It still surprises me that no other academics with PhDs in architecture and urbanism have taken an interest in the changing image of cities brought about by the cycling renaissance. Our theory books have so much to offer when applied to the questions arising. Oh well. It will just have to me, taking the honours.
As my two or three regular readers well know, I’ve been crouched like a time trialist over my computer hammering out some kind of book. The writing process itself brings realisations. For example, this week, it dawned on me how a theory book, The Rule and the Model by Françoise Choay, a book I beat my head with when I was a PhD candidate in the late 1990s, really could open all of our eyes to the perverse-yet-great-at-the-same-time influence that the city of Copenhagen has been having on other cities, thanks to Jan Gehl.
Choay argues that urbanism, the idea that city growth and change doesn’t have to be left to chance, emerged in the space between two competing approaches. Alberti gave us the first in the late 1400s, by writing a book of rules. Thomas More gave us the next a few decades later, by writing a book that presented a model. You know it: Utopia. In her book Choay is kind to both approaches, and says urbanism depends on them both. But in an interview she gave a few years after her book was eventually translated into English, she made it clear how she felt. Rules are flexible. Models are static. Rules can be creatively reinterpreted for different places and times. Models and contexts are always at odds with each other. Nevertheless, you need both.
Enter Copenhagen, a far far away place, where everybody is equal, and the fair maidens are tall and ride bikes. It fulfils all the main criteria of a Utopian model. Never mind that most of the city is boring suburbia with car parks and malls, like anywhere else. It has a few districts (Nørrebro and Østerbro) that shot up in the late 1800s with giant perimeter blocks, fine grain permeable edges with shoppers moving back and forward from the inside and outside, and these glorious avenues where cyclists, drivers, shoppers and buses all get funnelled toward a handful of big bridges across the river and lakes. Good on you, Johnie-on-the-spot Mr. Gehl, for recognising your own back yard as a Utopian model.
I don’t begrudge him his luck. I’ve had quite a lot of that too. But let’s not be misled into thinking Gehl discovered the European city as a model of Urbanism. Go google these names: Rossi, Krier, Vidler, Graves, Rowe and follow those leads, and you will see who had the idea a few decades prior. But who is famous now? The better communicator and salesman, Jan Gehl. And who is changing the world? That would be Jan Gehl as well.
He has been able to change it because the democratic processes by which cities are planned are so complex, and because people are simple. Try explaining a rational design proposal that responds to the peculiarities of a particular place with its own array of unique problems to an impatient city planning committee. They will give you roughly 4 seconds, the amount of time they give politicians on the evening news to sell a budget or convince their nation that they must go to war. Your 4 seconds would be more wisely spent showing a photo from Utopia (that is, Copenhagen). Point out the fine grain permeable edge (that’s one second), the tactile separation of bikes and pedestrians (2 seconds), the curb or parked car barrier between the bikes and the carriageway (3 seconds) and the huge numbers of cyclists (phew, made it in time). Don’t bother mentioning how all those cyclists are being funnelled toward the only bridge for a mile—you will only put your committee to sleep and weaken your case.
Now let’s bring Choay in on the discussion. As a theorist she would rather this static model be accorded less weight than more flexible rules. The model works fine in Copenhagen, where there are no descents to suddenly hurtle those cyclists at triple their natural pedalling speed, and where the street edge hasn’t been butchered by garage entries every ten meters. But how does that model look when dropped upon Sydney, a city built upon an arsenal of basement garages cheaply cut into the sandstone, each generating as many car movements per day as a side street in Copenhagen?
The Copenhagen model superimposes much better on districts with the same underlying morphology, for example Manhattan. The Avenues are similar funnels of traffic from a wide zone either side. Any drive-way entrances are hidden away on the side streets, leaving the Avenues lined with narrow shopfronts. And lower Manhattan is mostly all flat.
So what do we do? I’m not about to suggest that urban design theorists be given the reigns. Most are just fatalistic alcoholics who think the architect’s role is to represent a world gone wrong, not try to right it. The few who would try to fix things, like Kim Dovey in Melbourne, are more focused on public transport than cycling, but TOD is a recipe for an overweight city. Suppose then that I had Dovey’s track record, and was made the chair of some committee? I would still only be given 4 seconds. Not enough time to explain a complex solution arrived at by interpreting rules.
The answer, I think, is more models. The Copenhagen model has transformed New York, and done more good than harm when superimposed upon Sydney. The car industry has been using models since the 1939 World’s Fair Futurama exhibit, and is still paying architects to design model visions of the future city with cars. They do it, because the strategy works: cities are still held hostage to their irrational products.
Every photo of a better life in some Nordic Utopia, and every artist’s impression of an invented solution to incorporate bikes in the city, is another 4 seconds for us.