Nb.[This text was commissioned by the Denmark-based artist collective YKNB, and was subsequently translated into Danish and published for circulation in Copenhagen.]

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L’Internationale de Science Populaire studies options for Norrebrø

The DSB Fragtmandshallerne in outer Norrebrø is a 1000 square meter dinosaur of a building surrounded by a weedy field and bounded by the DSB commuter line, commercial shopping and high-density public housing. It is in a neighborhood composed of immigrants, ethnic minorities, families, youngsters, students, and lower income resident. The city is now scrutinizing the area as a candidate for that cynical form of urban revitalization that favors aestheticized commercial occupancy over local control. Some residents believe the task of revitalizing the Freighthalls area should be granted to grassroots groups as a means of building community agency. These voices, composed of the artist group YNKB and several local associations, have initiated a drive to replace this district’s spatial vacuum with gardens, workshops and play areas. They propose to fill the warehouse with an interlocking cluster of projects that would share knowledge, skills and energy to open up new recreational, creative and educational opportunities to neighborhood residents. The coalition has submitted a plan for an Activity Park and Cultural Center to the city’s planners. This report sketches out how an integration of projects responding to the social, cultural and spatial needs outlined by Norrebrø’s community groups makes an elegant structural contribution toward Denmark’s stated Local Agenda 21 sustainability objectives.

At the 1992 Rio Convention, assembled nations produced a ‘blueprint for sustainability,’ composed of 27 guiding environmental principles, concluding with the directive that local governments produce initiatives tailored to their circumstances. Agenda 21 stresses that social and economic equity plays a crucial role in bringing human consumption into line with the biological capacity of the planet, and to this end, the document emphasizes the need for widespread public education and pro-active participation.

As a nation, Denmark’s infrastructural commitment to sustainability is everywhere in evidence; we see windmills and bicycles, factories sharing their waste products, and model living projects such as ‘green’ apartment buildings and eco-villages. Less visibly, farmers are guided on how to avoid agricultural run-off. In the nation’s Local Agenda 21 program web-site , this kind of communication with the voluntary sector is highlighted as the next necessary source of change. “The public authorities … need help from the general public….. Each individual person must therefore take responsibility for global problems by starting to solve them where he or she lives and works.” The Miljoministeriet authored site asks not to wait for institutional innovation. Citizens should ponder resource conservation, social equity, unemployment, and perhaps dabble in energy production, all while promoting human harmony with nature. The text emphasizes that “Anyone Can Initiate Change”.

Initiation is one thing, but how do you get others to come along? How quickly do practices move through a society? A survey of New York City’s recycling found it took 13 years for 20% of the people to adapt to sorting their trash. These figures reflect how ponderously new habits move through a diverse city. Danes are more environmentally savvy than New Yorkers, but a 1998 survey of Local Agenda 21 participation (4 years after the program’s inception) indicates that the most frequent participants (over 25% participating) were already active in politics, environmentalism or civic and tenant organizations, in other words, they were already habituated to civic involvement. Children participated at 22%, but this might be due to school programming rather than volunteerism. People classified as unemployed (13%), immigrants (2%), handicapped (4.5%), and even trade unionists (15.5%) were markedly less involved. These early numbers might not reflect current engagement, but they imaginably reveal that socially excluded groups might not see environmental remediation as the crucial task before them.

“People should not be motivated by laws but should feel personal and moral responsibility for carrying out the principles of Agenda 21.”

While it is admirable to expect citizen participation, this challenge must not be used to deflect failure back onto populations incapable of initiating or even imagining change. Campaigns for sustainability are social as much as they are technological, and they are correspondingly limited by existing systematic social imbalances. The gauntlet thrown down by Agenda 21 authorities does not address the question as to how citizens normally excluded from civic and infrastructural processes should be motivated to respond with creative initiatives. Why would someone with no stake in the nation’s productivity feel personally responsible? Local Agenda 21 hopes to wipe out environmental apathy with an appeal for people of diverse backgrounds to personalize the benefits of good ecological practice. The cold truth is that the most effective behavioral modifiers in the urban environment are laws and disciplinary regimes (fees, fines and taxes), coupled by the internalized regime of consumption itself. In free market economies, participation takes the form of consumption. People will buy solar nightlights when they are offered at Aldi. City dwellers are not accustomed to free rein as agents of environmental solutions, nor as stewards of their own urban spaces:

Mette (a retired school teacher): What is going on? There’s water on the stairs and now mud is getting all over the place.

Ahmet (short order cook at Doner Konig): Oh that Knut, he’s saving water from the laundry and putting it in the garden. Must have sloshed on the way down.

Mette: What a numbus, now who does he think is going to clean this up? Oh damn, look what else, he poured the water all over the place my African violets came up last year and they can’t tolerate too much water at all.

(later that day, they ready to give Knut (a software programmer) his public flogging and Henrik (a building manager and construction worker), who is in charge of the task, is going to cut off a piece of hose he had stashed in the basement.

Ahmet and Knut are alarmed: Wait-- don’t do that! We could use that hose to run the water to the garden from the laundry.

Mette: Well, you better figure out some way of filtering it first, if you want to do that. Maybe you can make some kind of a pond or sump, so the water doesn’t just end up one place.

Mo (unemployed engineer): Oh that’s not a bad idea, and I know how to keep mosquitoes from breeding in the water, that I learned when I worked in Bangladesh. If we made it big enough, we could grow some fish in there, hmm.

