Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Urban Planning

I have yet to witness the recent transformation of Times Square into a pedestrian plaza, which New York City's transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan supposedly modeled after Copenhagen's Strøget - the famed (or at least somewhat famed) shopping strip in central Copenhagen where only vehicles with a purpose and special license are allowed to drive. Otherwise, it belongs solely to pedestrians.

I find it part flattering and part funny that so many government officials and urban planners are so fascinated with Copenhagen. The way it accommodates bicyclists, I can only applaud, and find it fantastic that a city like New York seeks to adopt the logic underlying the Danish bike path system. However, the idea of replicating Strøget, I can't help but find a bit puzzling.

Strøget is a tightly regulated street where no bike riding is allowed, where street vendors come in few, where there are few places to sit and look at the scenery, and where rents are so high that it's increasingly only the big international corporations that can afford to settle there. All this might invite to a slow promenade of window shopping, but as creative economy researchers have told us time and time again, none of these things exactly cultivate any urban innovation or great social and economic dynamic. In fact, hearing NY urban planners say that they're inspired by Strøget, is almost like hearing them say they're essentially inspired by Fifth Avenue below Central Park. Both are dominated by big global corporations like Louis Vuitton, Gucci, H&M and of course masses of bewildered tourists who might be able to deal with the spectacle for an afternoon or two, but then that's it.

My friend Anne told me recently that when she was a kid, going from the suburbs into the city to take a stroll on Strøget was exciting beyond all else, but that nowadays, if she has to run an errand there, she will do all in her might to avoid it, even if it entails taking a rather long detour. And I relate: Strøget is slow on so many levels, not just in terms of the pace people walk, but in some wider social sense, I can't exactly put my finger on. I realize this sounds vague, but my point is just that it's certainly not where I go when I need a fix of vibrant, creative and interesting Copenhagen. Or a friendly and calm oasis-like Copenhagen, for that matter. The kind that caters first and foremost to its inhabitants' well-being, as Copenhagen and Denmark at large is so renowned for doing.

I don't wish to deliver the death blow to the Times Square transformation, least of all before having made my way up there and seen it in person. Who knows, maybe it will prove to be brilliant. It's just that, however much the idea of having car free streets and neighborhoods appeals to me, I also realize that I tend to think of pedestrian areas as kind of dull and unhappening. So I guess I'm just surprised they think Strøget is all the rage.

No comments: