An interview with

Jakob Matzen

Urban Planner, City of Copenhagen

You went to school for architecture, why did you switch from architecture into urban planning?

During my studies I was pretty sure that I would never be a traditional architect who worked at a firm.  I did some courses after that and found out urban planning might be the thing for me.  During my studies I was doing some projects with a greater scope, not so much into smaller details. After my first 3 or 4 years I was aware that I would never really want to work at a firm but maybe just do some writing or something else.

Was it an easy transition?

The stuff I learned in school was about being creative and innovative.  I think that education you can use for really broad scope of things.  A lot of urban planners are architects as well.  It’s more about letting go of designing buildings and getting a wider scope of things, the complexity of trying to work with a whole city.  This is kind of a prejudice in a way but architects are usually focused on one spot in the city, one building, and they are focused on what this one building can do and urban planners will come back the other way and try to figure out how this building can fit in in a broader context.  The transition wasn’t so hard because it was more about getting into what urban planning was about, if was about how many more things do I have to take care of in order to make a good plan.


Sluseholmen Canal City District, joint venture by the City of Copenhagen and the City & Port Development Company to develop former harbor industry lands for mixed use development

A lot of urban planning degrees have a specialization, did you have a specific area of focus?

What I do now has a pretty broad scope, it’s more like doing detailed work for Copenhagen and then I connect with the transport planners, economic planners, around these types of projects.  I might be project director or project leader of this one area that we have to do plans for and I connect with the other guys from different departments, like the environmental section or transportation section.

What is that process of collaboration like?

It’s about keeping focus on what’s really important and then trying to get everyone going in the same direction. Even though we might be from the same administration, in Copenhagen planning is divided into the economic section and urban planning section, where the economic section is doing the overall land use planning for all of Copenhagen, and is responsible for developing the bits of land that the city (still) own. It’s more or less about how to figure out how we find a common ground and the focus that we need to get ourselves into.  People from different areas in the field tend to have their own views about how to do things best, traffic planners and transport planners have a certain point of view, trying to figure out how many cars are going in and out, maybe you have an opinion that the streets clog up so you want to avoid having a 4 lane street leading up to this new area we’re planning.  There’s a lot of similarities but there’s also a lot of discussion about what’s the main focus here.  In order to get this plan done you need to be very persuasive, even within your own field and your own administration.

You work in the public sector for the city of Copenhagen but urban planning also has a private sector, what are some of the pros and cons of working in each sector?

Working for the private sector means you always have someone paying you to do a certain kind of work.  In that sense if I was a planner working for a developer my job would be to find out how to get this project or proposal going within a certain city and trying to figure out what the best way is to get this work done according to my clients needs.  That might be an exciting thing to do but for me it’s good working in the public sector because I get to work with all the different policies that are made by the city of Copenhagen and try to figure out what’s the best way to implement these policies. Figuring out how do we work with people from the outside, such as private developers, how do we get them to go along in the same direction while still being innovative and promoting their projects in a good way.  It’s most exciting to work in the public sector because I work in a great city, it’s really exciting to be working in Copenhagen, we get all these different projects and have to discuss these different issues and work with a wide range of people that I wouldn’t be working with if I worked privately.  I’m really privileged to be working with all these different people in the public sector and trying to get my second education in a way.


The Royal Playhouse opened in 2008, a major public investment at about 150,000,000 USD. It's integrated with a public promenade leading around it, and a public café/restaurant inside the playhouse

Working in the public sector you are working for the city and handling taxpayers money so often your primary goal is what is in the best interest for the people of Copenhagen. How do you handle working with the taxpayers money and meeting their expectations?

