Photos

What a Walkable City Should Look Like

A two-block virtual walk highlights Copenhagen's exceptional urban atmosphere.

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Google Earth

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Phil LaCombe and Lou Thomas, co-founders of the website and blog Small Streets, believe that the Danish capital of Copenhagen provides a special environment for delightful walking. It is certainly not a shock to find such praise for the city that practically invented the concept of the modern, car-free shopping street, and that is the home residence of Jan Gehl, perhaps the world's most celebrated planner of humanist streets and public spaces. But it is still a treat to run across an illustrated "virtual tour" of some of the reasons why.

That's exactly what the authors offer to us in a blog post published last week. Using Google Earth's Street View feature, they take us on a short walk, only about two blocks in length, that is full of great people-scaled urbanism, exactly the kind of fine-grained diversity that I wrote about in yesterday's post. I went to Google Earth and "traveled" the same route in order to whet your appetite. But go to the original for more explanation.

Via Google Earth

The walk starts on the Skindergade, traveling northeast. Notice all the bikes on the right-hand side.

Via Google Earth

A quick right heads us down a somewhat narrower street called Klosterstraede. Notice how the street light hangs from the center, obviating poles that can block sidewalks. Also notice the different colors and building textures.

Via Google Earth

A quick left and we're headed down the cobblestone Grabrodestraede. Little cafes are starting to appear, and there's greenery in the distance.

Via Google Earth

Speaking of greenery, as we near a small square, shaded cafes appear on the right, more bikes on the left. It looks a heck of a lot more pleasant than the places I've been grabbing lunch lately.

Via Google Earth

The square itself is anchored by a single tree in the center, surrounded by benches and more cafes. Small Streets says it's only about a half-acre, but it's quite obviously enough to create a sense of place, somewhere we want to be to relax and enjoy a drink, meal and conversation.

This is all rather simple, and Small Streets presents it in a more engaging fashion than I do here. But simplicity is kind of the point. The amount of density and building stock is just enough to entice and relax without creating a feeling of being overwhelmed or crowded. I would love to have more spaces like this in my own city.

It's not a coincidence that older neighborhoods built before the dominance of cars in the late-20th century sometimes provide the kinds of places people love most. In order to conserve the natural and working landscape outside of cities, in order to create places where people enjoy walking and, when they need to drive, don't have to drive far - all of which benefit the natrural environment - we need the kinds of cities that are worth loving.

From the Small Streets website:

For centuries, small streets [defined as no wider than 30 feet] served an integral role in our cities and towns. They provided intimate and nurturing spaces for families within walking distance of daily needs. Small streets added beauty and wonder to our neighborhoods ...

In the 20th century, zoning and fire codes prioritized the car above all other modes of transportation, especially walking. We have outlawed small streets, and in the process lost an essential element of our cities and towns.

Small Streets advocates for a return of the balanced city, focused on preserving our historic small streets and reintroducing new small streets to our communities.

We need our wide thoroughfares, too, of course.  But, if I could have streets like these in Copenhagen, I'm not sure I would use the wide ones much.

This post originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard blog.

 

About the Author

  • Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. More
    Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. He is the author or co-author of Once There Were Greenfields (NRDC 1999), Solving Sprawl (Island Press 2001), Smart Growth In a Changing World (APA Planners Press 2007), and Green Community (APA Planners Press 2009). In 2009, Kaid was voted one of the "top urban thinkers" on Planetizen.com, and he was named one of "the most influential people in sustainable planning and development" in 2010 by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. He blogs at NRDC's Switchboard.