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THE LIFE-SIZED CITY
Daddy, when is my city going to fit me?
I have a strange suspicion that we've been hacked. As people. As societies. We have been led to believe that big is best. That growth is good. For so many years that you can easily call it a century of living with the Cult of Big. Certainly regarding the economy. You can't mention the economy without mentioning growth. But I'm not an economist. I work in urbanism. In cities. And the same thing applies. Cities have to be bigger. Broader. They have to sprawl into the distance as far as the eye can see. That is what makes a city great and good. Or so we've been told for many, many years. Buildings have to be taller, shinier. Reaching for the sky. Breaking world records. Monuments to engineering and, quite possibly, phallic symbols for the male-dominated industries that design and build them. Roads and motorways have to be longer, wider, go farther. More capacity, improved flow, reduced congestion. It's one of the saddest ironies of urban planning that the only thing we have learned from a hundred years of traffic engineering is this: if you make more space for cars, more cars come. It's sad if you think about all the kabillions of dollars we've thrown at this for the past century.
Megaprojects are all the rage. Never finished on time, always obscenely over budget, and yet they make up 8 percent of the global GDP. We're fascinated, obsessed by megaprojects. We, the people, the consumers, are told to spend more. Buy more stuff. The more we buy, the better it will be for the economy. For growth. Or so we have been told for a very long time.
Perhaps we've been hacked, but I believe that we still have the original code inside us. When you have been around for 300,000 years as homo sapiens, you possess that original code. The pure programming. We can be rational when we want to be. Everyone knows, deep inside, which ice cream will be more enjoyable to eat when choosing between a single, delicious scoop or a monster pile of ice cream. Once in a while we can go crazy, but the single scoop will usually be the best experience. The same applies to food portions. We're hard-wired to understand the basics of urban life. Every one of us who lives in a city knows what a good street should look like. It's in our urban DNA to know that a human street that is friendly to pedestrians and cyclists and that has lots of green space is the best solution. We know intuitively and instinctively as a species that size doesn't matter. Luckily, somewhere in there, in the dark shadow of the Cult of Big, behind the mountain of obsessive growth, there is a lovely little place I call the Life-Sized City, where things are different.
The idea of the life-sized city has become a cornerstone in my working philosophy. The concept was handed to me by one of my life's greatest urbanist inspirations: my daughter Lulu-Sophia. We were walking around our neighborhood and waiting to cross a street, holding hands. She was quiet, looking around at the cityscape around her. Suddenly, she turned and looked up at me and said, "Daddy, when is my city going to fit me?" She was five at the time. I looked down at her quizzical face and assured her she would grow to fit her city better. She just shrugged and nodded. She knew the answer but in that moment she felt too small for her city, as so many kids must. But her innocent concept lodged itself in my head. I couldn't think of anything else and wondered about whether my city fits me.
There are many stretches in Copenhagen where it feels as though the place were designed for me and me alone. Riding over Queen Louise's Bridge on one-way cycle tracks over four meters wide, the city fits me like a finely crafted glove. Elsewhere, even though I have gold-standard infrastructure to cycle on, the buildings are out of scale, the roadway parallel to the cycle track is congested with noisy, polluting automobiles, and in place like these, I fail to achieve a sense of life-sized. Indeed, there are few places in the world where I, let alone Lulu, feel like the city fits me.
From that revelation coming from the mind of a child, the phrase life-sized city came to me — both as a way of describing cities at the moment and as a goal for how cities should be once again.
The idea of the life-sized city is complemented by the concept of genius loci — the spirit of place. Applying both of these notions to city planning will bring the scale back to normal. We all possess a universal, individual desire to feel like we belong in our surroundings.
Think about your home. Think about the effort you put into designing, crafting, and creating a space in which you have a constant, unwavering sense of belonging and well-being. Think also about where you work, where people (hopefully) have put a similar effort into making a space that inspires you to be a productive member of the workforce.
After decades of car-centric planning, the same can't be said for most of the cityscapes we move through on a daily basis around the world.
What is a city? When I travel, I often hear things like, "Oh, but that's Copenhagen ... It's different there ..." Civic pride is important. Absolutely. I wouldn't want to live in a city that did not give me a sense of ownership every single day, even with a tectonic political landscape that often fails to match my own desires. We have, however, allowed our cities to be engineered since we invented the automobile, even though cities are organic creatures, morphing themselves over time and space to accommodate shifting generational needs and demographic trends. They are defined by the citizens who live in cities here and now and who hopefully have an eye on the future of the place. You simply cannot engineer organic places populated by a wide and varied selection of humans. Nor do you need to.
