Danes are not cappuccino-sipping Italians: Attempting the Happy City

January 7, 2014 at 10:32 pm

I received the book Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design by Charles Montgomery as a gift. I’ve had a bit of a backlog of “city books” I’ve been waiting to read for a while – they usually take a long time to read, not because they’re boring, but because things were busy. But I haven’t been able to put down Happy City. It could just be the biting cold that’s kept me indoors, but I think it’s a little more – it’s the little historical anecdotes throughout the book. Here’s an excerpt which I enjoyed, from chapter 7:

In 1962, around the time that New York’s freeway king, Robert Moses, was trying to push an expressway through the heart of lower Manhattan, Copenhagen’s city council took a step in the opposite direction. Nudged by anti-auto protests, they banned cars from the spine of the downtown, a string of market streets collectively known as the Strøget. It was an experiment.

Newspapers predicted disaster. Business owners were terrified. How could a street function without cars? What on earth would serious, practical Danes do with all that empty space between buildings? Pundits warned that the historical district would be deserted.

“People said, ‘We’re Danes, not Italians, and we are not going to sit around in outdoor cafés drinking cappuccinos in the middle of freezing winter!’ [architect Jan] Gehl told me when I met him in his Copenhagen office half a century later. People believed the city and its civic culture could only work one way. It was the same thing that the engineers would keep insisting in other cities for decades.

“What is most attractive, what attracts people to stop and linger and look, will invariably be other people. Activity in human life is the greatest attraction in cities.”

If you think that half-century old doomsday prediction sounds familiar, you’re right. Predictions of doom are pervasive whenever a plan to repurpose public streets for non-car uses surfaces (and the predictions usually never materialize). Right here in Chicago we had an early alarmism after active transportation groups floated the idea of a more transit-friendly Lake Shore Drive (which is still at least a decade from being completely redone). We are certainly seeing it with Ashland bus rapid transit, which will remove two of four car lanes to make room for a bus-only lane, benefitting tens of thousands of daily bus riders. And we’ve seen it with smaller neighborhood projects like the Berteau greenway, whose final design accommodated some resident’s complaints by foregoing traffic diverters designed to reduce cut-through traffic for the convenience of those that cannot didn’t want to drive four extra blocks.

Strøget. Phoeo: gelle.dk via flickr.

When I wrote a post about pedestrianization of Michigan Avenue, I received some pushback from people who believe that the only reason we can improve anything is if there is a problem with it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Michigan Avenue. It’s still a place people like to be. It can become very congested with pedestrians, however, the buses do bunch up (absent their own lane), and scores of honking drivers block crosswalks and injure pedestrians. There’s room for improvement. There’s room for benches and tables to sit at, just watching people go about their day.

Inevitably with any sort of challenge to the status quo – cars on every street, all the time – there will be pushback, and much of it echoes the same rhetoric heard in every city. New Yorkers are not pedaling across the Amstel river, Chicagoans are not bus-riding Bogotanos, and Danes are not cappuccino-sipping Italians. Of course these are all logically true, but they’re terribly weak arguments. We build the cities we want to live in. One of the best ways to see this in action is to see other cities, and one of the best ways to see it in your own city is to experiment. Maybe closing a street won’t work in one place under one set of circumstances, but it could work on another street. You won’t know if you don’t try, and you certainly won’t know if you quickly dismiss place X as a place where people don’t do Y. You have to try.

I’m sure Happy City will continue to entertain me with these little anecdotes about city life and the history of how great places came to be, and I already recommend this book, only seven chapters in. One of the main lessons is that we may not always know what kind of place is going to make us happy, and we ought to try many different kinds so we can find out what does. Don’t let “we’re not _____s!” become the rallying cry of those unwilling to attempt change.