Flâneur in Copenhagen

Back on 19 February I attended Flanør, an event hosted by the Goethe Institut and the Forening af Danske Kulturtidsskrifter, co-hosted by (and at) upscale newspaper Information. Speakers were Ricarda Messner (interview) and Fabian Saul from Flaneur Magazine, and Ulf Peter Hallberg, a Swedish writer living in Berlin since 1983. Here are some photos.

Kicking off proceedings Peter asked Ricarda (publisher) and Fabian (editor) to define “flâneur “. Cue much shifting in chairs, ending up with:

  • Ricarda: doing something without an aim
  • Fabian: dealing with things which could be lost, on the edge of time; ahead of time, avant garde

Frankly I’m with them on this, it is all more than a tad nebulous and open to interpretation, plus it’s really hard not to come over all pseud’s corner. Looking back my notes are pretty gnomic, and I reckon we’d all do better reading one or more of these articles: William Helmreich in Aeon | Paris Review praises the flâneur | The urban observer.

But Flaneur Magazine (Facebook | Twitter) is a lovely thing, internationally focused and published in English. Each issue explores a single street, so far in Berlin (review), Leipzig, Montreal and Rome (video review), with Athens coming up in the autumn (update: plus Moscow and São Paulo). If they would like to tackle Copenhagen I’m inclined to suggest Valby Langgade. Each issue deals with some oddity, confusion, or disruption, with an overall theme emerging during a two month research period.

Moving on, Ulf Peter Hallberg was born in Malmö and now lives in Berlin. I came across him too late! from a post by Politikens Boghal on Facebook. He’s another one who blends fiction with real life – see his latest, Strindbergs skugga i Nordens Paris (2012), which intertwines his own background with August Strindberg’s stay in Copenhagen from 1887 to 1889 (published på dansk as Det store tivoli in 2014).

He also walks, and wrote the seminal Flanörens blick (The flâneur’s gaze, 1996; på dansk as Flanørens blik, 2000; Kristeligt DagbladLitteratursiden). It’s an essayroman; quotes from all the usual suspects, photos…I now have an autographed copy : D and plan to write a book report – it’s par for the course that the first book in Danish I might _really_ like to translate is actually Swedish…

Ulf’s flâneurie habit started with childhood visits to Copenhagen with his father, in particular to the auction houses on Bredgade. His father was a collector, along with the flâneur one of the social archetypes in Benjamin’s Arcades Project, and sought inter alia wooden statues from Africa. This approach to life, the attempt to create – curate? – a universal order, is reflected in the novel Europeiskt skräp (2009) – published in English in 2013 as European trash: fourteen ways to remember a father (Amazon | “blends memoir, essay and fiction in an evocative journey through his late father’s world of collecting the European trash”).

And so time was up, before I could get my question/statement in on Kierkegaard (Denmark’s ultimate flâneur), and everyone rushed off looking at their shoes as per usual.

For me Copenhagen is just not set up for flâneurie, or Danes to be flâneur; it’s not just the hygge, it’s also the over-planning and regulation in both public spaces and personal lives – and not least, the fact that the bike is king. Can you be a flâneur on a bike? Every time I go into ‘town’, ie central Copenhagen, I’m reminded that cyclists rule. While car drivers have become accustomed to giving way on crossings, the rules of the road vs pavement etc, these cyclists just aren’t bothered. The lack of crossings doesn’t help – you can be left standing wondering just how fast those bikes are going, and what direction the next one is going to come from. It’s disturbing for someone with a serious jaywalking habit. But I digress.

Also of interest was the fact that flâneurie’s partner in crime, psychogeography, never came up, as it also didn’t on a recent Danish podcast about Sebald. (And did Asger Jorn, a founder member of the Situationist International and a close friend of Guy Debord, not indulge in the dérive?) Why is this? A quick check of bookshop Saxo brings up zero for Danish translations of Messrs McFarlane or Sinclair, gosh, and while there are translations of Sebald’s The rings of Saturn (1995; translation: 2011) and Vertigo (1990; translation: 2012; see review), Austerlitz (from 2001) will debut in translation in December. Double gosh. And Sebald seems to have a Spanish following, so it’s not just an Anglo/German thing.