It’s a good feeling.  A city like Copenhagen uses a lot of the taxpayers money, we get a lot of taxes by being a city of this size, so the city has a lot of money and we can do great things like building more bicycle infrastructure or building great urban space.  We’re using a lot of work hours trying to figure out new policies and implementing those policies in a totally different way that a small city might not be able to because their resources are much more limited.  In that sense it’s great to be working in a city this size and having those resources.  Even though it might be similar to other cities in that the citizens oppose some of the things their cities urban planners do and are always asking “if we pay this much money why aren’t you building any school, why would you propose this project even though it doesn’t benefit anyone other than the developer?” All these discussions we have going and in that sense you see that people are paying their taxes but they also expect a lot because they’ve paid that much.  In general it works really well.

Where I live people wanted bike lanes and the city spent years debating if they should build them or where the money should go and nothing ever got done.  How do you avoid these debates and get things done?

It’s been one continuous project and a lot of work being done on say the bike lanes, which has developed into a big thing, 50% of people living here use their bike on an everyday basis, and that’s because the infrastructure is there.  If it wasn’t there, that many people wouldn’t use their bikes.  Things are interconnected in that sense.  The next big thing is building more and building better urban spaces.  People are getting more and more into the idea of having great urban spaces and seeing that they’re needed.  It’s still going to be a fight between wanting to use their cars, the people from the outside who want to enter Copenhagen by car, the people who have their cars inside the city, they need a parking lot and they need to go in and out of the city on a regular basis.  Right now we have a mayor who is a social democrat, and he knows that the Copenhagen brand is about bikes but he also thinks that he owes his voters and should build good car infrastructure.  Our city council just voted, not with a big majority, but they voted for a tunnel bisecting the city to have more cars getting around the city.  But everyone knows as soon as you build more car infrastructure there’s going to be more cars in the city.  This is kind of the discussion we’re having internally in the city right now, which goes back and forth, but generally most people acknowledge now that the bike infrastructure is working and it’s working having so many people using their bikes because it means fewer cars on the streets.  The infrastructure is getting better for public transport as well, bus lanes were introduced a 7 or 8 years ago, we’re building a new Metro so the whole city is one big construction site at the moment.

In that sense people don’t hesitate too much, the politicians are aware that we’re going in the right direction in that sense but there’s always going to be a discussion about what the money should be used for.  Right now we are having the discussion about whether we should build this big tunnel and we have people arguing that for 27 billion Krone how much more public transit, how many more bike lanes would you be able to build?  Maybe even making public transit free for everybody to use, which is something you can give to the people to get them to leave their cars outside of the city.  In general people usually agree that the bike lanes are working and we should continue to work on that.


Explaining the "Finger plan" to St. Petersburg polticians and professionals at a joint venture with Gehl Architects

You inherited a very solid urban plan from your predecessors, The Finger Plan for your public transportation was implemented in 1947, as a new urban developer how much is predetermined and how much can an urban planner actually change?

We have a lot of good stuff to build on at the moment but we have a very ambitious goal now of being carbon dioxide neutral by 2025.  This is going to be our next big challenge because it’s in about 10 years time from now and just by looking at how much the greater building mass, older buildings in general, and also buildings being built at the moment still have too many C02 emissions and are creating too much energy loss.  It’s kind of a communicational challenge to find out how to get people working in the right direction.  We are developing the Northern Harbour Project at the moment, which is one of our next big new urban development sites, the ambition for that area was to be the most sustainably built urban area but it seems at the moment that the land owner has a big debt because the profit from the land sales is going into the metro construction, they already owe a lot so they aren’t to keen on discussing too many things at the moment about sustainability because it would force them to tell their land owners and developers that they’d have to spend more money on sustainable solutions.  At the moment the building laws don’t really apply to the goal of being carbon neutral.  We need to figure out how we can continuously work on getting a greener city in that sense.

The other thing is being better at building good connections between the different parts of the city and creating an affordable city.  Copenhagen has been getting more and more expensive, so we need affordable housing for a broad range of people.  Planning wise I guess it’s about trying to figure out how to develop new urban areas that are even more independent about individual transport and getting people to maybe not even own a car.  Transport issues and connectivity throughout the city and the general sustainability challenges is a really big challenge at the moment.  You have a lot of older planners who are very experienced and very talented but they don’t have the same view on sustainability issues that you and I might have because we’re from a different generation and have different views on climate change and the things we are experiencing at the moment.

