On a warm afternoon at the downtown harbor, Copenhagen feels like an ancient city enjoying its youthful vigor. Students, professionals, and retirees wheel past on bicycles banged-up enough to be parked on the street without fear that they’ll be stolen. Canalside cafés are full of people drinking Tuborg. There are bike racks and benches everywhere, and extensive bicycle lanes separated from traffic and equipped with their own signals. This is famously a pedestrian- and bike-friendly city—a model for many others—and its recent reclamation of the harbor area signals a new phase for what may be the ultimate 21st-century metropolis.
Copenhagen has been an urban laboratory for at least 40 years, exporting to the rest of the world its slow-simmered wisdom about the basic unit of urban life: the street. In less enlightened places, the street is a soulless corridor, engineered for the benefit of vehicles. In Copenhagen, it’s an asphalt common, where city dwellers learn to tolerate each other, where leisure intersects with business, and where people move at many different speeds, or choose not to move at all. The latest challenge here has been to channel the flow of street life toward the harbor, and turn a former maritime highway into another kind of public square. Once again, Copenhagen is at the forefront of urban evolution—this time as it relates to the waterfront. And once again, city planners worldwide are paying attention.
Amanda Burden, New York City’s commissioner of city planning, and her counterpart at the New York City Department of Transportation, Janette Sadik-Khan, recently made an official expedition equipped with cameras, notebooks, and a tape measure. “We must have biked sixty miles,” says Burden. “We measured bicycle lanes and counted café tables and benches and movable chairs. Many, many things that we learned in Copenhagen are now being done in New York. They privilege pedestrians and bicycles over cars in such a deft way.” One of Burden’s principal missions is to bring New York’s pedestrian culture right down to a water’s edge that has long been sealed off by traffic.
Burden and Sadik-Khan toured Copenhagen with Jan Gehl, the Danish sage of humane urban planning who has left his mark on cities from Melbourne to Riga. Gehl began his career by meticulously observing Copenhagen in the mid 1960’s—collecting data, noting changes and their effects, and creating a longitudinal portrait of a city that has transformed itself, radically but slowly, into a more pleasant place to live. Strøget, the Danish version of Broadway, evolved from a clogged traffic artery into a vibrant pedestrian boulevard. The city banished cars from gracious squares that had degenerated into arid fields of steel. It encouraged people to commute by bicycle again. It converted the once-forlorn canal of Nyhavn into the city’s most photogenic tract. And it did all this through a series of ad hoc stutter steps. “We have developed very incrementally,” says Gehl’s business partner, Helle Søholt. “We have not had a master plan saying, ‘By 2010, forty percent of people will be riding bicycles and we will have a harbor promenade and we will eliminate three thousand parking spots.’ If we’d had a master plan like that, it would not have happened.”
Copenhagen had long depended on its inner harbor, a deep channel that cuts between two islands. Like most ports, this one was, for centuries, a teeming thicket of masts, barrels, cranes, and stevedores—lively, exotic, dirty, and sometimes dangerous. But by the second half of the 20th century, goods were packed in huge steel containers stacked by cranes the size of buildings on the decks of giant freighters. Such an arrangement of automated juggernauts demands enormous ports with vast paved lots where 18-wheelers can maneuver with ease. For the shipping business, proximity to downtown has become obsolete. Virtually every large port city has developed similar symptoms: dilapidated docks, abandoned warehouses, and fences sealing downtown off from the fetid, suddenly quiet waters. The great urban project of the postindustrial age is to heal that coastal scar.