With empty buildings Sustainability becomes a word empty of meaning

Intensifying occupancy – an answer to growing population

Accommodating urban challenges through adaptation and rehabilitation already became a common practise. Historic heritage, post industrial sites are often requalified, being given new life, new function, new activities. The same goes with urban space, where planners often look into empty parking lots, space cut out from the city life by infrastructure and other barriers.Tactical urbanism, known as a temporary intervention of a long-lasting effect, is widely used as a point of departure for urban restoration projects, involving at the same time local community in a collective process of dialogue and experimentation, enabling transition of material and nonmaterial city. In the time of growing population of our cities, we look for sustainable housing models and new ways to approach difficult situation on the housing market. Innovative methods are hardly ever applied to deal with housing shortage. Instead, we continue the practises of expanding urban zones outside of the city center, investing at the same time a lot of resources in new infrastructure, which connects the newly built districts or entire satellite cities to the existing, well-functioning urban nodes. Hence, we all want to be connected with the city – city that exists today, with its culture, job and education opportunities, flows of people, knowledge, cultural life. Remote city-like places, which obviously has less to offer, cannot compete with that. Yet we try to accommodate urban growth in this way, establishing new cities from scratch. A Danish example, the city of Vinge is being built to take away some pressure from popular Copenhagen. Still Copenhageners rather choose to stay in Copenhagen, if they have a choice. 

Related: Green City Life: Copenhagen

                            City of Vinge, Denmark / project placement: photo by Author

But do they have a choice? Observing well established cities, and reading books about urban vacancy worldwide, I repeat after many a notion that cities are becoming more and more just an empty facades with less real life, more museum-like and tourism oriented, having solely commercial and business functions, pressing residents towards outskirts. Is a city with an empty core, a new urban paradigm of our times? The famous doughnut form, not desired yet still apparent typology, is pursued especially when it comes to development of residential districts. We let developers buy cheaper lands outside of the city and make residential areas there, while leaving the inner city for “more exciting” city functions.

Mixed-use confused

A word about mixed-use which is often emphasized in land use planning. This design principle, which is guiding architects and planners since long time, is used as a prerequisite of well-functioning urban environment. But actually the mix we tend to make, is not a real mix. It is like putting ice next to the cream and sprinkle both with sugar, expecting to have an ice cream as a result. Office block, residential block, a bit of commercial use and other services here and there. Why we still separate these two major functions – working and housing? It is true that those futuristic living combos, where you have all you need in the same building – shop, office and flat, can be unhealthy for the same person. But when one part of users, residents leave to work, other can come and use the same building as a workplace, both sharing overlapping common areas. Just think how many sustainable patterns it could bring along. With maximizing usage of space in time, allowing for example the same office canteen to serve dinner for residents at the half price and avoid a food waste. It could be a great complementary model, really 24/7 used.

For rent

There is a lot of void in our cities. We experience empty urban space and vacant architecture, where especially the long-term vacancy of office space is really a striking phenomenon. Huge investments are taking place all over the cities, while investors, driven by unexplanatory and probably self-concerned incentives put a lot of money and resources in building new high quality architecture. This misplaced deposit is often making city dense in structure and empty at the same time – really dirty trick. Thousand of square meters are vacant and for rent, also in sustainability capitals, such as Copenhagen. Just have a stroll at Nordhavn, lovely architecture, but where are all the people? Numerous other examples of ghost office districts or single buildings entirely and partly unused, older and newly built, can be found everywhere. Each time I observe a new office investment I wish for it to be used, with not much affect.

Useful adaptation

Here comes an idea of creative transformation of this space. I don’t know how many legal processes it may take to change the permits, but in times of transition in all aspects, also urban governance, why don’t we become a pioneers? What it takes? Not much. Since office buildings occupy usually best plots, well-connected with infrastructure, public transportation and services, and they are already there, we just need some degree of adaptation. Maybe slight transformation of interior design, which with a little creativity it can be done low-cost and extremely efficiently. I would be ready to make this experiment. Just let us count how many square meters in the city is vacant, waiting for being rented, for years! Are we really waiting until in next 20-30 years those buildings will become old and in need of fundamental renovation? Or maybe it will be cheaper to turn them down already then? This is a total failure of commercialized free real estate market, which lets investors buy the city piece by piece and do whatever, with no relevance to the city’s needs.

Just one concrete example. Building called Pakhuset located on Langelinie Allé, certified by Danish adaptation of the sustainability certifications agreement (DGNB). 16.500 square meters of over ground office areal were ready to host around 600 employees in 2012. Empty ever since. I don’t doubt the sustainability of the design project, but I surely doubt the sustainability of this building’s mere existence. I had a dream that this empty, getting dusty and getting older beauty, so to say, became a home for roughly 200 – 300 residents, with shared facilities, creative common spaces, which surely are already designed inside. I wonder where are our sustainable development principles every time I pass by, another “kontor til leje” (office space for rent) in town, while another “homeless” friend is desperately looking  for a place*. 

                           Pakhuset Langelinie, Copenhagen / commercial photo : Photo by Author
  • Because of the housing shortage in Copenhagen, especially harsh for new city dwellers, due to the rent rotation and high prices, almost everyone who is renting a flat experience this temporary “being homeless” state, while urgently searching for a new accommodation. 

Author bio:

Bogna, MSc in Sustainable Urban Transitions, is an urban planner and architect based in Copenhagen, Denmark. She researches urban trends, sustainable urban development and planning, looking for interdisciplinary, inclusive practises.

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