Planned and unplanned towns and cities


Urban development, from castle to council

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Urban planning has existed in Denmark since the time of the Vikings. Århus, Ribe and Hedeby were all founded in the 8th and 9th centuries as permanent coastal settlements protected on land by ramparts. Other Viking structures, such as Trelleborg, Fyrkat and Aggersborg forts, all serve as proof that the Crown even then used urban planning as a tool for promoting trade and coastal development. At the same time as planned cities were sprouting up, other settlements were taking root along roads, natural harbours and in other places well suited for habitation.

Star-shaped medieval towns
Increasing levels of commerce around the year 1100 led to an increase in urban development. The recognition that towns were major power centres resulted in more systematic development. Lübeck, founded in 1143, became a model for many cities along the shores of the Baltic – including Copenhagen, founded in 1167. The layout was simple: a castle served as the central point, a church was built close by, and between the two was the town square. Towns began to form throughout the country, often with churches at the centre of a star-shaped street pattern still visible today in Slagelse and Randers.
Christian IV and the new urban vision.
King Christian IV and the plethora of buildings he ordered built in the early 17th century changed people’s perception of towns. Under Christian, and much in the spirit of the Renaissance, the functional settlements of the Viking era and the Middle Ages became works of art that combined symmetry and geometry with the needs of the military and merchants. Christianshavn, on the Copenhagen waterfront, was founded in 1619 and illustrates this trend. The canal serves as a central axis intersected at right angles on both sides by a network of roads. Christianshavn’s semi-circular system of ramparts, and its canals that allowed merchants to load and unload ships at waterside warehouses and merchant houses, were a model of the union of military and commercial needs.
Other cities founded during Christian’s reign were Kristiansstad in Blekinge, Sweden, Glückstadt along the Elbe, and Kristiania (now Oslo).

A model 18th century city
By the end of the 17th century, urban planning in Denmark had changed character. Previously, the king had been responsible for establishing towns as a way to promote commerce or as part of the country’s defences, but urban planning during the age of absolute monarchy became a celebration of the Crown. France, and especially the grand plazas of Paris – Place Dauphine, Place Royale and Place Vendôme – served as the inspiration for absolute monarchs creating monuments to themselves.
In Copenhagen, Kongens Nytorv, built in 1670 with a mounted statute of Christian V as the centrepiece, was the first example of a major royal monument. Even though the surrounding buildings weren’t as symmetric as the Parisian plazas it was modelled after, three centuries later it still radiates harmony and pomposity.
In 1749, the Frederiksstad district of Copenhagen was built to mark the 300th anniversary of the House of Oldenburg. Amalienborg Palace and Frederik’s Church (also known as the Marble Church) stand at the centre of the development that linked the existing Kongens Nytorv and the military headquarters at Kastellet. In order to ensure the symmetry of the buildings, developers were all but handpicked from among the kingdom’s richest men, who could ensure that buildings met the strict requirement that they provide a lavish and representative quarter that served a monument to the king. The apex of Frederiksstad was the octagonal Amalienborg Palace Square.
In the late 18th century, members of the German protestant Moravian brotherhood founded the town of Christiansfeld in South Jutland, and it is now considered one of the finest examples of an 18th-century town. Christiansfeld features a centrally placed church and rows of identical houses along its two main streets. In Frederiksværk on Zealand, J.F. Classen built an entirely new town around his cannon foundry, unifying factory buildings and worker housing in a single urban development.

The council takes over
Due to the economic crisis that beset Denmark in the early 19th century, new urban development ground to a halt. But in 1857, the ramparts that had surrounded Copenhagen since the Middle Ages were torn down, signalling the start of a new era for Danish urban planning. Architect Ferdinand Mehldahl’s ambitious plan to build a system of boulevards, parks and monumental buildings was modelled on other European cities and touched off a debate about the role of city councils in steering urban development.
Along the lines of prevailing late 19th century liberal thinking, private entrepreneurialism was seen as the best guarantee of continued urban development. But prominent physicians, architects and engineers all argued that the demands industrialisation placed on urban infrastructure, housing and hygiene required city councils to play an active role. They pointed to Berlin, Paris and London as worst case scenarios of housing and factories standing side by side, and residents living under wretched conditions in shabby housing, while companies suffer due to the poor infrastructure. Starting around 1900, new city districts took housing, commerce and traffic into consideration, but not at the cost of aesthetics or harmony. The plan created in 1903 by Charles Ambt and Hack Kampmann for the Frederiksbjerg area of Århus, was characteristic of the ambitions that culminated in 1908 with an international urban planning competition being held for Copenhagen.

The first Urban Planning Act
In 1925, the first Urban Planning Act was passed by Parliament. It gave local councils the power to plan road construction and to establish zoning laws. The 1947 Finger Plan established travel corridors, residential areas and greenspaces for all of Greater Copenhagen. The first suburban developments appeared outside major cities in the 1960s, but the growing tendency towards monotonous architecture and planning led to a number of counter-reactions, and starting in the late 1970s, planners were again looking to use urban development to create town-like districts, such as in Albertslund South, outside Copenhagen, and Tinggården, near the town of Herfølge.
In recent years, new urban developments have begun to rise – often along disused waterfronts and other former industrial areas. These developments, which include Copenhagen’s sprawling Ørestad district, often see local councils and developers working together to establish new city districts.