Older planners are also used to being the major planner, they have a big plan and they want to do it and they see it as the right solution, but younger people have been educated over the last 10 years have a broader view and are better at working together with different professions and can work together with people who have different views to figure out what’s the most sustainable solution. Do I have to give up on some of my architectural views? Do I have to give up on some of my implemented urban planning principles that were durable 10-15 years ago? What do we need to do to get a more sustainable solution?  In that sense I think it’s transportation, sustainability, and getting better urban spaces and better connected spaces throughout the city.

Are people on board with the 2025 plan? How do you get people to make all these changes now for future benefits?

It’s a good question.  I think it’s “don’t tell it, show it” it’s about getting them to be aware that if you move into a condo that is a carbon neutral structure or is maybe even producing it’s own energy, have a look at your energy bill, it will be zero whereas your parents might pay several thousand a year just to heat up their house.  Getting them to understand that you don’t have to own your own car, you can share it with someone else, you could easily rent a car if you need one, get into a car pool.  In a way you need to be very good at persuading people to see the benefits of that solution.  When I’m discussing the benefits of new urban areas with some of my colleagues it’s about education in a way that the next generation of people might not accept that they have to live in a house where they have to pay an energy bill and have to pay for hot water because why should they? They could live in an energy producing building.  In that sense they might be different from us, who are still used living in a conventional home and using conventional transport modes.  You need to show everyone what the good solutions are, what the benefits are, right here and now.

At the same time working at this longterm goal that won’t show it’s benefits until 50 years maybe. It’s difficult to discuss climate change with people if they haven’t experienced hurricanes or flooding and to say this is going to happen in 30 or 40 years when your grandchildren are growing up.  There is still a discussion going on about whether climate change is even a human product so it’s about communication and it’s about showing people the benefit.  It’s not about big reports and a lot of numbers and figures it’s more about showing them the benefits on a one-to-one scale.


Norther Harbor development. Expected 40,000 inhabitants on former industrial harbor areas coming in 20 - 50 years

You are on the board for Let’s Go, which is a car sharing program, why did you get involved with that?

For one thing it’s about the cost or having a car, North American cars are so cheap compared to ours, the cost of having a car is really high here but still people have them,  sometimes even two.  Fuel is very expensive here too.  People still use it because it’s convenient to have your own car, it might even just be parked on the street for 99% of the time but on the weekend they use it, but they still have it and it’s taken up room on the streets.  The carpool project is about trying to show an alternative.  At the moment we are about 1000 members so it’s not that many people using it, not yet anyway.  We’re trying to improve our numbers and get more people to see the benefits of having a car pool.  Also trying to be cooperative about other car share services in the city. It’s still growing and being developed in a way.  We have a new service entering the city where we have a provider of small electrical cars throughout the city, which is like a self driven taxi, it might be a good thing for younger people, maybe you rent a car with your smartphone, it could be parked anywhere in the city, you enter your code and you drive to where you want to go.

It’s kind of fun to try but it’s not the best alternative.  It’s more about getting people to understand that you don’t actually need a car.  At least not if you live in the city and work in the city, that seems ridiculous to spend so much money on it and take up the space in the streets and urban spaces.  At the moment it’s all about getting more members into the club and trying to be more communicative about what the benefits are.  It’s a non-profit organization and the people are voluntary members working with the cars and on the phones so we might need some more money to do some more promotion.  It’s growing very slowly but it’s growing.  I’m quite excited about being on the board and trying to get people to understand that it’s a good idea.  I’ve been using it myself for about 9 years and it’s working pretty well.


PLug'n'play sports faciltiy, individuals and clubs can come by and use the facility and equipment for free, there's soccer, skating, parkour, hockey and more.

