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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"Hygge" in Saint Paul: Reflections from my 8-80 Livable Communities Tour of Copenhagen, Denmark

 - By Councilmember Amy Brendmoen, Ward 5

I recently traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark for a study tour sponsored by the Knight Foundation to train with international experts in city planning and urban design. The trip was an extension of the ‘8-80 Livable Communities Place-making Residency’ held in the Twin Cities this summer. In addition to me, the Saint Paul delegation was comprised of Matt Kramer, President of the Saint Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, Jessica Treat, Executive Director of the nonprofit St. Paul SmartTrips, Rueben Collins, City Engineer from Public Works and Polly Talen of the Knight Foundation. In Copenhagen, we met up with similarly comprised teams from 10 U.S. cities (such as San Jose, Detroit, Charlotte) and began an incredible week of education, inspiration, motivation. I will never look at a public space the same way again!

Last Sunday morning I joined my classmates (ages ranging 23-70) on comfortable three-speed bicycles in Copenhagen’s crisp morning air. We pedaled to our meeting space on a protected bicycle guideway incorporated into H.C. Andersens Blvd--a very busy thoroughfare. Joining us on this short commute was a steady stream of pedestrians, cars and literally hundreds of other bicyclists. The historic architecture and transit infrastructure was stunning and people all around us were patient, law-abiding and seemingly quite happy. And as we rode, I noticed my conference-mates were smiling a lot, too.

"Bike jam" in Copenhagen.

As we began our morning lecture, the reason for the trip (and source of all that morning-commute happiness) became very clear. Copenhagen is a city that has been very intentionally and skillfully designed for the enjoyment, convenience, safety and livability of people. The relationship between the built environment and people’s quality of life is apparent in every corner of the city. We were introduced to the Danish word hygge (pronounced “hoo-ga”) which loosely translates to: a nice, cozy atmosphere with good people around, enjoying life. We went to spend a week immersed in hygge from the perspective of city planning, public works, parks and recreation, public art, and redevelopment.  We were challenged to think of our own cities and how they functioned at a human scale. 

People come in all shapes and sizes and have varied needs and desires which change throughout one's lifetime.  To have a healthy, thriving and competitive city in this millennium (and therefore a strong tax-base) we must plan cities that are designed to serve people of all tastes, abilities and ages (hence the title ‘8 to 80 Cities’).  If we consider how our public spaces function for an 8 year old, as well as for an 80 year old--and engage people from diverse backgrounds in doing so--we will very likely have a place that works well for everyone. In Copenhagen, the city has stated goals in its city planning process to attract more people to public spaces and to get them to stay longer (aka: cultivate more hygge). What would Saint Paul look like if we used that as a guiding principle when planning our parks, roadways, libraries and architecture? 

This is an example of a streetscape shifted to accommodate "sunny side of the street." This street was redesigned with wide pedestrian walkway and bike lane on one half of the roadway, with the driving space, some parking and narrower sidewalk on the other side. Because daylight is fleeting in Copenhagen, particularly in winter months, this design is a simple example of a street built for people.

In Saint Paul, some fear that talk of improving pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure must come at the expense of motorized vehicles and drivers. In Copenhagen we saw this couldn't be further from the truth. The goal of people-oriented planning is to create systems that serve the needs of all people and since cars carry drivers and passengers, then the principal would clearly include the need to serve motorized vehicles as well. But for the past 50 years we have focused our city planning systems primarily on moving cars (fast) with little regard to other modes of transport. As Gil Penalosa, director of 8-80 Livable Communities says, "Plan a city around cars, and you'll get more cars. Plan a city around people, and you'll get more health and happiness." It's time to shift our thinking. Roads are shared space and should be planned for the safety, enjoyment and well-being of all people.

Many people who hear this will think, that it all sounds nice for Copenhagen, but this is Saint Paul and we can’t do that here. To that I say, “Why not?” Why can’t Saint Paul be a world-class city that people visit for inspiration to make their world a better place? Why can’t our rush hour commutes be full of smiling faces? It’s true that our city faces challenges that are different from those facing Copenhagen—but how much better could we do at addressing those challenges if our goal was not just to do the minimum, but to do the maximum to achieve health and happiness for all people? My perspective on cities has changed after visiting Copenhagen and I’m grateful to the Knight Foundation for sending us to the conference. I’m excited for what it can become when we put people at the center of our planning processes, and I’m looking forward to bringing some more hygge to Saint Paul.  

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