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Letter from Copenhagen - Cities and Citizenship
Alex Steffen, 22 Sep 09
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I love Copenhagen. It's beautiful and unbelievably livable and human-scaled. People are friendly, the food is good, it's downright pleasant to walk around. Forget Denmark's climate leadership, its wind-powered economy or the stunning fact that Copenhagen is aiming to increase the percentage of total trips taken by bicycle from its current 37% to 50%: the Danes just know how to live.

I just had an outstanding stay there, including a series of terrific conversations with folks I really admire: Cameron Sinclair and Emily Pilloton, the leaders in mobilizing humanitarian architecture and design; Christien Meindertsma, whose amazing backstory book Pig 05049 won an Index award; designer Suzi Winstanley, (who IS related -- I'd wondered -- to the 17th C. revolutionary Digger Gerrard Winstanley: "In the beginning of time God made the earth. Not one word was spoken at the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another."), the fascinating team involved with the Clear Village Foundation, who were my hosts for Copenhagen Design Week (Design Week's slogan, Worldchanging Design Changing World was a kick, too).

My social mojo runs strong in Copenhagen, and it continued to shower me with even more undeserved awesome: I got a tour of CPH's bike infrastructure with bike expert Mikael Colville-Anderson (more here on bikes); dinner with SF writer Charlie Stross and a chance to meet O2 founder Niels Peter Flint, who's setting up a "radical sustainability" counter-conference for COP-15. I got to have dinner with Angie Rattay, who did those great "Planet Earth: Directions for Use" posters, and even kicked around some ideas with CNN Executive Producer Chris Mansson about how to make explorations of post-carbon futures good television. Challenging.

I'm always energized by Scandinavia, where the kinds of thinking I like to explore and write about is closer to mainstream than anywhere else in the world, and where Worldchanging is pretty widely known and read. It's also a bit thrilling to see how widespread the idea of bright green environmentalism is becoming in sustainable industries, youth activism and fashion and design. (Though I admit that whenever I mention this back home I can't stop myself remembering Matt Dillon's lines from Singles "I don't like to reduce us just to being part of Seattle. ...We're huge in Europe right now. Our record just broke big in Belgium.")

At the same time, coming back from Scandinavia is always sort of bittersweet. That's because when I'm in Northern Europe, I become acutely aware of how much trouble the U.S. is really in. Every time I come back, I spend a few days in shock at just how shabby America has become, how run-down and antiquated: 30 yrs behind the curve and growing poorer. There are potholes in the streets, broken windows in the warehouses, homeless people sleeping on the sidewalks; our cars feel like behemoths, our waistlines look inflated and the sheer amount of asphalt for roads, parking lots, driveways and freeways hits me ugly and ominous.

But it's not just the visual evidence of U.S. decline that's troubling; it's even more that we don't even seem to recognize how far from reason our public debate has drifted. Coming back from Copenhagen, it's honestly hard to explain to my fellow Americans how insane, unrealistic and out-of-touch the U.S. climate debate now looks to the rest of the world. The Republicans are about as well-respected in the global climate discussions as the Taliban is in human rights debates, but it goes beyond that, into the whole idea that the American way of life is somehow predicated on burning coal, driving SUVs and building sprawl -- and that these practices ought to be defended as a matter of national pride, that freedom ought to be defined by the size of our ecological footprints. In a global context, our military over-extension and willingness to prop up coal, corn and cars looks exactly like the USSR doubling down on collective farming and centralized planning. And the rest of the world seems to pretty much expect the same results. It's not a coincidence that America is now experiencing a brain drain as talented immigrants leave the U.S.

And, of course, it's not just climate. On a whole host of issues, I find myself simply stunned that my nation's leaders have so little to offer, and seem to possess neither the brains nor the spine to find their way out of what is obviously a dead end...

It's much like the exasperation and disbelief Adam Greenfield expresses in the beginning of his excellent deconstruction of the U.S. health care debate

What serious polity – let alone would-be contender in the cutthroat global market American policy has been so strongly dedicated to the creation of over the last sixty years – would want to deny its citizens and native industries every possible advantage? What kind of patriot could possibly rest content with the notion that the poorest national of, say, Trinidad and Tobago has better healthcare options than most Americans?

No. It’s inconceivable. Unless you’re the type that gets your primary kicks from laughing at retarded children, it’s the kind of thing you turn your back on and walk away from.

But I just can’t do that. My heart is still and always back home in the States, and that’s why what’s going on there right now is causing me so much grief. I literally can’t spend three minutes on The New York Times without having to shut the tab in frustration and (more to the point) rage of a particularly corrosive kind.

