Urban Design Studio: Suburban Retrofit in Denmark

October 3, 2012

This fall, my studio course is with Richard Plunz, head of the Urban Design program here at Columbia, and our subject is “Aalborg, Denmark: New Paradigms for Global Suburbanization.” I spent the past week in Aalborg at the invitation of the municipality as part of the Urban Design Studio collaborative workshop between the University of Aalborg and Columbia University. Together with 30 international students in various planning and management fields, the fifteen of us from Columbia (architects, engineers, and urban planners) researched the suburban fabric of East Aalborg and brainstormed solutions to problems of social isolation, inadequate housing stock, lack of accessibility, unemployment, and environmental impact. In teams of 8 or 9, we developed strategies to address one or more of these problems using urban design, architecture, and planning interventions.

My group’s theme was “sustainable business,” which we tackled by proposing a distributed network of small businesses started by local entrepreneurs, to be located in new commercial areas with inexpensive rent, built by a combination of municipal and private funding. The idea was to provide cheap commercial and light industrial space for local entrepreneurs who presently have nowhere to work, and to match up the skills of the neighborhood residents with the areas in need of their services. The matching would be done with interviews and surveys through a local community development group in tandem with support from the University of Aalborg’s business department. The area has a high proportion of immigrants, many of them refugees with state support and no jobs, so we hoped to tap into their international culture to create a diverse market of food shops and restaurants as the first node in the proposed business network.

To step back a bit, East Aalborg is a 1960s/70s suburb of Aalborg, Denmark’s third largest city, with a large area of detached single-family homes as well as two-story apartment blocks and attached multi-family housing. The area is easily bikeable and walkable, with good bus service to the city center. But the neighborhood suffers from a reputation of insecurity, poverty, and isolation. Compared to the many American suburbs I’ve seen, East Aalborg is in great shape in terms of transit, housing types, etc. But in a European context, it’s seen as unacceptable. And having lived there for a week without a car, I can attest that there are very few options if you have to rely on public transit and biking - unless you go to the city center for all your needs. So I think our proposal for more businesses and the development of commercial centers is definitely an important step. My studio will continue working on this site for the rest of the semester, although I don’t know yet what form our project will take (master plan? designing a commercial area?). I think this type of suburban retrofit is something we need in many suburban areas of the US, and around the world wherever there are post-war suburbs. I hope we can explore a variety of ideas for retrofitting the suburb this semester.

For images of our group’s design work, visit my Tumblr. You can also view more of my photos of Aalborg and Aalborg Ost here.