Citizen Participation: True or False
A true story about democracy in Denmark
Article by Finn Thybo Andersen, printet in the danish paper “Information”
27 july 2006:
2001: In the fall, the city of Copenhagen published “For a debate
on city development possibilities for areas surrounding Nørrebro
Station”, a handsome publication in colour distributed to all
households in the area regarding development of the area around Nørrebro
Station and the Danish state railway’s (DSB’s) property.
Citizens were invited to a series of meetings arranged by Neighbourhood
Improvement for Nørrebro Park and Northwest Copenhagen and
held over a period of several months. We sat in discussion groups
and the minutes of the meetings were written down, and on this basis
a hearing response was formulated and sent to the city government.
The focus of interest was the railroad property owned by DSB and the
warehouse buildings. The hearing response states: “The old warehouse
halls represent an important historic cultural reference to how the
railway functioned in the past. … It is the Citizen Forum’s
wish that the halls be preserved and converted to satisfy present
2004-06: Now it is the Mimersgade neighbourhood that is the focus
of Neighbourhood Improvement. This includes the area bound by Nørrebrogade,
Jagtvej, Tagensvej and the railroad property at Nørreport Station.
Again, all households in the area receive a fine publication with
a newspaper layout published by the Neighbourhood Improvement Secretariat
under Copenhagen City’s Economy Department. “Do you wish
to make a difference in your neighbourhood? Do you have good ideas
for projects in your neighbourhood? Will you join in making projects
for 30 million crowns?” These are the catchy questions asked
in the publication. A meeting is called for all residents in the area
to discuss their wishes for the neighbourhood.
Again, we citizens attend the meeting in great numbers. Postcards
are passed out; we should write our wishes and ideas and return them
to the city, which we also do in great numbers. A very great majority
of the proposals have to do with the railroad property and the warehouse
Again, we attend repeated citizen meetings with group discussions.
The Neighbourhood Improvement project has a budget of 30 million crowns
with which to do some good. In addition, we are being wooed with an
additional 100 million crowns from something called The Partnership.
The Partnership is a coalition between the city and Realdania, each
of which puts 50 million in the kitty for some exciting projects that
can really develop the area. The Neighbourhood Improvement Secretariat
chooses an activity park on the railroad property and “ArtFreight”,
an international art and culture project, in the warehouse halls as
the main projects.
That is just great!
But what happens next?
The city starts negotiations with DSB about buying the freight railway
area. The first shock is that DSB will only negotiate about two-thirds
of the area. DSB will not sell the last third where the warehouse
halls are located, at least not to the city, since DSB is asking a
sky-high price for the property (some say 33 million crowns).
The case is, it seems, that according to the city plan, the two-thirds
of the area that DSB is willing to negotiate is designated as an ‘o’
area, i.e. public area, whereas the remaining one-third with the warehouse
halls is designated ‘c’, which allows 110 percent construction
(or 5-storey buildings). We didn’t hear one word about this
when, in 2001, we used many evenings, invited by the City of Copenhagen,
to discuss the future of the DSB area. That’s what the publication
invited us to discuss! In addition, it was the general opinion at
that time that there should not be more housing construction in Outer
Nørrebro, Denmark’s most densely populated area with
m2 open area per resident, as compared to 25 m2 for the whole of Copenhagen.
DSB asks the city for permission to tear down the warehouse halls,
but they are refused because the project, ArtFreight, is a main project
for neighbourhood improvement. Then, the city decides that ArtFreight
cannot be realized; the Secretariat for Neighbourhood Improvement
withdraws ArtFreight as the main project; and DSB receives permission
to demolish the warehouse buildings.
However, an application is made for preservation of the warehouse
halls, one railway track and the Customs House, which is situated
at a further end of the area. The halls and the railway comprise the
last remains of the industrial culture that is an important aspect
of Outer Nørrebro’s history and identity. The Special
Building Authority has stated: “The impressive, long, beautifully
crafted, warehouse is completely unique in relation to the more modest
warehouses in the provinces.
In addition, there is the warehouse halls’ cultural historical
significance for understanding the history of Outer Nørrebro’s
industrial development. During a time when most large industry in
the area have been closed down, the warehouse halls tell us about
the important role played by the infrastructure in locating industry
in the past in Copenhagen.
