These 11 small streets of terraced houses are laid out like potato beds running between the old ramparts of Østre Anlæg park and Sortedam Lake. After some of the lakes were dammed up in the 1700s, potatoes were grown here to feed the city’s growing population.

From healthy housing for working people to an inspiring, exclusive neighbourhood

At the beginning of the 1800s the city’s population lived behind the ramparts. Building here was intense. Cellars and lofts were exploited; tenements became higher and came closer together, with more side buildings and back yard extensions. There was no sewerage or drinking water, the streets were overrun with rats and stank of garbage and human excrement. Mortality rates among the poor and disadvantaged were very high.

The 1849 Constitution gave free rein to the new ideal of the era – liberalism

The industrial bourgeoisie knew how to increase their wealth but living conditions were a ticking bomb under the new democracy. Many feared a social order inspired by the revolutionary state of contemporary France. Physicians expressed their fears for epidemics but they were ignored.

It was only after a cholera epidemic in 1853 that cost the lives of 5,000 people (3% of Copenhagen’s population) and also threatened the city’s wealthier citizens who lived side by side with the poor that the authorities woke up.

A dawning workers’ movement in the 1870’s challenged the existing order, using labour organisation to achieve political influence both at work and over living conditions.

Cheap and healthy housing for working people

Immediately after the cholera epidemic, the Medical Association’s Homes (now know as Brumleby) initiated by doctor Emil Hornemann were established outside the city ramparts in the area known as Øster Fælled. As building homes outside the ramparts was now permitted, the houses were originally conceived as a quick and necessary problem-solver rather than a long-term attempt to establish cheap and healthy housing for working people.

The process of industrialisation started the migration from countryside to city, and the need for housing underwent an explosive growth. But there were no specific regulations.

Speculators ran rife and families moved into the backyards on the working-class districts of Nørrebro and Vesterbro.

Workers Housing Associations

Workers Housing Associations
This social reality and the romantic realism of the era were the driving forces behind the men who in 1865 took the initiative to found the Workers Housing Association at Copenhagen’s biggest employer, the B&W shipyard. It was the workers themselves who would change their living conditions through thrift, in accordance with the principle of self-help. The main initiators were inspector Bûlow (The Saviour’s Workhouse on Christianshavn), office assistant Eigtved (B&W) and doctor F.F. Ulrik (Municipality of Copenhagen). Emil Hornemann had previously carried out study tours, particularly in England where he was inspired by the workman’s co-operative movement, housing associations and family dwellings in terraced houses.

The solution to the miserable living conditions of the working class had to be partly through profound health reforms and partly through self-organisation. Health reforms were now wholeheartedly supported by the capital’s city government but the long-term reforms – healthy workers dwellings – continued to meet resistance. That kind of reform could only be carried out through private initiative, in other words through the establishment of workers housing associations.

The Workers Housing Association successfully combined a savings association and a housing association. A total of 1776 dwellings were built in ten of the city’s quarters. All the houses were built with the aim of being freehold properties. The owner would be the landlord and preferably give priority to association members as tenants. In this way, the homeowner ensured financial support for the purchase of the property and, later, financial support in their old age. All 480 houses in the “potato rows” were built between 1873-1889.

The workers movement never set much store in the housing association’s terraced houses. Based on the concepts of property ownership and rental, they were seen as petit bourgeois both in terms of their financial model and organisation.

The threat of the 1970s
Up through the 1900s the “potato rows” housed an average of eight people per dwelling. Typically, there would be two or three families with two adults and a couple of children on each floor. Through the years, the standards of maintenance in the house became worse and worse. The 1970s was a fateful time for the rows. Copenhagen council assessed them as being demolition-worthy and planned to build a motorway over the lakes – the so-called “lake ring”. The residents fought the proposal and won. The time was ripe for a new, alternative form of town planning. The rows’ residents associations subsequently collaborated with the local authorities on a conservation-oriented district plan at the same time as the houses were renovated from top to bottom. From the 1970s it was permitted to join the small flats in the houses together into single-family dwellings.

When the Workers Housing Association was closed down in 1974, there was an average of 2.5 people in each house. The local residents associations continue to work protecting residents interests in collaboration with the local authorities.

In their own right
The functionalist architecture of the 1920s and 30s saw no value in these houses, with their small rooms and cramped kitchens. However, contemporary architects see them in a completely different – and positive – light. For example, Bjarke Ingells was directly inspired by the Potato Rows in his Figure of Eight design in the Ørestad development area.