In conversation with… Jacob Bundsgaard, Aarhus City Mayor

Highlighting Denmark’s second city, European Capital of Culture 2017 and destination for the 12th AoU Congress, James Gross AoU travelled to Aarhus (pronounced ‘Or-hus’) to talk to the dynamic City Mayor Jacob Bundsgaard and find out what it is it that makes this thriving university city tick.

It would be remiss not to mention that my conversation with Jacob Bundsgaard took place in the 1941 Arne Jacobsen designed City Hall of Aarhus. The exquisite design of this building remains a beautiful testimony to bespoke architecture and more specifically Danish interior design. Everything from the curved staircase to the lobby seating and water fountain was penned by the master’s hand. I know this because I was the beneficiary of a comprehensive tour of the city courtesy of former city architect (and father-in-law of Oxford School of Architecture graduate and current city architect Stephen Willacy AoU), Gøsta Knudsen. He tells me that in the spirit of the building even the more recently installed CCTV camera housings were specially designed and machined to match the overall composition.

Knudsen’s energetic walking pace affords me an exhaustive tour of the inner area of this rapidly expanding city. The boldness of public buildings, and scale and commitment to public spaces is almost overwhelming, so I’m bursting with questions when I finally get to meet the man in charge of the DKK19.2bn (approx. £2.2bn) budget for the city’s operation, expansion, and administration.

Perhaps unique amongst city mayors, Bundsgaard makes reference to architecture and design no less than nine times on his welcome page on the city website. The city has over 330,000 inhabitants and it accounts for more than half of the country’s architectural service exports. However, it’s not specifically architecture and design that we’ve been asked to discuss, it is the city’s growing reputation for putting volunteering at the heart of city decision making, and in particular, the growth plans created to allow Aarhus to expand by some 50,000 inhabitants by 2030.

So from where does this ambition for community involvement across so many levels derive? Does everybody (including the city’s 20,000 civil servants) really buy in to it and what’s been the response from the private sector to having to demonstrate they’ve taken local opinion into account?


Jacob Bundsgaard (JB): The basis of Aarhus is that of the University City. From a population of 335,000 persons, 55,000 are students, of which a turnover of some 12,000 new students are welcomed every year. That’s 12,000 new people, mainly young people who arrive with new inputs and new perspectives, and who are finding new ways to know and use the city.

This turnover means that there’s a lot of reinventing [the term ‘rethinking’ is one of the main themes of the 2017 City of Culture] of how to make use of the city every year, which has a lot to do with the vibe, feel and liveability of the city.

James Gross (JG): So what characterises that ‘liveability’ in the context of Aarhus?

JB: If we ask people who live here if they like the city (and most, almost all people do) we go further and ask completely openly: what are the two top priorities that make a good city? The answers we get are: one, cultural life; two, closeness to nature. Plus, feeling safe and comfortable in the neighbourhood, not living in a state of alert – having good neighbourhoods where you can feel safe through volunteering, engaging with community and influencing and controlling development in the neighbourhood.

There is a long tradition of involvement through different channels to bring ordinary citizens close to the decisions that have been very high on the agenda. We [Bundsgaard and political activist colleagues Johannes Lundsfryd, Vibe Klarup] published a number of contributions in a new book ‘Rodskud’ (Root). Our ambition has been to try to use existing structures and open them to more participation, plus ‘rethinking’ the aspects of citizen’s involvement. Much of this is not rocket science but cultural change.

JG: So where is that change needed in order to best take effect at the city-level?

JB: There is a large public sector in Aarhus and Denmark, and it takes time to develop participation in these areas and departments, and it’s something that requires policy shift; changes to mayoral perspectives; and attitudes to content and manner of communication.

Participatory budgeting is key. So, as an example the city took a pilot neighbourhood in Aarhus and gave them complete autonomy over rethinking public spending budgets in the area across departments and existing silos. In order to do this the city created an independent ‘Citizen’s Committee’[JB sat on the committee (eight citizens and eight politicians) but a citizen was chosen as chairperson, and the deputy chair was from the opposition].

JG: Was there any specific reason for asking general citizens over academics and practitioners, where this city has such a high proportion of the latter?

JB: We took a deliberate decision to take a step back, which proved to be a more fruitful and involving process, even though less traditional. Consequently citizens became much more seriously engaged.

JG: Although you got this engagement, are there tensions that arise in the city where so much investment is directed towards public infrastructure of parks, squares, light rail/tram etcetera, versus demands and draws on, for example, caring for an elderly population or pressure on other acute services?

JB: There is always pressure and everyone always wants to do more and do better. However, there is a local and political consensus that investment in city infrastructure can help jobs and prosperity in the city and its businesses to finance further investment in social services and [despite needing to find a balance] is being seen locally as the ‘right thing to do’.

[JG: There have been recent criticisms of the repaving and investment in the city’s Cathedral Square which is currently missing animation or programming and press reports have questioned who has benefitted this particular investment?]

The City of Aarhus is in a good position, so pressure on mobility and accessibility demands this investment in infrastructure. The Harbour development is a good example of [reclaimed] land that the city bought at market value, but as a consequence of [city] investment, is now increasing in value. We could easily use that increase to finance public demands elsewhere, but we made a decision that we did not want to do that, as the impact on liveability in the Harbour and on the creation of community would be too great, hence leaving the value invested in the project. Of course, this requires a longer-term view, and a careful attitude to balancing the budget and exercising restraint.

JG: So how come this long-term view is capable of being taken in the context of political cycles?

