Aarhus – the city of smiles | Stephen Willacy AoU

Annual Congress X – Health, Happiness & Wellbeing:
Aarhus – City of Smiles, Stephen Willacy – City Architect, City of Aarhus

When Aarhus was put forward as candidate for the city of the year we took it as an opportunity to address issues within the city. We thought about the actual people who work in the city boundary. We even spent money on a branding company thinking about how to promote the city. Inspiration came from a book by Prof Colin Powell ‘If mayors ruled the world’ which was about empowering local government versus national one. In fact, people usually trust their local politicians much more than the national ones, an issue discussed in ‘ A wealth of trust’ by Gert Svedesen. So the mayor was one of the main reasons why the city is in transition. By opening a biennale he worked on the issue of ‘how to change the mindset of people?’ We wanted people to be more engaged and participating in the city life. Leading to the 2017 status as European culture capital we thought it is the perfect opportunity to be a mind changer and trying to re-discover the DNA of the city.

We have over 40 thousand students, we are a knowledge city and we try to celebrate this. An active mayor promotes an active city, so we try to engage wherever possible – festivals, etc. We also were investigating how to control the methods that the city is being developed. We weren’t interested in box ticking but rather in how to make it better for everyone. Second tier cities like Aarhus must think hard how to do this. Business regions were one solution by creating collaboration with other towns and cities within an hour travel from the city. We wanted to encourage students to stay as our core demographics are changing rapidly. We are facing similar challenges to Birmingham- growing population, urban sprawl, how to densify the city and in this context how to talk about heritage and its preservation. Whether we should build new towns or work more to promote brownfield sites.

One of the main challenges was engagement – how to make sure it is not the same people contributing. We established series of community meetings where multi disciplinary design could take place, promoting visits and discussions. We decided that if we were to re-invent the city ten-minute walkable or cycleable distances to amenities must be the norm. One of our successful engagements was an event called Sculptures by the sea, an art event on the sea. Promoting nature within the city is core to our strategy and as we have one of the largest container harbours in the world we are very conscious of bringing this back. A prime example was the mayor of Seoul who turned the city river on its head. By creating a focal point, improving accessibility and clearing the traffic on both side the riverside has become a creative environment, encouraging social interaction and a very popular city destination. It is important to care for different groups within the city. In Aarhus young and old have different dominions yet able to cross paths. By creating a well design public realm we encourage the feeling of security in the public domain. Re-writing the river back into the city creates a healthier population. We are a coastal city so we always have to plan for floods. Taking the coastline we have transformed the area. By creating amenity spaces from the natural advantages we have managed to encourage biodiversity and ecology. One of the main problems we used to have had been how to connect the city. Chiefly the old centre with the new. We have solved this by creating a hinge between the river and the harbour – locating the Library and university buildings. Creating a friendly and accessibly harbour front has proven very important.

Near the site we are building affordable housing for 8,000 people and whilst we wait for the buildings to go up a temporary space for urban gardening has been created – people can meet with others and use the space in the meantime. We hold a lot of sport events and activities in the space near the harbour making sure that people have access to it. We are committed to readdress the type of city we live in terms of urban scale. We are looking at examples such as Vancouver where they have reused disused city amenities – containers, rail line. We are also working with activist to develop strategies for neighbourhood edges and better transition within the city. We are looking to create a cycling highway to battle the problems of cycling in the city, as well as park and ride amenities for cyclists. We are always talking about the type of city quarters we want to live in and how we can better understand the city. Sometimes this comes from personal experience. We have realised that there are a lot of small sub-neighbourhoods within one major neighbourhood that need to be treated slightly differently. We always aim to create the type of street where kids can play outside and where young people can get involved with the city.
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