Urban planning is about seeing projects from multiple perspectives

Would you briefly introduce yourself?

My name is Elisabeth and I'm the Head of KHR Urban Planning at KHR Architecture. This means that I am in charge of the urban planning services we offer our customers. I have gained my experience from working in both municipalities and private consultancy, and I primarily work with strategic planning in the early phases of urban development.

Besides that, I'm married to Jonas and we've been together for more years than we've been married, so we've long since celebrated our copper wedding anniversary as lovers. We have two girls, Ida, 8, and Ellen, 4, so my spare time is mainly spent with my family. Three years ago we bought a small house in Valby from 1917, so there are also quite a few projects at home that I spend time on.

Why did you choose a career path as an urban planner?

I graduated as an architect from Aarhus School of Architecture in 2010, but I quickly became curious about everything outside of architecture. Already during my Master's degree, I focused on the large scale and the strategic, where I was particularly interested in human behaviour and the history of city formation in the development of society. In my architectural projects, I always ended up analysing and finding good arguments for my choices. This meant that I often had limited time for the design process itself, and it was clear that my interest lay at the strategic level. For the first 7 years of my working life I worked for municipalities, and in the last 5 years I have worked in design studios, a foundation, engineering houses and now here at KHR Architecture.

Can you explain in more detail what you do as an urban planning expert?

Urban planning is about being able to interpret and administer the laws that apply in the early stages of planning. In the Greater Copenhagen area, for example, we have the Finger Plan, which regulates urban growth, green areas and infrastructure. In addition, you have to deal with environmental legislation, road legislation, nature conservation, etc.

At KHR Architecture, I advise clients on their projects, primarily in the initial phases of project development. I advise on the process in the dialogue with the municipality about frameworks and constraints. My experience shows that even though the legislation seems to be fixed, it is interpreted and administered differently from place to place. Here, I use my experience from the municipalities to advise on the project's possibilities. It's all about getting the right administrative and political approvals and sign-offs through the process. My mantra is that you save both time and money on projects if you make the right decisions on an informed basis from the start.

What motivates you most in your work as an urban planner?

I try to understand the political and strategic decisions and contexts of societal development, as it has a huge impact on spatial planning and our everyday lives. There are always new trends in society, and they happen faster and more often. This means there is always something new to be curious about.

In the actual project management and dialogue with clients, it is motivating for me to be able to share my knowledge and see that it makes a difference for the client. The same goes for ensuring a good dialogue to create trust and consensus between the parties. It's a very dynamic profession, where you're constantly learning new things while meeting each other in new contexts and with new projects.

Is there a project or sub-project you are particularly proud to have contributed to?

There are two. My switch from the public to the private sector happened through the Danish Urban Planning Laboratory Foundation, which needed a project manager to facilitate a debate on the Finger Plan. Because my interest was at the strategic level, I said yes, and I helped create a debate booklet together with various players in the planning world who had a voice in society. We made a short film where Connie Hedegaard and Bente Klarlund spoke, and we ended the project with a big conference where a number of experts gave presentations. I think it was incredibly exciting to put the state's planning, Fingerplan 2019, up for debate.

Another big project that has taught me a lot and that I'm proud of is Gardener's garden, which I have been project manager on from masterplan to adopted local plan.

How do you collaborate with other professionals to create holistic solutions?

I always try to cultivate good co-operation and relationships, as this is crucial for a good result. Because I am familiar with the pitfalls of the planning process and the requirements of other professionals, I often act as the octopus that can make things fall into place by talking to the professionals and understanding their areas. On the private side, developers have to deal with many different professional groups, and here it is an advantage that I have knowledge of the field and have worked with many developers, builders, municipalities and professionals over the years.

What does the future of urban planning look like and what would you like to work with in the future?

Planning and developing our cities has become more complex as the world has become more open and change is happening at a faster pace. Political agendas are changing rapidly, which is reflected in increased demands from municipalities that developers have to deal with. I have an idea to create more synergies between sustainability and urban planning. There are specific requirements for sustainability in construction, and there is therefore a great demand for being able to implement sustainability measures in the initial planning phase with, for example, targeted guidelines in the municipal plan and political goals in strategies. However, it is important to consider buildability and market realities and considerations in these initiatives. Our clients are responsible for the realisation of concrete projects within the planning that is decided.  

I also have an interest in our cultural heritage and the preservation of buildings, so I would like to work more with sustainability and preservation by utilising the knowledge that municipalities have about building values and cultural environments and making transformation opportunities visible to developers.

Do you have any advice for future urban planners?

It's important to be aware of the legislation and be open-minded, as it is interpreted and administered differently. Therefore, you shouldn't necessarily accept the first answer and return to the client with a message that something can't be done. You must dare to be critical, open and solution-orientated by asking the right questions. You can do this if you know the legislation and gain the right experience over time. If you're a young urban planner who lacks experience but has a lot of drive, I recommend looking at the decisions of the Complaints Board, reading guides to legislation and taking courses where you can learn more and meet other urban planning nerds. The best place to learn about urban planning is to sit in the engine room of the municipality's planning department.

Do you have any advice for a builder or developer looking to launch a new project?

Spend more time than you think on the initial planning. Thoroughly investigate the frameworks and constraints that regulate your project area, including underground and off-site. An overlooked utility line or protected forest line can radically change the land use of your project. A plan screening, site analysis and feasibility study is a good start to engage in a constructive dialogue with the authorities and initiate a good collaboration. This provides a good starting point for the local plan process and ultimately the realisation of your project.

Thanks to Dronerune for drone photography.