Cities

Copenhagen, Melbourne & The Reconquest of the City


By Chris Turner.

For ten weeks this summer, a twelve-block stretch of Ste. Catherine Street in Montreal was transformed into a vibrant public square. It covered most of the main drag of the Ville-Marie neighbourhood – better known as Montreal’s gay village – in the city’s east end. The ersatz square hosted festivals and parades and accommodated the post-event revelries of jazz and comedy aficionados. Outdoor cafes spilled out onto the street’s cracked concrete, and buskers and sculptures filled the curbside parking spaces. And the catalyst for all of it was a single, simple act: from the start of Montreal’s festival season in June until Labour Day weekend, Ste. Catherine Street was closed entirely to motor vehicle traffic from Berri Street to Papineau Avenue.

The Strøget in Copenhagen
Photo credit: flickr/PDXdj, Creative Commons license
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On the low metal roadblocks at either end of the pedestrianized expanse, there were celebratory signs that read, “Ville-Marie a pieds, une experience urbaine!” The implication was that walking a city’s streets – its streets, not its sidewalks – was the quintessential urban experience, and perhaps the most refined one. Some might argue, after half a century of automotive supremacy, that it was a radical act, as well.

In any case, Ville-Marie had temporarily joined the ranks of a burgeoning global pedestrianization movement, one that imagines the liberation of the street from the supremacy of the automobile as the sustainable city’s declaration of independence. The Danish architect Jan Gehl, perhaps the movement’s most prominent proponent and most visionary strategist, refers to these places simply as “reconquered” cities.

In recent years, Mr. Gehl has undergone a rapid transformation himself, moving from the staid halls of Danish academia into the global spotlight as a sharp-tongued guru of urban livability. After several decades spent in close study of his native Copenhagen – home of possibly the world’s most elaborate inner-city pedestrian and bicycle networks – Mr. Gehl has taken his reconquest mission worldwide. He and his team of “urban quality consultants” have played an instrumental role in urban renaissances from Oslo to Barcelona and from London to Melbourne. (Mr. Gehl is especially renowned in Australia, where he is treated like a sort of patron saint of the sustainable metropolis.)

In recent months, Mr. Gehl has finally found a hearing in the automobile’s American heartland. His firm, Gehl Architects, is now working with the City of Seattle and the Department of Transportation in New York to bring a little Copenhagen to America, and San Francisco may sign on soon. (Mr. Gehl also gave a series of high-profile lectures in several cities across Canada earlier this year.)

In each case, Mr. Gehl’s core message remains so simple it sounds almost like a proverb. It goes like this: “Cultures and climates differ all over the world, but people are the same. They will gather in public if you give them a good place to do it.”

Urban sustainability rarely seems so straightforward, ensnarled as it is in thorny issues of land use and energy consumption, housing prices and unemployment rates, roads and transit lines, density and sprawl. In many of the world’s cities, however – North American cities in particular – there might be no single problem that encompasses them all as fully as the decision made after World War II to give top priority to the automobile in every urban quarter and under essentially every circumstance. And as Mr. Gehl’s clients are learning, there is no more economical or efficient way to begin sorting out this knot of problems than to simply restore people to their rightful place above cars in the urban hierarchy.

If the pedestrianization movement has a birthplace, it is Mr. Gehl’s hometown, the cozy Danish capital of Copenhagen. Regarded as recently as the 1950s as a dull provincial burgh, utterly overshadowed by dynamic metropolises like Paris and Rome, Copenhagen now routinely tops international quality of life rankings. (The ultra-hip current affairs journal Monocle recently declared it world’s most livable city.) And Copenhagen’s newfound prominence rests largely on its inviting city centre, which is latticed with a half-dozen pedestrian-only promenades and a dozen car-free squares and stitched to the rest of the city by one of the world’s most meticulously assembled bicycle-path networks.

At the height of summer, a quarter of a million people stroll downtown Copenhagen’s streets each day, and even in the dark and dreary winter more than 120,000 navigate the city on foot. Thirty-six percent of Copenhagenites, meanwhile, commute to work by bike, riding on more than 300 kilometres of dedicated bike lanes and guided in congested areas by bike-only traffic lights.

