We’ve all seen glorious photos of European cities with carfree plazas, pedestrians strolling and shopping, cyclists lazily riding along. The most lauded of these towns is Copenhagen, and especially, its city center. How does such a people-oriented place evolve?
When Strøget in Copenhagen was changed into a pedestrian street in 1962, it was after much debate and with considerable reservations. If, at the time, anyone had predicted that the city center would have six times as many carfree areas 34 years later, and that car traffic and parking possibilities would be substantially reduced, it would have been met with a great deal of skepticism. That life in the city center could flourish markedly would simply have been too unbelievable.
When skeptics tell you “that won’t work here” and “Europe has always been ped/bike friendly”, remember how Strøget became carfree and allowed pedestrian plazas and cycletracks to flourish in its wake. There is vision that oversees intricate processes that lead to such a comprehensive change.
Today we can see that the city center has changed noticeably over only three decades from a car-oriented to a people-oriented city center. Considered in hindsight, this development has been possible simply because major changes have been introduced in small and well-planned stages. After successful completion of one change, it has been possible to find understanding and support for the next. This policy of taking many small steps has been implemented within the framework of one great vision. Across political lines in Copenhagen’s municipal government, the special qualities of Copenhagen have been appreciated and the city transformed into a beautiful and human city at a pace which Copenhageners could accept.
The wikipedia entry gives a nice summary:
Strøget was created in November 1962 when cars were beginning to dominate Copenhagen’s old central streets. During the 1950s the street had closed to traffic for a couple of days at Christmas. In 1962 the closure was “half disguised” as an extended holiday closure, but the road has remained closed since. The idea was controversial, some people believing that the Danes did not have the mentality for “public life” envisioned by such a street, and many local merchants believed the move would scare away business.However it proved a success, and the area soon boasted more shoppers, cafes, and a renewed street life. Building on Strøget’s success, the network expanded piecemeal – another street and a few more squares were emptied of cars in 1968, and further closures took place in 1973, 1980, and 1992. From the initial 15,800 square metres of the Strøget, Copenhagen’s pedestrian network has expanded to about 100,000 square metres.
The underlying philosophy of this people-oriented change came from Jan Gehl’s holistic understanding of human behavior and its interrelation to planning, transit, and architecture. This way of thinking extends far above prescriptive zoning rules and explicit traffic engineering design manuals. It is an understanding of place, and how to preserve and enhance place. The same rules should apply here in Denton. As we once endeavored to bulldoze the historic downtown courthouse to build a parking lot, we now gravitate to it as a public space. We preserved the courthouse, but how do we enhance it? We should balance the transit modes. Calm the area even more. Make it the safest, most livable area in town, and grow that philosophy outward from there. Every town needs a Strøget.