A city is a language. Each one has an ever-changing dialect and a unique tonal fingerprint that differentiates it even from the suburbs that surround it. These urban dialects contribute to the urban, global language spoken by those of us who see what improvements need to be made in order to make our cities better. And if a city is a language, the bicycle is the compound modifier.
BICYCLE URBANISM BY DESIGN
Everyone wants progress, no one wants change.
Here's the baseline. We have been living together in cities for more than 7,000 years. By and large, we used those seven millennia to hammer out some serious best-practices about cohabitation and transport in the urban theater and the importance of social fabric. We threw most of that knowledge under the wheels of the automobile shortly after we invented it and have subsequently suffered through a saeculum horribilis in the urban context. Our overenthusiasm for technology and our human tendency to suffer from short-term urban memory loss have further contributed to our zealous disregard for past experience.
Cities thrill me, but it has always been the streets that fascinate me to no end. Streets are the skeletal structure of the city organism. The veins pumping the lifeblood of a city from one end of the urban landscape to the other. For 7,000 years, the streets of a city were the most democratic spaces in the history of homo sapiens. We did everything in the streets. We transported ourselves, sure, but we also bought and sold our goods, flirted, gossiped, discussed politics. Our children played in the streets. They were an extension of our homes, of our living rooms. Urban development was natural and organic and was based on the immediate needs of the people living in the streets in particular and the city in general. Both logistical needs and societal.
Years ago, after I finished film school, I taught storytelling and screenwriting. After we, as homo sapiens, have secured our three basic needs — water, food, and shelter — our fourth need emerges: storytelling. For the better part of human history, we gathered around a firepit after the day was done — telling stories, forming bonds, and further building belief systems and cultural mythologies. Some might argue that sex is our fourth basic need, but telling or listening to stories is an important step toward having sex with someone.
The firepit was our meeting place. Our anchor. As cities emerged and an indoor life became a part of our norm, the streets still remained as our urban firepit in which we told our stories and formed our bonds.
The automobile and the infrastructure required to move it through our cities sounded a death knell for the streets and for our urban firepit. After 300,000 years of homo sapiens and 7,000 years of democratic space, our perception of the streets changed drastically. The automobile industry made quick work of it, too. Two things happened to change the perception. When the automobile appeared in our cities, it was an invasive species detested by citizens. Motorists were despised, and makeshift monuments were erected in many American cities to the alarming number of victims of car crashes — in particular, children.
There was an almost instant traffic-safety problem, and everyone was at a loss as to how to solve it. Engineers were the urban heroes of the day in our rapidly expanding cities. Figuring out solutions for how to get electricity and water to our homes and sewage away from them. That couple of generations of engineers were brilliant. Engineers were handed the task of solving the traffic-safety carnage. The best problem-solvers of the day were an obvious choice for tackling such a serious problem. What happened, however, was that streets went from being regarded as a subconscious democratic firepit to becoming treated as public utilities. Not human spaces but puzzles to be solved with mathematical equations.
The automobile industry also had a problem. It had shiny new products to sell, and yet everyone hated them. They knew they needed to change the public perception of streets, and so they employed marketing, spin, and good old-fashioned ridicule to start the ball rolling. This is where they cut their teeth on marketing their vehicles and carved out techniques still in use today.
It was one thing that engineers were tweaking the way traffic lights functioned in order to accommodate the rising number of cars, but the automobile industry saw an opportunity to start selling the idea that streetspace should be allocated exclusively to those cars.
The idea was simple: Everyone else get out of the way. It started with op-eds and ads innewspapers about pedestrians staying out of the streets and instead using the growing number of crosswalks. Boy Scouts were enlisted to hand out flyers, chastising pedestrians for their behavior. The timeless act of crossing the street in the middle of the block was gradually becoming socially unacceptable. Anyone who resisted this new school of thought was labeled as old-fashioned. Standing in the way of progress.
That very American word, jaywalking, was intended simply to ridicule pedestrians who were slow to adapt to the desires of the automobile industry. Jay was a derogatory word for a country bumpkin — someone who didn't know the ways of the big, cool city. If we live in cities, the last thing we want is to be considered outsiders. We want to feel a sense of collective belonging. One simple word, repeated ad nauseam was all that was needed.
The last great obstacle faced by those wanting to secure streetspace for cars was the angry mothers of America who kept seeing their children killed or maimed by cars in the streets. Enter: the playground. That little zoological garden into which we continue to put our kids was an invention of the automobile industry as a way to get the little rascals out of the way and to appease their mothers. Finally, the stage was set. The coast was clear of irritating, squishy obstacles, and the greatest paradigm shift in the history of our cities was complete. It took under two decades to reverse 7,000 years of perceiving streets as democratic spaces. We are still suffering from it. (Peter Norton's book Fighting Traffic is your go-to tome about this fascinating and depressing period in transportation history.)
