Citizen Participation

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 needs.”

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 halls.

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 3
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 multi-cultural centre.

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 School.)

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