Ørestad: What does the future hold?

Ørestad Building

writer icon Sundas Shahid     Manne   |   City     🕐 26. Apr. 2018

Copenhagen has been idealised  for its city planning and urban development. Urban developments that are strategised and designed around transport systems are a typical characteristic of Copenhagen. The Finger Plan from 1947 developed under the Danish welfare state designed the rail system to facilitate linear urban development emerging from the centre. Each station was designed as an intersection of high density, facilitated by social housing and commercial centres.

Similarly, the development of Ørestad was largely determined by the transport system. However, this time the transport was developed in order to sell land to private developers along its route. The plan with this land was to use it for housing, and international and local businesses. Since its inception, the Ørestad project has received heavy criticism from the academic and civil domain.

What went wrong?
Ørestad has all the ingredients. There is an efficient transport network, housing designed by star architects, the temporary-use community projects, and yet the streets are empty. Ørestad is too carefully curated and does not allow the space for informality to pop up. Where are the Kebab and Turkish shops, the mobile kiosks, the diversity that enriches neighbourhoods like Nørrebro and Østerbro?

The Ørestad Development Corporation (ODC) proposed a coalition between the city and the state, which was supported by a huge loan. The bright future of Ørestad was then dampened by the financial crisis, which ran the joint venture into debt. The high land value did not suffice to pay the loan and the expense is still being borne by the Danish taxpayers.

A new coalition was formed called the CPH City & Port Development (CPD), with the aim to unite all ongoing urban developments in Nordhaven, Sydhaven and Ørestad. The plan was to develop real estate on publicly owned land in order to pay off the loan. Various projects were initiated in the Ørestad to recover from the debt, including the Fields Mall, which actually generated some capital during this scheme.

Isolated buildings
Ørestad, as it stands today, is the product of the laissez-faire, internalised and market facilitative policies of the ODC, the private developers and market-oriented forces, the financial crisis and the attempts to recover from it. The drawback is that Ørestad is dominated by buildings which have been designed in isolation from each other, connected only through wide roads and avenues. Many of the buildings that have been built by private developers have an inward orientation and do not connect to the passer-by on the street.

For an urban development that boasts high liveability, Ørestad lacks both urbanisation and sociability. People rush in and out of the metro to save themselves from the strong winds that result from a tunnel effect caused by the buildings and vacant spaces. In a city like Copenhagen where the weather conditions are already not favourable for occupying public spaces, the plan for Ørestad failed to address the issue of strong winds prevalent in this region.

What lies ahead?
The cost of the metro and the development of the Ørestad project is estimated to be recovered by 2038. Thus, the trend of real estate being developed by private investors continues. More buildings have been commissioned predominantly for retail, commercial, hotels and for international offices. Simultaneously, more student housing, cafes, shops and new strategic urban design and planning has been put in place to generate more life on the streets. Yet, the two seem to be disjointed strategies and lack a cohesive central plan to consolidate the development.

The urban development was meant to provide 60 - 80 000 jobs. However, it had only provided 12 000 jobs by 2010. Due to the setback caused by the financial crisis, the OCD had to make alternative plans for developing Ørestad as the hub of international business. Currently, office development in the area focuses on Danish firms operating internationally with little presence of local businesses.

A place for families and students
In contrast, the 20 000 education places have exceeded expectations. It continues to be a source of attraction for families with children, as well as university students. In terms of housing, Ørestad had 6 839 residents by 2011. The estimated future density for Ørestad is too low for an urban development to thrive. In a city like Copenhagen, where home ownership is a trend, many people on an average income struggle to pay the high rents in Ørestad. It has been purposefully designed to be exclusive to those who can afford the luxury of living in this area.

The upside of the financial crisis is that due to the stagnation of the sale of real estate, physical space was made available for things like temporary community gardens and sports areas. Local participation in the development of the waterways allowed injections of creativity in the otherwise closed forum for planning by the CPD. However, temporary interventions are not reliable solutions as they run the risk of extinction as soon as private investors show some interest in the land that they occupy.

Conditions to flourish
Richard Florida, an urban theorist, identified culture, creativity and informality as key drivers for urban civilisation to flourish. He argues that cities and other market-led forces use these factors to increase their competitive edge for urban development. He further argues that these factors cannot be induced by top-down planning. This kind of planning can create conditions in which they can flourish, but for them to emerge in the first place they need to develop outside of the bounds of city and state structures.

Civil Protest
One such intervention is the protest by the civil society for the housing development at the Amager Fælleds. The area is prime development land due to its proximity to the metro. Simultaneously, it is rich in biodiversity, nature and close to the beach. Local biologists engaged in the protest claim that building housing there would be a great loss of nature. Currently, the plans for further development have been put on hold due to heavy opposition from the civil society. Eventually, it will become apparent how long they will be able to hold down the fort against market forces.

This civil protest could be used constructively by the CPD. They could take this chance to connect with the residents and involve them in decisions that could make Ørestad a more liveable space. Such decisions must go beyond conflict and temporary interventions in order to forge a model based on inclusion and participation. Enriched by the input of residents, Ørestad may be inhabited with a greater sense of ownership. 

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