There are numerous similarities between Aarhus and Cork. Apart from being their respective countries’ second largest cities — Cork with 130,000 inhabitants whilst Aarhus has 330,000 — they share a Viking heritage; are important river/coastal harbours with international status; have large, top-quality universities with important connections to the business community; and outstanding landscapes.
Both cities have also been European City of Culture; Cork in 2005 and Aarhus during 2017.
In early 2018, Aarhus City Council together with the Epinion company conducted a survey on the council’s ambitions for the city. Over 1,600 citizens were interviewed on “what makes Aarhus a good city for you”.
The survey found citizens value its rich and unique local natural setting with high quality cultural amenities, and its internationally acclaimed university education, in a relatively large second-tier city.
A second-tier city like Aarhus has lifted its mindset from being an important regional city in Jutland, to being an internationally orientated and important catalyst for national and international economic growth, whilst at the same time strengthening local identity and liveability.
The present name Aarhus or Arhus stems from the original Viking name Aros meaning, “the mouth of the river”, the Aarhus A. This fact is quite significant in terms of rediscovering its heritage because, for many years, the Aarhus A was covered over by one of the main access roads to the industrial harbour.
This main thoroughfare still carried the name Aboulevarden although the river was hidden from view. During the 1980s the idea of opening the river up again was discussed, although very unpopular at the time, because of the risks associated with closing a primary road.
The city architect and councillors succeeded in gaining approval and in 1994 the first section was completed, and in 2016 the final stretch towards the river mouth opened in conjunction with the opening of DOKK1.
This masterpiece of urban governance enabled a political vision that has been completely transformational through a combination of bold and intelligent urban planning and design, re-inventing the inner city and creating one of the most popular streets in Aarhus.
Similarly Aarhus harbour and its frontage have undergone a phenomenal transformation over the past three decades. During the late 1980s, the former container harbour had become too shallow for the new generation of container ships and a new harbour was planned, taking advantage of the deeper waters of Aarhus Bay.
This relocation opened up a whole new series of opportunities for regenerating the harbour district, which spans approximately 3km in a north-south axis.
As in many industrialised cities, the waterfront and harbour areas became a massive wall of warehouses, workshops, factories, grain silos and major transport infrastructures.
Of high importance was the need to readdress the relationship between the inner historical heart of the city and the harbour water area and distant bay. This wall of industry had cut off the visual and physical contact between its historical city heritage and the reason for its founding location as a Bay City. The soul of the city needed to be re-connected.
An international architectural competition for a masterplan was initiated and a winner announced in 1999. The main framework of this masterplan has been the backbone, for the past two decades, of urban planning.
The transformation of the harbour frontage together with the location of Denmark’s new International Sailing Centre in Aarhus has opened up new opportunities for water-related cultural activities.
Culture has been at the heart of Aarhus since the 1980s when it was the centre of the Danish music scene. Aarhus Concert Hall, which had 547,000 visitors in 2017 and was built in 1982, proved to be a truly visionary move, kindling the cultural heart of Aarhus.
ARoS Aarhus Art Museum which had 980,900 visitors in 2017, became its neighbour in 2004. Olafur Eliasson’s Your Rainbow Panorama was built on its rooftop in 2011, becoming an iconic part of the city skyline and an important international brand.
Next door at Godsbanen the city’s former freight yard was converted into a Cultural Production Centre opening in 2012. It is a unique community of cultural opportunities with a distinctly informal atmosphere with open workshops, studios, project rooms, auditoriums, theatre stages and dance spaces that are available to everyone.
In the neighbouring freight yard, Building’s Institute, another type of temporary/permanent creative community, has organically grown into an important creative hub.
This small village consists of over 80 start-up companies, which coexist with the Cultural Production Centre. It has become a new creative quarter with a quirky edge and a tourist destination for Aarhus.
This vitality and energy combined with its central location are the primary reasons for the Aarhus School of Architecture to move to this location in 2021. The synergies and creative energy between the different organisations will undoubtedly become a new powerhouse for future talent.
Just 5-10 minutes walk away is the highly acclaimed Den Gammel By, the Old Town with 571,167 visitors in 2017. The recently completed DOKK1, is located at an important hinge point between Aarhus river Aen and the new harbour front.
