A tale of two cities: An open letter to the people of Oxford…and beyond

You can listen to this blogpost as a podcast recording here…

Dear all,

I make no assumptions about you having missed me, but, nonetheless, I want to offer an apology for my prolonged silence. I haven’t posted a blog in over a month. I’ve been blogging here for a couple of years now and I’ve consistently put out around three blogs each month. I would imagine that one of the ingredients of success in blog-writing is surely consistency in output, so I’ve been remiss here. That said, there is an explanation. Over the past month, I’ve organised my own weekend ‘Unconference’ (for Transformational Learning and Culture) and I’ve participated in events in Aarhus, Denmark (which I’ll write about here) and in Vancouver, Canada (a forgettable academic conference, sadly, where I met some unforgettable people). So, I’ve been busy organising and travelling.

In this blogpost, I want to tell you about and show you some photos of the Dokk 1 building, the new ‘Library and Citizens’ Services’ building in Aarhus that hosted a 3-day event called Counterplay that I was fortunate enough to attend last month. I want, then, to contrast this architectural experience with the huge Westgate shopping centre redevelopment happening right now in Oxford. I want to invite the people of Oxford (and beyond) to think about what might happen if something like Dokk1 were being built in Oxford instead.


Dokk1 – ‘A Space for Change’

Counterplay – play when things get difficult was an event dedicated to exploring the fundamental importance of play and playfulness in human (child and adult) learning and living. Here’s how its organisers described the event:

‘CounterPlay is a tribute to and an exploration of the many ways, in which a more playful approach can help us live better lives. We focus on the excitement, intense engagement and rich experiences of people involved in all kinds of playful experiences. This sparks an investigation of how play can be transformative, change our thinking, push our boundaries and lead us places, we never imagined’

I learned a great deal at Counterplay and the experience has given me a greater confidence to use play and to help people to be playful in the classrooms and other learning spaces I inhabit. What gave me as powerful an experience as the event itself, however, was the building that hosted it. I felt an incredible energy in this building.


The building is called ‘Dokk1‘ and it opened on the dockside in Aarhus, Denmark in June last year. According to Wikipedia, it cost 2.1billion Danish Kronas (£220mill) and was funded by the Aarhus Municipality and Realdania, a ‘private association in Denmark which supports philanthropic projects in the realms of architecture and planning’.

The building is a ‘Library and Citizens’ Services’ centre in Denmark’s second largest city, Aarhus. It’s an incredible space that really does seem to meet the needs of all generations. The library is interspersed throughout the building with other areas such as reading rooms, function rooms, meeting rooms, computer gaming areas, and children’s soft-play areas. There is an incredible amount of light and feeling of space inside. This is particularly important in a place where the climate sends you inside for many months of the year.


Usually, when you read the official bumf describing an architectural project it sounds like what it is, a lot of faux-democratic hot air. But, having spent many hours over a couple of days in this building, this feels like the real deal. So, I’ll let the Dokk1 website describe its own principles and goals…

‘Dokk1 should be a flexible and dynamic sanctuary for everyone in search of knowledge, inspiration, and personal development – an open and accessible learning environment supporting democracy and community.’

‘Dokk1 provides space for contemplation and knowledge. It is an attractive, intelligent and interactive building, which supports the desire to learn and experience.

Citizens, politicians, staff, experts, cooperation partners and networks have contributed to establish the seven core values for Dokk1.

  • The citizen as key factor
  • Lifelong learning and community
  • Diversity, cooperation and network
  • Culture and experiences
  • Bridging citizens, technology and knowledge
  • Flexible and professional organisation
  • Sustainable icon for Aarhus’

2016-04-15 12.08.25

The designers of the building have given much consideration to the issue of accessibility: ‘Special attention has been paid to allergy sufferers, wheelchair users, people with prams and strollers and people who have visual, hearing, mobility, or other functional impairments.’

As for sustainability, amongst other features, Dokk1 has a giant 2,432 m2 solar panel on its roof; uses seawater to cool the building; and all lights are LED and are off unless triggered by movement.

