Jacksonville vs.Copenhagen

January 5, 2015 6 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

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?

What Can We Learn?

Image: Amagertorv, a former marketplace dating to the 12th century

While Copenhagen does indeed have a history of a bike culture, it also has a history of dismantling and reassembling its bike culture through policymaking. After cities all over the Western world began to adopt automobiles in full force, Copenhagen followed. But the citizens held demonstrations and raised awareness, gradually influencing policymakers along the way. Activists planted seeds in the heads of those who could influence legislation, and today we are seeing the fruits of their labor.

Cycling in Florida is virtually nonexistent. Bike lanes and cyclists won’t show up overnight, either. Planners and policymakers in American cities do generally acknowledge, though, that cycling is cheaper and better for the environment. And we see that in the construction of bike lanes on the sides of roads….

When convenient.

The sad truth is that even if the city is allocating money towards bike lanes, it is piecemeal. It does not offer a cohesive network that makes cyclists feel safe. Copenhagen does not have bike paths on every road. They still have to play second fiddle to cars at times, even in the most compact streets in the medieval core. But it does have paths on virtually every main road. These paths all connect to each other and allow for easy wayfinding through unfamiliar neighborhoods.

A network like this can be achieved through a focused effort by citizens who want positive change in their city. If this focused effort is applied like it was in Copenhagen, cycling will gradually become the status quo instead of an afterthought.

American planners and policymakers have also begun to acknowledge the importance of the pedestrian; likewise, pedestrian infrastructure has found its “rightful” place on the side of the road as well….

When it has been convenient.

As for creating a pedestrian mall like Copenhagen’s Strøget, Jacksonville might be further behind. Much of the downtown core has surface parking or bland concrete facades that make pedestrians uncomfortable. The answer is not to block off Main Street to cars tomorrow. There is a “critical mass” of pedestrian activity that needs to be in place before a street like Strøget can be successful. Tampa tried transforming downtown’s Franklin Street into a pedestrian mall, and it failed miserably due to lack of programming and lack of understanding of what makes public spaces successful.

Still, Florida sorely aches for a pleasant place to walk. People want urban environments to stimulate their senses and create pleasant memories. This desire is so universal that millions of people are willing to pay upwards of $100 to experience it for just one day.

Image: Downtown Disney. Spend the evening in a vibrant place constructed for the pedestrian! Just make sure to pay for a valid ticket and leave before closing time. (Photo credit- flickr user John of Austin, Wikimedia Commons)

Jan Gehl didn’t intend to create his own fantasyland in Copenhagen. Rather, from a designer’s perspective, he sought to improve the user’s experience by catering to their senses. People want to be around other people. They want the fresh air. They want calm, yet vibrant urban districts. A mediocre street performer trying to play Stairway to Heaven is a much more pleasant sound than a diesel truck whizzing by.

Neighborhoods like San Marco and Five Points already exhibit many of these characteristics. It isn’t too far of a stretch to believe that Downtown can follow their example with subtle design changes that are human-scaled. It won’t turn into Copenhagen overnight, but it can still offer a pleasant experience to the pedestrian.

And like bike culture in Copenhagen, it takes a focused effort and gradual implementation. In this case, it was from one man instead of the masses. The pedestrian network in Copenhagen today is much larger than the stretch of Strøget that was part of the initial plan. His plans were once met with harsh resistance, while today they are beloved.

With this focused energy and gradual progress, Jacksonville can transform itself into a city of innovation instead of inertia.

And it won’t be inconvenient.

Guest article and images (unless otherwise noted) by Jeremy Shackett. You can contact Jeremy at 2016jeremy@gmail.com.

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