I’ve been catching up with some urbanist reading lately, starting with Lynsey Hanley’s Estates, moving onto Owen Hatherley’s Landscapes of Communism and back to earth with John Grindrod’s Concretopia.
Yesterday I polished off Anna Minton’s Ground control (2009 edition). Having worked as an infopro in urban development environments for most of my career it all feels rather like coming home, although some of the jargon has changed, and Ground control helped to fill in some of the gaps and answer some of the questions raised by our recent trip to London.
What made me sit up though were the references to Denmark. To me central Copenhagen feels like the privatised public spaces described in the ‘Clean and safe’ chapter:
One of the problems the new ‘clean and safe’ parts of the city wrestle with is how to make places exciting. All too often they are strangely sterile, soulless and lacking in atmosphere, as the drive to create new places places little attention to real historic and cultural identity…
The contradiction is that while the managers of business districts want to create a ‘buzz’ and an atmosphere, they plan entertainment very carefully…the unexpected rarely happens…the growing micro-management of activities threatens to design out lingering and wandering around.
In Copenhagen the “authoritarianism and control” is innate, it doesn’t need to be imposed or enforced. Undesirable people (homeless, groups of youngsters, political protestors) and activities just don’t happen – or only when the Brøndby fans come to town. There is definitely the “feeling of an invisible hand directing what is going on”, with a chain of near identical public places “produced according to the same tick-box recipe”, changing and deadening the atmosphere and resulting in “participants who are unable to depart from the script”.
There’s a lot of idyllic Danery in the civil society section. In the chapter on fear of crime, ‘R/respect’, trust and happiness Minton discusses the role of strangers in cities in preserving the essence of civility and safety. Richard Senett (1977) described the city as the place “where strangers are likely to meet”, defining ‘civility’ as “treating others as strangers and forging a social bond based on that distance”. Jane Jacobs (1961) based her case on “natural surveillance”, built around the informal social controls of strangers, “eyes on the street”, resulting in an “almost unconscious network of voluntary controls enforced by people themselves”.
Hence the role of strangers determines levels of trust in places, a “trust between strangers which occurs naturally in healthy places and is still part of daily life to a far greater degree in countries like Denmark”. The use of the word ‘like’ seems crucial here, as this statement goes against widespread reportage by internationals and the concept of ‘negative politeness’ as a key Danish value, which on a bad day can verge on the passive aggressive.
Minton notes that trust and happiness are highest in Scandinavian countries “like Denmark”, where “stark, visible differences between social groups are also among the lowest”. Networks of likeminded people, rather than “places which promote the diversity of strangers”, increase trust and social capital: “The more diverse a community is, the less likely its inhabitants are to trust one anyone”. So there you have it. Danes “unconsciously trust each other and look out for each other” because they are all the same.
Plus there are downsides. “Life is no fun if it is perfectly safe…More importantly, when life becomes too safe, paradoxically we become more fearful and less trusting, as the natural human bonds which occur spontaneously between people are stifled”. An article in Politiken this weekend asked if Danes are addicted to tryghed (safety, security). It’s possible to see Denmark as a protected environment on a national scale, its own little homongenous enclave with an inwardly focused national discourse. To such as extent that there’s widespread surprise when ‘others’ comment on what they do – see the reaction to Steve Bell’s cartoon in The Guardian.
The final chapter on possible solutions to the problems of the 21st city concludes with a section on reinventing the public, where Minton returns to Happy Danery: “many genuinely public places in towns and cities around southern and northern Europe, in [long list concluding with Scandinavia] are thriving. Families and groups of people stroll arm in arm taking the passeggiata, children run around and old people sit together on benches”.
I want to go on holiday with Anna! She cites – of course she does – Jan Gehl, “Danish urbanist and architect, credited with transforming Copenhagen” into a place where shopping is not the main reason for coming into the city. Apparently “four times as many people come into the centre of Copenhagen as did so in the past…simply to stroll around and take in the atmosphere”. This is a long way from my experience of the centre of the city, where over-designed and under-peopled asphalted public spaces are broken only by basketball pens and bike parking facilities. Plus pavement cafes, oh those pavement cafes…all this is why I as a rule I choose to wander in areas further afield, as yet untouched by the flattening hand of the ‘human scale’.
Update, 27 Feb: The Urbanist’s How do you create a healthy city episode offered more on this theme, with UCL’s Nick Tyler selecting Copenhagen as his example of a happy city. He redeemed himself somewhat by being more than a little troubled by “the cycling bit”, stating that “there are people who don’t cycle”, and that an unbalanced stress on cycling, with the potential for conflicting situations, could tip things out of balance. Cities need a whole variety of people – that’s where the vibrancy is. Quite. Plus a whole variety of scale, so the city doesn’t turn into Middle Earth.
Is it now taken as read that every city is travelling towards becoming a cycling city? It certainly is for The Urbanist’s next speaker, high heeled bike riding Bianca Hermansen of Cititek, who doesn’t choose to walk or use public transport. She’s in the nudging camp, favouring a context which “compels people to change their behaviour”, yikes, and preaching her message whenever she gets the chance. It’s all about lifestyle – and never mind anyone who doesn’t choose or aspire to that lifestyle. Luckily this segment only lasted four minutes.