It's a sentiment more and more reasonable Americans feel, on a host of issues from health care to climate change to economic policy to education/ As Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman writes:

We tend to think of the way things are now, with a huge army of lobbyists permanently camped in the corridors of power, with corporations prepared to unleash misleading ads and organize fake grass-roots protests against any legislation that threatens their bottom line, as the way it always was. But our corporate-cash-dominated system is a relatively recent creation, dating mainly from the late 1970s.

And now that this system exists, reform of any kind has become extremely difficult. ... Every desperately needed reform I can think of, from controlling greenhouse gases to restoring fiscal balance, will have to run the same gantlet of lobbying and lies.

I’m not saying that reformers should give up. They do, however, have to realize what they’re up against. There was a lot of talk last year about how Barack Obama would be a “transformational” president — but true transformation, it turns out, requires a lot more than electing one telegenic leader. Actually turning this country around is going to take years of siege warfare against deeply entrenched interests, defending a deeply dysfunctional political system.

And yet, years of siege warfare is exactly what we don't have time for, if we're going to avert catastrophe (for instance, AP: "IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri in July asked his scientific network to focus on 'abrupt, irreversible climate change' from thawing permafrost"). Slow, halting progress means absolute failure in our situation.

I'm more and more convinced we need radical action. Not bombs or barricades, but seriously non-linear and innovative interventions, new approaches that will let simple facts and needed truths influence the American political debate again: a form of shock troop tactics to break the stalemate.

Those tactics can borrow nothing from the tactics of the 60s, because many of the people now running multi-million dollar reactionary astroturf groups actually design their schemes to mimic 1960s protest campaigns. When oil companies bus their employees into protest rallies complete with signs and songs and a spirit of "rebellion," we should recognize how blocked those approaches are.

No, what America needs is an upheaval that's much more innovative, more fundamental, more sudden. I don't think anyone quite has a clear sight of what that is yet. Industrial shifts to a clean economy, new models of news publishing, government 2.0, the street as platform, post-ownership and post-consumer identities, community resilience a growing cultural preference for participation and collaboration combining with a search for transparency and backstories and authenticity: all of these are clearly in the code of whatever new system is emerging, but none of them defines it.

I suspect that what will ultimately define it, the only force that can bring these various strands of innovation together and cord them into a strand tough enough to pull the country through the changes it needs, is a radically new kind of citizenship -- citizenship not in the much-abused faux-patriotic sense (limited to voting, militarism and flag-waving), but in the deepest sense, the sense rooted in the origin of the word itself, of a city-dweller who is engaged in the fate of his or her city.

Because I think we're seeing that the new natural unit of civic change, especially in America in the 2010s, is going to be the city. The city as a place for us as people to live new values. The city as a hotbed of innovation. The city as epicenter of cultural change. The city a locus of democracy. The city as a fabric of infrastructures. The city as a mosaic of neighborhoods.The city in collaboration with its region. The city in contest with conservative suburbs. The city as national political force. The city as a tool for readying ourselves for the arrival of the future. The city, in short, as a tool for crafting a new world.

What makes the city such a natural leverage point, it seems to me, is that it empowers individuals and communities at what I think of as the middle distance of problems: it neither forces us to accept privatized responsibility for public problems and relocalization efforts that fail to address the million ways our locales are enmeshed in larger systems nor demands that we abrogate all thought and authority to some movement NGO or political party for whom we are only a source of checks and "action" letters. At the city level, systems are big enough to make a difference on big problems like climate change and materials depletion, yet small enough to grasp; the mutual interests we share with others working on different issues is easier to parse; the politics of transparency and accountability are more easily engaged; and new efforts can find allies without needing to first find the funding to scale massively. Good cities promote all sorts of achievable innovations; and good citizens demand them.

What gives me hope, what leaves me optimistic despite the general despoiling of my country, are the thousands and thousands of (mostly) young citizens who get all this. Examples of them trying to remake their cities are popping up all over the place-- they're pushing through a hostile status quo and a horrible economy like grass coming up between the sidewalk slabs; cross-pollinating through international networks, little shoots, spreading, everywhere.

Copenhagen is not a city of magicians. The people there have no secret powers. What they have is a belief in their power to work together using their city as a tool for changing their lives and transforming the world. Each new bike lane, each new windmill, each new green building, each new design, each new public art project: each builds upon the success of the last, and offers promise to the next. It's that engaged, happy, progressive spirit that I think is Copenhagen's real message to the world: imagine it, build it, and the world will change.

