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In Denmark no building is just one thing

Updated: Oct 13, 2022

One morning on my recent trip to Copenhagen as my 3-year old research bounced over me in bed, I explained what the day had in store.

"First we'll visit a car park, then a waste-to-energy power plant". Her smile dropped, the spring was literally taken out of her step. "But the car park has a big playground on top, and the power plant is a ski-slope, running trail and climbing wall too." Her face lit-up, her bounce was restored.

In 2011, when finalising the Birmingham built facilities and playing pitch strategies, one thing was clear -- there were not enough facilities and there wasn't the money or green space to build new ones. Before I left the council, I inserted a recommendation that the roofs of new builds should be considered. Space didn't have to be lost, it could just be moved upstairs.

I'm not aware of it having made any difference but it was great to visit Copenhagen and see that it wasn't such a bizarre notion afterall.

Time yourself as you run up the stairs to the roof of Konditaget Lüders

and you'll arrive -- possibly out of breath -- at an inter-generational facility with room for Crossfit, TRX training, box jumps, Panna football, a 60 meters sprint course, trampolines, swings, all brought together by a climbing spiral enjoyed by cross-fitters and children alike.

Amager Bakke or CopenHill could have been an impressive and inspirational facility only accessible to those able to afford the dry-ski slope but LOA-fonden's involvement saw the addition of "10 mountain routes for runners and walkers, [and] a crossfit area" free-to-access. The site also features the world's tallest climbing wall, which -- due to one apparent oversight in design -- is free-to-access for members of the Danish Climbing Club.

An open gate, and open school yard at Amager Faelled Skole contain a large ropewalk play area and plenty of tree cover

There are far more mundane examples that are easily transferable to many facilties around the world. Amager Faelled Skole and the European School in Copenhagen are just two examples of the many schools across Denmark -- and Finland and the Netherlands -- that recognise their grounds to be community grounds and make them available for free informal play.

A childrens' play area sits within the centre of a school quad.
Anyone can walk into and play on this playground or up the stairs to play on the rooftop playground of Copenhagen's European School.

While the efforts of Sport England's Opening School Facilities fund is welcome, the focus remains on the 'formal' sport facilities and supporting their [paid] use by clubs and community groups. An addition of improving out-of-access to playgrounds and playing fields would be a recognition of schools, and their grounds as key community assets -- especially supportive of legitimate peripheral participation -- in the delivery of active environments.

Of course, one factor in this difference of approach to public space is our preference for risk aversion over risk mangement -- something I'll touch on in a later piece.

There's a lot of discussion at the moment on the potential for Sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) in new developments to also support activity. As an alternative to a network of pipes and sewers to nearby watercourses, SuDs mimick natural drainage and aim to reduce surface water flooding while enhancing the biodiversity value of the environment.

One of my favourite facilities that created an active, social space of a functional piece of infrastructure was the sunken football pitch surrounded by seating, play facilties and greenery that acts as a drainage pool in the regenerated Carlsberg district. Another example of this can be seen in neighbouring Enghave park, where the resevoir doubles as a roller skating rink.

In Denmark it seems no public infrastructure is just one thing, whether that's sporting facilties that play a softer, social engagement role or more functional buildings that might otherwise have diminished rather than added to our public realm. A key driver of this is LOA-fonden -The Danish Foundation for Culture and Sports Facilities, whose role is to support the development of "inspirational facilities of high architectural and functional quality, which can inspire future development." I'll talk more of them in future, but check out their website, its a treasure trove of inspiration. And that's the impact it has had on Danish developers and architects, to win the project a public work must maximise its utility for the public.

That's why at times on my journey in Denmark, it often seemed as thought no building was just one thing.

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