Power play: the other talents of urban infrastructure

It wasn’t a place I was expecting to see skiers. For starters, there wasn’t any snow. It was summer. And I was on the industrial waterfront in one of the world’s flattest regions. But perhaps strangest of all was the fact that they were skiing down the side of a power plant – a power plant that might offer a new model for urban design thinking.

Opened in 2017 and designed by BIG and SLA, the Copenhill power plant in Copenhagen uses household waste collected from surrounding municipalities to generate district heating and electricity. The advanced emissions reduction technology used in its incineration process contributes towards the Danish capital’s goal of becoming the first carbon-neutral city by 2025.

But what makes Copenhill most striking isn’t its power engineering design, or its sustainability credentials. It’s what’s on the outside. The sloped roof is covered in a synthetic grass-like material that’s meant to be skied on year-round. Stairs and hiking paths snake along the edges of the slope, offering an alternative for the less adventurous. And a variety of shrubs, rocks and other biodiverse landscaping features invite the curious tourist and non-human visitor alike. It’s a power plant that beckons people towards it, rather than pushing them away.

Infrastructure is usually associated with stale efficiency or bureaucratic blandness: when it works we rarely have to think about it. But it doesn’t need to be dull or invisible

Copenhill represents a new kind of urban typology. The word “infrastructure” rarely conjures traditional notions of beauty. It is usually associated with stale efficiency or bureaucratic blandness: when it works we rarely have to think about it. But it doesn’t need to be dull or invisible. In recent years, a new sort of city infrastructure has begun to emerge, one that provides not only a pragmatic engineering solution — delivering heat, generating electricity, managing stormwater — but also directly enhances the community it serves. Equal parts utility and amenity.

Examples have begun to crop up in cities around the world. At Sherbourne Common in Toronto, green space in a former industrial area is integrated with a community-scale stormwater treatment facility. Stormwater is treated with ultraviolet light in a system composed of three dramatic public art sculptures before being fed into a publicly accessible water channel and released into Lake Ontario.

In Newark, New Jersey, Adjaye Associates has transformed an otherwise mundane piece of the urban machine — an electrical switching station — into an expansive civic space. Conceived as an “inside-out” art gallery, the 30ft-tall walls of the McCarter Switching Station feature original works from local and international artists, alongside a market and informal green areas.

Amid the COVID pandemic, cities all over the world have been forced to adapt and reimagine how they might better protect the health and safety of their citizens, while still supporting their livelihoods. Restaurants have transformed parking lots and sidewalks into outdoor dining rooms; retail pop-ups have appeared in underused spaces; parks, bike lanes and walking trails have been expanded and improved so that more residents could continue to exercise and socialize.

Cities now have the opportunity, or responsibility, to rethink how infrastructure can be made more adaptable, flexible and multifunctional, not only as a way to better serve people, but to get the most out of tightening budgets and precious urban space. As citizens become ever more concerned about where their energy comes from and how resources are managed, it makes little sense to politely hide away these fundamental aspects of city life. Over the past couple of decades, projects such as Tate Modern in London and the High Line in Manhattan have shown how existing infrastructure can be reborn as thriving social and cultural destinations. Perhaps the lesson for the 21st century is that such generous, public-spirited programmes should be designed in from the start.

Originally published in The Possible magazine.