The problem with Copenhagen-Style Urbanism

16 August 2017

Despite the many lessons one can learn from the Danish capital Copenhagen in terms of city design, there is one important problem that is often overlooked: the size of Copenhagen (600 000 inhabitants) versus cities like New York or Chicago.

This is the conclusion of critic Martin Pedersen after a recent study visit to the Danish capital, as published in ArchDaily.

Winter cyclist Copenhagen

Together with other American colleagues Pedersen was invited by the Gehl Institute, founded by the practice of Jan Gehl, “to observe, to reflect, to think about ways in which the Copenhagen success story might be replicated in cities back home”, in the US.

Pedersen lists various points on which the Danish capital has been successful in creating a city that is inclusive and accessible:

  • Pedersen finds Copenhagen to be one of the most civilized cities on the planet. “The seemingly effortless civility, Copenhagen’s amazing level of grace, is not an accident of place or happenstance. It’s the product of a shared belief that transcends urban design, even though the city is a veritable laboratory for pretty much all of the best practices in the field.”
  • Copenhagen has a very proud bicycling culture with half of its residents cycling to work, irrespective of the weather.
  •  The cycling lanes in the city are extensive and also, for the most part, separated from vehicle lanes. “But even the unprotected lanes possess a strange, almost ethereal equilibrium, as if the bikes and cars had come to some sort of cultural understanding. It feels unspoken and unconscious and utterly safe, but it’s actually learned behavior on the part of cyclists and drivers alike.”
  • The bike lanes form part of a larger, holistic approach to urban design. “The objective isn’t cycling, per se, but transportation,” Pedersen writes. “It’s about building a network of options, with the overriding goal of creating a more livable city. The equation is fairly simple: more bikes equal fewer cars, less noise and less pollution.
  •  What is more, the “farsighted approach to place-making isn’t limited to transportation. All of the initiatives that we observed – the parks, public spaces, walkable streets, bike lanes, comfortable street furniture, the adaptive reuse of old buildings, even the planting of trees (which eliminated parking spaces!)—were connected to a larger civic purpose: creation of a shared public realm. Copenhagen feels, in a way that no other American city does, like a group effort.”

And unfortunately it is here where Copenhagen differs from American cities (in Pedersen’s point of view): “rapid urban transformation – of the kind that we’ll desperately need in the future – requires a systemic approach: the Copenhagen model. All of the initiatives must reinforce each other. And getting that level of buy-in, that level of consensus, is ultimately not a design problem, but a political and cultural challenge.”

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