Image: Neon Soup in Copenhagen, by Zakkalicious

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Your writing is the truth. I spent two weeks in Denmark this past summer on a mission trip affording me the opportunity for lots of observation and absorption. Their enthusiasm and commitment for betterment of the whole permeates their lifestyle. I too came home in a state of shock, those first 3 days wondering if I'll ever adjust. I thank Copenhagen and other such cities for who they are and their commitment to the world as a whole.

Posted by: Karen Milano on 22 Sep 09

Fair point about cities, but where do they end and suburbia start?

Although I don't think you've sunk to quite the state depicted in Peter Gabriel's song 'Don't Give Up', it did spring to mind as I was reading this.
( fight left or so it seems/ I am a man whose dreams have all deserted...)

I was a also somewhat little bothered by the glum tone of a Guardian article that was posted here recently. ("If Obama Can't Defeat the Republican Headbangers, Our Planet is Doomed")

A bit of dramatic license to promote focus, perhaps, but my thought is that we are setting ourselves up for a fall if we ever come to believe that 'we're doomed if x doesn't happen' ('cos there's going to be a lot of x's coming up in the future!)

I suppose what I'm getting at is that Copenhagen would be one hell of a place to give up!

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 22 Sep 09

You are right Alex, our US cities always look pretty darned shabby when I come back from Scandinavia. I always come back amazed too at how few products of lasting value we actually manage to produce here.

And I agree with you that cities are where the young people with creative ideas will come from that may pull us back from the brink of the climate catastrophe.

Where I differ is with you is believing cities can teach us civic values. Cities are just too big. I'm counting on dense urban neighborhoods as the best places to teach the value of community bonds. I work hard to live local.

Posted by: Cathy Tuttle on 22 Sep 09

Great comments.

Cathy, I am not at all sure that civic values and community bonds are the same thing. Many things simply cannot be changed at the sub-municipal neighborhood level: governance, finance, regulatory and enforcement authority are key to most important systems changes, and neighborhoods themselves almost never have control over those things.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 23 Sep 09

I agree with your points about citizenship and the city, but I think you might gloss over some key differences between Danish and American societies, and paint a bit of a rosy picture of Copenhagen. Yes, the city is a leader in lots of aspects of sustainability, but it also faces its share of social discord (google 'Copenhagen Iraqi church'). And I could be wrong here, but my impression is that much of the sustainability initiatives in Copenhagen have been initiated top-down from the government. This is great for them, but in the US there is obviously a lot less real buy-in at the federal level for making sustainability or smart city design a priority. Being a small country, Denmark also feels space and resource pressures more sharply than the US does, which makes sustainability more of an obvious path for people.

Also, and here's where I might disagree with you - I think there's a much stronger tradition in the US of participatory democracy and issue-based advocacy, whether that's by NGOs or lobbyists, or how we elect individuals to government rather than political parties. In Denmark there is less public involvement in the passing of laws in parliament (ie. no 'call your congressman about X'). So it's more efficient, and has done wonders for sustainability in Denmark, but I don't think that it's a playbook that would work in the US. The social norms for sustainability simply aren't there, and I'm not holding my breath for them to come from the top down.

I agree that the key factor in the US will be citizenship, but for us, the call to citizenship won't just be an ask to ride your bike and follow along. We'll have to change the system ourselves. So after we solve the problem of political and social will, then it'll be time to look to Copenhagen for some design tips...

Posted by: EK on 23 Sep 09

There was another protest march going on when Moist walked into the bank. It was a funny thing, but everyone seemed to want to live under the despotic rule of the tyrrannical Lord Vetinari. They poured into the city, whose streets were apparently made of gold
- Making Money by Terry Pratchett

Ah, yes! We need more places like Ankh-Morpork! Where's Havelock when you need him?

Join us, Ben! Raise the tone of the 'hood!

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 24 Sep 09

I'm living in Sweden, because it's beautiful and liveable and I don't need a car and I can take free university classes in global environmental justice, etc. But I often wish I was back home in Baltimore, even though it is one of the more run-down cities in the nation, or perhaps because of that: it feels alive with a sense of possibility & transformation. Space is cheap there and can be shaped. There are so many avenues for creative & radical expression among post-industrial buildings and abandoned row houses. I taught a radical geography class there this summer at the Baltimore Free School and was amazed to see how passionate people were about their city. There was an inspiring "City from Below" conference there earlier this year ( -- to quote a bit, because it's so congruent with what's expressed in this post: "The city has emerged in recent years as an indispensable concept for many of the struggles for social justice we are all engaged in - it's a place where theory meets practice, where the neighborhood organizes against global capitalism, where unequal divisions based on race and class can be mapped out block by block and contested, where the micropolitics of gender and sexual orientation are subject to metropolitan rearticulation, where every corner is a potential site of resistance and every vacant lot a commons to be reclaimed, and, most importantly, a place where all our diverse struggles and strategies have a chance of coming together into something greater."

