Open Air Neighborhood – Co-creating outdoor spaces for all

Published on core77 September 1, 2014


Open Air Neighborhood (OAN) started off as a collaboration between KaosPilot Theis Reibke and architect Louise Heeboell, back in 2011. At first, the idea was simply to develop “Building Playgrounds” through co-creative processes with the users, as a way to develop the city itself. They applied for and received grants from both the EU and RealDania, and started working on the project. After meeting Ellen O’Gara at a conference in 2012, the project has since been a collaboration between Heeboell and O’Gara.

The main focus for OAN has always been on creating a strong connection with the users by making them a vital part of the processes. Here they share some insights into what made them decide to work together, what brought them onto the path of co-creative processes and what they have learned throughout the various projects


Core77: Let’s start off with a little bit of history about each of you.

Ellen O’Gara: Architecture seemed like an interesting thing to study because it combined books and creativity. I liked that combination and I still do. While I studied I really liked that everyone could participate in a discussion on architecture because it is something that is relevant for all. And in some ways we are all experts.

Louise Heeboell: I was both creative and good at math and physics. Good at drawing. I thought I was going to be an engineer. But I figured that the mix of engineering and being creative was being an architect. Besides from that, I had no clue, what being an architect was about. I’m happy about my choice now. Years before Open Air Neighborhood, I worked as a ‘normal’ architect. But I found that there was a conflict in the way architects work and the way the city develops. I had been looking for a way to work differently, open and with the users as a central part of the development—and still be an architect.

Louise, why was this so important to you?

Because I found that the urban space that was built as a direct result of the architects drawings had no life. (And I’d been drawing some myself, so I felt bad about it!) I was interested in finding out what created the places in the city that are filled with life and where people liked to stay.

Ellen, what brought you onto the path of co-creative processes?

Ellen: I studied at the school of architecture in Copenhagen. At the beginning of every year we went abroad for two weeks to do field work. In Sarajevo, Porto, Lisbon, … Here we were free to find something that interested us. I would walk around and talk to people. Ask them what was important to them. This would always lead to something interesting. A topic would emerge, a need, a potential. I would gather all the information I could, measurements, conversations… the rest of the year, I and all the other students would develop each our project. I find this way of working very interesting. Looking at the needs and the resources and developing a program from that. It results in some very interesting synergies and very relevant programs. It is bottom-up development.

Of course you can’t always just wander around and hope to run into something interesting when a developer wants something built but it is an approach I find very valuable. So what I mean to say is that my education has very directly led me to what I am working on today.

So, when did you two start collaborating?

Ellen: We met at a conference in august of 2012 hosted by the city. We each presented projects we had worked on for the previous months. It was clear that we had the same interests and some of the same ambitions for urban planning. The conference was about a project called Skab din By. Very interesting and experimental project by the municipality.

Louise: After that, we had a coffee and I think I asked if Ellen wanted to take part in the talk, that Open Air Neighborhood was going to give at the Think Space conference in September that year.

Ellen: Yes, and from then we started building OAN together. By January, we were working full time. Doing projects for the city and housing organizations.

During the Think Space conference you each presented a project. What were these projects about?

Ellen & Louise: We presented several projects where you could see that we had some common ideas for how to develop differently, our approach to urban planning and the process by which the city is and should be made. These ideas were about including the users in developing their own urban spaces. We were both very interested in processes where the citizens take a more central part of the development, and we both had experienced first hand that this kind of process can have some good social benefits.


What were your first projects working together in OAN?

Ellen & Louise: I think it was Gribskov Boerneby, wasn’t it? And the second part of SolvangCenteret. Gribskov was a workshop we did. It lasted a few hours and was interesting. Solvangcentret was a project that lasted about a week. It was the second phase of a project Louise did the summer before we met. Solvangcenteret was building the furniture for an abandoned mall in a social housing area together with the local kids. It was about engaging the locals in developing physical and social ‘things’ together as a whole.

Ellen: During the summer, we have renewed the courtyard of the mall, also together with the citizens. The idea for the second phase was to finish the things that had not been finished. But when we spoke with people there, we realized that that plan was not relevant anymore. So we had a talk about what else could be done. Some of the adults already hosted a weekly dinner that they thought could be more public. So the plan became to build tables, benches and a food cart so it would be easier to host the weekly dinner in the shopping center. We ended the week by doing the dinner. Some of the locals made food, kids decorated the court and we used the furniture.

After we left, the project the locals took initiative to contact the owner of the shopping center and asked for permission to use a kitchen for the dinners. This shows that the people who took part were in some ways empowered to act. To take matters into their own hands. This has been a central focus in our work

Louise: The interesting thing about that project was also that it hasn’t been troubled by vandalism, even though that area is usually has this problem. So we found that including the youth really helps to prevent vandalism. The housing association has starting including the youth as a normal part of their practice for preventing vandalism now.