The Strøget – downtown Copenhagen’s high street and the pedestrian network’s main artery – is Europe’s longest pedestrian thoroughfare, and most days it is a dense forest of marching feet. Café seats encircle every downtown square, many of them draped in complementary blankets on cool days, and yet more sidewalk cafes crowd even the narrowest back lanes. The whole scene looks as entrenched and timeless as the facades of the 500-year-old Lutheran churches, the café culture as vibrant and seemingly as instinctive as Rome’s.

In fact, Copenhagen’s lively inner city is a recent and deliberate phenomenon. And it started with a bold experiment similar to Montreal’s summer flirtation with pedestrianization. The Strøget had traditionally been closed to vehicles for two days each Christmas, but by the 1950s its narrow eleven-metre width was choked with two lanes of cars, trucks and buses every other day of the year. So was every other street in downtown Copenhagen, and the city’s stately old squares served mainly as parking lots. So in November 1962, half-disguised as an extended holiday closure, the Strøget went car-free for good.

The initiative immediately inspired widespread and often strident opposition, particularly from downtown merchants, who assumed that a permanently car-free Strøget would be their ruin. Other critics argued that the measure was simply un-Danish. We are Danes, not Italians, they argued. It’s too cold here and it rains too much. We like cozy meals at home, not outdoor cafes.

The fears proved unfounded – the Strøget soon boasted more shoppers, an explosion in café seating, and eventually a new kind of urban culture focused on outdoor public spaces. Building on the Strøget’s success, the network expanded piecemeal – another street and a few more squares emptied of cars in 1968, and again in 1973 and 1980 and 1992. From those first 15,800 square metres of the Strøget, Copenhagen’s pedestrian network has expanded to about 100,000 square metres.

The city also developed a unique set of empirical data to chart the pedestrian network’s impact. Starting in the early 1970s, Jan Gehl, an urban design professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, began to measure foot and bicycle traffic and the use of public space in Copenhagen for the first time ever. Mr. Gehl was soon joined by a colleague, Lars Gemzøe, and together they began to publish their findings every ten years.

One revealing statistic measured the steep growth in “stationary activities” in downtown Copenhagen – people seated at outdoor cafes or around the rims of fountains, people window-shopping or watching buskers. From 1968 to 1995, the average number of people so engaged on a summer afternoon had shot up 330 percent, an increase in magnitude vitually identical to the growth in the pedestrian network’s size.

Beyond the number-crunching, Mr. Gehl and Mr. Gemzøe also assembled overwhelming qualitative evidence of the success of Copenhagen’s pedestrian reconquest. Their 1996 study Public Spaces Public Life, for example, overflows with before-and-after photos of the city streets that look like they were shot in different universes. Each pair of pictures depicts the same radical transition: on the left, in black and white, a desultory 1950s-era parking lot; on the right, a modern full-colour scene of strolling shoppers and hustling foot-propelled commuters, market stalls and buskers and people seated in animated conversation.

“It became this very powerful empirical tool for kind of shifting the mindset of these very large political organizations,” says Jeff Risom, an urban designer at Gehl Architects.

Indeed so unprecedented were Mr. Gehl’s studies in the annals of urban design that they became his ticket to international prominence. Traffic engineers working in city halls the world over can tell you exactly how many cars zoom through every major intersection each day, the impact of another lane of traffic or the current demand for parking spaces. Few outside Copenhagen, however, have ever counted the traffic on a single sidewalk.

“We need to make pedestrians visible in planning,” says Mr. Gemzøe. “All the problems of vehicle traffic are well known and you’d never dream of changing anything in the public space without knowing how it conflicts with that. But you have no information about people.”

One of the first cities to come calling on Mr. Gehl’s consulting services was Melbourne, Australia. Once an elegant port city and the nation’s premier metropolis, Melbourne had all but strangled itself trying to accommodate the automobile. By the late 1970s, it was a textbook “doughnut city” – a wide ring of sprawling suburbia surrounding a soulless high-rise hole that hollowed out almost entirely at the end of each workday. A contemporary newspaper headline dismissed downtown Melbourne as “an empty, useless city centre.”

In 1983, new governments came to power at the local and state levels on revitalization mandates, and a handful of consultants were hired to develop a new strategic plan for Melbourne. The resulting document recommended a wide range of measures – wider sidewalks, an expansion of the city’s historic streetcar network, a dramatic increase in downtown housing – but the most dramatic, enacted in 1991, was the partial pedestrianization of Swanston Street, Melbourne’s most important north-south thoroughfare. (Streetcars and service vehicles were still permitted on the street by day, and it reopens to all traffic in the evenings.)

