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Odense industrial harbor has been transformed into modern docklands blocks. Photo: Ibi Group
Odense industrial harbor has been transformed into modern docklands blocks. Photo: Ibi Group


Experience the new Odense

With visionary innovation, Odense has put its post-industrial pessimism behind it and set in motion changes worth billions. Odense is now the place to be and city life is flourishing. Anker Boye, the city’s mayor, tells Scandinavian Traveler about the new visions for the old city.

The headline “Denmark’s Most Liveable City? The secret of Odense’s post-industrial revolution” in The Guardian in January put Odense firmly on the international map.

The British press had picked up on Odense’s reputation as the best city in Denmark for cyclists as well as the city’s investment in infrastructure, and in cultural and academic change.

The story of Odense’s major transformation is a remarkable one.  It’s the story of a city that was starting to decay, but which rose from the ashes of the industrial age by thinking outside the box and looking to the future.

“Odense is a thousand-year-old city that made the transition from agriculture to industry and is now in the process of transforming itself into a modern, knowledge-based society,” Boye says. 

Anker Boye

Age: 66
From: Odense
Career:  Trained as a painter, but better known as the Social Democrat Mayor of Odense from 1994 to 2005 and again from 2010 to the present day.

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“For generations, Odense was a busy manufacturing city, with canning factories, a shipyard, a paper factory, an industrial harbor, a vending machine factory, and a butchering industry,” Boye says. “Odense was really hot on manufacturing and it was the city’s entire focus. Thomas B. Thriges Gade was symbolic of this.”

An ugly street from the industrial age

As prosperity increased, people were able to buy a car and move to a house in the suburbs. Odense became a car town and to keep up with progress, large parts of the old medieval city were flattened in the early 1960s to make way for a four-lane road that cut right through the city from north to south.

Thomas B. Thriges Gade was named after one of the city’s major manufacturers. Completed in 1970, it became the city’s main thoroughfare.  But it split the idyllic old city center in two, and the street itself was not a pretty sight. International competition gradually began to take its toll on the city and Odense started to lose ground and jobs.

“In the decades that followed, many companies moved to Eastern Europe and Asia, and over the course of 10–15 years, Odense lost much of what had been its livelihood for generations,” Boye says. “We saw 48% of the old manufacturing jobs disappear.” 

Odense was in crisis and was forced to reinvent itself. 

“We had to adapt from using our hands to using our minds. Odense was to become a city of knowledge and an attractive place to live. And it had to be reunified.”

In 2010, therefore, the city council decided to close the traffic-filled monstrosity of Thomas B. Thriges Gade forever, and in 2014 the transformation of the street began, as it became an urban space with housing, parks, and new cultural facilities. 

Visualization of the new urban block with food markets which will be located where Thomas B. Thriges street once was. Photo: fragadetilby.dk

In with the new and new life for the old

Odense is a hive of activity. They’re building a new musical theater and conference building with a music conservatoire, a new Hans Christian Andersen fairy-tale house with a park, a new knowledge center at the university, a new medical faculty, and a new super-hospital.

The city’s new infrastructure includes cycle bridges and pathways through the city, and a new light rail system is being built which will connect the whole city when it’s completed in 2020.

The biggest swing bridge in Northern Europe, Odin’s Bridge over the Odense Canal, is already finished and the old industrial harbor has been transformed into a port with housing and baths, as well as being home to Nordatlantisk Hus, which hosts one of the city’s best new restaurants.

The old Lindø shipyard has been given new life as Lindø Industrial park, where more than 80 companies have rented space and use the old shipyard facilities for shipbuilding and offshore wind turbines, among other things. 

The city didn’t just walk into all this investment, though.

“Initially, it was an uphill task, because all investors thought about was Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Copenhagen – and occasionally Aarhus,” Boye says.

Brandt area. The old textile factory is now one of the city's main cultural areas. Photo: Jens Friis

 “I practically had to beg them to consider Odense, but at some point, things changed,” Boye says. “Because Odense’s projects are so well-rounded, because the investors could see that everything harmonized, could see what they were part of. Now every single plot has been sold and DKr34 billion has been invested in Odense. And that figure is increasing on a daily basis.”

Odense as a new technology hub 

Odense is pursuing future technology ventures in the form of the robot industry and welfare tech, which produce robotic solutions and devices for hospitals and for people with disabilities. The city has 83 fast-growing robo-tech companies and a new course in robotic engineering has been launched at the university. Drone development is another of Odense’s new specialist areas, with a new European test center destined for the city. A national network of IT companies has its base in Odense and the city provides several talent programs to support the sharp minds and young entrepreneurs who want to start up business here.

City life is flourishing

Entrepreneurial spirit and optimism are not the sole preserve of City Hall. New student housing, cafés, and wine bars have been springing up all over downtown Odense. Delicious little organic bakeries, delicatessens, chocolateries, and the organic Odense Food Community bear witness to a new-found interest in quality food. This has also paved the way for a new restaurant scene, with places like No. 61, mmoks, and Goma offering a range of excellent gourmet food.  Volunteers have created organic city gardens, while others have built a sustainable straw house for the city’s residents on the square behind City Hall.

Food at Mmoks, one of the new stars of Odense's gastro scene. Photo: Lise Hannibal

Last year saw the arrival of the Tinderbox music festival, boasting a world-class line-up, and as well as its festivals dedicated to everything from food to short films, electronic music, Hans Christian Andersen, and Harry Potter, the city has several innovative theaters and excellent museums. Cultural and urban life are a top priority, from the mayor’s office down to grass-roots level.

“I asked Lars Nørby Johansen (a successful Danish business leader, ed.) for some good advice on how to achieve maximum value from the project,” Boye says. “Apart from encouraging private sector growth, one of the pieces of advice he gave me was to invest in experiences and events. It’s become part of our investment pool of DKr100 million per year.”

“Although there will always be some who oppose change – not least among my own generation – the new Odense is something that most people believe in, are proud of and happy about,” Boye says. “Young people blog about their city and get out there and make things happen. And that’s true all over Funen. We stand together and we use what we have. We are done talking ourselves down and we’re not going to sit and wait for someone else to come along and do things for us. We’re rolling up our sleeves and doing what our ancestors did: we’re doing it ourselves.”

Read more about Odense’s urban development projects here and se more illustrations at fragadetilby.dk

Text: Lise Hannibal

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