ODENSIFICATION: how to grow your city organically

Thinking Cities’ Pasquale Cancellara talks to Steen Møller, Deputy Mayor for Employment and Social Services Department for the City of Odense, Denmark

Odense is a well-known, middle-sized city in Denmark that has a very peculiar geographical position in relation with the Danish capital, Copenhagen. Could you give us a brief history of Odense?

Odense is an old Danish city, believed to be established before the year 1000, but new archaeological excavations have recently confirmed that it is even older than that – Odense is at least 1300 years old. From the Middle Ages to more modern times, Odense was an important city in Denmark. Then in the 19th century it started to become an industrial city with many factories being opened. Now Odense is going through some big and challenging transformations that will turn its industrial past into a vibrant knowledge city. We have been struggling for the last 50 years and feel now that the changes are happening.

Odense lies in the middle of Denmark – for many people looking at Denmark from the outside it must be strange to see that Copenhagen is the capital as it’s in a peripheral position. But this is due to the fact that Sweden used to be part of Denmark in the old times so Copenhagen was in the centre of Denmark at that time. Odense is nowadays closer to Copenhagen. Twenty years ago the Great Belt Bridge that connected Odense to Copenhagen was finalised and now it takes only 1 hour and 15 minutes by train, so in a way Odense is a also a suburb of Copenhagen, as well as being the 3rd largest city in Denmark. It’s also the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen who was born in the city in 1805.

We have experienced that after the big transformations in the city got under way that the population started to grow very quickly. We reached 200,000 inhabitants in August 2016.

Why is the population growing so fast in Odense?

What we can see is that the growth of the University and the higher education institution is part of the growth. It’s not the only explanation as it’s a combination of Odense’s popularity as an educational city combined with the transformation that is taking off at the moment. From being a mere industrial city, Odense is now becoming a knowledge city.

About 30 years ago we decided that we had to focus on robotics, together with the university. We can see now that robotics is really a booming industry for the city, but the same can also be said for IT, drones and welfare technology, if we look at the business side. The other side is that we have a very vibrant event culture. Now we have large music festivals with lots of events for students, a Hans Christian Andersen festival and a Harry Potter festival. The third reason is the physical transformation of the city. We had a vision in mind, we had the strategic aim densifying the city centre – we wanted to have more people living in the city centre. If you looked at Odense 10 years ago the city centre was very flat, no density within the inner city, a very flat city if you like. The core was simply too small. This is due to the presence of industry at the very heart of the city centre. So our ambition was to make the city grow from the inside out. We didn’t want to keep building single-family houses, so we took a series of strategic decisions, we made some financial decisions and we built infrastructures that attracted several private investors to build new houses in the centre. All this is the result of a very integrated approach to urban development: infrastructure and transport, culture and city branding.

Over the last decade, Odense has been undergoing a series of urban transformations with the city centre being reshaped twice, in no small part due to enormous Thomas B. Thriges Street regeneration project. This has had a very positive effect on urban mobility, from bikes to cars, to active travel and now recently with the tramway. Could you briefly tell us what brought the city to implement this ambitious plan and what your overall vision was?

In the 1950s because of the industry that was situated a lot near the harbour, new roads were needed. So to ease congestion the city decided to build Thomas B Thriges Street, a fast-moving, four-lane road that cut the middle of the city into two halves with the purpose of bringing people from the south where they lived to the north where the factories were located. Since it was opened people realised it was a big mistake. Since the 1980s there has been much discussion about how to make this road ‘right’ in the middle of the city centre. After the construction of Thomas B Thriges Street many projects around Denmark were scrapped. When I was elected in 2005 that discussion was really important and within a few years we decide to complete the outer ring road as we needed a bridge but also because cars were going through the inner city. So then after lots of proposals we decided that instead of just narrowing it or allocating space for buses, we decide to make three decisions based on three different aspects:

  • get rid of the cars on the surface
  • build a tramline as the city’s highest class transport solution to connect the most important parts of it
  • build a new big car park beneath the former Thomas B Thriges Street while transforming the surface which became free from cars.

All this happened in 2008. Now big hotels are being built together with a large number of new apartments. People are seeing this important transformation and are feeling enthusiastic. If before the general public was fearing congestion due to the Thomas B Thriges Street removal, now the attitude towards the project is very positive. There were also fears that nobody would have been attracted to this area and build houses in it.


How did you attract private investments? What was the business plan that you adopted for the urban regeneration of Thomas B Thriges Street?

The city used to own an energy company that was sold for DKr250m (€33m). We invested that amount (a state rule in Denmark) and we got DKr250m more from the Danish foundation Realdania, and then the building rights were estimated to be another DKr250m. So in total we had DKr750m to construct the parking basement in order to build the facilities on the surface like the squares, etc. All the rest is private investment like the apartments and the hotels. The total investments amount is about DKr1 billion, but only about a third was public money.

