In this article, Metro Jacksonville travels across the pond to Europe. Well-known for its compact, historic cities, its urbanism seems out-of-reach given the partisan climate and snail’s pace of progress in Florida. Can we really learn from these established cities? Or is it too unrealistic?
Europe and the Human Scale: Copenhagen
We hear many reasons why American cities can never become like European ones. European cities are much older and have a richer history. They were built more densely from the beginning. Much of the urban core then was intact before the automobile was created. Highways never sliced apart their urban cores. Europeans are just, well….more progressive. Any piece of federal legislation wouldn’t make it through Congress. People are resistant to change. Americans love cars too much to give them up.
European cities’ livability does not come from a moral or cultural standpoint. No urban policy is better or worse than the other, save for its impacts on its citizens. European cities are best positioned for the 21st century right now, but still subconsciously rely on what also worked centuries ago. Despite all of the innovations and technological improvements of the past few millennia, humans are still the same biological creatures that they were thousands of years ago—walking forward, eyes scanning the horizon, keeping aware of dangers, socializing, processing the environment through their senses. We will explore how cities cater to—or betray—these universal qualities. Danish architect Jan Gehl calls this the “Human Scale,” and has been applying this all over the world, including in the United States.
Copenhagen is the capital of and by far the largest city in Denmark. Together with Malmo, Sweden, Copenhagen straddles the strategic Øresund strait that links the Baltic and North seas.
Image: Copenhagen in relation to Europe and Scandinavia. Aerial by Google Earth.
In 1989, Copenhagen was effectively bankrupt.
You’ve heard the same story for other cities. Originally a fishing town, Copenhagen’s influence held strong for centuries. It was always the keystone of the Danish economy. When the Industrial Revolution hit Europe, Copenhagen’s development accelerated just like every other major port city.
Then the manufacturing industry left. Copenhagen was an industrial town without industry, a port city with a weakened port. To maintain city services, Copenhagen took out too many loans. Once these funds quickly dried up, the implosion was complete.
One thing led to another, and in 2014 Monocle ranked Copenhagen as the world’s most livable city. How did this transformation occur?
Copenhagen’s Medieval Core
Image: Copenhagen’s medieval core and Christianshavn neighborhood with Jacksonville’s Northbank and Southbank core superimposed. Aerial by Google Earth.
Copenhagen’s official founding was in the 11th century when Bishop Absalon gave the citizens their own castle, which now lies directly beneath the modern Danish Parliament building. The winding street grid was formed by cow paths; their tracks soon evolved into a coherent village layout. While there have been major fires and bombardments, Copenhagen’s urban fabric remains remarkably intact to this day. This is largely because it was not bombed during World War II, while cities to the south in Germany weren’t as lucky. The result is a charming core of 18th-century buildings that house shops, businesses, and institutions. Since the car was a distant dream when the city developed, the public squares and pedestrian streets were difficult places to accommodate vehicles. But the city did it anyway.
Image: Strøget, before and after pedestrianization. Credit: Jan Gehl, “New City Spaces”
In the 1960s, the city’s main shopping street, Strøget, was nearing capacity. It was crowded with automobiles. The only option, it seemed, was to widen the street or build expensive freeways into and out of the city.
Enter Danish architect Jan Gehl.
Gehl suggested that the city close it to cars, and instead let the pedestrians have the street. This was met with harsh criticism. While many of us have heard of that type of idea today, this was the first of its kind at the time. After many twisted arms, he convinced the city to do a temporary trial run. This temporary trial run turned out to be a massive success, as Strøget’s pedestrian count increased by 35% in the first year alone. Another major street, Købmagergade, was next. Again, pedestrian activity increased. As Gehl closed off more streets and public squares to traffic, more people walked. A temporary experiment turned into a permanent positive feedback loop.
Why did this work?
Gehl has denounced modernist city planning, which attempted to use urban form to cure social ills and bring order to chaos. The city was then sculpted based on the planner’s own sense of morality or vision of utopia.
Some might demolish historic structures and build highways in the center of the city; others might design a cold public space that is repulsive rather than attractive to public life. One has to look no further than Brasilia to see how this monumental scale is detrimental to the human.
Instead, central Copenhagen is designed for the human senses. The streets are narrow and curve slightly. This makes pedestrians feel safe and enclosed; it gives a feel of curiosity, not anxiety, when wondering what is around the next bend. The lack of cars makes the streets relatively quiet, yet the abundance of people makes it interesting. Buildings aren’t too tall, nor are they set back from the street. This makes it much easier for pedestrians to walk in and out of shops. From then on, the key indicator of success of a public space was to be how it facilitates the basic human experience.
Being a city older than the automobile, Copenhagen had a lot of these urban design elements in place already. All Gehl had to do was make a small tweak to the existing model.
Image: Strædet, one of Copenhagen’s oldest streets, was recently closed to traffic. The street has many boutique shops and restaurants today.