Which public square? And for whom?

As part of the fieldwork conducted for the course “Urbanism and Architecture”, Claire Griffith and Vivi Herrera from Cohort 12 share their individual analysis on the users, producers and features in three parks in Copenhagen. All photographs are by Claire Griffith.

What kind of place is a wedge?

By Claire Griffith

Superkilen literally means “super wedge:” a strange description for a public square that is supposed to “connect neighborhoods on both sides of [the park]” (“Superkilen” n.d.). What does it mean to be a wedge (let alone a super wedge)? Is a wedge a tapered shape? Is it a space, a void that can be filled with something new? Or an object used to cleft a neighborhood in two?

Wedge as Shape

Taken from above, Superkilen is wedge-shaped: a narrow ribbon of red, black and green that runs parallel to a railroad corridor. It stretches from Tagensvej to Nørrebrogade in the upper part of the Nørrebro neighborhood. The park consists of three distinct zones: The Red Square, the Black Market and the Green Zone, and users we spoke to referred to the park by the distinct zones, not as a cohesive whole.

The Red Square, Black Market and Green Zones of the Superkilen park. GoogleMaps

Like many, I knew about Superkilen well before coming to Copenhagen this September. I had encountered images of the octopus playground of the Black Market and the skateboarders on the Red Square on design websites like ArchDaily or Culture Trip. Images of Superkilen featured in our first gathering for our graduate program, it appears under the header “Living in Copenhagen” on the University of Copenhagen website. The vibrant colors, the undulating white lines, the textures of the park (from street level and from above) captivated my eyes and imagination. A photograph of the Black Market was the first picture of Copenhagen I posted on my instagram: I too had fallen under the siren’s song of this space. I uncritically consumed it, my gaze foregrounding the park, relegating its users to the background.

Wedge as Space

What made this space even more intriguing was how Superkilen tells a story about the neighborhood. In addition to the striking design, Superkilen houses an eclectic collection of 108 global objects referencing the diversity of the neighborhood. There are chairs from Mexico City, man-hole covers from Tanzania, bollards from Uganda, swings from Santa Monica. In our lectures on economic and social geography in Brussels, we grappled with the real implications of gentrification and the creation of public space. At first blush, Superkilen seemed to offer, as Tom Nielson writes, “a solution for how an urban public space in a globalized, multicultural context can function as a common point of identification – not in spite of, but by virtue of, the existing differences.”

But is it?

Superkilen and her sister-park, Mimersparken were developed as part of the same neighborhood redevelopment plan, at the same time, with the same funding mechanisms. They are both long, tapered wedges of green in the dense urban fabric. However, the two parks couldn’t feel more different. Seeing the parks as siblings, Superkilen would be the extrovert, full of bold colors that say “all eyes on me,” and Mimersparken would be the introvert, offering you a place to sit, a cup of tea and a chat. The playground in Mimersparken consists of five hand-shaped structures; on each hand is mapped the streets of the neighborhood; Sjallandsgade, Arresøgade, Fensmarkgade, Stevensgaed, Nørrebrogade…

Thinking beyond their wedge-shapes, Superkilen and Mimersparken represent two approaches to fixing identity in the built environment, to filling space: Superkilen looks outward to find itself, drawing upon items curated from around the world (post-modern, neo-colonialism at its best?) for identity. Mimersparken looks to the immediate neighborhood, literally, to find a sense of place.

Superkilen feels like a “world within a park,” but in bringing the world into the park, I wonder what of the world just outside the park is lost or overlooked.

Wedge as Cleft

The design team describes Superkilen as a “participatory park extreme,” a top-down model for producing public spaces which provides sufficient space for “the people” to co-create. This, argues Bloom, is part of the urban design brand of Copenhagen: the People and the City. But remembering Shelly Arnstein’s Ladder of Public Participation, asking the community if they want this bench or that manhole cover still falls well within “tokenism” participation and is a far cry from collaboration, let alone co-design. Furthermore, through (re)branding what is essentially “tokenism” participation as a new, innovative model of “extreme” public participation, I fear that the idea of participatory co-design is itself degraded.

Reading about Superkilen, I could not help but remember reading George Orwell’s 1984 with my 11th grade students in Tetovo, Macedonia. In Orwell’s depiction of a totalitarian dystopian England, he introduces two concepts that are unfortunately pertinent for today’s conversation about the production of urban space. Newspeak: control thoughts through controlling language, and Doublethink: accepting false statements as truth, what Orwell describes as, “The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them” (Orwell, 1949, p.220).

Through branding Superkilen as “participation extreme!” is this seductive narrative eroding the meaning of participation?

How to praise diversity in public squares: bringing palm trees from the other side of the world or giving free meals to homeless immigrants?

By Vivi Herrera

From the distance, Superkilen might seem an artistic, colorful, Instagrammable and trendy space. Completed in 2012, it has been promoted as a ‘good urban practice’ and a strategy of ‘extreme participation’ by its creators: the starchitecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), Topotek1 and Superflex. A Moroccan fountain, a slide in the shape of an octopus from Japan, a black bull’s iconic figure to advertise a Spanish sherry. Due to the featuring of over 100 objects from all over the world to supposedly represent Nørrebro residents, it communicates a narrative of diversity, inclusion and citizen participation.

In situ, this park seems to be more than an ‘artsy’ place, but also a backdrop for the daily like of skateboarders, grandmas, young people working with their laptops. However, as Danish-based artist Brett Bloom shows in his essay “Superkilen: Participatory Park Extreme!” (2013), underneath this park, are hidden neoliberal logics of real estate development. These became visible when in 2013, a year after its opening, The City of Copenhagen placed signs to warn cyclists about the slippery surface when wet in the area of the park known as the Red Square. Taking advantage of the opportunity of currently living and studying here, Claire and I went observing Superkilen and the other two Copenhagen parks (Mimersparken and Folkets Parken) to open a discussion around some questions emerging from the issue of public squares: Who shapes the city? And through what processes? Who uses the city?

It was a warm morning on September 16th, 2020 at almost 11:00 in the morning. On Superkilen’s Red Square, there was a group of people outside Nørrebro Library waiting for it to be opened. They all were standing up, since there are no benches in this area, despite the fact this is the largest zone in comparison with the one in front. On the contrary, the other zone, which is the smaller one, is full of urban equipment: benches, double swings from Afghanistan, a boxing ring from Thailand, and an elephant slide from Pripyat, Ukraine. Both areas are divided by a bike lane, which forces people to stop and look both ways before crossing, such as a young woman with blond hair that was walking with a trolley. This suggests whether Superkilen really honors its name: super wedge – a place that divides, rather than a place to stay.

“I never stay here. It is only for going through. We are only here because we were cycling back home, my grandson saw the swings and told me to stop”, said Jørgen, from Copenhagen. Besides this, when experiencing Superkilen in detail, other problems arise. As Bloom mentions, it is evident that the materials selected were not the most suitable for a public square: the red paint is worn and two of the round swinging benches from Afghanistan are broken. Walking northwards, the park disappears abruptly and is replaced by a parking lot.

In the Black Market, probably the area that appears the most on Instagram photographs for its undulating powerful white lines, two women were sitting back-to-back on a round white metal bench from Brussels. One had blonde hair and a laptop on her legs, the other one wore a black hijab and had a shopping cart in front. Besides, sitting on the concrete tables from Bulgaria, there was Alex, 13 years old, born in Denmark and of Somali descent. “I like sitting here, enjoying the weather, everything.” Superkilen might seem to have a diversity of users, also reflected by Jørgen: “The best thing about the park, for me, is that it is a meeting place for ethnic groups: Muslims celebrate Eid here.”

What is this black octopus looming over my shoulder? Is it really a playground from Japan or is it the dark monster of capitalism trying to eat me while I sit in the Mexican chair?

The third part of the park is known as the Green Area, because it is the only one with grass. There, some students of Rådmandsgade school were playing with a basketball, but instead of doing it in the courtyard that is just a few steps from there, they were using a ping-pong table. Other students did seem attracted to Superkilen’s features, such as the ones playing with the swing and the exercise rings from Santa Monica, California. Nevertheless, the bottom of this area was deserted. The iconic black bull advertisement of Spanish sherry and the Armenian white picnic chairs were accompanied only by pigeons.

​Before coming to Copenhagen and reading Bloom’s research, I praised Superkilen’s ‘multicultural aspect’, impressed by the idea that such a powerful design could coexist with citizen’s participation in a public square. Until I read Bloom’s text. Then I found out that even in Copenhagen not everyone can be the public and have agency to shape the city. Bloom illustrates it very well when bringing to the present the case of Byggeren. From 1973, this used to be a park shaped – and appropriated – by the neighbors of Nørrebro. Until 1980, when the City government used violence and the police force to take the people away from this place for the sake of real estate development. In the end, the public participation aspect was used in Superkilen as a narrative “to gloss over extreme influence peddling and the spatialization of neoliberal values and city planning,” as Bloom states.

More superusers and less Superkilen

This is the concept that artist Kenneth Balfelt advocates for in his work. Critically responding to the random use of the superlative ‘super’ to name art and urban projects, Balfelt came to highlight the real participation of people in the shaping of public squares with this concept. Drinkers, homeless immigrants, drug sellers, parents and their children are all examples of ‘superusers’. Folkets Park, also located in Nørrebro, is brought by Bloom in his essay as an example of real citizen participation shaped by 175 ‘superusers.’ Formerly worn, dark and unsafe, this park went through a transformation process starting in 2013.​

The park has an attractive wooden and metal structure for playing, as well as slopes made out of concrete. There are also green areas, enough urban equipment like single chairs and benches made out of wood and metal or also concrete. On the same warm Wednesday morning, at 10:30 am, there were three men drinking on some benches, some girls chilling, kids playing on break from school, women from a daycare walking with babies on trolleys. It seems people’s perceptions of the park are positive now. For instance, a woman that was there with her baby (Sophie, 36 years old, from Copenhagen) told us: “I’m really happy with what the park looks like today. This used to be a drug dealing place and cars used to pass by fast”. Such as another guy (Christian, 37, from Nørrebro) with his child: “The atmosphere here is way different: there is a mix of all cultures. I have the feeling that this is my backyard.”

​Another prominent feature of the park is Folkets Hus, a community house. We were able to talk with Martin, a guy from Aarhus who volunteers there. He told us that they serve free meals for homeless immigrants. Is there a better way to foster multiculturalism and diversity than this? Or is it that we need to bring palm trees from the other side of the world and put them in a square just to say that this is diversity?

These reflections were published also on the webpage of urban femina, a space of collective reflection upon issues of gender, sexuality and identity in public spaces. You can also find Claire’s text on her personal blog Poet Planner.

Bibliography for Claire Griffith:

  • Arnstein, S. (1969). “A ladder of citizen participation.” Journal of the American Planning Association vol 36 (4). pp. 216-224).
  • Bloom, B. (2013). “Superkilen: Participatory Park Extreme!” Mythological Quarter [blog].
  • Nielsen, T. (2019). The Making of Democratic Urban Public Space in Denmark. In Public Space Design and Social Cohesion (pp. 37–57). Routledge.
  • Orwell, G., Macmillan, D. and Icke, R. 1984 (Nineteen Eighty-Four). London: Oberon Books Ltd, 2013. Print.
  • Realdania (n.d.). “Superkilen.”

Bibliography for Vivi Herrera: