27 August 2012

Copenhagen's "Strøget" Turns 50

Johannes V Jensen
Copenhagen's famous pedestrian street "Strøget" turns 50 on September 2, 2012. There will be festivities up and down the street in celebration.

Here's a post that shows the origins of the idea can be found in 1913. Originally published on 11 August 2009.

I dipped into the archives the other day and found an interesting article from 1913 about traffic on the main thoroughfare in Copenhagen - 'Strøget'.

In the early 1960's Strøget, the main street running east-west through the city centre, became quite famous. It was closed off to cars and transformed into a pedestrian zone.
Copenhagen 1951 Copenhagen 1964
Strøget 1951 and in 1964.
Strøget now. (on a very quiet morning, believe me)

There were protests back then. Cries of "we're not Italians! We don't want to walk!" were heard in the city. Shopkeepers feared for their businesses. Fortunately, the idea was implemented by the City of Copenhagen. They had seen some of the great ideas by urban planner Jan Gehl.

This was a turning point in the modern life of Copenhagen. Cars were taking over, fewer people were cycling and the city was congested and polluted. Visionary political decision-making and urban planning was needed and it arrived.

Since then, Copenhagen hasn't looked back. The fears of the shopkeepers were soon allayed - indeed there is nowhere in the world where pedestrian zones or bike lanes have caused commerce to suffer. These two urban planning instruments only serve to increase the number of pedestrians and act as a form of traffic calming. Streets become, quite simply, nicer places to be.

I was suprised, however, to discover that a well-known Danish writer Johannes V. Jensen was quite a visionary. In the article I found there was a discussion about the increasing traffic on Strøget back in 1913. 'Omnibusses' had made their debut and motor traffic was on the rise. The city's backbone was under threat. Various personalities were asked about what should be done about the street. Should bikes be banned? What about pedestrians? Should cars and omnibusses prevail?

Here's what Johannes V. Jensen wrote:

"I find the increasing traffic on Strøget extremely dangerous, says Johannes V. Jensen. It should have been banned ages ago. These "arks", these omnibusses wouldn't be tolerated anywhere else in the world. In Seville, where there are similar narrow, winding streets, all traffic is banned. In China it's been like that for centuries.

All vehicles, including bicycles, should be banned from Strøget. It's the only promenade we have in the city. It isn't pretty, it needs more trees, but the people have made their choice and it should be allowed to exist in peace."

What a visionary.

Strøget's transformation was a success. To this day it is only for pedestrians and the network of pedestrian streets in the centre of the city has expanded, along with Shared Space stretches and traffic calming measures. Johannes V. Jensen was, indeed, quite the visionary. Unfortunately, he died in 1950 so he didn't get to see it happen.

Johannes V. Jensen is also interesting to a cycling Copenhagen due to one novel in particular. Gudrun, from 1936. An extremely modern novel for its time, it features a girl named Gudrun who is content with her working life and doesn't harbour much thought for following the usual path of 'husband, children, housewife.'

She cycles over Knippel's Bridge each day to work and Jensen has several lovely passages that describe cycling in Copenhagen.

"In the stream of cycles over Knippels Bridge we see Gudrun again, pedaling steadily. As though her and the machine are one. She is Copenhagen and Copenhagen is her."

He also compares the cycling Copenhageners to schools of fish:
"If one is bumped by a car, the whole school is bumped. It's a nerve one has in the elbow, a flock function, which Copenhageners have learned so well that it is second nature".

There is another passage that I can't seem to find in my notes about how the cycling girls of Copenhagen are all blonde and they make you think that they are all members of the same family.

The 'cycling girl' as a cultural icon in Danish history lives on, as does Johannes V. Jensen's vision of a car-free city centre.


lagatta à montréal said...

It is really important to look back at the work of urbanists who were able to see beyond the car-centred society and return streets to citizens. Bravo.

In certain cases pedestrian zones have proven unsuccessful, but usually it was a matter of their implementation. One well-known example is the Sparks Street Mall in the centre of Ottawa. I believe that the authority that runs the mall has charged excessive rents and otherwise discouraged prominent retailers from staying in or locating to the pedestrian street.

Rob said...

Chicago's "State Street Mall" experiment is considered a universal failure. The plan closed State Street for a few blocks, only allowing CTA buses and emergency vehicles.

Why? I'm not really sure...
it is in the Loop, which back then shut down every weekday at 5 PM, on the dot. Retail stores are still not nearly as successful as they are on nearby Michigan Avenue. The population of the South Loop neighborhood was not nearly as much as it is now. Access via public transportation was not a concern - it was located by 6 different subway lines and about as many bus routes.

It was reopened in the early 2000s and is now a traditional, divided 4-lane highway (10,700 cars per day). However, the city as a whole is still seen as overall promoting alternative forms of transportation.

Frits B said...

It's remarkable how shopkeepers are the first ones to cry woolf when they see their existence threatened by a pedestrian zone. I live in Assen, Holland, the town amply described by David Hembrow. Only 50 years ago, all traffic had to pass through the narrow streets of the town centre (19th century stuff). A ring road has since been laid around the town and the centre has been turned into a pedestrian zone with cycle paths. Shops remain accessible during certain hours but otherwise there is no motor traffic. David H. shows this in various videos on his site. There are plans now to extend the pedestrian zone as the few one-way streets remaining in the town centre are constantly abused by people trying to find a shortcut. The first people to protest were the shopkeepers who should know better as their colleagues in the pedestrian zone have no problems at all. But I'm sure that in 10 years time they will agree that this zone is in their best interest.
Assen's town planners can be quite rigorous. We have six large parking facilities (garages) for the town centre but these aren't free, so most of the people either working or shopping in the centre parked their cars in the adjacent residential areas, preferably on the South side. These areas have now been cleared, i.e. parking is allowed to residents only from 9 till 18 hrs. A massive improvement, and all those cars have miraculously found a place on designated parking areas.

P.S. Did Danish use capitals for nouns originally, like German?

Lyvemaskine said...

@ Frits B
There were no orthography rules in Danish until some time in the 19th century. But back then the first letter in a noun was capital like in German. This changed however in 1948 when the Danish orthography was modernized (and being right after the war every similarity with German probably wasn't that popular). 1948 was also when the oldfashioned version of the letter å - namely two a's was abolished.

CSQTown Planner said...

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Unknown said...

(Of course the "aa" has made a comeback due to the difficulties posed by MS-DOS and Windows...)

It should be noted that these walking streets often become the most expensive retail real estate in the city. This is certainly true of Strøget and has proven to be the case now in Santa Monica, California where the Apple Store landlord just made a killing: