Copenhagen’s Public Spaces: the relevance of everyday urbanism in a global context.

For a capital to stay on track in the “Premier League of Cities” several elements are necessary, but undoubtedly and as recent global events have shown us, growing with equality is key.  Whichever is the sector, from tourism to urban infrastructure, equality and enabling diversity is fundamental for successful societies.

In the recent years Denmark has been restraining or rolling back services that made the country and its cities what they are, reducing funding for higher education, limiting the amount of years of it (recently modified) and enforcing migration policies which are beyond rational and far from humanitarian.

“The homeless are people” Banner from demonstration 2019.

Beyond the influence that these policies have on human lives -which should be the first elements for policy makers to consider-, they impact the potential of Danish cities for change, innovation and development. The effects of blind market oriented policies do not only affect those who are newly arriving to the city, but also those who are and have been part of the urban fabric since ever; groups and people who have been systematically marginalized from Wonderful Copenhagen: the elderly, the unemployed, the urban poor and the homeless.

Copenhagen city in its race to the top, with ambitious architectonic planning and projections, has not addressed in an integral manner the needs of the excluded and marginalized, aiming more for an aesthetically and functional wonderful Copenhagen than a city that addresses its deficiencies.

On my research carried out in 2019, I analyzed Copenhagen’s ‘Urban Life Accounts’ and other municipal documents from 2009 to 2018, amidst the ongoing debate of the ‘zone-ban’ for people sleeping in public spaces -aimed and created initially with racial motivations against Roma people, but ending affecting the ‘local’ homeless population-. In these documents Copenhagen Municipality as a form of accountability mechanism, shows their numbers in relation to amount of events on the open air, new developments, new renovations, amounts of people walking to work or driving their bikes and surprisingly the number of privately own café chairs in their public plazas -which, by the way do not pay a permit since 2012-.

Why do I bring up the cafés with their tables and chairs in plazas? I do because they use of public spaces, where the blocking of free transit and movement for pedestrians for which the homeless and the idle have been accused historically and currently in so many cities, is bypassed by the private entrepreneur. This is not a shallow critique, but it speaks of our cities and public spaces as mercenary cities and public spaces, where the uses of space related to consumption are above others, and where drinking and espresso in Kultorvet is deemed as an act of higher priority than sleeping due to need in Købmagergade.

In a city where the debate is ongoing in relation to the effects of policies such as the zone-ban, but the focus is set in mega-projects such as ‘Copenhill’ and BIG’s ‘Hedonistic Urbanism’, it is absolutely necessary to circle back and take a minute to reconsider the micro scales of our cities, from benches in plazas to the nooks in our buildings, cities are made for people and those who depend mostly in our cities infrastructure -sanitation, rest, shelter- are being pushed away from the public spaces.

The mindless race to the top of the premier league of cities, prioritizing aesthetics and market transactions without addressing in a proper form the needs of the excluded is doomed to fail and pay in the long run the price of inequality, which builds up and breaks into a deafening scream.

Panhandling bans: A worrying trend in Sweden’s Municipalities.

Following the municipal decisions on prohibiting panhandling in several Swedish municipalities (Vellinge, Eskilstuna, Sölvesborg, Katrineholm, and Staffanstorp) the council of Lidingö, becomes the first to adopt such measures in the Stockholm county, forbidding the act of begging on 10 public spaces (see map), with a tight vote of 26 against 25 with the support of The Moderates, Christian Democrats, Swedish Democrats and the local Lidingö Party.

Lidingö Municipality is characterized for being one of the administrative areas of Sweden with the highest income as well as one of the most economically right wing municipalities. In this scenario, it is easy to imagine the level of material abundance, where seemingly everyday life worries such as shelter, and food are not top-of-mind for the median citizen. Nonetheless, for those who are in the need of panhandling, these needs are very much real and banning this practice has an impact in their livelihood, creating a new burden for people who are already marginalized.

Photo: Lidingo Centrum / DagensHandel.se

Before this year, Sweden was the Nordic country with the ‘softest’ approach to panhandling, compared to Denmark where it is penalized with jail since 2017 or Norway where a regulation was banning panhandling until was dropped in 2015. Nonetheless, the local governments seem to have started an anti-panhandling trend during the last year.

The criminalization approach does not address the complexities behind panhandling and homelessness and it does not respond to the swedish reality, where issues such as housing -where in Stockholm only- officially the housing queue is almost 600,000 people, with the looming threat of homelessness, nor it offers an answer to the vision and goals of the city for 2030, where the aim is to create ‘a city without physical or social barriers’, whilst these bans aim to create in practice physical barriers for beggars and enforce already existing social prejudices.

Organizations such as Stockholm’s Stadsmission and Amnesty International have been emphatic on the fact that panhandling prohibitions do not work and do not contribute to solving the issues associated to poverty. Local bans on panhandling or homelessness only contribute to limiting the possibilities of survival for people who already at the margins of swedish society,

Photo: Homeless Fox (Hemlös Rav) of Stockholm / source: tramposaurus.com

Approaching panhandling and more broadly, homelessness with the ‘silver bullet’ of prohibition creates scenarios where what is understood as the problem is just a symptom of broader societal issues. The banning of panhandling from certain municipalities, will only displace the issue to other administrative units, acting as spatial fix which on the short term might seem effective but meaning in the long run not just a waste of resources, but a direct blow into people’s livelihood, deepening the already chasms .