Throughout the time you have been working with OAN, what have you learned about developing processes?

Ellen & Louise: There is a lot of wasted effort. The system is built to be fair and I guess it is but it is also so highly regulated that the regulations sometimes prevents good initiatives. That is quite unfortunate. Luckily the city of Copenhagen is testing new ways of developing. We’ve been following some of the projects. They have some brave attempts of doing things differently. Skab din By was an attempt from the city to test ideas.


Co-creative processes look different from project to project, but they normally have a basic overall structure. Can you tell us a bit about OAN’s basic process design?

Ellen & Louise: We’ve developed a process tool that we call Demokratisk Byudvikling—a method toolkit. This tool is based on our experience from the projects we have done during the last two years. It consists of two models: the DNA model and the 4D model. The DNA model is a tool to get an overview of the project’s ingredients and potential. This is the initial step where we determine who will be involved and what knowledge needs to be developed, and then a potential process. It’s a circular process.

Then we use the 4D model: Discover, Dream, Design, Deliver. It’s different from projects to project which ‘D’ we start with, and how many loops we take. It’s an iterative process in which we make use of the method prototyping. I think this is probably the thing that a lot of people associate us with. It is a method where you move quickly from idea to physical product. We’ve used it a lot when testing ideas. It is good to build an idea in 1:1. It forces you to be very specific and when it is there other people can see and use it. Thereby they will be able to give a more qualified response. It is also fun and a method that can be quite attractive to people who couldn’t care less about a citizen meeting. Speaking in big terms you could say that cities are prototypes. They are always being rebuilt and learn new things that can make them better.


When looking back at your various projects, which one would you say is the most successful one in terms of learning experience for OAN?

Ellen: I really like Vinterbyen. It is a project that includes a bit of everything. It started with us wondering why nobody focuses on urban life in winter time. There is so much focus on urban life during summer and by far most of the architectural renderings are of summer days. But once it gets cold and dark we hurry indoors. This lack of attention on cities during winter led us to developed the concept of Vinterbyen. We’ve gotten so much positive feedback on the project and everyone we talk to completely understands the idea. We’ve done a series of projects under the name of Vinterbyen and I like the whole process behind developing them. We saw a need; researched it; collaborated with a diverse group of partners on developing ideas; tested the ideas; and derived knowledge from them. This knowledge has been shared through lectures and articles. Each project under Vinterbyen leads to the next project. Developing the business plan is also very interesting.

Louise: I think both the Hørgården Nærgenbrugsstation and the Citylife on parking places are interesting in that manner. I think the Citylife on parking places (also called the ITS, or Intelligent Traffic Systems) has some of it all—figuring out the DNA and the creative process of the discovering, dreaming, designing and delivering. We learned a lot though the process—the interviews, the testing, more interviews. I hope it leads to a whole new way of managing parking places in Copenhagen. I also think that working with strategic planning in relation to our work has been interesting. E.g. in the work we did with the strategy of opening up the Hørgården social housing area. And Nærheden, planning a new city.

All good things come to an end, and you have decided to go in different directions. What lead to this decision?

Ellen & Louise: It seems like a good time to move on. We recently finished our process tool and with that, we feel that we tied a knot on something we wanted to explore together. That being done, we both have new directions we want to explore…

What will be you next step?

Louise: I’m starting a new company called IntraCity. I’ll work with ideas and strategies in the urban space, moving rapidly from idea to action. I teamed up with my boyfriend, actually. He’s also an architect, and a master builder. Throughout the work with Open Air Neighborhood, I’ve been very interested in the work with both strategy and innovation, and the combination in relation to the urban space. That will be my path. Working with prototyping has been so good and interesting. That will still be a central part of my work.

Ellen: My company is Platant. It is a continuation of the work that I have done in OAN but with a greater focus on a few things. I am interested in exploring how to measure the social sustainability of all these interesting projects that are going on in the public realm. And how this can lead to new ways of public/private collaborations.

Can you give me your personal Do’s and Don’ts when it comes to working with co-creative projects?

– Don’t work with assholes! (No don’t write that.) But seriously that is a very important lesson.
– Don’t get into those development projects that want to seem like they want to listen to people, when the actually don’t. When you open up the process to people, you have to do it for real. All the way.

– Follow your instinct about people.
– Test it. You’ll get surprised. And learn so much. And you’ll find that the project suddenly jumps miles ahead. Even though it was only a prototype.
– Collaborate with people, companies and organizations who inspire you
– Share ideas
– Prototype again and again
– Document your findings
– Understand ‘idea’ as a verb!
– Be respectful to everyone. Respect their position and what they bring to the project. And be open and friendly. (It sounds very simple, but is very important)