Copenhagen’s immigrant epicenter and the experimental public park trying to mend the divide
By Alec Hernandez
Slithering through the heart of Nørrebro, the epicenter of Copenhagen’s ever-expanding immigrant community, Superkilen is unlike other parks. Completed in 2012, it has become one of Copenhagen’s premier locations for gatherings like concerts, art exhibitions, and classic summertime picnics. Its allure is not that of a typical park, but rather one of complete novelty. Superkilen, like its host city, is sleek, unique, and trendy. The space is divided into three main sections–– The Red Square, the Black Market, and Green Park––and each serves a separate purpose.
Beginning in the park’s southernmost point, the Red Square serves as an extension of Nørrebrohallen, a popular neighborhood community center, and promotes a venue for sports, live music, and commercial marketplace in warmer weather. The space is littered with ramps and rails for skateboarders and an outdoor gym fitted with instructions for high-intensity workouts. Restaurants that offer food from across the globe surround the entrance.
Crossing Nørrebrogade, the neighborhood’s busiest street, visitors enter the Black Market, meant to serve as an “urban living room.” While the Red Square focused on exercise, the Black Market is its leisurely counterpart with picnic tables, seating, and even hammocks in the summertime. Kids play in the jungle gym or ride scooters up and down the hill in the center of the park while their parents exchange stories on an ovular concrete bench under the shade of palm trees.
The final leg of Superkilen, the Green Park, most closely resembles a traditional park. Trees and grass cover the area and provide locations for picnics and other outdoor activities. A basketball court lies at the park’s nucleus. All three spaces are seamlessly interconnected with bike and pedestrian paths, creating a network from end-to-end.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the park is the array of objects placed around the space. Each section of the park features its own collection of paraphernalia from around the world, meant to highlight the international background of the neighborhood. The Red Square is adorned with an Iraqi swing set and an Israeli manhole cover, a Moroccan fountain serves as the centerpiece to the Black Market, and a giant donut neon sign from the United States stands at the entrance to the Green Park. These objects are just a sliver of the park’s much larger collection, which includes a boxing ring from Thailand, a gazebo from Texas in the red and white of the Danish flag, and a Copenhagen bus stop sign written in Arabic. There is even an artificial hill built in the center of the park with soil from the occupied West Bank.
Copenhagen is seen across Europe as a beacon of design, minimalism, and “hygge”–– the Danish art of curating the ultimate cozy environment––all wrapped within Denmark’s international reputation of renowned humanitarianism and liberalism. On its surface, Superkilen is an embodiment of both contemporary Copenhagen and Denmark: it both promotes community engagement within Nørrebro while simultaneously broadcasting tolerance and diversity. The park, however, is hardly just a showcase of diversity. Commissioned by the Municipality of Copenhagen, the city’s officials determined that something needed to change in Nørrebro. As the center of Copenhagen’s immigrant community, it has become an experiment on how to integrate immigrants into the Danes’ tightly knit social fabric. As a result, Nørrebro has been heavily impacted by anti-immigrant rhetoric and the tightening of immigration laws. So, in an effort to start bringing Danes and Nørrebro together, Superkilen was born.
Even before the onset of the international refugee crisis, the majority of immigrants settling in Copenhagen and across Denmark came from Muslim-majority countries, excluding those migrating from other countries within the European Union. Generally, most of these migrants made Nørrebro their home by following the footsteps of friends and family members who made the move before them. Hoping for a warm embrace from their new Danish neighbors, many received quite the opposite introduction to their new country.
Immigrant communities, particularly those from predominantly Muslim nations, have received a cold shoulder from some Danes who have failed to welcome immigrants with open arms. A 1995 survey found that 37% of Danes did not want a Muslim neighbor, while 64% did not want a family member to marry a Muslim. To make matters more difficult, the government passed a string of strict immigration laws after 2001 and showed little interest in pursuing integration programs. 2007 and 2008 saw several violent demonstrations in Nørrebro, mostly by young immigrant men not only airing frustrations with the Danish government, but also calling for spaces of their own when community centers were either closed or demolished. Frequent police stops and lack of support for immigrant communities had the neighborhood on edge, while miscommunication and lack of public space devoted to immigrants remained a reality.
Not much has changed for Denmark’s immigrant community since the 2008 riots; in fact, the environment may even be more inhospitable today. Like other European countries, Denmark has not been immune to the rise of far-right political parties riding on the coattails of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election. The Danish strain of xenophobia and Euro-skepticism stems from the Dansk Folkeparti, otherwise known as the Danish People’s Party (DPP). After garnering just over 20% in the 2015 general election, DPP held a serious position within the governing coalition but has since lost a significant amount of support. Most of the DPP’s backing is now shifting toward formerly center-right parties that have taken harder, more conservative stances on issues like immigration. Many former DPP sympathizers are now seated in parliament through the center-right Venstre party of current Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen.
