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How a ‘lighthouse project’ will redefine urban transformation

An “exponential learning movement” will soon launch across Europe to create a blueprint for cities that combine aesthetics, sustainability and inclusion.

BLOXHUB, a Nordic organisation for sustainable urbanisation, is spearheading an EU-funded project with the Confederation of Danish Industry that CEO Torben Klitgaard hopes will create “a new DNA to renovate, build and transform urban space”.

The DESIRE (Designing the Irresistible Circular Society) project will work with eight European developments to better understand three themes:

  • Creating social and inclusive housing: addressing the question of inclusion in cities
  • Reconciling cities with nature: designing liveable habitats and ecosystems that improve biodiversity
  • Transforming through symbiotic relationships: using greener materials when rethinking urban landscapes

Over the course of two years, teams in Denmark will host meetings, workshops and seminars with counterparts working on each development from Italy to Latvia.

All those voices, Klitgaard says, turn the project into what he calls an “exponential learning movement”.

Creating the ‘manifest’

Bloxhub Torben Klitgaard

Torben Klitgaard, CEO of BLOXHUB

“The end result is to come up with a manifest, so to speak, across these eight projects,” says Klitgaard. DESIRE will identify issues cities should consider when setting up renovation projects in the future.

He says the “dream scenario” would be that a place like Riga would use the project’s conclusions as a basis for its planning regulations and standards.

But the vision that BLOX and its partners will explore from October is just the start of the conversation.

DESIRE is one of five projects the EU has chosen as “lighthouse demonstrators” in its €25m New European Bauhaus initiative. The initiative builds on existing EU programmes – such as the EU Green Deal – to come up with ways to make developments “more sustainable, inclusive and beautiful”. In a way, the two-year project is a hunt for ideas for future policy.

Klitgaard calls it a “soft project”: BLOX won’t be building or renovating anything. Instead, it will work with existing developments to assess what works and what doesn’t. How should citizen-led renovation projects be set up? How do you ensure that urban development delivers for its citizens? Can it do so while remaining sustainable?

After all, he says, there are thousands of projects that try to tackle sustainability, or aesthetic beauty or inclusivity. “But if you add these three elements on top of each other, what does it bring you? How can we demonstrate that it adds an extra flavour, especially within renovation projects?” Those are the questions Klitgaard wants to answer with the two years and €5m the EU has given DESIRE.

Eventually, those ideas could feed into policy around carbon neutral cities – and Klitgaard hopes that the “lighthouse” shines a light not just in Europe but around the world.

Projects of DESIRE

Klitgaard doesn’t shy away from the Nordic origins of the project. He says DESIRE taps into a very Nordic way of thinking about design and inclusivity (and it has additional backing from the Danish government). But the projects themselves, he says, were chosen to be reflective of broader issues in Europe.

For example, there is “humongous demand” for social housing renovation in Eastern Europe to replace shoddy Soviet-era housing. In Southern Europe, the focus is more on “the notion of systemic transformation of cityscapes” – the re-use of waste and materials in reimagining inner cities.

These are some of DESIRE’s projects:

Creating social and inclusive housing

  • Ziepju (Riga, Latvia): a public-led transformation of an old Soviet social housing block
  • Wildemanbuurt (Amsterdam, Netherlands): a social housing area of around 5,000 inhabitants, which will explore how to integrate local characteristics (such as high cultural diversity, heritage and green spaces) with housing policies

Reconciling cities with nature

  • Cascina Flachera (Turin, Italy): an urban regeneration of an area focused on circular principles on the outskirts of Turin, which aims to reconnect people, especially younger ones, with natural spaces

Transforming through symbiotic relationships

  • Kalundborg Circular Campus (Kalundborg, Denmark): the development of a “new irresistible circular campus” 100km west of Copenhagen, based on combining the sustainable use of materials with art and design and input from public and private stakeholders

For more on the DESIRE project, click here

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