Urban Design students help Copenhagen neighbours reimagine their community spaces

Early in 2018 a group of Transition Town initiators, permaculture designers and citizens in Copenhagen, with the generous support of a university professor, came together to launch an experiment: What if graduate students in sustainable urban design could support groups of urban neighbours in re-imagining a small part of their common urban places to transition to a sustainable future?

At this moment, over 50 graduate students from Danish Technical University are working for visionary sustainable transformation of nine small urban places in Copenhagen. By collaborating with ECOLISE member organisations and citizens, graduate students from all over the world are helping to envision a better future for community spaces – a street, housing complex, park, plaza or other piece of urban neighbourhoods.

The project idea emerged from a conversation between Ross Jackson, founder of Gaia Trust and Tina Clarke, a Transition Trainer who works with ECOLISE. With Niels Johan Juhl-Neilsen, a co-founder of Transition Denmark, the group began inviting contacts in the city to explore the idea of a neighbourhood “visioning” project.

Ross is interested in the potential of driverless cars to reduce pavement in cities. Tina has experimented with neighborhood visioning in the USA. Niels Johan has extensive connections across Copenhagen. ECOLISE had member organisations with a desire to collaborate.

Camilla Nielsen-Englyst, a member of a Danish ecovillage connected Tina to associate professor Jay Gregg of the Danish Technical University. Permaculture Denmark members Catherine Dolleris, Felix Becker, Charlotte Moss and Katja Bejlegaard came together to discuss ideas with Tanja Aerteberg of Transition Denmark and Bolette Nyrop, an Art of Hosting facilitator. Bolette helped convene meetings. Together we co-created a plan and brought it to reality.

The team explored the question, “How might community-led groups and sustainable urban design educators support each other and support neighbourhood transition to sustainability?”

The design skills and local community orientation of permaculture designers combined with the networks and support of other ECOLISE member organisations. A strategy began to form.

Together we identified nine small areas of Copenhagen neighbourhoods. Team members volunteered a part of their neighbourhood, and/or reached out to neighbourhood contacts to invite participation. Each neighbourhood had at least one contact person. We briefed neighbours on the plan: host students to help re-envision a small part of your neighbourhood – a place of your choosing. Support the students in learning about the site, thinking about sustainability possibilities, and what neighbours want. Involve neighbors and connect students to interview them, as possible, to help envision transformation.

Jay Gregg engaged and briefed his students in collaborative design and community-based research techniques. It was a bit touch and go as we tried to support diverse neighbourhoods ites and neighbours! Then ECOLISE member organisation local leaders and neighbours in each of the nine areas hosted teams of 5-6 graduate students in a site visit and information-gathering session.

Now the students are completing their designs and preparing to present concepts, drawings and sustainability suggestions to the neighbourhoods. Citizens are quite excited to see what ideas and expertise the students will bring to local conversations, and how the work of the students can help advance those conversations and citizen engagement.

In a city with so much already going on, together ECOLISE member organisations are collaborating to support the next generation of professional designers in learning citizen participation skills, while students also help busy, concerned citizens in neighbourhoods to advance a shared vision of a positive future.

This co-creative collaboration also has the potential to inspire citizens to engage more neighbours and have conversations with their municipal authorities about supporting a bigger vision of sustainability in their neighbourhood.

Stay tuned … the co-learning process is just beginning.

Tina Clarke

Picture: Felix Becker