But hov, what’s this? On 26 March Mette Kit Jensen (interview) gave a ‘performance lecture’ at Nikolai Kunsthal with the title Ongoing flâneuse, complete with turtle (sic), or perhaps, tortoise. I assume the shelled one was given full respect, I’m not totally comfortable with that aspect…anyway, I was otherwise engaged, and go for the literary turn rather than performance/interventions in any case, however Mette looks interesting. Last year she exhibited Flaneuse de l’Europe, an audiowalk and book at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Roskilde, as part of their Museum in the city project:

an audio walk conceived through research the artist has carried out in several larger Europeen cities, such as Rome, Athens, Paris and Istanbul using sounds, impressions and narratives. The short stories are joined together in one long story, which connects to places in Roskilde. Local sound scapes recorded in Roskilde are mixed with global places and episodes in one total sound collage where proximity and flash backs alternate.

An article in Kunsten.nu gives a bit of background (in English here – scroll!) and a map, plus there’s an audio version should you find yourself in Roskilde.

Update: had a go at Det store tivoli (Information: excerpts another last | review | Berlingske | svensk); apparently CPH was dubbed the Paris of the North after the World Exhibition of 1888; Hvidovre Bibliotekerne kindly lent me their new copy, but after three renewals it was time to hand it back – often an issue with library books. The main character is Strindberg’s secretary Knud Wiisby (1865-1941), hired by Edvard Brandes to spy on what August gets up to. (Ulf made Wiisby up, but connected with him on some level, and also has a vague family connection with CPH at that time. Or something.) Wiisby has a close relationship with Swedish author Victoria Benedictsson, who just happened to have unrequited love for Georg Brandes. And why not? Rather more worryingly there appears to be a parallel story set in LA in the present day, but there’s a sticker over that part of the cover.

Update, March 2017: Swedish app merchant Guidly launched a soundwalk about Victoria in Copenhagen at KBH Læser (FB event). The 90 minute walk, with some parts på dansk, runs from Axeltorv, where she met Brandes in 1886, to Kongens Nytorv, where she killed herself in a hotel room two years later.

Below: scenes from my drift in central Copenhagen, prior to the Flanør event.


Living Streets Scotland conference

Following my report on the Living Streets conference in London on 22 June here’s a look at their Scottish conference in Edinburgh on 6 November.

Well tweeted again by @livingstreets and others – 326 #LSScotConf tweets in total.

Shona Robison, a sports minister who doesn’t bang on about bikes:

  • “I used to walk to school and everybody else did”
  • walking benefits social cohesion, self esteem and quality of life; also clear economic benefits and health cost savings
  • physical inactivity bigger problem in Scotland than smoking, obesity and alcohol use – 2500 premature deaths each year –> these pple aren’t going to bike
  • a new Scottish national walking strategy to be published in the spring to set out action to get more people walking – Commonwealth Games catalyst for impact and legacy

John Dales (Urban Movement):

  • cities like Edinburgh should not have any roads at all – they should be streets; roads are for transit, streets are places where people live as well as move
  • walking is local high street’s most valuable mode of transport – see Living Streets’ pedestrian pound report

Lesley Hinds (cllr):

  • 35% of trips are walked in Edinburgh (and many more also include walking as a part of trip)
  • Edinburgh has doubled streets budget this year and are focused on pedestrian improvements
  • pedestrians need more power – looking at having a pedestrian champion for Edinburgh and a forum for pedestrians to give walkers a voice and influence

Bob Foley (Newbattle High, Dalkeith) – walking has become a mainstream part of PE as key method of inclusion – reclaims the streets around the school; kids see more than they would and helps community cohesion; teachers have to teach kids to walk on our streets because their parents don’t and main experience is being driven

Living Streets conference

Living Streets (Twitter | Facebook) held a conference on 22 June. Interesting programme, effectively tweeted at #lsconf (with presos to follow, a Storify, video, notes, guidance on campaigning | street reviews – all here), culminating in a walk.