It has quickly become the most popular cultural venue in the city attracting 1.3m visitors annually as well as being an important transport hub, with its light railway stop and 1,000 parking spaces.
Towards the south on the outskirts of the city, Moesgaard Museum, 312,144 visitors in 2017, is a critically acclaimed architecture synthesis with its historically sensitive landscape setting.
Undoubtedly the single most important event in Aarhus’ history since the National Exhibition in 1909, was hosting the European City of Culture in 2017. Inspired by the theme ‘Let’s Re-Think: Democracy, Sustainability, Diversity’ culture was celebrated in all of its forms in a deep co-operation between the Central Region of Denmark’s 19 municipalities.
This has attracted unprecedented interest with 2.6m participants and it has been mentioned numerous times in national and international media. In July 2017 it had peak visitor numbers with a record year for conferences.
In terms of legacy as with previous European Cities of Culture, Aarhus will reap many benefits in years to come.
Aarhus has had a rapid increase in population of 4,000 to 5,500 people annually over the last decade and in 2017 6,500 new jobs were created. This prognosis indicates a growth from the current 330,000 citizens to around 450,000 by 2050.
This aligns with global tendencies, so it is important that our government recognises our huge contribution to a better quality of life and to the national economy that is being made by our regional cities.
Other global tendencies are that businesses are moving back to cities because they recognize the mutual benefits of being connected to everyday life, universities, international schools and the proximity to welfare services.
In Aarhus, the formation of innovative environments began in the 1990’s with the development of the IT city Katrinebjerg, today a lively community with 3,000 employees, students and 120 IT related businesses and knowledge institutions.
Aarhus is known as the windmill capital of the world where leading companies locate their research and development departments in the city. The most recent newcomer is Chinese Goldwind, China’s largest wind turbine producer.
Specialisation and integration in global economies creates a mutual dependency upon a highly educated workforce. So Aarhus with over 53,000 students is fundamentally important in the formation of specialised clusters where research, knowledge, know-how, cutting edge technologies and ready access to supply chains are key drivers for attracting investors and future opportunities.
Co-operation between neighbouring city councils in the region has existed since 1994 and has gathered speed in recent years. Today Business Region Aarhus is a partnership between 12 councils and represents a population of 971,561, which is the largest single growth area outside the capital.
There is a critical mass of 1.2m people living within an hour’s drive of Aarhus. This co-operation across municipal or administrative boundaries has also helped to strengthen cohesion between towns and countryside communities.
The cities and the networking opportunity between business leaders and politicians in East Jutland are based on proximity and accessibility and it makes the path to solutions and initiatives easier.
If Denmark is to be successful in international competition, there is a need for networking between cities. The transition of the industrial segmented city into a traditional central structured city is now being replaced by new networking models based upon partnerships and alliances, irrespective of administrative or political geography.
An open source mindset and trust, are key drivers where administrative borders are erased.
Cities are complex organisms and undergo constant change. To stand still is to stagnate and die. There is a growing awareness of their mechanisms and a keen dependence on new insight and the need for openness to adopt this knowledge in our age of increased lux.
Second-tier cities such as Aarhus and Cork have a great deal in common, but they also have their own unique qualities and special idiosyncrasies which we need to identify, build upon and adapt to the future. They are context specific, both physically and mentally.
I hope that through the main themes addressed here, it is possible to see the interconnectedness between them. Aarhus is located where it is because of the relationship between its landscape, the river and its bay waters but we forgot this fact.
Over the past 30 years we have been re-inventing our city with a greater awareness for our cities roots and connectivity with its natural surroundings, whilst acknowledging new demands for an international scale harbour with global connectivity.
Similarly, by rethinking culture during the European City of Culture in 2017 and re- focusing business by investing in talent, we recognise the importance and dependence upon partnerships, alliances and networks, irrespective of physical or administrative boundaries.
Aarhus and its citizens have gained in conidence and are a mindset focused towards a more international outlook, whilst at the same time being firmly grounded in its local heritage.
Stephen D Willacy is Aarhus City Council’s chief architect. He is also a partner in Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects and an associate professor at Aarhus School of Architecture. This article first appeared in the Cork Papers