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Why Denmark designs world-class cities
31. October 2016
Several surveys have found the Danes to be the happiest people on the planet. Perhaps this is because we live in some of the world’s best cities. This is an area where Danish design has a unique edge. Time and time again, our cities have won great international awards. But what is it that Danish cities have to offer, and what does design have to with it?
Design Byer
Agnete Schlichtkrull

We know how to put the individual first without losing sight of the bigger picture. For decades, we have sought to understand and shape the urban structure, from micro to macro, from individual to master plan, in a creative exchange.

World champions of urban design
There is a reason why Copenhagen is repeatedly named one of the world’s most liveable cities. Most recently when the internationally recognised design magazine Wallpaper picked the Danish capital as the best city in the world. Nothing less. Outranking Los Angeles, Miami and Taipei. The Copenhagen emphasis on ‘soft’ values, such as providing good conditions for the people who visit, live in and work in the city, won out over other cities’ ‘harder’ values such as growth and infrastructure. This is not an either-or scenario, however. One of the unique qualities of Copenhagen is its dual emphasis on details and the larger whole. The fact that Copenhagen is both pleasant to live in and a well-built growth engine with a strong infrastructure. The point is that successful urban development requires first understanding the people who are going to inhabit the city and then creating a quality setting for them. Because the soft values are the premise for the hard values, and vice versa. And this is where Danish cities stand out. The recipe for success is to view the city as a design, from A to Z. Several Danish cities are approaching urban development as a design task with room for soft qualities as well a firm grasp of the hard, objective requirements a good city needs to meet.

Inviting the client to the drawing table
I recently visited Bjarke Ingels’s office (BIG) in New York just next to Ground Zero. Right now, a staff of 200 are busy at the drawing table here, about half of them working on a master plan and a head office for Google in Silicon Valley, and the rest designing high-rises in Miami and Canada. In other words, things are going well for the Danish architectural firm that came to the United States just under five years ago, arriving as a team of four, packing big dreams for the future. But what is it that BIG brings with it that has proven so popular in the United States?

The formula for success is that great building design springs from a close, in-depth dialogue with everyone who is going to be a part of the new setting. Preferably leading to a shared physical model that everyone is invited to be and is a part of. With this shared modelling approach, BIG has created architecture that is equally popular with the clients, people in the street and architecture critics.

This effective approach is immediately evident to anyone who visits the office. Hundreds of models, beginning with simple geometric shapes and concluding in models that capture the many details of the eventual building, determine the architectural design. At BIG, the staff drafts, models, tests and remixes these illustrative models together with the client until the building is complete. The physical models drive a co-creative process. A playful approach to architecture where everything seems to emerge in an organic and inclusive process. A design process for urban development that is mastered exceptionally well in Denmark. So well, in fact, that we are now able to share it with the rest of the world.

Cities for people
In Denmark, we are good at bridging the gap between small and large scales. That is why Danish cities repeatedly win accolades, and why Danish architects are now moving to new corners of the world, gaining new ground. Essentially, urban development is driven as much by a profound understanding of how people move through the city, as it is by ambitious, large-scale master plans. And in this context, Danish design has something new to contribute. Because we are exceptionally good at co-designing with the people who will be using the city and translating their needs into new, innovative solutions. We have an unparalleled awareness of the specific micro-needs for shade, sun, calm, water or life. Primarily because designers are great at putting people’s basic needs first as they shape new products, services and communication. Without losing sight of the big picture or the master plan. We can zoom in and out, focusing alternately on the detail and the master plan.

Citizens as co-creators
Currently, the design agencies Blue Bakery and Urgent Agency are designing a concept for a new Borgernes Hus (Citizens Hall) together with the City of Odense.

The vision is to create a place where citizens feel welcome, and which local companies can use actively in their efforts to develop their business and create new products and solutions. A building that serves as a central venue for urban life and citizens.

In developing Borgernes Hus, the designers used a number of visual design methods that made it easy and accessible for the residents of the building and the citizens to become co-creators of the new solution. The outcome is a building designed for the users, residents and companies and the city’s needs. This example clearly illustrates the need to design the process from the outset. Even before the building begins to take shape.

Concrete and physical representations are the way forward
But what is it that key contribution that designers have to offer as we set out to design our future cities? As a natural part of the process, designers expertly use tangible representations to realise new urban solutions. Designers have a unique ability to create visual, graphic 1:1 models and thus incorporate a trial-and-error method in turning abstract ideas into concrete proposals. That is an effective tool in urban transformation. As Christian Bason, the chief executive of the Danish Design Centre, has explained, three design principles are key in urban development: visualisation, collaboration and the use of physical prototypes, because urban development is such a complex and organic task that it could not possibly be approached from any single perspective. The transformation process simply short-circuits if we fail to structure it in a way that includes politicians, officials, the civil society and the private business sector. The use of visual and creative methods in a design-driven urban development process encourages collaborative solutions. A key point here is that this is not just about public debates and wordy memos. Involving designers in the urban development process means creating physical representations as we move from abstract ideas to potential solutions. No more only lengthy hearings, debates and closely typed pages being passed from hand to hand internally in the city administration. Instead we should combine with concrete physical representations of possible solutions and thus a far more experimental approach to urban development.

For Danish cities to retain their world-class status, designers need to be involved along with the architects as key contributors to future urban development. The Nordic capacity for co-designing with the users and translating their needs into innovative urban solutions has already attracted attention internationally. Now, we need to get even better at activating this capacity, also in developing future cities in Denmark from the best cities to the most outstanding cities.

First published at kommunen.dk.

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