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How Copenhagen rejected 1960s modernist 'utopia'

Athlyn Cathcart-Keays

“In the 60s and 70s, we thought that if you built huge blocks with apartments and efficient traffic systems, everyone would be happy … But quality of life is more than square metres, concrete, lifts, motorways and subways.”

From his house on the outskirts of Copenhagen, veteran planner Søren Elle is reliving his 42 years with the city’s transport department. “The question was, should we rebuild Copenhagen into a modern American city, or should we keep Copenhagen as Copenhagen and just make small adjustments in a pragmatic, Danish way?”

Elle’s words echo the dilemma that faced planners in so many European cities during the 1960s and 70s – a time when the modernist movement dominated visions of what the future city would look like. Traditional residential blocks and narrow streets were deemed unhealthy and suppressive, and the utopian vision was of streets in the sky and grand boulevards for the motorcar.

European engineers were sent in flocks to the US to learn from the environments in which these revolutionary ideas were playing out, returning with tabula rasa development plans to realise their own modernist dreams. Many cities still bear the battle scars of the planners’ ensuing “enlightened experiments”.

A street view of local girls riding their bicycles in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Copenhagen in the 1960s. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
In Britain, vast swathes of the city of Birmingham were gutted to make way for an inner ring road, which placed cars on the surface and buried many footpaths and road crossings beneath the built-for-speed streets. In Stockholm, the Essingeleden motorway was opened in 1966 to traverse the city’s islands. It was soon repainted from six to eight lanes, but this failed to make a dent on congestion levels – it remains the busiest road in Sweden.

While concrete was being poured to create other giant urban spaghetti junctions across Europe, Copenhagen found itself at a crossroads: “[It] has reached a state of development where it is necessary to develop a network of motorways through the city to secure its arterial functions. [The motorways] will change the appearance of the city,” wrote architect Ole Nøregård in a 1965 engineers report.

Nøregård’s urgent recommendations referred to several transformative road plans for the city, including Søringen (The Lake Ring) – a 12-lane thoroughfare first proposed in 1958, that would slice across Copenhagen’s core and pave over its iconic lakes in the name of urban progression.

Alongside the road building blueprints was the City Vest (City West) plan to raze the Vesterbro neighbourhood – then deemed a ghetto – to make way for motorways and high-rise developments. Both proposals were part of the broader 1948 Finger Plan, drawn up as a long-term vision for the Greater Copenhagen area, which would see urban development concentrated alongside a new network of arterial roads and railways located along five “fingers”.

Politiken newspaper Denmark
The Danish newspaper Politiken opposed Copenhagen’s urban development plans in the 1960s. Photograph: Copenhagen City Archive
But it didn’t happen. Much to the modernists’ discontent at the time, Copenhagen’s development took a different trajectory, and managed to escape the congested concrete clutches of modern urban planning. In the process, it laid the foundations for its contemporary reputation as one of the world’s most “liveable” cities – an urban model so desirable that copying its outcomes even has its own verb: “to Copenhagenise”.

“We were lucky that Copenhagen was poor after the second world war,” Elle says. Rather than intelligent foresight, or a difference in the mindset of those in power, he suggests the Danish capital’s avoidance of major carriageways is down to good fortune. “We thought we were unlucky and very poor. We were actually lucky, but still very poor.”

Copenhagen’s lack of funds led to the city’s modernist visions progressing at a painfully slow pace. It did get a small taste of a car-oriented future in the shape of the six-lane Bispeengbuen expressway, which rips through its northern neighbourhoods directly in front of second-storey windows.

“That was a real eye-opener. People could see that this would change Copenhagen – that this is what the plans mean,” Elle says. “Inside people’s heads, they found out that they were not happy with these [modernist developments]. By the 70s, they could experience how it was to live in it … you have to feel it in your body to know it’s not good.”