Currently, Odense is considered as “the city of cyclists” (26 per cent of all daily trips in the municipality are made by bike and there is a 540km bike network). Which was the primary pressing reason that brought Odense to invest in cycling?

Growing up in Odense and in the rest of Denmark, you don’t think of bikes as a strategic means to get people not to use cars, it’s just a natural means of transport.

So when you compare with other cities in Europe, you have to take into account that we have lots of rural areas where people use bikes less. In the inner city centre we have 50 per cent of the modal split of bikes. The first designed bike lane was built back in 1895. The reason why it was built is quite funny: the first bike lane in Odense was built in order to let the fine ladies that didn’t want to use the same road as the horses were going (for “excremental purposes”) to reach the forest in the weekend.

But since then many bike lanes have been built, with 550km of actual separated bike lanes in the city compared to 1000km of municipal roads in the city. We have a particular approach when we design for bike users: every time that we build a new road, we create a bike lane. When we built the bridges crossing the canal we built a super cycle highway at the same time. The bridge was opened two years ago and it is just for cycling and pedestrians crossing the railroad connecting the north and south.

For Odense all this comes naturally, it’s something that people just expect. For the city council it is a strategic tool, because we know that if we can just get someone once a week to leave their car at home and take a bike we will have less congestion, less money to invest in roads maintenance and have a better quality of life. So we are investing in super cycle highways, a system identical to the one used for cars. Just as cars could go from the outside right to the city centre, now it’s time for bikes to be able to the same thing. When building the super cycling highway we are looking at the quality, we make sure that you can inflate your tyres all along the entire route and that there are enough lights. We are also looking at the cycling culture for the kids when they are still in the kindergarten. Our ambition is that every child from the first grade should use a bike or walk to school and we encourage that by letting the teachers plan bike excursions for the children. We lend bikes to kids if they don’t have one. We want to make bike a natural means of transport in their everyday lives.

At the moment the city is building a tramway line that is put forward as a solution to Odense’s future transport requirements. Why is this tram so intrinsic to the success of the city?

The Initial decision was made back in 2008 when we decided to close the main road – the aforementioned Thomas B Thriges Street. We used the next few years to work on the core of the project and on how to finance it. The reason why the tram is so important is that we simply need a modern public infrastructure for our city that is growing rapidly. The University is expanding with a new science park being built next to it, new student housing and so on. We estimated that by 2021 there will be in the region of 60,000 more people so we need to find a mobility solution as we cannot let these people attempt to move around by private cars or buses. We needed to have something more in order to accommodate the people using the area. This line will connect the core of the city, that is the University area to the city centre. The tram will connect also the city’s main facilities and the big shopping areas and the big malls. So we wanted to connect the most important parts of the city. We’ve been looking at what other cities experienced when building a new tramline and we have noticed that this generates lots of new private investments along the line, especially by the tram stops. The overall city planning is now being linked to the tramway construction and to the city centre’s densification. The tramway fits very well in the overall urban planning projects of the transformation of large parts of Odense. The tramways will cost DKr3 billion, of which 40 per cent comes from the government, 3 per cent from the region, and the rest is from the municipality. Also, we are looking at the option of having self-driving minibuses as a feeder system for the tramline.

How did you manage to get public involvement and acceptance of this very disruptive project?

When we launched the project in 2008, 85 per cent of people were in favour of the decision to build the new tramline. Now it’s slightly lower due to the fact that lots of people are annoyed because of the building sites and the construction works. But what we saw from other cities’ experiences is that once the tramline is opened public support again becomes very high. At the moment we are facing a growing opposition and it is quite natural. We carried out a good communications campaign and we made a huge effort to make sure that the general public was well informed. The last result is that 55 per cent of citizens are still in favour.

Finally, what are Odense’s plans for the future once this urban transformation project is completed?

One of the things we are really looking forward to and for which we got the finances a few months ago is the future Hans Christian Andersen Fairytale House. This house will be designed by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, who is perhaps best known for his Tokyo 2020 Olympic Stadium that is currently being built.

As far as it concerns the tramline, after the first line we want a second and in my opinion also a third and a fourth line because the planning is important so that everything is interlinked. We know that in five years the old University hospital will be closed because the new one will be opened. So a new area will be made available and it can be transformed again. This area is near the city centre where the tramline 2 goes and we see this as a continuation of Odense’s transformation.

We feel we have momentum – every day we read in the newspaper about the success of robotics companies and more investors are coming to our city. We have to help these investors to keep coming here, to look at Odense as a good place for investments. We could be on the verge of creating a new Hans Christian Andersen fairytale.