JB: There is public support for developing a city that is socially balanced. The City of Aarhus has been a social democratic city for almost 100 years (save for a four year exception in 2002-2006), but besides that, there’s been a longstanding mandate to develop the city in a balanced fashion. So a commitment to develop 25% of the Harbour development as public housing is supported by the public in the city.

JG: Looking at the city’s plans for growth of 50,000 additional inhabitants by 2030, do you feel that the character and quality of the city could be at all negatively impacted by growth on such a significant scale, a common concern with UK cities?

JB: Creating more density becomes a dilemma for the two top priorities for the city’s citizens: that of access to [sustainable] culture, whilst retaining access to nature and countryside in close proximity. Although the city is a [predominantly] three-to-five storey settlement, concentrations of growth in the centre at 12, possibly even 20 storeys may be required.

Yet the city is blessed with space and activities on the periphery, such as natural retreats and holiday destinations. Larger 20,000 population concentrations are planned for the periphery with a greater emphasis on town and family housing [in close proximity to these assets].

JG: So in such cases, how does the city reach out to promote the benefits of growth in these more sensitive locations to an, as-yet, non-existent population?

JB: The key to this is not to programme too much of these developments from the outset. We’re learning to leave sufficient say for new and emerging communities to have a role and view as to how these new places can develop in the future and over time [an interesting contrast with the UK, especially TCPA calls for ‘comprehensively planned’ new development – JG], and allow room to ‘rethink’ projects down the line.

[Refreshing for a politician, Bundsgaard recognises that there are lessons to be learned once communities start to grow and expand, indeed, in a recurring theme, and the central premise of Aarhus as the 2017 European Capital of Culture, the notion of ‘rethinking’ features heavily in our conversation.]

JB: We’ve certainly understood that in planning places, room needs to be left to allow for ‘smarter solutions’. The high turnover of students as part of the city’s population and the scope this breeds for accommodating and welcoming new ideas has become part of the city’s DNA.

Exponential development of technology and communication means than an ability to constantly recalibrate or readjust is becoming more and more important. The fact that urbanisation is a trend that seems set to continue to bring more people into the city, means understanding how those people want to live their lives and a reassessment of how we accommodate growth.

A good example is the increase in the numbers of families wanting to move into the city. Whereas a few years ago, families would typically look to move to the city outskirts or suburbs, now more and more families are looking to the city-central of Aarhus as a place to call ‘home’.

JG: On my tour of the city with Gøsta Knudsen, one of the locations that I visited was Institute X, the makeshift, pop-up community of artists and makers in the city’s railways district. I understand that it is one of the areas set for change and densification as part of the city’s growth strategy.

JB: Mas Peter of Institute X is a prime example of this [creative community] and I’ve followed that project from its earliest days. I’ll visit him quite often to find out what’s happening in that area of the city and to give him a channel to the highest possible political level, and find out what he thinks we’re doing and if we’re on the right track with some of the other developments in the city from his perspective, which is an ‘on-the-ground’ cultural/sub-cultural – I don’t know what it is exactly that he does but I know we want to retain it!

We’ve allocated some funds to his project and I told him (I don’t know what the English expression is) – you need to be the stone in the shoe that can be very, very irritating but also reminds you that you need to focus on the right things, so he’s basically being paid to annoy us in the right [constructive] way!

Being a municipality and an employer of 20,000 persons, means that we’re not the most agile and responsive of organisations, so we need these little organisations, helping us to know what’s going on at street level.

JG: So what advice do you have for community groups with a great idea to improve the city and who are seeking access to the best channels to mobilise and realise ideas?

JB: We’re seeing a new type of community organisation emerging in Denmark that I talk about in my book. Traditionally community groups have been issue-driven, but we’re now seeing groups engaging in helping people engage. Helping people get their cause heard, and all on a completely volunteer level. That’s quite interesting for the municipality as it gives us the ability to refer private ideas to that organisation and I’m in a good dialogue with them and am trying to support them. However, it’s also important that they don’t get too close to us as an organisation, lest they get ‘eaten’ by a system focused on the efficient delivery of day care, elderly care, schools etc. The primary function of the municipality is concerned by high-level decisions that affect thousands of people and these new groups are small-scale initiatives that will grow big and potentially global over time.

JG: Finally, as part of collaboration around growth and participation with communities, what’s next for Aarhus? What hasn’t been tried that remains a political and a community ambition for the city?

JB: There are a number of things. But particularly the whole issue of the ‘shared economy’. There is a certain amount of critical mass required both technologically and in terms of community capital. This goes beyond car-sharing, Airbnb etcetera, but expanded to include building face-to-face community communications, facilitated by some of these online shared economy platforms.

JG: Mayor Bundsgaard, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us.


Thinking back on the conversation – a final thought from JG

I have a feeling, having experienced first-hand the progress the city is making in terms of creating a ‘shared platform’ and ‘shared voice’ for growth, that if progress is going to be made in truly ‘smart’ cities in this regard, then it’s likely to be here in Aarhus.

If rethinking place and structures is part of the city’s ambitions (as part of Aarhus 2017) to place it more visibly on the international map, then I suggest a visit to the AoU’s 12th Congress in Aarhus this September will afford delegates an insight into to a city on the verge of something big.

James Gross AoU is founder of Urban Place Lab Ltd.

Join us in Aarhus for our 12th Annual Congress: A New Culture of Urbanism, 14-17 September 2017. Book at congress.academyofurbanism.org.uk

This article was originally published in The Academy of Urbanism’s journal, Here & Now #9 ‘Who knows best?’