Copenhagen Part 1 - A human-centred City

After a successful exhibit at the Gardiner Museum, we headed to Copenhagen to participate in and present our findings at the conference ’Culture in Urban Space.’ 

The first three days of the conference were spent touring around and learning about the danish city.

Copenhagen is thoughtfully planned, with the design prioritizing the human experience. Much of this approach is influenced by Jan Gehl, an architect and urban designer who, in the 1970s, posited that designers and planners should always begin by looking at the space between buildings. His ideas for a well planned city were shaped by his interest in the intersection of architecture, planning, psychology and sociology (Read more about his theories and concepts here). Crazy Dames had the pleasure of visiting Gehl Architects (and meeting Jan Gehl himself!) to discuss our work and the work that the firm is doing in Toronto specifically with the TO Core Parks and Public Realm plan. Specifically, we are intrigued by the firm’s process, which is rooted in consultation and ethnography and aims to be ‘human-centered’.  

As a human-centred city, Copenhagen is a cycling and pedestrian paradise.* Every road is accompanied by a bike lane. In the newer areas of Copenhagen, the mantra ’ build it and they will come’ rings true. Bike paths are built first - they weave through forested, unpaved areas. A recently built bicycle bridge (Cycle Snake or Cykelslangen) connects you over the harbour to the downtown. 

Even though international, Copenhagen is a mid-rise city, with most buildings ranging between 3-6 storeys. There is a by-law that prohibits tall buildings in the centre. In the sprawling Orestad, which hosts some of the best architecture in the world (including 8Tallet designed by BIG Architects), there are many apartments still empty. Some argue its because high-rises are not ‘hygge’, a word that means ‘cozy’ in Danish.  

As a human-centred city, art is integrated within it as it resolves. With an expansion of the metro currently underway, much of the City is under construction. Not only does the construction barely affect the bike lanes and pedestrian pathways (there are always temporary paths built around the obstacles), the City incorporates construction hoarding that features beautiful, innovative and interesting works of art. Toronto has a similar initiative - The Patch Project (Public Art Through Construction Hoarding) - which is working to convince the City that art on construction hoarding can greatly improve the experience of traveling through a City. In Copenhagen, this concept is greatly appreciated and celebrated. 

Because the City is dense, public space is produced in a creative way - sidewalks were animated with cafes and temporary furniture, mid-rise residential buildings encircle shared courtyards, schoolyards and public squares co-existed and creative swimming areas were created. 

We were especially interested in the relaxed rules on safety - play and discovery were prioritized. Children’s schoolyards were placed in urban squares and beside cycling lanes, the Tivoli amusement park incorporated log games that in Canada would be deemed unfit for children. This allowance for playful interaction with the City is missing in North American cities.   

*Sara’s cycling paradise quickly turned to hell when she got her foot caught in the spokes of an electric bike, which contributed to an interesting and not so accessible second half of the trip.  

We Built this City - Reflections Part 2

When developing We Built This City, we had four key considerations for how the artist studio could contribute to the urban planning process/landscape:

1) To act as an educational forum where participants can learn about how urban planning works, specifically the TOcore Study, and how they can inform the process. A creative process such as this can also help develop interest and excitement around urban planning issues and ask participants to think about our city in new ways.

2) To engage diverse communities that typically do not participate in conventional public meetings. This includes youth, people of colour, artists, museum goers etc.

3) To foster out-of-the-box thinking - By bring together urban ‘professionals’ (planners, urban designers and architects) and the general public in this creative forum, where the goals are exploration and discover, the professionals are asked consider new ways of thinking about urban planning processes and develop new perspectives on the ‘business as usual’ approaches to planning.

 4) To elicit feedback from the general public about what is needed in the downtown core, which could potentially contribute to the City’s TOcore initiative.

While we felt the project successfully acted as an educational forum that engaged new communities, we are interested in exploring  ways our process can solicit more meaningful feedback, better engage artists and urban professionals and address other themes of equity and inclusivity. Some ideas include:

  • Longer term projects - This project is an introduction, a spark, an initiation but to gain valuable participation from citizens, we need to develop longer term processes. How can the artist studio stay involved in the long term?
  • A more targeted focus on equity - How we can engage more people of diverse background and lower socio-economic statuses? How can we better focus the discussion on creating an equitable community?
  • More involvement from city planners and developers - How can de better engage decision makers in the process? 

We Built this City at the Gardiner - Reflections

How can we use art and play to design our cities?

Play, as with the creation of visual art, is all about exploration. In city spaces, play can bring people together and foster social interaction, through playgrounds, public art projects and festivals. Play in the urban planning process is just as important. It can bring us back to a childlike frame of mind that embraces and prioritizes creativity and discovery, allowing us to contemplate different ways of seeing that are not typically considered as ‘practical solutions’ to our cities’ problems. We Built This City was a playful way to engage diverse communities in animating, changing and improving our everyday experiences. Over a period of two weeks, we took over the Gardiner Museum’s Community Art Space as part of the Make it Real project to work collaboratively with participants to create a scale version of the neighbourhood, build forts, and engage in walkshops, as a way to reimagine our public spaces. The project coincided with the City of Toronto Planning Division’s TOcore initiative, a study that looks at using growth in Toronto’s Downtown to make the city a great place to live, work, learn, play and invest.

The project had various collaborative components:

1. An expansive clay city maquette: This acted as a reimagining and reconstruction of the surrounding environment of the museum, which was guided by both practical needs and fantastical ideas.

Some features built by members of the public were a community garden and plant share, an interactive natural playground, a more activated waterfront area and other public spaces for performances and community gatherings.

2. HOW TO BUILD A BLANKET FORT was a workshop that invited participants to work together to transform the space into an epic version of a quintessential childhood space. These temporary childlike forts were built on a gigantic-scale using blankets, bamboo, tennis balls and other household materials. This created a playful and whimsical space to engage in dialogue and creation, in which the convergences of arts based inquiry and city building can be discussed and realized.

At this workshop members of the public worked together to prototype and problem solve, creating spaces based on shared priorities and visions. This also provided communal spaces throughout the two weeks.

As the structure was much used and explored, the structures needed to be redesigned and expanded over the run of the project. We found this mirrored how no city is static, and should keep evolving to best fit the needs of the community.

3. Walkshops - Throughout the project, we facilitated ‘walkshops’ in collaboration with community leaders (including artists, planners and other community activists) *read about them here. They were all designed to be interactive and playful walking tours of the surrounding neighbourhood, aimed to foster artistic thinking and learning about our city spaces.  The walkshops each took on on different educational or creative form including playful scavenger hunts or sensory tours, both fictional and factual tours, collaborative storytelling, interactive mapping, and audio recording and mixing.

The walkshops got people out of the gallery and into the neighbourhood to explore our city and learn about it in new ways. This allowed participants the permission to step back and take note of the aspects of the city that are usually overlooked in our daily lives.

4. We also partnered with Maximum City, a summer program for young city builders between the ages of 10 and 17. This collaboration permitted us a focused platform to engage young people in thinking about the process of design and how arts based research can be used in the city.

5. The closing event and panel discussion, ‘EXPLORATIONS IN THE CITY - WHERE PLAY MEETS ART, EDUCATION AND DESIGN’, focused on the role that exploration has in city building and asked panelists form a diversity of perspectives to consider how incorporating art and play into the urban design and the planning process can change/shape our cities.

The discussion about art, play and exploration brought us into a conversation about decision making —  which incorporated themes of gender equity and affordable housing for example.

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