DSB is livid and totally blocks negotiations with the City of Copenhagen
concerning the other two-thirds of the area. And since the Neighbourhood
Improvement Secretariat has chosen the Activity Park as another main
project, the whole neighbourhood improvement project is in danger
of coming to a halt.
So what is The Partnership’s next move?
Under the title: “Imaginative city development for Outer Nørrebro”,
a new project is presented as an “innovating creative city space”
called Super Wedge: a narrow wedge that stretches from Nørrebro
Hall to Tagensvej along a bicycle path and invents Mimer Square, which
is to be the neighbourhood’s crowning glory with an international
Not a word about the DSB property and the warehouse halls. What is
to be placed there? Professional football fields and a clubhouse for
Skjold, which very generously may be used by the neighbourhood kids
when the professionals are not using it. Plus a Boase building by
the architectural group Force4. (BOASE is an alternative housing project
designed by Force4 in a multi-disciplinary cooperation with the Art
Academy’s School of Architecture and Denmark’s Design
We must remember that Outer Nørrebro is Copenhagen’s
and thus Denmark’s most densely populated area and the area
with the highest percent of immigrants. And its free area per resident
is 3 m2 compared with the Copenhagen average of 25 m2.
What Outer Nørrebro needs is an open area where everyone living
here can move around, meet and engage in joint activities –
an open space for all generations that provides active opportunities
for children and adults of all ages: intercultural gardens and greenhouses
where people can grow vegetables; sports facilities, fx for skateboarding
indoors; grills; water; playgrounds where children can build, have
pets, play wild games and explore nature; and many more activities
that the residents here can decide on, also for the many institutions
that are not on the ground floor and must use a garage roof as the
only outdoor facility.
All this could be developed in the area surrounding Copenhagen’s
new International Art and Culture Centre – ArtFreight –
in the warehouse halls, a building worth preserving and converting
into a flexible concert hall, exhibition rooms, theatre and workshops,
home of the local youth TV, local historical museum, and a café
and restaurant that open onto the Activity Park – a meeting
place that could really place Outer Nørrebro on the map of
Denmark and connect the local with the global, create an opening into
Mjølner Park and connect it and its residents with the rest
of the world – create space, life and movement.
Just look at the map that Realdania has generously distributed! See
the ‘Super Wedge’ and compare it with the DSB area and
the warehouse halls. And see Realdania’s pedagogic version of
what Super Wedge is – where the yellow area that represents
the super wedge is drawn right up to the edge of the houses; where
Nørrebro Hall and a green bicycle path (hurrah and many thanks!)
already claim most of the area. And with the 3000 m2 international
culture centre that they are planning on the Super Wedge, there is
not much left of an open free area for Outer Nørrebro.
The citizens have spoken! Time and again the city has arranged hearings,
but it seems as if the decisions are already made somewhere else,
outside the range of democratic visibility, in the dark labyrinths
of power. And except for a bench here and there, or a potted plant
or tree (which are of course all fine ways to give the neighbourhood
a lift), the views of the citizens are completely ignored. This is
not being written to point a finger at the many people who for idealistic
reasons spend their time participating in Neighbourhood Improvement
and its secretariat, but rather to make clear the difficult if not
impossible conditions they must work under.
One light of hope in the darkness can still be that the speculators
will not succeed in burying the preservation initiative and demolishing
the warehouse halls, so that the wishes of the citizens can again
be placed on the agenda.
The old, 40,000 m2 freight railway area near Nørrebro Station
presents a unique opportunity to create something new and different
for Outer Nørrebro and the whole of Copenhagen, and thus radically
change Outer Nørrebro’s image by giving those who live
here access to free, open areas and cultural experiences. Why should
all cultural institutions lie in the centre of Copenhagen so as to
be easily accessible to the cultural elite? No, they should be placed
there where people live. And they should be created on these people’s
premises so that ‘culture’ and ‘folk’ are
not two separate concepts but joined together to form a unified whole.
Don’t waste this unique chance!
Finn Thybo Andersen, visual artist, member of art group YNKB Instructor,
Royal Art Academy, Copenhagen