Lakes of Copenhagen, Denmark, from Østerbro to Nørrebro.
The lakes of Copenhagen escaped concrete and motorways. Photograph: Original i Københavns Stadsarkiv/Copenhagen City Archives
People were taking notice of these changes to the urban fabric throughout Europe. Protest movements such as Homes Before Roads emerged in London; it attempted to limit the removal of housing in the capital to make space for motorways. But perhaps the key element that set Copenhagen’s anti-motorway protests apart was the fact they also demonstrated that an alternative future was possible.

“We had the notion that common space could pull people out of isolation,” says Jan Gehl, renowned urban planner and godfather of the liveable cities movement. “There were these big freeway people, and then there were the counter streams that happened between 1960 and 1970 ... One group was pushing cars out of the city, while others were trying to push them in.”

Sitting in the bright top-floor offices of Gehl Architects in Vesterbro, the 79-year-old gestures to his surroundings: “This building wouldn’t be here. The motorway would’ve gone straight through it.”

As a young architect at the time of these plans, Gehl says many of his Copenhagen peers were working on “humane city planning” policies, after the pressure began to build at a citizen level: “A discussion was beginning about the virtues of having a city for people … There was an environmental group, which started to put floats out in the lakes to show how far the motorway would extend. A big hotel was going to be built, so they winched up weather balloons to show how high it was going to be.”

Street in Vesterbro, Copenhagen with cyclist
Vesterbro faced the wrecking ball in the 1960s, but survived to become one of Copenhagen’s most popular districts. Photograph: Ty Stange/Copenhagen Media Center
In 1968, Denmark’s primary newspaper Politiken switched its view from support to opposition of Søringen and the City Vest plans, mirroring the mood in Copenhagen at the time. In a city that was getting poorer and poorer, road projects could not happen without state support – and that was revoked in 1972.

The scrapping of plans once and for all coincided with the 1973 global oil crisis, which saw car use almost dry up in the city. It helped to shake the dust off the cycling culture and pedestrian movement, both of which have been on the rise ever since.

Five decades on, Copenhagen continues to retain its historic housing stock, strong bicycle culture and extensive pedestrianised zone – an urban model that many cities around the world are now desperately trying to claw back.

The 6km lake shores are teeming with human activity, its frozen waters providing temporary public space during the winter months. And it is impossible to imagine how the 36,000 cyclists who currently use the Nørrebrogade lake crossing – Europe’s most popular cycling street – would have got past a roaring 12-lane barricade, which would have left many now-thriving areas resembling the hinterland surrounding London’s Westway.

Vesterbro, the area that faced the wrecking ball under the plans, now stands as one of the city’s most popular neighbourhoods. Across Copenhagen, dense, low-rise blocks front on to shop-lined streets, upon which 50% of the population travels by bicycle on a 390km network of cycle tracks.

Cycling in Copenhagen
Copenhagen has a thriving cycling culture, with 5.2 bikes for every car in the city. Photograph: Bruce yuanyue Bi/Alamy
Research on global transport released in 2015 found that building new roads (pdf) does little more than breed more cars, increase traffic and impact residents’ health and wellbeing. The dystopian outcomes of designing cities for cars can be seen in the likes of Stockholm and Birmingham.

“You might think you want to build a ring road to get the cars off the streets in the city,” Elle says, “but if you really want to get the cars off the streets, you can just close the roads. It’s a classic transport planning mistake to want more capacity.”

This sentiment is echoed by Gehl: “What we have been able to prove is that a strong culture of using public spaces and bicycle facilities has developed here; [the opposite of] other cities that have a strong culture around using cars … It just depends on what you invite in.”
Cities are racing to catch up with what this different way of thinking has brought to Copenhagen’s streets – but while they may seek to copy the city’s road layouts, bicycle lanes and gleaming public spaces, it isn’t that simple. “I was always more interested in changing the mindset – then someone else can change the actual city,” Gehl says. “In this firm, we don’t do design – we do programmes and strategies for cities.”

Next stop for Gehl is Moscow, where he is returning to check up on a number of public space projects that began in 2011. He talks of the “efficient democracy” that allows leaders to implement changes almost overnight in places such as Russia and America – removing on-street parking, widening pavements and creating public squares: “If the mayor says ‘car parking must go’, you come back two weeks later and it’s gone.”

