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Comment: Who should define Copenhagen?

People, not profit, should shape the city, says Assistant Professor Rasmus Christian Elling. He believes that innovative entrepreneurship and local initiatives are the way forward

Danes are celebrated as ‘the happiest nation’ in the world, and we live in a city that is awarded titles such as ‘most livable city in the world’. But what is Copenhagen’s identity, and who should define its image?

Before I was an academic, I was a DJ and festival organizer.

I started exploring the underground scene in the 1990’s when I was too young to get into proper discos and my music too obscure for the mainstream. Together with many kindred spirits, we brought about a new music scene, and when our raves grew bigger and the alternative venues became fewer, we moved into abandoned warehouses. When those places were sold off to develop ever expanding, ever more expensive condos, we moved to the interstitial spaces of Copenhagen harbour. And when our events outgrew those spaces and became massive international festivals, we simply had to build new venues from scratch, using 40-foot shipping containers, industrial tarpaulins and a good amount of inventiveness.

This new scene took pride in its do-it-yourself philosophy in a city where spaces for alternative culture were being diminished. A decade before Danish Radio Broadcasting, Wonderful Copenhagen and the municipality spent 334 million taxpayer kroners on Eurovision in Refshaleøen, we were doing international events in the same kind of venues with the same capacity for a tiny speckle of that amount. We did not have a massive PR machinery to back up our events, and we did not rely on a readymade brand. And yet by the 2000’s, we helped put Copenhagen on the global map of sonic culture, with festivals such as RAW, Distortion, Strøm and Trailerpark making our city an international hotspot for electronic music. Some of these events generated heated public debate on the limits to latitude and spaciousness in the city. But they undeniably succeeded in creating an image of Copenhagen alternative to the one focused on Tivoli and the Little Mermaid.

A perfectly polished Copenhagen

Is our city really that homogenous and uniform, or did Monocle fail to appreciate its alternative, edgy and countercultural spaces?

When I became involved, as a scholar of urban studies, in the cross-departmental Urban Culture Lab at the Faculty of Humanities, one of the recurrent debates was about Copenhagen as a brand. We discussed Monocle’s announcement of Copenhagen as ‘The Most Livable City’ in the world. Monocle had produced a short video to justify the claim, which displays Copenhagen from its most gorgeous angle: it is summer, the sun is shining, people are hanging out in cafes, playing in the parks, sunbathing by the harbour, riding their bikes. People are beautiful, sun-tanned and impeccably dressed. They are all white, blonde, young, middle class, and apparently able to afford dining at Noma.

The video probably made some Copenhageners proud – and perhaps in particular the official managers of our city brand. And yet, much of what many of us associate with Copenhagen was completely absent in the polished vision laid out by the video.

Where was the rising social inequality and the ever climbing prices for accommodation? What about popular protests against the top-down decision to turn the quaint old industrial harbour in Kalvebod Brygge into yet another set of expensive 9-storey apartment blocks? And where was the cultural diversity? Is our city really that homogenous and uniform, or did Monocle fail to appreciate its alternative, edgy and countercultural spaces? Or was Monocle in fact right to portray our city as the epitome of upper middle class consumerism in a gentrified urban landscape?

I sat down to discuss this with two friends from the cultural scene who had also gone the academic way, studied geography and urban planning, and written about everything from pirate radio stations in London to mobile fixing rooms for drug addicts in Vesterbro.

Taking the university to the streets

We want to train the next generation of urban cultural entrepreneurs and social innovators so that they can put their imprint on Copenhagen’s identity as a city

Steen Andersen headed Prags Boulevard 43 (or simply PB43): a user-driven space for creativity that brought together open source urbanists, theatre performers, sculpture artists, social entrepreneurs, event makers, architects, beekeepers, bicycle repairmen and many more. This bustling co-creative community was recently brought to a halt by yet another example of a sad tendency in Copenhagen: they were bought out by a storage company. Instead of sustaining a lively place that can broaden the horizon of local kids in a troubled part of Amager, Prags Boulevard 43 will now house a parking lot for people’s dead belongings.

Refusing to be defeated, the network around PB43 will now move to unused spaces elsewhere – and this is exactly why it is an essential force in Copenhagen today: the new entrepreneurial scene in Copenhagen will work constructively, engaging local communities, municipal authorities and the private sector in order to make space for creativity and innovation, even when it is pressured further and further into the city’s periphery by the powerful forces on the property market.

Frederik Birket-Smith is the head of Strøm: an internationally acclaimed, annual one-week festival in Copenhagen that celebrates electronica in all its variants and brings public parks, theatres, the metro and quirky spaces like the cisterns beneath Søndermarken into use. It is more than just a festival: through its Strøm School concept, it brings workshops and master classes to the public, educating music lovers and training future music makers of all ages. Strøm is something that Copenhagen can be proud of: a homegrown concept, driven by volunteer work and vision, presenting the best from a global music scene while trailblazing new ways of bringing our city to life.

Together with Strøm and PB43, the idea for a summer school took shape. We are taking the streets to the university and the university to the streets in a very literal sense: combining lectures by distinguished scholars on urban theory with hands-on workshops in the field and letting students develop their own ideas into project proposals. We want to train the next generation of urban cultural entrepreneurs and social innovators so that they can put their imprint on Copenhagen’s identity as a city. In the case of our foreign students, we want them to bring inspiration from Copenhagen back to their home cities.

People, not profit, define a city

We need to remember that livability also means room for user-driven social initiatives, spaces for creativity and not-for-profit cultural venues

By 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live on just 3% of the earth’s surface – the future is a world of cities. We need to figure out what Copenhagen’s place in that world is, and we need to discuss who should translate Copenhagen’s many identities into an image (or “brand”, if we insist on the dominant terminology) – especially now that the whole world is looking to us as an exemplary city. What do we want to convey when we inspire other cities to ”Copenhagenize”?

We are all aware of the obvious benefits of Copenhagen’s small scale: the village-like coziness and laid-back attitude makes Copenhagen pleasant. We appreciate that the architecture, green spaces and bike lanes all make our city very livable. We are grateful for the welfare, freedom and political culture that can make us breathe and think. But with these opportunities come a responsibility for us as citizens to continually lay claim to Copenhagen and to our right to decide how it should develop.

We need to embrace the potential that our city has given us for envisioning a place that everyone would want to live in: a city for people, not for profit; a city for culture and innovation, not top-down branding; a city for spaciousness and diversity, not consumerist homogeneity. We need to remember that livability also means room for user-driven social initiatives, spaces for creativity and not-for-profit cultural venues. On the one hand, we must recognize that states and municipalities cannot provide all the cultural innovation and social solutions needed for a city to thrive. And on the other hand, states and municipalities need to recognize that they should not be the sole authorities for defining the image of a city.

We hope that students and scholars of the University of Copenhagen will foster alternative visions for our city, and that this summer school, together with the Urban Culture Lab initiative at the Faculty of Humanities, can take important steps in that direction.

Read about the new course: New course to look at gritty, alternative Copenhagen.

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