• Tuesday , 12 November 2019

Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea

Copenhagen is a city growing again. Like the rest of Europe, it has spent several years in the economic doldrums with very little getting built in comparison to the previous decade. A common story that is heard here is how people used their debt back in the booming years to finance their expenditure.[i] In basic terms, they only paid off the interest on their mortgage loans because it appeared that their house prices would keep rising. Inevitably the market stalled and house prices dropped. However, the original loan figure remained the same. Consequently people have been reluctant to move from their homes.

This fiscal tightening combined with the falling off in construction of new dwellings since 2010 has resulted in very little movement in the residential market. Now there is an inflated demand for places to live in and near the city. This can be noted anecdotally with the significant annual peaks when all the students scramble to find accommodation.[ii] The latest discourse concerns itself with how to build more homes in the city, in an attempt to dampen the housing crisis along with the rising inflated prices. This will sound all too familiar to anybody following the current situation in Dublin.

The city needs to grow but must do it without sprawl. Copenhagen is constrained by its own geography and development strategy. The city is bound on three sides by water and the much-lauded Finger Plan[iii], which, since directly after the Second World War, has defined the growth of the city along the primary railway network.

There is a very similar narrative in Amsterdam. The Dutch capital is also hindered by the protected status of its hinterland and in particular the policy of the Compacte Stad (The Compact City).[iv] As a result of the national spatial policy and planning guidelines, most cities in the Netherlands simply cannot grow outwards and any new development must occur within their municipal boundaries. Essentially for both capitals this means increasing the density of the existing city.

Comparable solutions have been developed as a consequence of comparable factors in both Copenhagen and Amsterdam – so how are they developing and how are they proposing to develop?

As is common to most port cities, both have witnessed the harbour activity moving outside the city centres and large tracts of land previously dedicated to heavy or light industrial use being redeveloped as new city neighbourhoods. Due to the inability to spread out into greenfield sites on the cities edge, both have eagerly utilised the brown field sites close their urban cores, effectively inverting the definition of urban fringe. Indeed, Amsterdam famously redeveloped its eastern docklands in the 1990’s into a series of very successful residential neighbourhoods primarily aimed to house young families. Thousands of architect/tourists still flock to the peninsulas of Borneo Sporenburg each year to wonder at the high-density suburban neighbourhood masterplanned here by West 8. The city has now set its sights on its western and northern waterfront as the harbour moves out further to the sea.

In Copenhagen these areas are the large lands along the central edge of the water in Islands Brygge, Holmen and Sydhavnen. Of particular note is the current redevelopment of the former industrial harbour Nordhavnen. this new city by the waterfront north of the city is expected to house 40,000 inhabitants when complete.

IJburg (copyright Die Architekten Cie)

IJburg (copyright Die Architekten Cie)

Another solution is to ‘simply’ build more land. The Dutch have been reclaiming land for centuries; one sixth of the country has been cultivated from the sea and lakes.[v] Amsterdam has long been building islands and peninsulas to accommodate its growing harbour, which, as mentioned, are now being utilised to accommodate the increasing need for houses. The latest development in this lineage is the most ambitious yet, the new residential quarter of IJburg. It currently lies half complete in the IJ lake to the east of the city – the target completion date of 2012 having been pushed back due to the crisis – will count six different islands and provide 18,000 homes for 45,000 inhabitants once complete.

The Danes have followed suit, Sluseholmen is an artificial peninsula in Sydhavnen which was converted to housing just over a decade ago by Dutch architect Sjoerd Soeters, following on from his successful Java island masterplan in the eastern docklands. Currently there are plans afoot at Enghave Brygge, also in Sydhavnen, for 10 new artificial islands, built to ultimately house 2,400 new homes.[vi] [vii]The benefits of these types of developments are massive in an urban context; they maximise and even increase the water frontage of the city, which people always inevitably clamber to live near. It can be argued that this is another form of sprawl, but in these instances it is out towards the otherwise uninhabited ocean; no longer encroaching upon the precious green belts.

Slusenholmen (copyright Politiken)

Slusenholmen (copyright Politiken)

As a result of the restrictions on growth, both Amsterdam and Copenhagen have had to come up with innovative solutions to house an increasing population within their municipal boundaries. By not building further out into the suburban fringe, commuter times and car usage are reduced and the new inhabitants of these sites do not need to travel through endless reams of housing to arrive at the city centre. In addition to this, it is interesting to note that as these development sites are considered more attractive due to their locations, and require a much larger initial investment (either for cleaning and reconfiguring old industrial sites for inhabitation or for having to entirely construct new land) they are also valued higher and developed more efficiently, at higher density, adding to their popularity as a sustainable form of urban expansion.


[i]           The Danish Ministry for Economic Affairs and the Interior May 2014.

[ii]           University of Copenhagen Post September 2012.

[iii]          The Finger Plan came into being in 1947 to ensure that the city grows outward only along 5 commuter railways emanating from the city to the north and west allowing green areas to be close in to the city. A sixth finger has since been added, using the same conceptual model of transport orientated development, which follows the train route across the Øresund bridge to Sweden, with mixed levels of success in terms of uptake, construction and urban layout.

[iv]          The concept of a Compact City is cited as coming about in the early seventies by George Dantzig and Thomas L. Saaty, when they were looking at ways of existing cities being more resourceful as opposed to exponential growth. There is a direct idealogical lineage between the Compact City and the work of Jane Jacobs a decade previous.
In a Dutch context, the scarcity of space has long been the key factor in ensuring that cities do not have a blurred expanding edge. Since the eighties, as a result of the Compacte Stad, new developments need to be directly connected, as densely as possible, onto the existing settlements, encircling the skins of older neighbourhoods. This has resulted in a largely urban based population, with easy and direct access to city centres and their infrastructure with large areas of green, such as the Groene Hart in the midst of a very densely developed country.

[v]           Originally the reasons behind this were agriculturally based but this soon morphed into flood protection and building new towns. The city centre of Amsterdam has been a series of successful land reclamations back from the river Amstel and IJmeer lake since the Middle Ages.

[vi]          www.citylab.com Copenhagen Plans to Expand by Building Artificial Islands

[vii]         The construction method proposed is one where the coastline is effectively being pushed over a 100 metres further out to sea. The majority of the land mass that will form the new islands will come directly from the site, where the previous waters edge will be carved up and dumped further out into the water. A series of bridges will link all of the new islands, which ultimately is an exercise in generating more usable water facing area for residential construction.


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