God dag! I spent all of last week in a faraway land – the land of Denmark: home of Hamlet, danishes, and Copenhagen. Copenhagen, in turn, is home to a staggering network of cycletracks, an abundance of parks and public spaces, a pleasantly walkable downtown core, and 550,000 of the happiest people on earth.

I was in Copenhagen as a grateful guest of the City of San José, which was itself a guest of Knight Foundation, a non-profit foundation that believes that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. The tour was planned by the fantastic team at 8-80 Cities, who kept us busy with workshops, meetings, and tours.

The San José team comprised District 10 Councilmember Johnny Khamis, Department of Transportation Deputy Director of Planning and Project Delivery Paul Smith, Department of Transportation Senior Transportation Specialist Zahi Khattab, and me. We were joined by George Abbott, Knight Foundation’s interim San José Program Director, several other savvy staffers from Knight Foundation and 8-80 Cities, and teams from Akron, Ohio; Charlotte, North Carolina; Columbus, Georgia; Detroit, Michigan; Lexington, Kentucky; Macon, Georgia; Miami, Florida; and St. Paul, Minnesota. All told, we were 34 Americans and Canadians walking, pedaling, and public transiting around Copenhagen (and, for a day, Malmö, Sweden).

So what did we learn? I think the primary takeaway was that good planning – whether it’s for parks, plazas, sidewalks, or transportation – has to start with people first. What does the community want or need? How are people using existing spaces? Where are there problems? What do the residents of the community think would help solve that problem? This kind of people-first planning was developed by Jan Gehl and was explained to us by his talented team over a two-day masterclass in urban planning. The notion of observing, questioning, measuring, testing, and refining urban design seems so common sense, but is not actually what’s practiced in our cities most of the time. The success of this approach in Copenhagen no doubt opened some eyes and changed some minds. For me personally, the emphasis on involving the public – both directly and through counts and observation – affirmed the important role that community organizations like SVBC can play in city-led planning processes.

Some other important lessons I learned from my voyage to the epicenter of engaged urbanism:

Copenhagen isn’t perfect!

In urbanist circles, we tend to hold Copenhagen up as a paragon, an example to which we should all aspire. It truly is a very pleasant, well-run city, but as the team at Gehl Architects repeatedly stressed, it doesn’t make sense to “Copenhagenize” other cities. What works for one place likely can’t be successfully copied in another. Besides – not everything works flawlessly, even in Copenhagen!

  • The famous cycletracks had to be shoehorned into a very old city, which means they are inconsistently sized, often twist and juke around obstacles, and don’t facilitate left turns in a very smooth manner. We don’t have the same constraints here, so we’ll have different solutions.
  • The sidewalks there also leave something to be desired, as their charming looks belie their difficulty to maneuver if you rely on a wheelchair or walker, walk with a cane, or simply need to tow your wheelie bag from the train station to your hotel. No way the Americans with Disabilities Act would permit such “charming” facilities here.
  • Even in an urban paradise, suburban sprawl still looms. The newly developed city area of Ørestad lies well outside the urban core and features large malls, hotels, and a conference center. Definitely a piece of Copenhagen that we don’t need to import.

Despite these imperfections, Copenhageners still make it work. Essentially, they don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good. And when they have the resources, they try new things in an attempt to improve. Now there’s something to emulate!

Change has happened slowly and is ongoing

Much as I would like to see overnight change in my city, Copenhagen’s example shows that isn’t likely.

  • The first walking streets – where cars are restricted or outright prohibited – were first introduced in the 1960s, to strong initial protest. That was the beginning of Copenhagen’s transformation, a more than 40-year process that still faces challenges and pockets of opposition.
  • The bicycle network is still not done, after over 20 years of construction. Installing cycletracks takes money, and even Copenhagen is limited to an annual budget!
  • Tenant democracy – the notion that the people living in a community ultimately have the right to decide its direction – is an admirable Danish pursuit. It can also drag planning processes out for years.

Planning and infrastructure are supported by social and cultural values, and vice versa

This lesson is the most difficult to transplant. Essentially, Copenhageners always valued active city life, to a degree, which in turn led to public spaces which satisfied and bolstered those values. Some examples:

  • Popular protests against a proposal to build a motorway across the city’s lakes led to a new push for bicycle infrastructure. This made riding bicycles a faster and more convenient way to get around, which led to further support for bike infrastructure.
  • The city’s active public spaces are designed with input from an engaged public. This creates successful public spaces, which bring people together and further engage the community.
  • Low income disparity – a result in part of high and progressive taxes – means people are more likely to share spaces with others from different socioeconomic levels. This in turn perpetuates support for public funds to be spent on improving the commons.

I could go on and on. I haven’t even mentioned how people in Copenhagen bike for convenience, not for environmental or health concerns, or how the city prioritizes the sunny side of the street for people to hang out, or how a bike bridge over the harbor currently serves double the originally anticipated capacity! The point is this: I learned a lot, as did everybody who went. And I’m excited to put what I learned to work here in Silicon Valley!