Aarhus, is a very very very fine hus
I was delighted to be given the opportunity to attend The Academy of Urbanism’s annual congress, which took place this year in Aarhus in September. Aside from the fact that the Academy of Urbanism has interests which coalesce with those of the Trust (for example development, design, place making, public realm in an urban setting), Aarhus is currently European Capital of Culture, and the fact that it shares many similarity with Leeds was a bonus.
Like Leeds, Aarhus is a large provincial city (the second city in Denmark), like Leeds, higher education plays an important role - and swells the population of the city considerably, making it an unusually young city; it also bears some similarities topographically (albeit that Aarhus is on the coast!).
The Congress had a strong Leeds contingent in attendance – and all with strong links to the Trust: David Lumb (a member of Leeds Sustainable Development Group), Chris Hill (Kirkstall Valley Development Trust), Helen Seymour (our Bookshop Manager!) and Robin Machell (of corporate members West and Machell). Dinah Clark (looking after the Capital of Culture bid from Leeds City Council) was also in town, albeit at a different meeting!
The Congress certainly showcased the centre of Aarhus – I counted at least six different conference venues, including the famous town City Hall designed by Arne Jakobsen, the wonderful arts venue ArOS, and the headquarters of Aarhus Architect CF Moller.
The first day was very much about orientation and the city centre. The City Mayor Jacob Bundsgaard, who seems to be universally liked and respected (maybe not surprising for a country that consistently tops the “respect for politicians” polls), gave a great introduction to those assembled. He explained how he was committed to creating new places, spaces and neighbourhoods, a rejuvenated harbour front, and how all of this was integral to their Capital of Culture year. Certainly, what was noticeable was that whilst there were certainly physical signs of their Capital of Culture efforts, it did not appear to be forced. It was clear that they were building on existing cultural strengths, whilst using the initiative to improve the city’s facilities and infrastructure. A constant presence throughout the conference was the City Architect, Stephen Willacy. Someone who has lived in Aarhus for more than 30 years (and has a hybrid English/Danish accent to prove it!) spoke about how the city is changing and developing and previewed some of the talks and visits we were about to undertake.
The afternoon of the first day comprised a walk around the harbour front taking in the wonderful new Library Dokk1. This is a library like no other; substantial play areas for children, older people chatting and playing chess, and even the disabled ramp doubling up as a display space (it was that big!) and of course books! It was clear that they have created a destination in its own right, which cannot be a bad thing. We then had a brisk walk along the harbour front. We noted the lack of guard rails, and the newly minted (and very high quality) cycling infrastructure – this is a cycling city. People may say – yes, but this is Denmark and we are different here. But Aarhus is little different to Leeds – it has its share of hills, it has a lot of vehicle traffic (more than you might imagine), but when the headline in the local newspaper complains that the sheer volume of bicycles means that people have to wait four minutes to cross the road at rush hour, you wonder if we will ever have the same problem in Leeds! The end point of our walk was a visit to the “ice houses” – that could be in Alicante rather than in Aarhus. We noted their interesting design – whilst being critical of some aspects of their layout and lack of natural surveillance – this was a group of urbanists after all!
A particular highlight for me was a tour of outer Aarhus. We were given the opportunity to view the regeneration of two housing estates. In one case breaking up monolithic tower blocks into smaller units but adding additional housing to create quadrangles (so maintaining overall densities) and giving each group of 100 residents 10K euros to choose what they wanted to do with the space (play area, garden, benches etc). In another case, Gellerup (a once notorious estate), we were shown how they are providing start up space for businesses and trades, to address unemployment in the area. We finished by viewing the University campus, which has been designed by the same architect (Moller) to the same blueprint and style guide and in the same colour brick (after a local company donated 1 million yellow bricks!), since it was established in 1928.
The second day was largely given over to talks, workshops and lectures. I drew inspiration from a presentation about “the coal bridge” – the Aarhus equivalent to our Holbeck Viaduct, a community led project, to create a walkway (now close to implementation), the wonderful pop up parks and temporary public spaces created in the city centre (lessons for Greek Street and Cookridge Street in Leeds?), and possibly the highlight of the conference was a compelling lecture by Professor Rob Adams, Director of City Design and Projects from Melbourne. What they have achieved over the last three decades under his leadership in making Melbourne a magnificent place to work rest and play was truly inspirational. I have no doubt that many people were making notes and hoping that they could replicate what they have done (increasing the quality and quantity of public realm, improving pedestrian flow, increasing residential density (in a city that is expected to grow from 4.25 million to 10 million residents by 2050), and – a very Australian problem – “cooling the city” in large part by planting trees (and raising their importance by creating a public register of their age, variety and condition and even allowing people to write to them!)
Inevitably this short report only gives a snapshot of what was a fascinating couple of days. I will certainly be looking at what lessons we can learn from experiences in Aarhus and further afield and, armed with this information, ensure that our voice is heard even more strongly in the months to come. ‘Why can’t we do this?’ will, no doubt, be a constant refrain!
Martin (and thanks to Robin Machell for the snappy headline!)