A historic city faces the challenges of housing shortage

Centralization might be an unavoidable result in an ever-growing city like Copenhagen. But can this location development and the need for more affordable housing go hand-in-hand with Copenhagen’s historic streets?  

Written by Fredrik Holtekjølen and Daniel Tidemann

Here in Vesterbro (Copenhagen) has these new apartments been built on historic grounds. Photo: Fredrik Holtekjølen.

In cities all over the world evolution and conservation battle for space. How does a historical city cope with the need for affordable housing, without freezing neighbourhoods in time? Preservation of historical buildings can push rents up, sabotage the city’s growth and push out people who have low income.  

May lose the Copenhagen we love 

Here in Vesterbro, a quiet district in central Copenhagen surrounded by old buildings and modest parks, a new apartment building has arisen from what was once an area consisting of small houses from the 17th century. A butcher’s hall, a guesthouse and stable once characterized the street of Enghave Vej have now been replaced with streamlined but functional apartments. 

The city of Copenhagen had decided that the small-town houses needed to be protected – however in 2018 they were demolished despite months of public uproar trying to stop the process. The need for more housing in the capital overruled the need for historic footprints in the city, says architectural activist Jep Loft. 

“If we keep on tearing down old and historic buildings, we will end up diluting the local city environment of Copenhagen that we all love”. 

But Julius Garde, who is a bicycle repairman, has a different opinion. He moved his company to the first floor of the building late this summer and have nothing but positive things to say about the building: 

“I think this is a beautiful building, and I’m happy to have my business here”, he says while pumping air into a tire. 

In contrast to Garde’s positivity, the building has sparked some controversy since the old houses were demolished in 2018. The Museum of Copenhagen had characterized the houses as the only remanence of how Vesterbro would have looked like in the second half of the 17th century.  

Public uproar 

People demonstrated to get the demolition plans abolished. One such person is Jep Loft, the chairman of the Arkitekturoprøret (the Danish architectural riot); a Nordic movement who has especially gained a foothold in the Scandinavian countries. Started out in Sweden, the movement quickly spread to Norway. 

Jep Loft is reluctant to say the building which now stands on the ground, blends in with the surroundings along with providing housing. 

“Slagtergårdene should never have been torn down in the first place. Even though the new buildings might blend in, I do not agree that more housing in Copenhagen is a goal in itself.” 

Toft also adds that building new housing does not always push prices down in København.  

“People wants to live in an old building in an old and historic street, so whether or not new buildings are being built; people prefer the old ones”. 

The archictect has tried to blend the new buildings with the ones in the streets by colour. Foto: Fredrik Holtekjølen.

Shortage in housing 

Not enough housing in Copenhagen has been a hot topic these recent years. The reason being that to many people move to the capital and there is not enough housing for everybody.  

In Vesterbro, the bicycle repairman says he is happy to see that new housing are being built, especially since what once stood here, would not have housed his business nor over 200 apartments.  

“I am happy to see the city grow and allow more people to be able to live here”, Garde says.  

In 2017 had small to medium sized apartments increased by 64,3 precent in prices over three years, and over the course of four years a one-bedroom apartment gone from costing 1.250.00 DKK to 2.000.000 in 2017.  

The politicians at the time then decided that more affordable housing must be built in Copenhagen, and the apartment in Vesterbro is a result of that.  

Infograph: Daniel Tidemann.

The chairman of the Arkitekturopprøret, Jep Loft, admits there is a shortage of homes I Copenhagen, but he argues that not all people have to live in the city centre. New housing can be built on the outskirts of the city, while still maintaining the city centres uniqueness and historic streets.  

“People want to live in a city that is unique to exactly that city. One should not ruin a city just to make more apartments, especially if those apartments could have been placed anywhere in the world by the looks of them”.  

The current housing situation in Copenhagen goes to show how difficult it can be to balance preservation and evolution in a historic city. The problem the capital is facing is not unique for Denmark, but other Nordic cities experience the same. Thus, the uprising of the Architectual riot.  

This article is aimed at a Norwegian or Swedish audience. For Norwegian readers: dn.no.