How little does it take to make a public space attractive and green?

Through the Desire project, the city of Kalundborg, DK has established a citizen group that, together with architecture students and a design firm, will experiment with small, simple things in public spaces.

Published October 30, 2023. Text Hanne Kokkegård, DTU

Throughout Denmark, provincial towns are trying various solutions to boost retail in the city centres, where shops are still struggling with the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Increasing e-commerce is also a rising challenge. At the same time, provincial towns would like to create more life in city spaces after 5 pm when the shops typically close. One solution may be to involve citizens in new ways and make room for experiments.

In the Desire project, in the city of Kalundborg, with the assistance of a newly established citizen group - the Phoenix Group - and students from a new architecture education program in the city, we will experiment with movable installations to see if simple, yet effective elements can create green city spaces and cosy places where citizens want to gather.

At the end of September, people in Kalundborg encountered the first step of the transformation when trees planted in retired municipal waste bins were rolled around the city and tested in various locations. The bins were provided for free by the municipality, and in the Creation Zone, a local socio-economic enterprise operated by a member of the Phoenix Group, young people from the city gave the containers an aesthetic makeover so they could function as plant pots in the city's spaces.

At selected locations in the city, people could draw with chalk on the street and test the effect of the temporary urban furniture as part of an event where the citizen group's proposals were showcased. The proposals could also be examined the next day at the Open House at Kalundborg Station, where the new royal academy of architecture is located.

"These are proposals for how to create life and increase biodiversity in city spaces without making major changes. They are small, simple things that we can realize through the Desire project. Everything is temporary. We test and see how people react. We add elements and experiment," says Pernille Bech, project manager at Knowledge Hub Zealand, who led the establishment of the citizen group in the spring of 2023.

Brian Hilding Lamhauge, Skaberzonen. Credit Benjamin Hesselholdt

Brian Hilding Lamhauge, Skaberzonen. Credit Benjamin Hesselholdt

Listening more directly to citizens' ideas

Desire is part of the EU initiative, the New European Bauhaus, which has circularity and citizen involvement in the green transition as important focal points.

Throughout September, the design studio, Tredje Natur, has collaborated with the citizen group on the proposals. They have asked people where they feel something is missing in the city and what it could be, and then the design studio has provided visual proposals on how to implement the improvements in the city spaces with simple means. The exhibition boards showed how architects can help citizens refine their ideas.

The citizen group have done the work in their free time, and it has been both exciting and challenging for everyone - including the architects.

"Tredje Natur has also experimented by using architectural expertise in a new way, where they listen more directly to citizens in the visual work. So, we have also experimented with the architectural tool for developing citizens' ideas," says Pernille Bech.

During the winter, the citizen group will start building and doing carpentry work, and in the spring, things will be set up in a semi-permanent state so they can be moved around the city spaces.

Kalundborg Street Event. Credit Benjamin Hesselholdt

An open collaborator in the city

The open house event was also a housewarming for the new architecture education, where the first semester started in early September. The goal is for the Royal Academy's architecture education to be an important collaborator in the municipality's ambition to create a more attractive and exciting city, so that more people, including the young and well-educated, want to settle in the city. Kalundborg is home to large life science and biotech industries who lack qualified workers.

And it is looking promising, says Flemming Overgaard, Royal Danish Academy, project manager for Desire. Many citizens showed up for the open house, which was also attended by the mayor who gave a speech.

"It is important that the architecture education is visible and open. For example, the students collected apples from local citizens' gardens, made apple cake, and pressed apple juice for the open house event. Through the Desire project, we show that there is something sustainable about engaging with the location in various ways."

Flemming Overgaard. Credit Benjamin Hesselholdt

Nothing starts from 0

At the open house event, the architecture education received a picture of Kalundborg Cathedral to hang on the wall, which can illustrate the symbiosis that the school wants to create with the city.

The cathedral, the museum courtyard, and the station building itself have been meticulously measured and made into technical drawings by the students. The result was exhibited at the open house alongside items from an old warehouse in Kalundborg harbour, which now houses a maritime workshop, a building which will soon be converted into a cultural centre. There were also books and small drawers with collections of old postcards and historical items from the city exhibited.

"It further builds on the goal we have for education, that we do not start from zero, but expand on something, refine it, make it better. It is also something we have to get used to in the construction sector. We cannot continue to just build something new in terms of resource consumption. We need to have new strategies for how we can build on what we already have," says Flemming Overgaard.