Hidden gems in a city that sparkles

I like to refer to us students studying urban design in Copenhagen as “professional tourists.” Some visitors in a new environment are dedicated planners, filling the gaps in itineraries with activities and food stops on every “Top 100 things to do in Copenhagen” list they can get their hands on. Others value spontaneity, preferring to take each day as it comes. With DIS, we are relearning how to explore a city through our instructor and a curriculum that gives this beautiful yet unfamiliar setting its frame. What gives a location its sense of place? What amenities and activities improve quality of life? Who is using the services provided by public spaces? We’ve been asking ourselves these questions while we’re exposed to the way Copenhageners of all ages and backgrounds commute, live, work, and play.

Sitting area at ByOasen

A typical day in class includes an hour of lecture and peer discussion, 30 minutes to an hour of sketching, and the rest of the time (2-3 hours, approximately) is spent traveling and observing sites of interest during our field studies, likely on foot. We have also taken the metro, train, bus, and bikes around various neighborhoods. Our venture on bikes in the Nørrebro neighborhood was a highlight of the last two weeks, a sentiment I am very surprised to admit after stressing during the preamble over whether I could stay on said bike without falling off. Thankfully, my first day of Visual Journal went spectacularly! The ground we were able to cover combined with the “off the beaten path” route our instructor decided to take us on resulted in our ability to see a series of sites I’ve never seen before: the hidden gems of Copenhagen.

Climbing wall at BaNanna Park

Nørrebro is described as a trendy, multicultural municipality north of the city center, popular for its historic landmarks, modern architecture, restaurants, nightlife, and independent shops. We visited Den Røde Plads or The Red Square, BaNanna Park (pictured above, it’s exactly what it sounds like), and ByOasen. ByOasen is an urban farm programmed with activities that citizens of every generation can enjoy. Surrounded by schools, residential buildings, and a nursing home, this community offers outdoor kitchens, a greenhouse made of recycled plastics and filled with the melodies of birdsongs, a petting zoo, firepit, native plants, and plenty of public seating. It turned out to be my favorite stop on the trip, simply because it felt indicative of what good urban design in Scandinavia looks, feels, smells, and sounds like. Design doesn’t stop at the installation of structures and plantings; it’s only as effective as the people who will test and activate the space as a laboratory for the lifestyle it fosters.

Funki (functional) architecture style in Västra Hamnen

This past Thursday, which marked our second day of Visual Journal, our class took a trip to Malmö. If I didn’t mention this in my last post, I will now: Visual Journal is a class that all students in the Architecture & Design Session take in conjunction with their main focus. It is comprised of documenting our full day Field Studies as well as our week-long Study Tour (keep an eye out for my next post with my reflections!) via sketches. Although these days are long, a group of classmates and I elected to stay in Malmö an extra 3 hours on top of the 6 we had already occupied there, a detail that might assist in illustrating how much we truly loved the area! Located a short 40 minute train ride from København Central Station across the Baltic Sea via the Öresund Bridge, the third largest city in Sweden is an essential day trip if you find yourself in need of a break from the sea of tourists that become more and more palpable the longer you stay in Copenhagen as a student. We spent most of our time in Västra Hamnen, an “ultra-modern” residential neighborhood near the western harbor that also claims to be the first carbon neutral district in Europe. I cannot say enough good things about sleepy seaside Västra Hamnen and its elegant beach promenade, canals, colorful “funki” architecture and skyline, water features that utilize collected precipitation to prevent flooding, plentiful public seating, vibrant landscaping, and cheerful populace. A resident stopped atop the bridge I was painting to compliment my watercolors and chat with me about their upcoming midsummer celebrations. My class and I later took a dip in the Baltic Sea and concluded our day with fish and chips, burgers, and fresh strawberry margaritas. Needless to say, we will be back!

Residential patio space alongside the canal in Västra Hamnen

I think the reason I appreciated our time in Malmö so much was the company I kept, of course, but I sensed myself letting go of expectations I’ve been shouldering as well. It is important to step away from planning every moment like a tourist and remember that you are not living in order to travel—you are a human being. I am aware that my extended time in Copenhagen is a rare opportunity so I’ve been making a point to seek out things that are completely new and different to my life at home, no matter how small. I buy Danish toothpaste and laundry detergent brands, pick produce that is incomparable to products you find in American supermarkets like the sweetest strawberries you’ll taste in your life, and am always excited to try any Danish specialties in cuisine and culture. I think that interest has so much power in creating connections to place, but curiously, I unintentionally rejected that impulse and yet felt incredibly grounded to being in Malmö. I think this phenomenon is proof that a sense community is a vital ingredient in the recipe for a happy life. Thursday resembled a day I would spend at the beach as a kid; I drank a coke, the restaurant was playing American pop songs all afternoon, plus we learned more about each others’ lives in between chatting about the news back home. At certain angles, you could have told me I was back in the United States and I might’ve believed you. I’m starting to recognize that might not be such a bad thing, even while you are trying to immerse yourself somewhere new.

This week, I allowed myself to be nostalgic and maybe even a little homesick—regardless if the little comforts of home can sometimes appear dim next to Scandinavia’s shiny new sparkle.

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