at the northern edge of the harbor. “The Iceberg,” as it is known, is an icon for the new seaport innovation district in Aarhus, Denmark.

The building itself is primarily devoted to luxury apartments, which will anchor the offices, retail space, and amenities of the surrounding docklands development, called Aarhus Ø. In these basic ingredients, Aarhus Ø is similar to a host of waterfront projects around the world, a new species of so-called innovation districts that includes the Boston Seaport. But a unique local ingredient stands out in Aarhus.

A community garden fills the crust of land behind The Iceberg, between the condos and the sea. Ø Haven, as the garden is called, is a collaboration between the community, the district’s development association, and the municipality. Now the largest urban garden in Denmark, it brings together a diverse group of gardeners, including foreign students, young families, and elderly residents. The organizational structure is loose, membership is non-binding, and participants often contribute to shared work days or join in with improvement projects. The three governing principles of the garden are: 1) Grow and customize your garden; 2) Respect others; 3) Enjoy the good life.

Isbjerget (The Iceberg), a residential building in Aarhus with a neighboring community garden. Photo: Matthew Claudel.

“The area’s builders see the project as an ‘instant city’ — a way to quickly transform inactive urban areas into areas of life, joy, activity and, not least, greenery,” according to the project website. “After just two seasons, Ø Haven has shown its worth and is considered by many as a natural part of the new city.”

The idea of an urban garden is of course not unique, but what makes Ø Haven striking is its temporality and the sharp contrast to its context — a high-end real estate development. I chose to spotlight the garden for three reasons: it is a strong example of urban innovation, its future is currently contested, and it signals larger, perhaps universal tensions in urban design and development.

Ø Haven is the result of a novel development strategy: in writing the RFP for the new Aarhus Ø district, the municipality specified activation as a key criterion for evaluating master-plan proposals. In other words, potential developers had to demonstrate that they would kickstart some kind of urban life, in addition to constructing and commercializing the buildings. It was this provision that guided the association to allocate a vacant area for the community garden. And it is the residents themselves who bring Ø Haven to life. By all accounts, the project is a success; it has become the focal point of a new, passionate community, and is considered by many to be an integral part of the new district.

Yet it is condemned. The planning strategy focused only on activating the district. The garden is a temporary use of private land — and it is, after all, a high-value parcel, prime for development. The garden was essentially a placeholder while details of a second phase could be designed, debated, and financed. A new building, “The Lighthouse,” is slated to replace it — a proposal that has elicited a vocal public response. Does the energy behind the community outcry represent an objection to the business of development? Who are we building for?

The tension playing out in Ø Haven is common enough in cities today. The Aarhus example of fast activation, however, underscores the benefit of nuanced sequencing, of community building over time. Providing a place-based asset to residents to create a sense of community, but reclaiming it soon afterward to capitalize on the land’s development value is a sleight of hand at best, and at worst a violation of the public’s “right to the city.” Ethics aside, creating such an inherently contentious situation seems to be a poor business strategy, for both developers and the municipality.

Raised beds in the community garden in Aarhus. Photo: Matthew Claudel.

Maybe I’m reading too much of an agenda into the garden, but one thing is clear: the community loves Ø Haven. It’s the first thing mentioned by those I’ve interviewed, and more than 70 percent of survey respondents said that they would add more garden area and green space to the district. As a consequence, The Lighthouse plan is situated squarely in the public spotlight. The caption of one Instagram post reads: “Love that there is still little space left for wild nature on Aarhus Island. Soon enough will disappear when more high-rise buildings are to be built and bounded beds are made, but you have to enjoy it for as long as it lasts!”

As the parcel is converted to a building site, will the band of gardeners dissolve? How does community-building interact with city-building? Is it possible to develop with and for residents in a sustainable way? Is it possible to “activate” an “instant city” at all?

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