The accelerating global urbanisation holds an enormous potential for speeding up the green transition even further. A crucial precondition is, though, to have environmental, social and economic sustainability go hand in hand and be integrated in both overall as well as project-specific planning. Read on as we zoom in on a range of development activities in the third largest town in Denmark, Odense.
”Urbanisation is tearing along across the world. Cities grow in size and complexity, become more interconnected, and people live closer. In 2030, 60 per cent of the population will live in big cities, and we expect to see 230 billion m2 of new builds in the next 40 years. The cities will be the main stage for solving the global challenges of the 21st century.”
Those are the words of Karin Thuesen Pedersen, Urban Development Director in COWI. She also points out that urbanisation in general comes with a long list of conflicts and dilemmas. The growing urban population wants green spaces and sustainable urban spaces, while cities are feeling the pressure of the growing number of cars, homes and industrial buildings, as well as the consequences of, e.g., climate change, more people working from home and a growing senior population.
”This adds to the pressure, underlining the need to develop our cities in a sustainable manner in order to address local climate and environmental challenges, while creating attractive and liveable cities. To get there, environmental, social and economic sustainability needs to go hand in hand. It is also important to recognise that there is no 'one-size-fits-all' model for sustainable urban development. Success calls for a determined holistic mindset that stems from the specific challenges and opportunities. But it also depends on investments by investors, municipalities and companies, which must all be willing to take responsibility for our climate and the green transition,” says Karin Thuesen Pedersen.
RETHINKING AN ENTIRE DISTRICT
Kim Risager, Senior Director in Arkitema, which is owned by COWI, seconds that. Together with COWI colleagues, he is deeply involved in the urban development of the third largest town in Denmark, Odense. This includes the construction of Odense Tramway, road tunnels, industrial and residential development. Currently, he is working on rethinking the residential area Vollsmose, which is home to 6,500 people in just under two square kilometres. For decades, Vollsmose has seen immense challenges, among other things as a result of a composition of residents that includes a lot of vulnerable citizens.
”In the 1970s, many new large-scale residential areas were established across Denmark, acting as isolated islands on the outskirts of big towns. The three largest were Tingbjerg in Copenhagen, Gellerupparken in Aarhus and, the largest of them all, Vollsmose in Odense. The projects were born from a beautiful and idealistic vision to give inner city residents in dense, worn-down residential areas access to light and air as well as well-appointed flats with large balconies. However, despite a promising start, the result was poor," says Kim Risager.
Vollsmose and the other 1970s residential areas were based on the same design. They consist of large housing blocks made of prefabricated materials and concrete elements. The flats are well-appointed and light and come with spacious balconies. A green area with a lawn and trees is located on the sunny side of the block, along with the balconies, while a parking lot is located at the back of the block. Few actually used the recreational green spaces, not least because of the vast distance between the housing blocks and the composition of residents.
”In recent years, billions have been invested in developing these residential areas into universally attractive areas. We have been involved in several of these projects, including the transformation of the Rosenhøj area in Aarhus, which went from being somewhere nobody wanted to live to being an area with a long waiting list," says Kim Risager.
He says that the first step with Vollsmose was to develop a master plan for the area, including a plan for new infrastructure that will open up Vollsmose by connecting it to the surrounding residential neighbourhoos and districts. Some of the existing blocks will be demolished and around 1,600 new homes will be constructed. The goal is to achieve a sustainable district that balances green spaces, homes and businesses, he explains.
”Our starting point is all the good features. Vollsmose boasts an incredible location, sitting in beautiful nature with good-sized trees and an idyllic stream. The area is also within bicycle distance of downtown Odense and has great infrastructure with the new tramway. In other words, it's a place where many of us would like to live. If it wasn't called Vollsmose. But I'm confident that we'll get there," says Kim Risager, adding that the transformation of Vollsmose will span the next ten years.
DOUBLE URBANISATION RAISES THE BAR
A key prerequisite for securing sustainable urban development is that local politicians, investors, developers and business owners among others base their decisions on documented knowledge. In that aspect, COWI also plays an important role by preparing analyses that can be used as basis for decision-making, says Project Manager and Urban Planner in COWI Martin Richner, who is an expert in development and consultancy based on urban analyses.
He points to the trend of double urbanisation, which is a result of the growing pressure on big cities and the resulting housing price escalation. This is also the case in Odense, which is seeing a dramatic increase not only in the urban population, but also in the main towns in several nearby municipalities.
”Double urbanisation raises the already high bar on qualified monitoring of the development as well as analysis-based assessments and recommendations regarding, e.g., residential and industrial buildings, public transit, bicycle infrastructure, road system, child-care facilities, schools and trade. And how you use that starting point to secure a sustainable development that embraces environmental, social and economic aspects," says Martin Richner, who is preparing an analysis of retail and customer-oriented service industries in Odense.
INFUSING NEW LIFE TO THE TOWN CENTRE
Towns are constructing housing for dear life to meet the vast demand, and the many incomers add to the local customer basis for businesses. Urban transformation and densification of the central parts of Odense in particular help support businesses and contribute to a living town centre, which is being challenged by, e.g., increasing e-commerce, the repercussions of lockdowns as well as consumers that are hesitant to spend money.
”We're seeing a situation where the power balance between the town centre and the large retail parks by the main road system has shifted. This means that turnover has shifted from the town centre, which is facing the challenge of empty shops on some shopping streets. At the same time, the town centre has reorganised itself. Many head to the town centre for other reasons than shopping, and the many customer-oriented service industries such as restaurants, gyms and beauty parlours make up a bigger part of the trade in the town centre. Moreover, experiences like cultural event and concerts attract a lot of people. In this way, shopping becomes a secondary purpose of your visit to the town centre," assesses Martin Richner, who continues:
”By comparing the current analysis results with past analyses and including analysis results from other related areas, we are well equipped to advise on, e.g., the link between the commercial urban life and the municipality's visions for green mobility."
THE MAIN CHALLENGES OF OUR TIME
Karin Thuesen Pedersen stresses that cities are living organisms. And that is one of the reasons why sustainable urban development also involves addressing a number of specific issues such as: How to achieve a mixed urban area? How to handle the traffic flow when a project starts? How to handle water supply? How does the project contribute to achieving climate targets? And what is the business case? Just to mention a few.
As Urban Development Director, she considers it one of her main responsibilities to get all parties to commit to a joint objective, and suggest solutions that contribute to the Paris Agreement climate goals as well as the UN sustainable development goals. While ensuring a reasonable potential for return in the short and long term. She highlights that COWI's and Arkitema's roles in the development of Odense are examples of how they can both help solve the complex challenges their customers are facing, while contributing to overcoming some of the largest challenges of our time.
”Urbanisation has led to an insatiable global need for engineers and architects, who will be a force in realising the green transition. And when we, at COWI and Arkitema, bring our knowledge as well as sustainable and liveable solutions into play, we do more than overcome our customers' complex challenges; we also make a lasting difference in a world under threat of climate change,” ends Karin Thuesen Pedersen.