The whole experience of being in Dokk1 was really profound for me. I felt an incredible energy; I felt inspiration and hope – that another world was entirely possible and this was the physical manifestation of something that at least took us hugely in the right direction towards it. If you want to read more about Dokk1, you can in the aptly named book ‘A Space for Change‘.


WESTGATE OXFORD – Plus ça Change

I now want to contrast the Dokk1 project and experience with the major reconstruction and expansion of the Westgate Shopping Centre here in Oxford where I live. This is a serious undertaking and is going to produce a very large mall right in the centre of the City. Here’s what the Westgate Oxford website says about itself:

The Westgate Oxford Alliance is a joint venture between Land Securities and The Crown Estate, created to deliver together the most unique opportunity in the UK, a new destination in Oxford City Centre. Westgate Oxford will be the new retail and leisure destination set to attract world-class retailers and leisure facilities to the world-renowned and historic city of Oxford. It will create a brand new shopping and leisure experience in the heart of the city, scheduled to open in Autumn 2017, in time for Christmas.’

(FYI The Crown Estate is the huge property management and development entity that manages and develops property on behalf of the British Monarch – not the actual Queen personally, but the institution of the Sovereign.)

So, when did yet another massive shopping mall filled with the same old multinational brands constitute ‘the most unique opportunity in the UK’? And, that’s just the start of the marketing BS. Here’s more…

‘Relaxing and buzzing, intellectual and hedonistic, stylish and comforting, Westgate Oxford will deliver a game changing experience set to reinvent the city of Oxford as the ultimate retail and lifestyle destination.’

Here’s the video selling us this vision of Oxford’s future…

Westgate Oxford launch trailer from Westgate Oxford on Vimeo.


A tale of two cities: An open question to the people of Oxford (and countless other cities and towns besides)

”Change life! ‘Change society!’ These precepts mean nothing without the production of an appropriate space… new social relationships call for a new space, and vice versa (Henri Lefebvre)

We have a tale of two cities. In one city, ironically, known worldwide for its relationship to knowledge, you have a carbon-copy massive shopping mall built by big corporate and state money, using the symbols of elitist luxury to advertise the latest temple of materialist indulgence to the aspirational, yet ever more indebted, middle class and poor. In the other, we see a building for learning and culture and with the explicit goal of personal and social transformation designed out of an almost two-decade-long participatory process with the citizens of Aarhus.

As Henri Lefebvre’s quote shows us, we are confronted with the most profound questions about space, power, and the kind of relationships that spaces cultivate.

The questions I want to ask you are: What do you think would happen to our city if we built something like Dokk1 instead? What would it mean for the relationships we had with each other? What kind of relationships do we have with ourselves, with each other, and with Nature in a large shopping mall? What kind of knowledge, what kind of culture is produced? What kind of relationships do you imagine might be being cultivated within Dokk1? What do you think might be the consequences of these two very divergent paths?

Finally, whom is all this knowledge produced in Oxford for? What if we started to accept the judgments and decisions of the so-called ‘experts’ no longer and sought to create spaces for ourselves to come together and to produce our own knowledge and culture that satisfied our needs and demands? If our City Council is committed to what I believe is fundamentally an ecocidal and genocidal vision for the future of this wonderful city then are we not obliged to build our own alternatives? Are we not obliged to take back political power together from our councillors and to take power ourselves so that we can build spaces and relationships of a biophilic (life-loving) nature?

Thanks, as ever, for reading. I welcome all comments, responses, ideas.

Love and peace,


  2 comments for “A tale of two cities: An open letter to the people of Oxford…and beyond

  1. May 18, 2016 at 3:30 pm

    …and I love your podcasting by reading the blog– I really enjoy listening actually, more than the act of reading, so it works for me. (And you have a great voice!)

    • May 19, 2016 at 8:50 am

      That’s very kind, Annie. I think I’m a bit monotone but I’ll work on it 🙂

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