What are some of the bigger projects that you’ve worked on?  Are there any that you are particularly proud of?

I was part of the group working on the sustainable tool that we use more or less every time we do a new plan. It’s being implemented and it’s being used and a lot of other cities are using it in a much bigger way now.  Once we had it developed they were trying to get their hands on it pretty quickly and trying to use it.  It’s a good tool to also have developers understand what we are talking about when we talk about sustainability because for a long time we would ask the developers about what they wanted to do in terms of sustainability and they would ask us “well what do you want us to do?”  We didn’t really know because we hadn’t made up our minds about what is sustainable planning but now we have a 14 point questionnaire about how each project can be more sustainable and it’s working quite well.

There is always satisfaction in having a plan approved by council after working on it for a period of time.  It always takes 3-5 years before things are built so I’m starting to see the final product of my efforts now.  I’ve been with the city for about 7 years now.  It’s always fun to have people discussing it.  You see people in random places in urban spaces discussing this or that building and this or that urban space that you’ve been a part of planning.  In general it’s fun to be part of this development. It’s beginning to take up more time in the media as well, people are starting to discus urban development in a total different way than they were 10 years ago.  It’s in the publics interest and we are discussing how cities should be developed for the public.  The stuff I’m working on actually has an impact on the people and it’s in their interest and they’re aware of it in a different way than they would have been 10 years ago when maybe they were only interested in a project if it was built right in their backyard.  Now they are discussing urban life and new urban areas.

I was meeting a Canadian urban planner in a bar a few months back and we were just discussing it and some guys came into the bar and they were pretty drunk after work and as soon as they picked up that we were urban planners discussing urban development there were suddenly three new guys who had pulled up chairs around our table and we were all discussing new developments in Copenhagen, what was good and what was bad.  A guy would say “my sister lives over there and she’s really satisfied with that area and you should do the same thing with this area that’s really shitty” in that sense it’s fun to meet people on an everyday basis and see what impact our planning has had on them.

That’s a bit more general but there’s a few projects I’m proud of.  I helped create a new plan for a Copenhagen arena, which is to be built in 2 years time, it had a good elements and there are good plans for that area.  It’s already taking off now with the arena being built with new housing developments being built around it.  It really catches up pretty quick and with this plan being approved 6 months ago a lot of stuff is happening now.  Getting through that process was pretty tough so it’s satisfying to see it actually working now.

You meet with urban planners from all over the world, are these different cities coming to you because Copenhagen is constantly ranked as one of the best cities in the world? What do you usually discuss with them?

It’s kind of a seasonal thing, people start coming at the beginning of March but definitely April to September, when the weather is nice in Copenhagen, they come to do their study trips.  So I’m quite busy taking care of these trips depending on where they are from.  I speak German as well so I get all of those groups and have to take care of them.  I also do it because I think it’s fun to meet with other people.  I just try to tell them about all our good policies and all the good stuff we do and it’s always fun to discuss these things.  People are really eager to find out about what’s working and what’s not working and why is everyone talking about Copenhagen?  Is it only the bikes?  What’s so cool about it?  More people are coming to Copenhagen now, which has been for a long time a kind of little, Nordic, boring, sleep city  but now it’s attracting a lot of people and other people are trying to achieve some of the same things we’ve done with biking and better urban spaces.  Also the sustainability factor, you can swim in the harbour now, which you couldn’t 10 years ago, the water is so clean now.  We’ve achieved quite a few things that people are anxious to find out about how to do it.  It’s fun because people are interested in what you’re doing and they want your help in doing something similar.


Copenhagen is a very well respected city and people are coming to you for advice now but what other cities are you looking to? What cities do you think are doing a great job in terms of urban planning?

