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A Trip to Denmark

Aug 05, 2011

by Graham McGarva, VIA Architecture

Jan Gehl is probably the best tour guide you could hope for in Copenhagen. And so it was, after luxuriating over a couple of long lunches together, wherein the topic of grandchildren was as least as prominent as kamikaze cyclists and professional liability insurance, my wife Susan Baker and I took Jan’s marked up map with us over several succeeding days of walking and cycling.

We rented bikes for 3 days, and traversed the city north-south-east and west. We enjoyed both the sunshine and the rain (having learned to wait on our bicycles under a big tree when a short downpour rolls in). We found almost all the special bits of street and park that Jan pointed us to, especially enjoying those pockets where people clearly pour their daily affection.

Highlights came in contrasts.  One was exploring the intimate streets at the edge of Osterbro with its, colour, texture and even the impromptu children dancing in the middle of the streets.  The all jammed in together, built as workers housing more than a century ago, but now a where-all-the-intelligentsia-want-to-live-there kind of place.  We walked through several of these environments, such as Jan Gehl extols in his book “Cities for People” on our way to the FC Kobenhaven soccer match where we watched them win the Danish Championship at the stadium just around the corner.

Another highlight was the wasteland of Orestad.  You can read all about its cleverness in the excellent BIG archicomic “Yes is More”, or you can enjoy the cycle there and back, stunned by its lack of beating heart in its relentless cleverness.  At the end of nowhere – otherwise known as a crashed up building called Otellalet, was a pleasant café, where the resident hermits came to gather. The ideas are visible, give everyone the freedom of an outlook of endless open air, and we don’t need to walk past anyone as we are all virtually connected, just a click away.

Right away I THOUGHT I understood what I was seeing played out – the gulf between the generations.  Expressed in Osterbro’s repository of safe memories that appeals to the baby boomer generations; in contrast with Orestad’s cyber space of openness, a clear reflection of the younger generation breaking free from convention.  However, it was the young kids who were happily playing in Osterbro’s city centre streets.  And it was a retiree walking his dog along the canal bank, who told us how he loved living in Orestad, much more amenity that the suburb he came from and well served by the metro and the shopping mall for everything that he might need.

The commonality of both environments was that in both the car was “coped” with (and very expensively) – both are about qualities of amenity, that the in-between of the suburbs cannot address.

What was not apparent, from all the construction and renovation, is that all this is to accommodate a country with a shrinking population, not growth.  This is about choice, not necessity nor affordability.

In our corner of the world, accommodating 30% growth in 30 years with any measure of affordability is the primary challenge. And the new places at the edge must have the qualities of the centre.  So with our tightly constrained land base, I see Orestad and automatically in that emptiness of place, I  think of opportunity for urban infil.  However I am sure it would take a doubling of density to make a meaningful local impact – which I am also sure is not the expectation of the current residents. These are the subrubanites, now freed from the tyranny of their car.

So, with neighbourhood life held hostage within the fortress walls of the shopping palace, I guess that a century could pass before the energy will build for the regeneration that I might envisage. That is about the time a neighbourhood seems to go from ‘ordinary’ to ‘slum/wrong side of the tracks’, to ‘exclusive’.

That is also the time it took Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens to go from being a leftover portion of the City’s military ring of defensive moats and ramparts, to being the amusement park that you have to take your children to  (grandchildren for Jan Gehl).  Thinking that over, don’t highway cloverleafs just make you immediately think of future ice cream cones and candy floss!

(Remember – the goal of city building is for the cafe canopy to be in the right place).