Iterative, and a bit impish
by Bryan Irwin AIA
Walk the waterfronts of Boston and Copenhagen and one cannot help but think that at a thanksgiving gathering of the world’s port cities, Boston would be the fusty uncle correcting everyone’s table manners while Copenhagen would be the favorite aunt out back playing touch football.
What to make of Copenhagen, that once gritty port city alongside The Sound that now tops many of the world’s “best of” lists, from best restaurants to most bicycle-friendly to world’s happiest citizens? It was not very long ago that Boston and Copenhagen were more alike than different: similar geographic constraints, city cores choked with automobiles, and waterfronts rimmed with aging and abandoned industrial infrastructure. How did these two cities end up in two very different places?
One feels barely tolerated when walking Boston’s waterfront. The entire fabric of the experience is the result of weaving together two threads of thought: accommodate the automobile and give developers the largest parcel size possible. Whatever is left, well, the pedestrians and bicyclists can have that. Open space consists of a patch of lawn here, a widening of the sidewalk there. Walking along the water’s edge is an urban version of Newport’s Cliff Walk—one is left clinging to the edge, crowded out by moneyed interests in inscrutable, scaleless buildings.
Copenhagen, on the other hand, is a much more egalitarian and gracious experience. The water’s edge is a promenade, not a sidewalk. The buildings and automobiles defer to pedestrians and bicyclists. Perhaps most important, Copenhagen has managed to create urban theater: The waterfront is a stage set for improvisation and dialogue, and the citizens are the actors.
The story of Copenhagen’s transformation from industrial relic to next-generation waterfront experience is a story of incremental experimentation, critical self-assessment, political compromise, and a healthy dose of don’t-let’s-take-ourselves-so-seriously. This improvisational attitude toward reclaiming its waterfront can be traced back to 1971, when residents spontaneously appropriated Christiania, an abandoned military base east of the urban core, as a playground for their children, creating the renegade neighborhood that became known as “Freetown Christiania.”
What set these two cities on very different trajectories is the political framework within which they operate. For Copenhagen, this framework is defined by the historical fact that for more than 100 years no single political party has ever maintained an absolute majority in Parliament, resulting in a culture and working methodology that values coalitions. Meeting each other halfway is the endgame, compromise is the way forward. Key appointments are spread across parties. This has defined a political arena of passionate debate—parry and thrust— but ultimately a consensus around a middle ground. Contrast this with Boston, a political framework that begins and ends in the neighborhood —a city where for 21 years during a critical time that defined much of our waterfront, the late mayor Thomas Menino almost single-handedly guided every significant decision, from the parcel configurations of the Seaport District to the shapes of the tops of the city’s high-rises; a city that only recently has had its City Council representation accurately reflect the diversity of its population.