Lessons in Urban Quality

Lisa and I just returned from a week in Copenhagen, Denmark. The trip evoked many thoughts about planning and urbanism, and I thought I'd use this space to share a few.

Deliberateness. So many things in Copenhagen seemed to be so thoroughly considered. The street configurations, the architecture, the coffee pitchers (oh, the coffee pitchers!), the chairs, and, strikingly, the use of public space... I frequently got the feeling, "somebody really thought this out and I can see the benefits of that effort." The Danish people seem to care a great deal about designing things to maximize functionality, sustainability, and beauty. That's inspiring.

Generally, the Copenhageners we encountered were quite friendly. Whereas in some other European cities (famously, Paris) Americans might experience a "stupid American, I hate you" vibe, in Copenhagen I more often got a "stupid American, I am amused by you and I pity you" kind of vibe. Cashiers, ticket-takers, and people in the street seemed to exude a kind of patience with the foreigner that I haven't experienced in most other places in Europe. Quick with smiles and happy to talk, but also aware of when you're ready to be done talking.

Copenhagen aims to be the number one city in the world for cycling. Boy, does it show. We rented bikes and biked everywhere we went all week; it's certainly the easiest, fastest, and most convenient way to get around the city, so everybody does it. Just about every medium- and large-sized street has a separated cycle track in each direction. Unfortunately I didn't get enough pictures, but this one is decent:

Currently the bicycle commuting rate is at about 35%; they aim to get to 50%. We spoke to some transportation planners, and they showed us pictures of people biking through the rain and snow. (As an aside, I think it was Jeff at Gehl Architects who passed along this nugget: "the Danes say that there is no such thing as bad weather, only poor choice of clothing.") We bike through the rush hour commute one morning, and it was just amazing... a sea of bikes, and a comparatively tiny amount of vehicle traffic. Perhaps we (SF) will get there someday, too.

When I lived at the Ponderosa Co-op, I would sometimes stand on our back stairwell looking down at all of the tiny underutilized yards in the middle of the block and think "why don't we just tear down all these fences and have one big awesome yard that we call share?" When I looked out the back window of the flat that we rented for the week, I saw that vision realized (pictured left). There was excellent bike parking, picnic tables, a playground, a big sandbox (filled with toys that are obviously shared pretty widely among all the kids on the block), and some great open space. One of the neighbors told me that yard-sharing is a relatively new concept in Copenhagen-it began about ten or fifteen years ago-but has caught on and is now pretty popular. So perhaps it might happen in SF someday. Anyone want to build a website?

Here's a shot of that shared yard:

Shared yard in the middle of a Copenhagen Block

The food was... well, let's just say that I wouldn't go back to Denmark just for the food. We had some tasty open-faced sandwiches, and some excellent pastries. And there clearly is an appreciation for haute cuisine and a good thin-crust pizza.

We spent quite a bit of time with local planners and architects. On Monday we visited Gehl Architects, a self-styled "urban quality consultants" firm. The associate we met with shared the firm's design and planning principals, and described a few of the projects that they're working on (including expanded pedestrian uses on Broadway in NYC, and the upcoming Market Street redesign in SF). The layout of their office is notable: a wide open workspace where every employee, no matter how junior or senior, sits in four rows of desks; a few bright and open conference spaces; and a lunchroom in back (the firm brings in lunch each day to maximize the efficiency of the employees' 7.5 hour workday). It seems like quite a lovely place to work.

On Tuesday we traveled across the ├śresund Bridge (the longest bridge in Europe!) to Malmo, Sweden. First we traveled through the gorgeous old city, much of which has been pedestrianized. It was midday; the weather was quite cold, but the streets were packed with people who were taking advantage of the urban open spaces and street furniture. It was simultaneously bustling and cozy; I gushed, "this is the apex of urbanism!" (and Lisa rolled her eyes at me).

We then hoofed it through long, construction-laden blocks until we arrived at the turning torso, an impressive, recently constructed office and apartment building in the west harbor of Malmo. There we were met by Minetta, an employee of Malmo's department of the environment. She gave us a tour of an enormous new housing development in the area- about 1400 units of housing built atop the western edge of the western harbor fill. The housing was beautiful (and varied- 27 different architects worked on the project), modern, and as eco-friendly as it could be, with green roofs, energy efficient construction, pedestrian/cycling/transit orientation, trash and recycling systems that are integrated and easy to use, open air rainwater management systems, etc. The entire development is powered by a single wind turbine that we could see on the horizon, a few clicks offshore. Incredible, and inspiring. Many of the homes had huge windows facing the 'street' (in quotes because these were car-free pedestrian and cycle tracks), their lives exposed to all of the passers-by. It's a different way of life, for sure. And at the edge of the development was an incredible seaside public space, with steps, a big field, and lots of restaurants. It was packed with people on a Tuesday afternoon.

Here are a few shots of the Turning Torso and the West Harbor development:

We spent all of Thursday with planners from the city of Copenhagen. In the morning we were given a presentation by one of the project managers of the city's climate action plan, which is currently under public review and will soon be adopted. Then we took a bike tour through a new transit oriented development on the outskirts of the city, with some of the most amazing housing complexes I've ever seen. We spent the afternoon with three transportation planners, who shared with us some of the principals guiding their work (basically, cyclists and peds and transit rule the day) and explained an example project: a neighborhood corridor street--Norresbrogade--where private auto traffic is being restricted in order to expand other transit and public space uses. Sweet!

I'm somewhat amazed that all of these professionals were willing to spend so much time speaking with us and touring us around. Perhaps it's because planners just love talking about planning with other planners. It might also be that the Scandinavians are terrified of rising sea levels, and so they feel the need to spread their ideas to the young planners of america.

posted March 30, 2011 | permalink |