Be Close – Close to Life

I’ve been spending a few hours each day just biking around the city. I’ll glance at my map of Copenhagen before I get on my bike and begin going in one general direction for about 45 minutes. I’ll turn down streets that look interesting, stop to take pictures, eat hotdogs, and basically just take everything in.

Is it just me or does this hotdog need a bigger bun?

Then, after I feel sufficiently lost, I’ll allow myself to pull out the map and try to figure out where I am. It’s a fun game usually ruined by friendly Copenhageners with impeccable English skills who want to help me as I squint at my map and crane my neck looking around for the street names of the intersection I’m on.

On one of these wayward urban expeditions I saw a museum with some brightly colored shipping containers in the back that looked like some sort of exhibit. The exhibit was called “Is This a Home?” and it was showcasing the work of several architects that are converting old shipping containers into housing for the homeless. It turned out that the exhibit was actually opening that night, but the (you guessed it) friendly, English-speaking graduate student who was there prepping the exhibit invited me to the opening—probably because she could tell I was interested and clearly didn’t have a lot of other commitments that day based on the fact that I was biking around aimlessly midday on a Thursday with a crumpled map in my hand. I told her I would be there and promptly went to the closest intersection, figured out where I was, circled the intersection on my map, and wrote “come here at 6:30!” (It’s amazing how quickly you can go from a booked Outlook calendar to this…)   

Anyway, later that evening I successfully navigated back to the art museum and drank some white wine with cool architect/activist-types.

4 shipping containers were used to build this house.

A common room.

A bedroom.

The gist of the exhibit was that we all have basic human needs and those needs should dictate how we design the built environment—whether we are homeless or a millionaire. Also, the built environment should facilitate, rather than restrict, socializing between people. 

Here’s the creative statement of the architects:      

Be Close – Close to Life

Needs (should) create the building environment

Because human beings are social creatures we need to develop physical environments that increase the possibilities for communication

One way to do this is to increase density

Because the best way to connect people – is literally to shorten the distance between them

One way to do this is to increase density

Because if the distances are too far you can’t see if a person in smiling or not

Be Close – Close to Life

These compact dwelling spaces got me thinking about density and the issue of sprawl in the United States. Sprawl is especially bad for biking. The top reasons people do not cycle in the United States are safety concerns and excessive distances.1 The US is blessed with a lot of space and –unlike Europe—our cities reflect that abundance of space. Although urban planners in many American cities are getting on-board with increasing density, sprawl is a very hard thing to reverse. After biking around for a few days, I certainly felt like Copenhagen was smaller than Seattle based on the distances between places, but I was curious about the relative densities of the two cities. Here are the stats from Wikipedia:

Copenhagen

  • Population: 541,559 people
  • Area: 88.25 km2
  • Density: 6,136.6 people/km2

Seattle

  • Population: 608,660 people
  • Area: 369.2 km2
  • Density: 1,648.6 people/km2

Even though the two cities have about the same population, the Seattle city limits encompass about 4 times more land than Copenhagen. In theory, that means 4 times more biking to get to the places you need to go in Seattle. But, the good news is that even though American cities aren’t as compact as they could be—a lot of trips still could easily be done on a bike! According to the Sightline Institute, more than 25 percent of car trips in the United States are shorter than one mile.2  

Increasing density in American cities is and will continue to be a huge challenge from both a political and practical standpoint. It occurred to me though as I read the architects’ creative statement that perhaps the social merits of density have been missing from the public dialog about reversing sprawl in the US. Humans are very social creatures but many American cities are designed to minimize interactions between people. That’s in part because many of our cities were designed to accommodate the personal automobile—and just think about how much time you’ve spent alone in a car over the years.

In Copenhagen I’ve noticed an astounding number of people out on the streets biking and walking and relaxing in public spaces. It makes the city feel safe, inviting, vibrant, and real. The Danish architect and urban quality consultant, Jan Gehl, recently joked in a speech that we know more about the habitat that panda bears and gorillas thrive in than we do about the urban habitat of homo sapiens. His consultancy has literally begun studying the urban human habitat the way you would any other animal. Gehl went on to say, “the one thing homo sapiens has always been interested in is other people. The number one attraction in any city isn’t the buildings, the parks, the sculptures or the statues. It’s people. First we need people, then spaces, then buildings.”

I’m not a homo sapiens habitat expert, but it really does seem like humans are happier when they have more opportunities to be social and observe each other. Denser cities not only offer easier bike commuting but they may also be conducive to more closely knit, social communities where people are a little more likely to offer lost foreigners directions and invite them to exhibit openings.         

Friday night in Copenhagen--lots of people are out!

1 http://www.gtkp.com/assets/uploads/20091127-142912-8156-Livable_Copenhagen_reduced.pdf

2 http://daily.sightline.org/2006/04/05/one-mile-from-home/

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One thought on “Be Close – Close to Life

  1. I am always impressed, in Seattle, with how many people bike in the crappy weather. Way tougher than your average wimpy (not all!) San Franciscan (who deals with no snow, less rain, and stays much warmer). But, I do wonder how that works in Copenhagen? In Winter, that 30 minute commute….how much fun is that?…..and do they still, notwithstanding….do it? Or is/are there other eco-friendly alternatives?

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