Reinventing place – The story of one city’s transformation

Horsens is a small city (pop. 55000) tucked away in a less-travelled corner of Jutland in Denmark. The city has an inauspicious history – a grim legacy created by the prison that used to be the city’s main landmark. The result was a predictably poor self-image:

If there was a town that couldn’t do anything, it was Horsens. The big, the strong, the spectacular – we left that to other towns.

Henning Nörbæk

Unlike most other Danish cities, Horsens has a few hills, and the old prison sits atop the highest of these, casting it’s menacing eye over its surrounding environment.

How then can Horsens have become the city that attracts the most people moving to or within Jutland? There is an inspiring story of transformation here; the story of Horsens’ transformation from being a prison city to being an experience city. And every Horsensite knows this and is proud of it.

The prison is still there – having been transformed into a museum – and houses a rich collection of stories and myths. One of the most famous stories is the story of Carl August Lorentzen, who escaped from the prison in 1949 by digging a tunnel. Over the tunnel’s entry, he wrote these words „hvor der er en vilje, er der også en vej” (where there’s a will, there is a way). This echoes the „can do“ attitude that has become part of Horsens’ DNA.

Today Horsens is an “up and coming”, vibrant, fun city, that still relies on its old industries centered around the Horsens harbour – but also new creative industries driven by entrepreneurial spirit.

How did this happen? It certainly wasn’t just luck. The following are some factors that we believe contributed to this reinvention of place:

  1. Shared history: Horsensites are Danish, quintessentially so – but not only are they Danish, they are also Horsensites. They know their country’s and their city’s history, and are proud of both.
  2. Politicians who put their money where their mouths are: The City Council has worked actively and tirelessly to reinvent Horsens as an experience city, including investing substantially in urban renewal.
  3. Football: This may sound strange and non-intuitive, but few things bring a community together like the local team. Swap in any popular sport – there is nothing magic about football per se. Horsens’ interest in their local football team led to the building of an impressive sports arena, which not only hosts sporting events, but also concerts, drawing crowds from all over.
  4. Clear vision: When Horsens decided to reinvent itself, the end goal was clearly defined. Horsens wasn’t just going to improve itself, Horsens was going to become an experience city. A place where locals and visitors could enjoy fantastic experiences, ranging from the staged experiences in the arena, to the semi-staged experiences in the glass cube strategically positioned in the center of Horsens’ pedestrian street, to the quiet friendly experiences of the renovated urban landscape.
  5. Marketing around one simple theme: The experience theme was defined 25 years ago; the results started to come about 10 years ago, and are still being realized.
  6. Population „buy-in“: Strike up a conversation with any Horsensite and the odds are they will tell you about Horsens and its impressive reinvention. Everyone knows the history and everyone knows the course on which the city is headed. One of the slogans Horsensites love is „at løfte i flok“, or „to pull together“. Horsens’ reinvention would never had happened without full commitment and tangible involvement by all major players in the community, such as businesses, the city council and other public organizations.

Did you notice? It’s not about attracting tourists – who would only come for a few days, leave a bit of money and then leave – it’s about attracting people to move to Horsens.

And it seems to be working.

Pia Schildknecht and Marina Candi, writing from Stormsalen in Horsens, Denmark

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