Ideally, these imaginary householders could do a study, make a plan, borrow the Local Agenda 21 bulldozer, and build their settling ponds. Soon Mo has a small income selling tilapia fish. The program asks people to fill in the gaps, and promotes the notion that citizens can conduct research and initiate projects. The end goal is one of distributed experimentation, where disused resources are channeled into new uses, and where citizens devise ways to share energy, literally and metaphorically. But Local Agenda 21 does not re-distribute existing hierarchies of authority, or provide a route toward self-determination for those whose sense of authority and confidence is bracketed by the realities of social or economic exclusion. The city asks for input into planning process, but does not give grassroots groups with initiative and energy any real influence over planning decisions. The good intention of distributing the responsibility for sustainability across the population is undercut by the local authorities’ unwillingness to treat grassroots applicants with the same respect as commercial ones. LA21 wishes to initiate change at the grassroots level, but lacks cooperation from the city authority. And both authorities refuse to treat grassroots organizations as equal and viable partners in the struggle to achieve sustainability.
But the means do exist. Underdeveloped sites- uninhabited gas stations, warehouses, office towers and brownfields- present an invaluable opportunity for a community ready to invest their desires and bodies through action. The construction of Glentevejplads in Nørrebro is a recent example where Copenhagen residents collectively rehabilitated a disused property and transformed it into a desirable park that suits their particular needs. The DSB Freighthalls and surrounding grounds could similarly galvanize residents to conduct social and environmental experiments that would benefit their neighborhood and their futures.
There is no such thing as sustainable technology or economic development without human development. - Gaviotas founder Paolo Lugari
Improve social contact across sectors by networking neighborhood organizations that represent diverse interests. This approach follows the lead of sustainable communities such as the Columbian village of Gaviotas which integrate creative and economic life with conservation and innovation in green technologies. Gaviotas was founded upon principles of shared stewardship and equal valuation of cultural, economic and technological development. Village residents include former Bogota street children, indigenous tribe members, amateur and professional scientists, engineers, gardeners, tinkerers and Columbian citizens from many walks of life. Research, experimentation and pedagogy are cultivated through a framework of intersecting disciplines and interests, and rest upon the exchanges that occur between individuals with diverse ideas, skill levels, experiences in an atmosphere of trust and security.

Where finite material resources are perceived to be a community problem, (rather than a national one), projects such as Gaviotas and the proposed Freighthalls project invite new engagement with sustainability through qualitative outlets: to be busy, creative, respected, heard, useful, skilled, resourceful. Local Agenda 21 recommendations stress the interdependency of economic, social, ecological and cultural objectives. More work should be done toward examining how this can be enacted in an urban setting. City administrators should promote community stewardship as an integral part of revitalization projects and replace short-term, dedicated social outreach programs with grassroots-run projects that integrate social needs in a way that builds citizenship skills and permanent support structures. Immigrant outreach, day care, employment skills training and other forms of state-managed social remediation work frequently only functions as triage for isolated communities and individuals, single-mission services that don’t address the sources of social exclusion. This work would be more effectively led from within the neighborhood, where outreach is conducted as one part of a range of activities that use the resources of an area and its underdevelopment as subject and nexus point for capacity building. An exemplary model is the ‘Universal Embassy’ in Brussels—where a group of artists and journalists procured housing for asylum seekers in the abandoned Somalian embassy. The activists created a horizontally configured support network that brought the refugees into the processes of decision-making and documentation of their integration into Belge society.

To charge a community with the stewardship of property presents a physical framework for action. As a pedagogical project, it relies upon building interdependency between people of disparate interests to accomplish something of mutual benefit: musicians who want a recording studio must work with people who rescue recycled materials for sound and heat isolation. Rather than divorcing cultural activities from engineering, habitat stabilization, food production and learning language, a community can exploit the interconnectedness of disciplines and materials. There are latent environmentalists sitting alone in small barren rented apartments; the Freighthalls would provide a raw laboratory for their ingenuity, while building an understanding of how better to meet local needs. As a public space, the Freighthalls would contribute to Copenhagen’s net resources, becoming a nodal dissemination point for the strategies and practices of sustainability, and a living experiment in the construction of participatory democracy.

The Rio Convention states that “the right to development must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations”. It is well documented that corporations have no consideration for the needs of future generations, nor to their present sustainability. Local authorities can better fulfill this element of the convention by giving able communities, such as exist so abundantly in Copenhagen, more control over their local resources, rather than letting the economic fate of a neighborhood fall to the intransigence of corporate decision making. Neighborhoods that are excluded from the dominant economic regimes will be better served by long-term programs that fully exploit the integrative principles of sustainability than short-term dedicated social projects that depend upon vagaries of markets, politics and funding. People lacking access to materials, and opportunities for creative outlets have no incentive to think about sustainability. To make raw physical locations and meaningful projects available to a these people demonstrates a commitment to grassroots action, rather than rhetoric, and strengthens the hand of a local authority that wishes to promote personal responsibility.

Finally, the invention of art is not so distant from that of science and engineering; all involve creative problem solving and cooperative activity. It is only appropriate to draw on the skills of artists, cultural workers and community activists who regularly labor in these indeterminate, ambiguously defined areas of social activity. But grassroots organizers have no power to make central decisions about city planning. Local authorities are often in the hypocritical position of demanding change, and then withholding the critical means for that change. A constructive dialog between local government and grassroots organizers must take place, one that cedes decisions as to the best use of space to the parties willing to take on the social work and long term responsibility necessary to make regional sustainability a reality.