To fully progress beyond the paradigm of car-centric planning, however, many of Copenhagen’s experts say there is still much work to be done – such as the decoupling of economic success from road building.

“When the plans failed, some at the time might have said, ‘We’re not able to grow the economy’ – but the lesson learned from that was that you don’t need new roads to do that,” says Mike Axon, who is leading the Create project, which is investigating the deeper barriers to changing our planning methodologies. “There are other ways around the problem … [our report] might find that road building is not a reasonable proxy … It’s not the panacea.”

Citizen-focused planning is still at the heart of Copenhagen’s future visions: “We are investing in sustainable solutions, and want to use the city as a laboratory for testing new technologies,” says its lord mayor Frank Jensen, who is currently increasing bike infrastructure and extending the metro by 17 stations. “But the philosophy behind all the development in the city comes down to the question of liveability.”

In true Copenhagen fashion, the underbelly of Bispeenbuen flyover – the leftover trace of the city’s modernist fantasies – is now the site of a new public space competition trying to bring life back to the concrete wasteland.

But the city is also bowing to the pressure of a desire for economic growth and prosperity. The old principle of reducing car parking in the centre year on year is being reversed, and Copenhagen has also flirted with the idea of constructing a 27bn kroner (£2.8bn) tunnel beneath its harbour.

But Gehl’s optimism is undimmed – based not just on his home city, but from his work with more than 100 others around the world: “There has really been a change in paradigm; now cities really want to be liveable, healthy and sustainable. This is really global now.”

A Stockholm piece of folklore has it that a visiting East European official looking out on the grotesque plonking of 1960s chunks of modernist concrete amid the finery of 19th Century Stockholm, and concluding they were there to fill in bomb damage, asked his host: "Was it the Germans or Russians who did this?", "Neither" came back the reply, "We did this all by ourselves".

Too true. The ugly view in the top picture is Stockholm's Slussen built right next to the medieval Old Town with the magnificent 'we know best' attitude with which Sweden still excels.

And that's the lesson. The 1960s planning catastrophe in Europe was brought about by the arrogance and moral hubris of the self styled builders of a 'new utopia', and the intolerance and ultimately silencing of alternative opinions amid a welter of abuse.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that Sweden was in the forefront of this destruction, while humble Denmark adopted a more nuanced and ultimately far more successful approach. One which Danes to this day are still benefiting from. I've lost count of the Swedes who tell me how much they 'love' Copenhagen.

Meanwhile in Stockholm they're still trying to figure out how to pull down Slussen.

Moral of the story? When the establishment bubble tell you they know best and you are a moral reprobate if you disagree, you can be sure there is a complete disaster in the making.

Well, central Dresden and Nürnberg actually were bombed to blazes yet managed to avoid many of the mistakes which this article speaks of. I wouldn't go so far as to claim everything in those places is perfect from the planning point of view, but they beat all the British towns of similar size that I know hands down.

Mirko Plitt
Dresden, yes, there was not much to be saved. I don't know about Nuremberg, but in quite a few West German towns it's hard to tell what caused more long-term damage, the bombs or the car-centric urbanism following the war (often enough led by the same old architects who could finally put in practice their pre-war wet dreams which the Nazis had not been able because of the war taking priority).
I have just returned from Copenhagen. I must admit that I was impressed by the city's transport infrastructure as well as the fusion of modern architecture and the pedestrianized old town.

The cycling lanes are seriously wide (got to be careful when getting onto a bus though) and there are arrays of bikes parked outside apartment blocks and office buildings. Someone mentioned below about cycling manners - people are more leisurely and less hell-bent on being the next spandex-clad Chris Hoy.

It would be ideal, if my city (Glasgow), could adopt some of the pragmatic approaches that Copenhagen has taken but I very much doubt it.

Car purchase tax in Denmark is 180% of the standard on-the-road value, with VAT added on top of that.

The reason people cycle a lot is because car ownership (and certainly multi-car ownership) is simply too prohibitively expensive for most.

That said, the road infrastructure in Copenhagen absolutely caters for safe cycling.