Melbourne’s merchants, like their Copenhagen colleagues before them, feared a retail apocalypse. “The retailers were up in arms, we were going to kill them,” says Rob Adams, who was one of the consultants on the plan and is now the director of Melbourne’s urban design department. “Well, we’ve doubled the number of pedestrians walking past their doors. You know, you don’t shop from a motorcar – not at 60 kilometres an hour, you don’t.”

Soon after the Swanston Street closure, Mr. Adams brought in his old friend Mr. Gehl – who had taught at the University of Melbourne in the late 1970s – to sell the city on the next phase of the plan. “Jan’s role here,” says Mr. Adams, “was not in actually writing the strategy – he never did that – but in assisting as a sort of an international mentor that could actually sometimes act as a voice for what we were trying to do, and therefore gain recognition from the local people that this wasn’t a bad way to be going.”

Mr. Gehl’s 1994 report, Places for People, employed the same data-gathering techniques he’d developed in Copenhagen and recommended many of the same improvements. It called for a dramatically expanded pedestrian and transit network, wider sidewalks and more “active facades” (storefronts at street level, for example, in the city’s office towers), plus a radical makeover for the city’s moribund riverfront.

In the decade that followed, Melbourne’s donut problem all but completely vanished. The residential population of the downtown core exploded by 830 percent. Pedestrian traffic shot up 39 percent overall and 98 percent in the formerly quiet evenings. More than 250 new outdoor cafes opened on Melbourne’s streets, a 275 percent increase. And aside from the Swanston Street closure, it all happened without dramatic gestures.

“The secret to our strategy has been incrementalism,” says Mr. Adams. “We’ve got about 200 things running at once. You know, improving the footpaths [sidewalks], planting trees, signage, furniture, widening the footpaths, bringing pedestrians back in – it’s a sort of broad strategy of slow improvement.”

Melbourne’s most striking pedestrian feature is its extensive network of laneways and arcades. These were a legacy of its nineteenth-century planners, who outfitted the city centre with abnormally long east-to-west blocks. To make the city easier to navigate, narrow laneways were inserted midway through various blocks. By the early 1990s, however, only about 300 metres of this network was “active” – most of the lanes were closed in by blank walls and used as service alleys.

To reactivate the old lanes, new city bylaws obliged developers and property owners to punch storefronts into the lane-facing facades of their buildings. As of 2004, 3.4 kilometres of the city’s laneways had become “active.” They zigzag through the city core like a grand Italian piazza unravelled into a thin strip. Lined with small shops and covered over in café seating, the laneways now form Melbourne’s bustling soul.

“The challenge is to get people to realize you just can’t pick up one model and transport it to another city,” says Mr. Adams. “You can pick up the principle that we’re going to make the city more livable. But for instance Sydney is getting hung up on the lane culture we’ve got in Melbourne. Unfortunately, they don’t have the lanes we’ve got, and they’re not going to generate them overnight. So they’ve got to find their own particular character.”

The same advice would apply, no doubt, to North America's many doughnut cities – and the converging climate and energy crises have dramatically increased the urgency of the need for pedestrian reconquest. “The good news,” says Mr. Adams, “is if you convert to a sustainable model for a city, it’s actually going to become a better place to live in. Because increased densities, mixed use, connectivity, local character – all the things that we did to improve the livability of the city – are exactly the same things you need to do to improve the sustainability.”

Back in Copenhagen, meanwhile, demand for Mr. Gehl’s style of urban makeover has grown so strong that he has had to move beyond the occasional leave of absence from the Royal Academy to attend to it all. In 2000, he founded Gehl Architects as a permanent home for his consulting work. The firm’s team of architects and urban designers now numbers nearly 30, but the message remains the same.

“The natural resistance to change exists, I think, everywhere,” says Mr. Risom, the only American designer at Gehl Architects. “But luckily, what we’ve found is that when you begin to plan for people, invite them to spend time in the city, they do. And it’s just that simple.”

Chris Turner is the author of The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need, a global tour of the state of the art in sustainable living. He lives in Calgary. He keeps a poorly maintained blog and can be reached by email at cturner [at] globeandmail [dot] com.

Editor's note: Gehl's book Public Spaces for Public Life is currently only available in Europe, but U.S.-based readers can find his two other books, Life Between Buildings and New City Spaces available through Worldchanging ally Island Press.

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