What also happened was that our societal firepit was effectively removed. Doused in water, buried out of sight, and paved over with asphalt. Firepits have reemerged in some cities. Pedestrian-friendly streets, public transport, and the bicycle have brought back the opportunity to gather with our urban flock. Whether we speak to each other or not, we are elbow to elbow with our fellow citizens, sharing a subconscious urban experience. In the Copenhagen rush hour, on every street small firepits are formed at intersections, allowing citizens to gather in clusters while transporting themselves through the city.
The urban anthropological advantages of having impromptu cycling firepits should not be underestimated. Motorists walk out of a house and into a garage to get into a car for a drive to work. They park and enter an office. There is little interaction with other citizens in such a vacuum-packed life. Cycling through a city, however, you are closely connected with the urban landscape, using all of your senses. Every morning, as I pass City Hall Square cyclists check the clock tower. They either slow down or speed up, depending on their schedule. I don't communicate directly with other people at red lights, but we are connected. I see human forms, I hear coughs or telephone conversations. I smell shampoo and perfume around me. I get ideas for shopping when I see clothes or shoes worn by someone else. I exchange flirtatious glances or smiles.
I will do the same as a pedestrian or aboard public transport, but there is an amazing dynamic on the cycle tracks and at red lights. Jostling for space, keeping our balance, soaking up sensory impressions before moving on to the next firepit.
The Danish novelist Johannes V. Jensen, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1944, has many references to urban cycling in his body of work. In the 1936 novel Gudrun, he writes: "And, like a large home, Copenhagen begins the day's work. Already down on the streets, one is at home, with loose hair, in long sitting rooms through which one travels sociably on a bicycle. In offices, workshops, and boutiques you are at home, in your own home. Part of one large family that has divided the city among itself and that runs it in an orderly fashion, like a large house. So that everyone has a role and everyone gets what they need. Copenhagen is like a large, simple house."
Indeed. A home. With a much-needed hearth. And lest we forget, this was the norm in most cities on the planet for decades — from the bicycle boom in the late nineteenth century to at least the 1940s and 1950s. The bicycle was a normal form of transport from Manchester to Singapore, from Sydney to Seville. The modal share for bicycles in Los Angeles a century ago was 20 percent. Small, transportational firepits around which cyclists gathered were warming our cities.
The fledgling vocation of traffic engineering, granted carte blanche by the new paradigm, continued the radical engineering of our streets. Standards were developed in America through the 1930s and 1940s, in tandem with the rising belief that cars were the vehicle of a glorious future. The standards started to travel and were readily adopted by countries around the world. This development accelerated through the 1950s and 1960s. Cycling traffic in most cities of the world peaked in the late 1940s and then began a sharp decline. Even in Copenhagen and Amsterdam; 55 percent of Copenhageners rode a bike in 1949. By 1969, that number had fallen to around 20 percent as roads were widened to accommodate cars. The most surprising thing about traffic engineering is that it is largely unchanged in the decades since the 1950s. In our modern society we would be absolutely outraged if one vital profession lagged behind. Imagine if medical care were still using the same techniques and science as it did in the 1950s. Or education, or parenting. That would be bizarre and unacceptable. And yet we accept that traffic engineering has failed to modernize. Or perhaps just failed.
When you start to scratch just a little below the surface, you discover that we live in cities that are controlled by strange and often outdated mathematical theories, models, and engineering "solutions" that continue to be used despite the fact that they are of little use to modern cities.
One of them is called "the 85th percentile." It's a method that cities all over the planet use to determine speed limits. It's the standard. Nobody questions it. Certainly not the engineers and planners who, for decades, have swallowed it whole during their studies. Which reminds me of the old traffic engineer joke: Why did the engineer cross the road? Because that's what they did last year.
Excerpted from "Copenhagenize"
Copyright © 2018 Mikael Colville-Andersen.
Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Table of Contents
1 The Life-Sized City 8
2 Bicycle Urbanism by Design 12
3 The Bicycle's Role in Urban Life 28
4 The Redemocratization of Cycling 36
5 Taming the Bull in Society's China Shop 46
The Learning Curve 62
6 Copenhagen's Journey 64
7 Climaphobia and Vacuum-Packed Cities 85
8 The Arrogance of Space 90
9 Mythbusting 96
10 Architecture 115
11 Desire Lines & Understanding Behavior 120
12 A Secret Cycling Language 136
13 A2Bism 146
14 The Art of Gathering Data 160
The Toolbox 172
15 Best-Practice Design & Infrastructure 174
16 Prioritizing Cycling 196
17 Design & Innovation 216
18 Cargo Bike Logistics 232
19 Curating Transferable Ideas 238
20 Communication & Advocacy 246