But a note of caution: the city, especially in the US where public transit is not so good (and people without cars can't easily leave it) can become a kind of bubble that's hard to see outside of. The suburban fringes, smaller towns, and rural hinterland which feed the city can get left out of its discourse.

Rather than simply creating a movement that champions the local, I hope to see some kind of "glocalization" paradigm arise, wherein the global/local binaries can be smashed, & we can envision the global within the local and vice versa.

Posted by: Holly Jean on 27 Sep 09

Americans will learn over time to change their ways to accommodate sustainability and the environment. Mother Nature is a cruel mistress, she hands out STD's to bad little girls and boys, AIDS to the unnatural, starvation to those thoughtlessly prolific, fast and certain death to those too warlike, big bellies and bad hearts to over-eaters, huge indefensible fortunes, lost to those who do not share, A high seat of folly to the overtly religious, and for politicians like Bush, a shame in the history books! Danemark, has found a moderation few other nations ever find, and are an example to emulate in mahy respects, much like modern Germany, energy self-sufficiency is given high position, a good thing! Morality follows, with civility and sense of community. Modern America however, seeks only ROI, the reigning all encompassing everlasting philosophy of the Philistines there! This must end, and common sense return before any progress can be made. Thank God for Danmarks fine example of what can be done!

Posted by: Uncle B on 28 Sep 09

I agree with your comments. I am from Trinidad and Tobago (mentioned in Greefield's speech). It is not a poor nation, very much a developed nation. The health care system for the poor is definitely much better than in the US. Living in the US and traveling throughout Europe I have seen the special emphasis that Europe places on its people and the environment is just admirable! Keep it up Europe, and keep improving Trinidad & Tobago.

Vernelle A.A. Noel, Assoc. AIA
Architecture Caribbean

Architecture Caribbean Blog

Posted by: Vernelle Noel on 29 Sep 09

Regarding your final paragraphs: Americans' understanding and engagement in civic life is diminishing. We look to cult-of-personality heroes (Obama, Van Jones, etc.) to provide solutions, instead of participating in democratic structures that allow us to organize ourselves to bring about the results we want.

Posted by: Carol Steinfeld on 29 Sep 09

I lived in Denmark for a year on exchange and it is, officially according to numerous studies, the happiest place on Earth. Copenhagen is a model for cites everywhere, and the Danes who can appear gloomy and adversarial are in fact just 'on' i.e.: Always looking for ways to make things better and questioning everything. While there I conducted a study with friends into identities, focusing or artists and designers. I was interesting to discover that folks without a creative occupation (lawyers, air traffic controllers, as opposed to writers, painters, musos etc) still considered themselves to be creative based on the fact they liked to buy and look at art. We followed up on this concept and decided that people derive their identity less from what they do and more from what they consume. But was this mindset as pronounced in the Danes? The UN has concluded that every Dane belongs to at least three social groups (girl guides, sports clubs, charity volunteer work) outside of work, school and church, and this helps to strengthen the familiar bonds between all members of society. In other words, you've got so many friends, and are in so many clubs, you are going to have a pretty strong sense of self and identity.

Posted by: Harriet Riley on 29 Sep 09

I was just in Coepnhagen and was equally impressed with the quality of life. The "bike" culture is just fabulous and a model we should all follow. My favorite biker was the very pregnant woman who was bicycling by in her flip flops as she talked on her cell phone and pushed in daughter in a wagon attached to the bike.

Seriously, no city is perfect. Copenhagen has its issues as demonstrated by a night time rally to protest the treatment of some immigrants. But Copenhagen looks to me as about as close to perfect as you can get with its emphasis on sustainability, culture, and quality lifestyle.

My hope is the 20 something's, who have a very strong volunteer ethic, steer our country's future in the right direction. Change is happening very slowly and my hope is those who are young will help spur the establishment along.

Posted by: Debra Sinick on 30 Sep 09

A good post. Yes, we need to self-identify as citizens first, and consumers second.

Re Scandinavia versus the US: One conversation I had recently with a Danish architect made the point that designing cities to be more sustainable and liveable may be harder in countries like the US and Australia than more culturally and ethnically homogenous countries like those in Scandinavia.

That's not to belittle their achievements, or let us off the hook: rather just that reconciling liberalism and multiculturalism (which of course definitely have good sides) with the need to act collectively for sustainability, is a definite challenge for us.

Posted by: Pat Sunter on 14 Oct 09

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