Copenhagen, Denmark

Superkilen: Extreme civic involvement

Københavns Kommune

March 28, 2018

An urban regeneration project re-imagines a city park as a space for living in diversity and a global community

Superkilen_Japanese_octopus By Ramblersen

When the city of Copenhagen went looking for  ideas to revitalize the old working class district of Nørrebro, it decided to create a new kind of public space. Superkilen is a half a mile long urban space running through one of the most ethnically diverse and socially challenged neighborhoods in Denmark.  Today Nørrebro’s award-winning  urban park is a central feature of what’s described as Copenhagen’s coolest neighbourhood. In 2005, that certainly wasn’t the case. Located beyond the northern gates of the old city, the neighbourhood was disconnected from the rest of Copenhagen and better known for its violence, gang activity, social problems and lack of cultural integration.

Superkilen was envisioned as an urban regeneration project by the city of Copenhagen in a partnership with Realdania and an international team that included the Danish architectural firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), German landscape architecture firm Topotek 1, and Danish artist group Superflex. It would reconnect Nørrebro with Copenhagen, as well as create conditions for participation and inclusion within the diverse local population. Part of those conditions meant creating a vibrant public space where residents could enjoy themselves. The design of the park also ensured that their diversity was visible to everyone.

The park is intended to celebrate diversity. Filled with objects from around the globe, it is designed as a kind of world exposition for the local inhabitants, covering over 60 nationalities, who have been able to contribute their own ideas and artefacts to the project.”

Superkilen has had a profound impact on Nørrebro and plugged the area back into the city. Seven hundred and fifty metres long, the park is divided into three main areas: The Red Square, The Black Market and The Green Park. The Red Square is modern, urban, with cafés, outdoor music and sports.  The Black Market is the city square with a fountain and benches. The Green Park is a typical park for picnics, sports and walking the dog. Each area is unique, with referral points and recognizable meeting places (“Meet me at the Octopus.”), bringing people together from different backgrounds to play and share in a public space.

It’s a popular park, fun and whimsical, practical and playful. But it has also had an incredible impact on a precarious community, transforming Nørrebro from a raw, edgy district into a positive space where neighbours come out to have fun and connect with each other and the city. The process of creating that had the deepest impact.

Not just a new park, an extension of the neighbourhood

The project vision was to create a space that reflected the people living in the area, with their input. That meant creating greater integration and inclusion in a racialized neighbourhood representing more than 50 different nationalities, half of which were Muslim-majority countries.  Engaging community members was a key priority for Superkilen, and an essential part of the park’s impact and success.

Residents were seen by the project team as vital resources for the project. It would be public participation, not simply consultation. It helped that two of the core project teams were based in Nørrebro. They knew the area and how to connect with the community.  They made sure that community members were not only consulted, but actively contributed to the park’s creation.

Jakob Fenger and Bjørnstjerne Christiansen of Superflex call the project’s approach extreme civic involvement. They asked residents to suggest objects from public spaces around the world to incorporate into their new park: “We found it interesting to look at this very diverse group of people in regard to culture, social standing, nationality, etc., and then see it as a rich and significant foundation for impacting the area these people live in. We talked to various groups that we had talked to before and asked: What if you could pick whatever you want for Superkilen — and we go out to find it next week? It’s only natural to ask people directly to come up with proposals.”

Instead of using the kind of objects normally used for parks and public spaces in Copenhagen, people from the area were asked to nominate specific city objects such as benches, bins, trees, playgrounds, manhole covers, and signage from their countries of origin or favourite places. The objects were then either produced in a 1:1 copy or purchased and transported to the site.  Every tree, every lamp, every object is from or inspired by somewhere else. There are swings from Iraq, benches from Brazil, a fountain from Morocco and garbage bins from England. There are neon signs advertise American donuts, a Russian hotel, a Chinese beauty parlor. Even the sewer covers are from somewhere else (Zanzibar, Gdansk and Paris).

The objects, playful and interesting and people-connected, are an important reasons why Superkilen is used by locals and visited by people from outside Nørrebro.  Artifacts and plants from other cities and countries have been lovingly catalogued in a publication, “Superkilen’s 108 objects and their history,”  You can even download an app to learn more about every object in Superkilen.

The park as a reflection of migration

Not all objects were imported. Some were copies. For Martin Rein-Cano, Director of landscape architecture firm Topotek 1, the process of copying an object, or integrating the original with local design and materials, was like a metaphor for migration itself. This also contributed to the sense of inclusion: “Immigration is rich when it’s capable of creating this kind of hybrid between worlds. You don’t have to make a choice. You don’t have to say ‘I’m that, or I am that.’ You can be all of it if you want. And all of it is what you are. And this is the idea for these objects.”

Rein-Cano’s design work was influenced by the English garden, seen through a migrant lens. In the English garden all the items are also from somewhere else. Something that is completely foreign becomes a new normal. These objects are as much foreign as they are part of their new country. They become a hybrid, something new: “Landscape, because it is rooted, seems to be a good allegory for identity. We like to have the sense that we belong somewhere and are somehow rooted in something… Different areas of the world can be mixed together to create your own bio-geography. A new identity.”

The park’s objects bring a piece of the old country to the new. Some objects in Superkilen are extremely symbolic, like soil brought from Palestine. Superflex’s Fenger: “You have this reddish soil that slowly seeps into the Danish soil. As with the two Palestinian girls who collected the soil, you have their heritage, slowly weaving into a Danish system.”

For cities, trust, take risks, embrace the challenge

Rein-Cano says cities have two choices when it comes to immigration and inclusion. We can be generous, or we can have turmoil. Cities are the front line in migration. He says they need to create a more permissive and generous environment for newcomers. Many host countries expect people to leave their objects behind. In fact, those objects, in a new community, can take on new meaning and identity. Much like migrants do.

Rein-Cano counsels city leaders to not be afraid of conflict, they create opportunities. Good cities are places in constant change. His advice echoes Mechelen Mayor Bart Somers’ approach, when Rein-Cano says: “You might live for a while from your past, but there is always a future. That future doesn’t come only from your past. You have to create it. You have to think of it. And you have to be positive about what could come. If we live out of fear, it can create repression. That’s something that cities shouldn’t have.”

By creating a highly functional, usable and popular space through extreme civic involvement, Superkilen illustrates how cities can transform a ‘no-go’ space like Nørrebro into an inclusive ‘must-see’ space for all.

Making it Work for You:

  • Look at how a city project can be more than what it is on the surface, but how the process of creating something, or transforming a space, can be transformative for people as well.
  • Commit to consultation from the beginning of a project. The local community is a source of information and inspiration. Including them is the only way the project will ultimately be inclusive.
  • Having local consultants on a design and development project is useful, as they are already part of the local context and will have an understanding of the unspoken culture that needs to be addressed.
  • Challenge yourself to be open to ideas that may seem too risky on the surface.