Copenhagen avoided the exact mistakes that Sydney is making now, all because we have a bunch of petrol-heads in power that want to drive their cars around everywhere, and don't want any of the that lefty mamby pamby cycling and metro networks stuff.

how Copenhagen rejected 1960s modernist 'utopia'
While concrete was being poured across Europe’s cities, Denmark’s capital found itself at a crossroads

Go out of the main centre to places like Brøndby and tell me that again.

It's the same in other Danish cities like Aarhus with Gellerup. They built the motorways and all the modernist tower blocks outside the centre.
It's the same in other Danish cities like Aarhus with Gellerup. They built the motorways and all the modernist tower blocks outside the centre.

Just like Paris - another city centre untouched by Hitler's bombs of course, for same reasons... and now look at the banlieues.
In Normandy it was (alas) the Allies who bombed many of its city centres (and even villages),. The rebuilding is mixed; gave them a chance to produce housing of far higher quality than what it replaced, usually low level. Looked brutalist at first, now covered in attractive creepers, trees around etc. Le Havre still unattractive, yet somehow a vibrant social scene, if a bit too edgy in parts for oldies like me.

Typical missing out important details.

They're not "lakes" but former moats built to defend Copenhagen.

In fact several roads are named after the battlement defences (Norrevoldgade eg) and you can also see the zig zag defence lines now turned into other lakes in the parks...

Also agree with other comments here regarding Copenhagen's suburbs which are a massive sprawl of unending concrete.

This mythologising of Scandinavia gets a bit tiresome.,+Denmark/@55.686843,12.5718191,15z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x4652533c5c803d23:0x4dd7edde69467b8!8m2!3d55.6760968!4d12.5683371

Denmark seems so civilized compared to the US where only a handful of major cities have bike lanes. Here in Philadelphia you take your life in your own hands, and heaven forbid if you don't move fast enough. Business and profits, not people, are obvious priorities here, also apparent in our dearth of sidewalks and public transport in many areas. Without a car forget it, and you are in fact somewhat looked down upon or seen as freakish if you don't own one and/or choose to ride a bike or walk instead. People here in the US seem to want to isolate themselves from rather than interact with others, a very different mindset than the Danes'. Another example is that about three years ago a very pleasant little park was built in the suburb where I live, just outside of Philadelphia, and so few people take advantage of it. I have to say this is not the case in the city proper, public parks are utilized because residents are in such desperate need of green space and respite from the pace and chaos of urban life. Then there's the issue of obesity here in the US, around 30% versus 11% in Denmark. All that bike riding must have something to do with it.

The US has the same problem as the UK regarding cycling. Bikes are seen as toys while cars are adult transport. It's a cultural problem.

“The question was, should we rebuild Copenhagen into a modern American city, or should we keep Copenhagen as Copenhagen and just make small adjustments in a pragmatic, Danish way?”

That's not a dilemma, that's a nice easy choice - do the latter. But Copenhagen wasn't bombed flat. Birmingham by contrast received hundreds of tons of bombs and was subject to a massive housing shortage post-WW2. A lot of it had been awful crime-ridden slums even before the war!

So councils had to house people as fast as possible, and in accommodation that was warm and safe. The first residents in these blocks usually loved them, and the architects did their best. So sick of reading about how it was all a mistake.

And to prove a point, Trellick, Balfron, Park Hill, Rowley Way and many other 60s blocks now have young people queuing up to live in them.

One of Newcastle-upon-Tyne's mistakes was to hire Wifred Burns in 1960 to carry out T Dan Smith's "Brasilia of the north" vision. Burns had worked in Coventry in the 50s where, thanks to the Luftwaffe, he really had something like a blank slate. But Newcastle was surprisingly (given its industrial role and proximity to Germany) undamaged by the war so the "knock it down and start from scratch" view was inappropriate.

Jane Jacobs realised this in 1961 - there was no excuse for the European "planners". The goodness all European cities, even London, were too poor to carry out these plans fully. Pity poor Birmingham and Newcastle which had the worst of it.

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