With the relentless flood of fast-paced development in Toronto over the past decade, local politicians, design professionals, and developers have admittedly been struggling to stay afloat with the realities of building a livable city in the 21st century. During this great urban experiment, our gaze has turned outward across the globe in search of inspiration from other communities on creating great urban spaces. And it seems that the focus of that gaze is increasingly honing in on Denmark.

The Urban Land Institute (ULI) organized a star-studded series of panel discussions last week highlighting the design partnership between Denmark and Canada, and what each country can learn from the other. Under the banner of "Samarbejde:Partnership", the event kicked off with opening remarks from the Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark himself, followed by speeches from the Danish Minister of Energy, Utilities, and Climate, Lars Christian Lilleholt, and the Ontario Minister of Environment, Conservation, and Parks, Rod Phillips. Three panel discussions were then held in succession, each moderated by Kofi Hope, Senior Policy Advisor at the Wellesley Institute and Visiting Scholar at the University of Toronto, focusing on three separate topics: Waterfront Revitalization, Active Urban Spaces, and Innovation.

Left to right: Kolja Nielsen, Kofi Hope, Stephen Willacy, and Jason Thorne, image by Julian Mirabelli.

The Waterfront Revitalization panel was comprised of Kristian Lars Ahlmark, Partner and Design Director of Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects; Audun Opdal, Architect and Senior Partner at 3XN Architects; and Meg Davis, Chief Development Officer of Waterfront Toronto. Following presentations of relevant projects from Ahlmark and Opdal, the discussion focused on similarities and differences of Toronto and Copenhagen's waterfront revitalizations, and how design could make or break a healthy waterfront.

Copenhagen embarked on a major revitalization of their waterfront beginning in the 1990s, cleaning up the harbour and redeveloping the vast expanses of post-industrial brownfield sites along the shore by placing landmark public buildings (a central library, opera house, theatre, and architecture centre, among others), major public spaces, and residential development along the water. The revitalization has been hugely successful and has served as a model for cities around the world facing similar post-industrial waterfronts.

Davis began by pointing out that both Toronto and Copenhagen began with an industrial past on their waterfronts, and that in both their revitalization efforts, the "approach of creating the spaces between the buildings for the public to access" has proved successful. But shifting to the differences, Davis declared that access to the water is very restricted in Toronto and "something that we want to improve in the future", and also that "we are challenged a great deal by our infrastructure with the Gardiner and the rail corridor" that create physical barriers impeding easy access to the waterfront.

Both Opdal and Ahlmark emphasized that programming is essential for a successful waterfront, by creating something that attracts people and by not giving all of the land over to private development. "The success of the project relies on the fact that you are able to reach out to people beyond those who are just living there or working there," said Ahlmark. "It is people that want to come there, stay there, and want to spend time there... that will ultimately create a sense of neighbourhood." Opdal added that access to the water is a huge underused resource that could help program the waterfront: "In Toronto, there is so much potential with the water...it is not overly exploited. We can do something more to have some contact, to activate [the waterfront] through the water."

View of the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen, image courtesy of Henning Larsen Architects.

The Active Urban Spaces panel featured Kolja Nielsen, Founding Partner and CEO of CEBRA; Stephen Willacy, City Architect for the City of Aarhus, Denmark; and Jason Thorne, General Manager of Planning and Economic Development for the City of Hamilton. The presentations and discussion focused on the importance of public spaces and the public realm in urban settings, and how these spaces can be designed to engage with the general public.

Nielsen kicked off with an engaging presentation about what makes public spaces successful. He pointed out that Modernists and some contemporary designers "insist that context is unimportant... But cities are not this simple, and it would be wrong for architects to insist on this conflict without seeing an active urban space as something that happens as a result of friction when you have the horizontality of the street, plaza, and so on meeting the verticality of a building and becoming three dimensional." He then listed characteristics of successful urban spaces, focusing around movement, multi-functionality, interaction with buildings, and the human scale, providing examples of both large-scale and small-scale interventions that embody each.

As a public-sector architect, Willacy focused his presentation on implementing change, highlighting many examples throughout Aarhus where they used small-scale temporary interventions and a public-space-first approach to activate previously derelict brownfield sites. Illustrating examples of community involvement, Willacy posed the pointed question that he often uses when assessing developments: "What does your project give back to the city?" Referring to their public-space-first approach, he added that, "For many years we've been designing buildings and designing the city with bits of leftover space. We've turned that on its head."

Jason Thorne, known for his variety of small-scale initiatives that have had a large impact on the public realm throughout Hamilton, was impressed with the quality of work of his Danish counterparts, but pointed out that the governance of public space is a big difference between the two countries. "I can't help but think of all the barriers we create to community involvement and the mixing of public and private...we create the barriers for this kind of innovation and community involvement to happen."

View of the Dokk1 library on the Aarhus waterfront, image courtesy of Jens Marcus Lindhe.

The final panel of the day focused on Innovation, and was comprised of Michael Sørensen, Architect and Partner at Henning Larsen Architects; Dan Stubbergaard, Founder and Creative Director at COBE Architects; and Habon Ali, Associate in Policy and Communications at Sidewalk Labs. The presentations and discussions highlighted innovative ideas in architecture and urbanism that have helped to transform our cities in new and unexpected ways.

Stubbergaard offered two innovative ideas that his firm is pushing for that would radically change cities for the better: green mobility and adaptive reuse. For green mobility, he highlighted Copenhagen's cycling infrastructure, where roughly 40% of the city's 1.2 million inhabitants commute to work by bicycle every day. "Cycling is a low-cost, simple solution for a lot of large urban problems," Stubbergaard stated. "[Green mobility] demands political ambition, it demands planning, but it's also about creating amazing infrastructure for change."

For adaptive reuse, Stubbergaard pointed out the large amount of embodied energy in existing buildings, and how detrimental demolishing and building new can be for the environment. He also highlighted the overlooked potential in many of the spaces in older, underused buildings. "Do we actually need to build as much as we are building?" he asked, "Or can we work with transformation much more than we are as a resource?"

Ali and Sørensen highlighted other ways of urban innovation that could transform our cities. Ali focused on small-scale interventions, such as heated pavers, that could improve quality of life and safety, and stressed that community involvement was a way to create successful urban interventions. Sørensen pointed out that the clean-up of Copenhagen's harbour roughly 30 years ago was an innovative intervention that unlocked untold potential of their waterfront, where people nowadays can safely swim, boat, and kayak through the harbour, and popular landmarks and public spaces now line the waterfront.

Stubbergaard ended the discussion with an interesting thought:

One thing I don't understand is that there is so much wood in Canada, why do you not build with more wood and create the highest level of innovation with building with wood in the world? It is sustainable, carbon neutral, and you have the resource here. All I see is concrete, steel, and glass. But if you want to get there, there is a political will that is needed, there is the industry, the developers. For me, from the Canadian perspective, it’s obvious.

View of The Silo under construction in Copenhagen, image courtesy of COBE Architects.

The Danish influence in Toronto is only just beginning, but as these panel discussions illustrated, there is much to learn from our Danish counterparts, and vice versa. As this partnership continues, we will keep you posted on the various projects throughout the city that Danish firms are currently working on. In the meantime, you can tell us what you think by leaving a comment in the space provided on this page.