Don’t miss Living Streets‘ homepage feature for the homesick – pop in your postcode for a view of your street:

my former home on a typically grey day

my former home on a typically grey day

Following Making noise for greater pedestrian priority (preso) on Living Streets’ work the keynote address was given by Peter Jones (UCL) with the theme: from urban roads to living streets:

  • member of  the Roads Task Force (London)
  • most ‘roads’ are streets with multiple functions – about much more than vehicle movement;  hence road/street design needs a more balanced approach
road functions

screenshot from Peter Jones’ slides – click for full size

  • quality of public realm and street experience crucial to a city’s image
  • street use varies, is enjoyed more if the furniture footprint is right, eg space round benches, cycle racks; research findings (see slides) on signal removal, bus usage
  • research gap on pedestrians, plus no success metrics for street activity such as browsing, the liveability or sociability of streets (social capital), no performance or modelling standards
  • ‘living streets’ about much more than pedestrians – work needs to be holistic, not modal (current balance of attention: cycling 80%, walking 15%, street activity 5%)
  • public realm more valued now but advocates and campaigners crucial to getting it up the agenda
  • developers and retail increasingly interested – improvements to public spaces can improve retail sales by 30% and retail footfall by 10-25%; pedestrians and cyclists are better customers and spend more than people arriving by car
  • holistic approach needed to redesigning streets – current balance approx 80% cycling, 15% walking, 5% street activity; perils of shared space, differs in effects, but best when peds dominate and road space is reclaimed from motor vehicles
  • lack of street space in UK cities – in France road lanes often far more narrow – fairer share
  • recognition needed that streets are places – change of emphasis needed to raise quality and foster activity; support from health, developers, retail…
  • streets need champions and custodians who cherish the diversity of urban streets and their functions

From the workshops:

  • What better streets can mean for health – improved streets most cost effective way of meeting several public health outcomes
  • Making the economic case for better streets and places (preso) – property values rise 21.7% – 24.2% following public realm improvements; more construction jobs than road/rail construction
  • Creating smarter crossings (notes) – campaign will look at how long people have to wait to cross and how long they have to cross (often not enough); also location, timing and design of crossings, the impact of road safety budget cuts eg on school crossing patrols; pedestrians get twitchy if made to wait more than 30 secs at a crossing (TfL max wait time 90 secs, DfT max wait time 120 secs); comparative data needed

A socme workhop (recording) looked at amplifying your campaign message and going beyond clicktivism – the resulting action still takes place in the real world. @lloyddavis gave an account of #WeWillGather, which I’ve previously been a bit sceptical about but makes sense in the context of organising without organisations and getting people to do the thing (or things) they care about. It’s about the connections rather than single issue pressure groups – there’s a lesson there for civil society in Denmark, dominated by associations for everything which can feel rather exclusive, not to mention troubling for those who are not joiners…

Reflections too on Twitter vs Facebook – the former is a big ongoing conversation you can tap into when you feel the need, eg listening in to events, which everyone can see, whereas FB is more closed, and for that reason better for more controversial and controlled campaigns.

Stories from the street – three campaigns which made a difference locally:

  • Getting consensus on ‘how to deal with rat-runs’ –  @Jon_events | preso
  • Campaigning for 20mph limits – @annasemlyen1, 20’s Plenty for us | Twitter
  • Inaccessible Unacceptable – Yvonne Scott (Percy Hedley Foundation) campaigning with a student council to secure accessible pedestrian routes; filmed an ‘awareness walk’ of potholes, pavements and parking to get the message across

Resources and campaigns on ‘street’ issues:

Couple of points from someone living in Denmark:

  • if Twitter best for campaigning where does that leave DK, where Facebook dominates? Giv et praj, a ‘tell us about it’ feature, is on my local kommune’s website (although not the home page, so you need to know it exists) – no open benefits from re/tweeting possible, compared to in the UK where councils are well aware things spread on Twitter
  • a couple of tweets mentioned the danger of the pedestrian voice being lost in the clamour for cycling – a focus on liveable streets for all is needed, with pedestrians/walking higher up the agenda – here in DK cycling is a holy cow, and I can’t think I’ve ever seen a mention of walking as a mode of transport, although there are a couple of posts on Copenhagenize.com – need to look at this issue more closely and without prejudice if poss, personally I frequently find cyclists a menace on CPH streets, although bike racks (and misplaced bikes) are great for the dogs to pee on – ooh! NYT article on too many bikes in Amsterdam
  • event as a whole took me back to my CLES days – working in comms there now would be a very different job!