A perfect fit

“As a municipality, we make passports and all kinds of licenses to make locals’ life easier. Maybe we can also do so by creating new networks among people,” says Marcus Juhl, Development Officer at the Culture and Citizens’ Services in Aarhus.

The Culture Buddy programme experiments with how the City of Aarhus, through its Citizens Service, welcomes newcomers. “Every city must have a vision about how to welcome and deal with new people moving in the city,” says Juhl. Aarhus’ Citizens Service’s vision is to create a community experience while discovering the city’s cultural offer. “We have the privilege of a rich cultural scene,” adds Juhl, “so we thought, how can we use this to create interactions and new social networks between newcomers in cooperation with civic society?”

Tackling loneliness with culture

Five years ago, if you moved to Aarhus, you could go to the town hall and get a physical package with some information about the city, its offer, and some free tickets. However, as more people decided to do so – today more than 20,000 people a year move to this city, which counts 361,622 inhabitants – the packages became too expensive, some people took advantage of them by getting more than their share, not to mention it wasn’t an environment-friendly solution.

If you come to a new city and you're getting handed over two tickets but don't know anybody, well, it’s not any good.
— Marcus Juhl

“A key point for us when developing the Culture Buddies project was to create an experience for new residents instead of just handing out papers and products,” explains Juhl. “If you come to a new city and you’re getting handed over two tickets but don’t know anybody, well, it’s not any good.”

At the same time, loneliness has emerged as a problem in our societies. In 2021, the Danish National Institute for Public Health published its National Health Profile where it found that 9.1% of the Danish adult population often experience loneliness, with an increase of 2.8 percentage points only between 2017 and 2021.

“It’s normal to feel some loneliness, especially when you are uprooting,” says Juhl. “The problem is when it becomes generalised. That’s bad for mental and physical health, and extremely costly for the economy because it has many side effects.”

The National Health Profile also found that the highest proportions of loneliness are found in the 16-24 age group – 14.4% and 16.7% respectively. Since more than 70 % of all newcomers in Aarhus are between 18 and 29 years old and more than 55% between 16 and 24, the Culture Buddies project is all the more relevant. “Loneliness is only just now coming to light as a huge issue, which means that our project has much more value now,” says Juhl. “Within Aarhus’ municipality, young people’s lack of wellbeing is now seen as one of seven ‘wicked’ problems to tackle in our society, together with the climate crisis and sustainable development.”

young people’s lack of wellbeing is now seen as one of seven ‘wicked’ problems
— Marcus Juhl

Surprise experiences with strangers

Concretely, the city organises each year, a Culture Day with up to 500 participants. In this event, newcomers and Danes, youngsters and elders join, meet, and mingle. “They don’t know with whom they will experience the activity and they don’t know what they’re going to do,” explains Juhl.

Each participant is assigned randomly to a group and a surprise activity. This can be a museum or heritage building visit, a boat trip, trying out the skating rink and much more. Volunteers show them the way, make sure people talk to each other and invite them to have a cup of coffee or join another activity later.

“It’s up to us to make them feel at ease,” says Juhl. “For some, the surprise element and being put together with strangers can be stressful. But the idea is to give them something different than just another museum visit. They get a taste of the culture and meet others. Maybe they will have more courage to meet new people after.”

It's up to us to make them feel at ease. For some, [it] can be stressful.
— Marcus Juhl

Through the Culture Buddies project, Aarhus’ Citizens Service collaborates with local cultural spaces in the city, newcomers NGOs and the Student House Aarhus to also organises pop-up activities throughout the year. For example, a cultural space can offer tickets for a concert, “we put it on our social media and on the NGOs we work with, and groups of young newcomers get them and go together,” explains Juhl.

These activities tend to attract mostly the young newcomers, and they work based on trust. “You could cheat but I don’t think that’s a big problem,” says Juhl, “because even if you have lived here all your life maybe you also need to meet new people. The point is that you won’t be going alone but with all these people you don’t know. If you’re doing that, maybe you’re in need of this. Besides our attitude is, that we trust people.”

Fitting in

With the invasion of Ukraine, Aarhus has been welcoming a different group of newcomers. “They have obviously been plucked out of their lives, so we did some activities with them specifically,” says Juhl.

The Culture Buddies organised surprise trips for refugee children to sport clubs, which are a big part of Danish culture and “another great way to get to know new people and be part of a community,” adds Juhl. During their visits, children could try the sports out instead of just getting a presentation. “They get a taste of what they can do with their life in a new city,” says Juhl.


Making new friends

It seems a simple enough solution, but does it work? Aarhus ran a survey in 2022 with positive results. Regarding Culture Day, 90% of respondents agreed that the volunteers provided a good atmosphere. “The atmosphere was great, and we decided to keep in touch,” reads one comment. Significantly, 95% of participants said they started conversations with people they didn’t know before.

Anecdotally, a Danish couple made new friends and reported: “An Argentinian couple approached us to ask if they could see us again. We said yes and invited them on a tour of a neighbourhood they wanted to visit. We’re now friends on Facebook and look forward to seeing each other.”

As the enthusiasm for the Culture Buddies grows, the city is already thinking about adding more options to the programme. “In the future, maybe we will arrange trips to nature as a way for people to get to know Aarhus,” says Juhl.

Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer