Public Works: Building Bridges With an International Public Space
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Public Works: Building Bridges With an International Public Space

A corner of Copenhagen scarred by ethnic division is bringing people together through multicultural-themed urban design.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Photo by Iwan Baan, courtesy of SUPERFLEX.

If you follow the gaze of the Little Mermaid four kilometres from where she sits at the edge of the Baltic, you’ll hit Nørrebro, Copenhagen’s scarred underbelly. The north-end neighbourhood has, over the last 10 years, been home to gang wars and riots, racial tensions and wealth inequality. It is also the site of Superkilen, an experiment in designing public space to mend a torn social fabric.

Nørrebro has the highest population density in all of Copenhagen. One fifth of its residents are ethnic minorities—particularly Muslim. That makes it one of the most diverse areas in Denmark, where only 6.5 per cent of the population has non-Western roots. In 2001, Denmark elected a centre-right government that quickly enacted immigration-limiting measures and ramped up rhetoric about “Danish values.” Throughout the Aughts, allegations of state racism and feelings of disenfranchisement in minority communities continued to mount. Nørrebro became the object of an intense gang war, which was fuelled either by the hashish trade, or ethnic strife, depending on whether you ask the Copenhagen police or the minority residents of the neighbourhood. The Hell’s Angels moved in on a white supremacy jag, claiming to wage “a cultural conflict with people who are not well-integrated with our society.”

And while local authorities cracked down on gang violence, the increased police presence and undertones of racial profiling brought more trouble to Nørrebro. In 2007, an anti-terror unit raided a local house where underprivileged youth had been squatting. An ensuing demonstration by 3,000 activists turned into a two-day riot. A year later, Nørrebro was ground zero for some of the worst rioting in Danish history, as young ethnic minorities protested against the allegedly racist stop-and-search practices of Danish police.

It was under these conditions that the Municipality of Copenhagen and philanthropic urban development organization Realdania hit on the idea of creating a public space that would “revitalise and [improve] conditions in the outer Nørrebro District,” namely “in the fields of architecture, experiences, feeling of security, and integration.”

That vision grew into Superkilen, ostensibly a public park, but really more a living monument to multiculturalism and social interaction. The 30,000 square metre stretch is divided into “Black Market,” a traditional city square complete with fountain; “Red Square,” a wide-open range of sports surfaces ringed by bustling shops and cafés; and “Green Park,” an urban green space dotted with picnic areas.

Superkilen accommodates everything from basketball to shopping to cycling, but what make it truly unusual (in the best sense of the word) are the tributes to the dozens of cultures existing side by side in Nørrebro. Over 50 different countries are represented by foliage, artwork, and other artifacts chosen by local residents to be scattered throughout Superkilen. They include palm trees from China, public benches from Iran and Cuba, a fountain from Morocco, a martial arts ring from Thailand, an octopus-shaped slide from Japan. Even the manhole covers (Paris) and garbage cans (London) come from abroad.

Photo by Iwan Baan, courtesy of SUPERFLEX.

Photo by Iwan Baan, courtesy of SUPERFLEX.

Next to each “foreign object” is a sign that tells the story of the piece in both Danish and the language of its origin culture.  There’s also an app, funded by Realdania and the Danish Arts Council, that visitors to Superkilen can use to identify and learn about the more than 100 objects.

It’s all in the name of bringing diverse peoples together through shared leisure experiences and public recreational space. “No matter where you’re from, what you believe, and which language you speak,” goes the tagline of Superkilen’s designers, “it is always possible to play football together.”

Is that glib? Perhaps. Simplistic? Certainly. But the symbolic value of a municipal government making space for people of all backgrounds to coexist should not be underestimated. It’s a hand extended to a neighbour, a show of acceptance, a step toward inclusion.

In Toronto, thank God, we don’t face even a hint of the violent unrest that Nørrebro has. But we are plagued by ethnic division, feelings of exclusion, feelings of persecution amongst minorities. The spirit of Superkilen is one that our city, and all multicultural cities, can learn from and aspire to.