I think Malmo, which is close to Copenhagen, on the Swedish side of the water.  Stockholm is doing really well in terms of planning and getting new urban developments, really dense urban developments, Stockholm is growing very fast.  Hamburg in Northern Germany is very interesting for us because they are going through a process where they are also turning harbour areas into new housing areas and mixed use office areas.  Berlin is always interesting.  There’s a few cities in Spain and France, like Lyon in France and Barcelona has always been interesting because so much stuff has happened in the last 20 years.  There’s quite a few European cities that are going through this process of being deindustrialized and trying to figure out how to use the old industrial areas.

You always have a range of other cities who have either gone through the same process or are going through the process at the moment so you can always compare yourself to other cities.  Vancouver and Portland in North America are interesting but they are still so different from us from a planning perspective because they have so many more cars.  The interesting thing is that it took us 40 years to implement the bicycling infrastructure here but it seems to be taking off pretty fast in some places in the United States and Canada in a really quick way, which makes me wonder how they can do it so fast, 10 years ago I wouldn’t have even dared to ask people in the US if they used their bikes and now people are talking about biking in New York.  It’s really interesting to see how other cities are working with the same principles that we’ve been doing for several years now and maybe even getting there faster than we did.

What are some jobs that are associated with urban planning that most people might not know about?

Sociologist, which is not that unknown, but sociologists and geographers and cultural studies, people who are going into the cities fabric and trying to figure out who is living here and why and how we can work with the people living in these different areas.  In your own city you might have some preconceived notions or prejudice about which kind of people are living in which areas and I think these fields are very well connected to urban planning and should be used in an even broader way than we use them today.

It’s always fun to work with artists, people who have a totally different view on things and still are working on maybe the same developmental ideas and involving the public through different things that are going on in the city.  Always trying to be on track with what’s happening next.  Planning is such a slow business, you do your plans and by the time your plan gets approved by the council maybe it’s already too old and it’s already being taken over by some new development.  So it’s always good to stay on track and see what’s happening around you.  People from the cultural and social sector are really good to work with on these things for the future.


Islands Brygge Park

What is a more direct route into a career in urban planning these days?

A lot of new planning degrees have been set up.  Traditionally it was always architects working with transport planners here in Denmark.  There’s a lot of different disciplines catching up, geographers, economists, engineers, are all going into urban planning now.  The architectural stuff is being taken over by people who don’t have an architectural aesthetic view of the city but have a way more pragmatic and maybe more scientific view on planning.  There were two Danish schools before and now there is a third one, which is more scientific in a way, whereas the other two were more focused on the artistry of the trade.

In terms of education maybe I would have wanted my school to focus more on that.  10 years ago you could go through architecture school without opening a book, you just do your projects, do some nice models, some nice drawings, and maybe you’ll get through anyways.  This scientific aspect of being more knowledgeable about knowing more about the complexity of the city and the complexity of society was not taking up much space in architecture school in Denmark.  In that way I think all of the programs being set up at the moment might be more efficient at getting at that than it was in an architecture program.  It’s not all bad, I’m still an architect, I would like other architects to go into urban planning but I also acknowledge that there’s a lot of other disciplines who are doing a great job and could make good urban planners without the architectural training.

Do you have any final advice for someone looking to get into urban planning?

I think you need to get into it because you like being in a field that is in everyone’s interest but also one where you have to work together with so many other people who have been educated in a totally different way from yourself.  You have to want to work with a broad range of people on an everyday basis and you have to be patient because planning is a pretty slow trade.  You plan for something for the next 5, 10, maybe 20 years and you might not even be around when some of your plans are being executed.  At the same time it’s very dynamic because you have to get into the politics and be a part of society in a totally different way than you would have had to in other fields.  It’s one of the funniest things about my profession at the moment and I really enjoy it.  Just go for it and get to know about different cities, get to know about your own society, get to know about what’s going on in your own city and see beyond the fabric and layers, there’s a lot of stuff going on underneath there, which is really interesting to take in.  You should be interested in sort of thing if you want to go into urban planning.

Date: January 2, 2014 • Category:
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