Wanderlusting on The Sustainability Trail
Postcard No. 2: Livability
“Quality of life” is by nature a pretty subjective term. Whose life? What kinds of quality? Add another layer of arbitrary judgment – ranking cities by livability, for example – and the subjectivity’s so thick it might as well be a stew of things we say we like. So what, then, does it mean that Copenhagen routinely sits near the top of such lists? (The most recent livability ranking from London’s achingly hip Monocle, for example, ranks the Danish capital as the second most livable city on the planet behind Zurich; Copenhagen was No. 1 in the 2008 Monocle ranking.) Is it all just fashion, hype, opinion? Is there any way to, you know, demonstrate livability?
Short answer: of course there is. It’s a bit ephemeral, yes, but unmistakable at close range. Here’s one way it goes: Arrive in the Danish capital on an intercontinental flight with a four-year-old in tow. Find your accomodations, grab a bite to eat up the block, try to get some rest. In our case, this last agenda item was thwarted by preschooler jetlag, which manifests itself as a 2.5-hour dead-of-night bout of chatty restlessness, with the subject of why nights are so much longer in Denmark as a recurring theme.
Anyway: Carry on. Awaken the next morning, lay in some basic supplies, and then try to figure out something to do that: 1) will entertain an overtired, hyperactive four-year-old completely bewildered by her surroundings; 2) will require minimum effort from the utterly exhausted, equally jetlagged parent; and 3) doesn’t involve an outlay of nonrefundable admission money, in case either party decides 20 minutes in that they’re way too tired for it.
I submit that the truly livable city will have a quick, easy answer for this problem, and in any case Copenhagen does – a one-word answer that goes like this: Strøget. The tourist brochures claim the Strøget is the world’s longest pedestrian thoroughfare, and in any case it’s the anchor of Europe’s most fully pedetrianized downtown, a linked web of car-free, cobblestoned avenues that take you just about anywhere you want to go in downtown Copenhagen.
My four-year-old and I headed that way after making a reservation at the central station. I had no plan other than to show her some Lego at the big BR toy store, but I had an inkling that just maybe the Strøget might itself be sufficient entertainment. I billed it as the Magical Street Without Cars, which she could explore without reprimand or handholding from her wary, weary dad. I’m not sure if she bought the hype, but even before we reached the Strøget the built-in livability of Copenhagen had done the job for me.
In the main square in front of City Hall, a crowd of Chilean soccer nuts had gathered to chant and celebrate (must’ve been some international friendly vs. Denmark that day), and several of them were conducting an impromptu skills demonstration at the centre of the undulating crowd. We watched the action for a few minutes, then headed across the plaza to the Strøget itself. We duly gawked at Lego and got an ice cream, and at the moment preschooler boredom was about to descend, we reached the next broad public space – Gammeltorv, the old market square.
At one end of Gammeltorv, next to a handful of trinket hawkers, three primary-coloured sea containers had been installed next to a fountain. My daughter caught sight of the harpist set up at the front of one of them while she was trying to dunk her fists in the fountain, and we spent most of the next hour happily hopping from one container to another to listen to exceedingly high quality classical music. This, it turned out, was Musirkus, a two-week series of classical mini-concertoes inside brilliantly repurposed industrial shipping containers. Stuff like this fills the squares and avenues of the Strøget throughout the warmer months.
Though the harp was initially the most intriguing, it was the classical guitarist Jesper Lützhøft’s baroque tunes she dug the most. She sat in rapt, gawking, grooving silence for nearly half an hour. (If you’re a parent of a four-year-old, I’m sure you’ll re-read that last bit with the same sense of amazement with which it was written – my perpetual motion machine of a preschooler sat, without prompting or any kind of obligation, to listen to almost half an hour of baroque guitar. Many of us pay professionals – and/or the Baby Einstein franchise – handsomely to instill the illusion of such disciplined appreciation in our toddlers.)
A little further up the Strøget, we found pigeons to chase. At the far end, the giant anchor at the head of the old harbourfront (Nyhavn) turned out to be an hour’s worth of makeshift jungle-gym fun. We watched boats and threw rocks in the canal and ate pølser (the tasty Danish take on the street-vended hot dog). Our time wasn’t forced, strained or structured. There was no admission fee. No worry about passing cars, no roar of exhaust to drown out the baroque guitar. The afternoon yawned into evening, and eventually we packed it in and took the Metro home.
It was, in short, the very definition of livability. Maybe the real headscratcher is why we settle for anything less than this level of quality public space in our own cities. It’s infinitely cheaper, after all, than a shiny new science centre or water park.
Chris Turner is the author of The Geography of Hope, a Canadian bestseller and multiple award nominee detailing his 2005-06 travels in search of the state of the art in sustainable living. He has recently embarked upon a new global research tour for a forthcoming book on the structure of the sustainable twenty-first century economy. He is posting “postcard” blogs from his travels here on Worldchanging.com. This is the first posting in the series.
Read previous "Wanderlusting" postcards:
Wanderlusting No. 1: The Welcome Mat in Copenhagen
Photos by author.
For good insight on livability, pick up the oft-recommended A PATTERN LANGUAGE. http://www.patternlanguage.com/ Here you'll read well-tested rules for making architecture keep to the scale of the people who use it, and street layouts and design motifs that reward life.
Interesting - I wouldn't have chosen Stroeget as an example of 'livability' in Copenhagen - personally, I would have hopped on 2A bus at the main station and got off at Amager Strand station, next to the wonderfully clean artifical beach on the island of Amager where you can get a good view of the windmills while letting the sand run over your toes. But I'm glad that it worked for you, though!