Inger Støjberg, one of Venstre’s notoriously conservative members, has come under fire for several policies she passed during her tenure as the Minister for Integration, Denmark’s highest post in charge of coordinating immigration policy. In a March 2017 Facebook post, Støjberg posed with a luxurious chocolate cake, topped with fruit, an artfully executed Danish flag, and the number fifty taking up the center of the dessert. The ‘50’ represented the 50th tightening measure of Danish immigration law, and Støjberg beamed from ear-to-ear smiling at the camera. In a subsequent interview with Jyllands Posten, a leading Danish newspaper, Støjberg said that she did not understand the criticism the post received, claiming that any political victory was worth celebration. At least Støjberg thought it important to mention she ordered and purchased the cake on her own.
Another popular Danish newspaper, Politiken, broadcasted their criticism of the incident with a cartoon. The image has Støjberg, cake in hand, standing side by side with a small Syrian girl without arms with the works “ingen arme, ingen kage” (“No arms, no cake”)–– a word play on a Danish saying that roughly translates to “You don’t get any cake if you don’t help in the kitchen.” Danes are notorious for their bluntness and sharp tongues, yet this isn’t their most brutal chastising of Støjberg. In 2016, the newspaper circulated a popular internet meme that compared her unique, bright red hairstyle to a traditional Danish pork dish.
The Støjberg cake debacle is not Venstre’s first immigration-related scandal. The party was criticized internationally, including by Human Rights Watch, for their controversial 2016 immigration bill deemed the “Jewelry Law.” With Venstre at the helm, Danish parliament passed a proposal that would oblige refugees entering the country to forfeit any valuables exceeding 10,000 kroner – approximately $1,500. The alleged purpose of the legislation is to pay for the refugee’s stay in the country, but many purport that its sole purpose is to persuade migrants to look elsewhere to settle in Europe out of fear of losing their most valuable possessions.
On a local level, Nørrebro has become a cultural battlefront within Copenhagen. Unlike other European cities where immigrant influence can be clearly seen throughout the city center, immigrants in Nørrebro are isolated from the bustle of central Copenhagen. This isolation has also caused the most salient factor of tension that exists between the two parties: miscommunication. Danes actively stay away from Nørrebro, imagining that it is rife with crime and poverty; for some, it may as well be a foreign country not worth visiting. It has become apparent that there is a crucial misunderstanding of the immigrant communities by the Danes, and projects like Superkilen are intended to bridge these divides to bring the two communities together for the first time.
Three firms–– BIG architects, Topotek1 landscape architects, and an artists’ collective called Superflex––took on the challenge of mending these rifts on behalf of the municipality through their joint Superkilen project. In a video series showcasing the behind-the-scenes construction of Superkilen, Rasmus Nielson of Superflex mentions the project is one based on extensive “citizen participation.”
“I think this might be defined as an extreme version,” he mentions as he describes the role of the neighborhood in constructing Superkilen. Dozens of Nørrebro natives were consulted on what kinds of objects should be present throughout the entire construction process, and the objects were likewise chosen to represent the neighborhood’s diversity. In essence, the park meant to unify the community through its diversity and invite the rest of Copenhagen to enjoy what the neighborhood has to offer. Superkilen, therefore, meant to bring understanding through shared space and multiculturalism.
However, Superkilen may be hurting Nørrebro in ways its creators did not intend. As Copenhagen continues to grow, Nørrebro has become the focus of a new wave of gentrification in the city’s peripheral neighborhoods. In the past year alone, dozens of new brunch restaurants have opened, low-income apartments have been renovated for millions of kroner, and the city just began constructing a new metro line that will reach the heart of Nørrebro. As the neighborhood begins to attract more Copenhageners, immigrant communities find less and less space of their own as the cost of living continues to rise. Although the park was intended to bring communities together, Superkilen has been referenced as one of the biggest projects that has attracted more to the neighborhood.
Others have taken up the same type of work in the area by trying to connect Copenhageners with their overlooked immigrant communities. Some, like the artists behind Superkilen, look to create more dialogue or at least general understanding. Ghetto Tours, a guided tour series run out of the Resource Center Ydre in Nørrebro, take Copenhageners and foreigners alike through the neighborhood’s streets and highlight the best aspects of living in Nørrebro to debunk its stereotypes.
In some ways, Superkilen has done the same––the advent of the strange park brought more visitors to Nørrebro than before, and opened Copenhagen’s eyes to one of its most unique neighborhoods. Both of these projects, though, have had a much greater positive impact on the neighborhood than any official legislation––especially with Støjberg at the helm.
Superkilen might be a generous gesture from the Copenhagen municipality to its marginalized and stigmatized immigrant communities, but it is clear a political solution is what migrants really need. Although the park is a generous offer from the municipality, immigrant communities in Denmark would benefit more from a less stigmatized position in Danish society. They need a reality of belonging enforced through the law, not swing sets. As immigrants continue to rush into Denmark, it is clear public parks are only part of the answer.
Alec Hernández ‘18 is in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .