Public Life in Copenhagen

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A glimpse at a peaceful part of Distortion, 2016. View from Nørrebro toward city center.

Until mid-July this year (2016), I had been living in Copenhagen, Denmark for roughly a year as an exchange student at the University of Copenhagen (or KU for København Universitet, as in Danish).

I used to live in Nørrebro  –  the quirkier and more diverse part of Copenhagen. Because I knew from the beginning that I will have an entire year in Denmark, I really took a great amount of time to get to know the city. Meaning, I was surprisingly shied away by the new culture: I experienced a bunch of subtle cultural shocks with this non-(native) English speaking white society. I was so doubtful of my years living in California at the moment. Admittedly, from an (Asian) outsider’s perspective, I think it is difficult for short-term outsiders to instantly get used to or fall in love with this city. I feel that Copenhagen, much like the Danes themselves, can be quite distanced until one gets to know. And actually, once I got used to the life of Copenhagen, I began to yearn for more of it – especially when knowing that I would have to leave soon.

Now that I am already back in Viet Nam, I find that what I miss about København, among a bunch of things, is its perfect scale. Copenhagen is quite small: 86.4 square kilometers or 33.4 sq mi in area for a population of almost 600,000 strong (see here). Yet despite its small scale, the vibrant life inside that capital city definitely makes it more spacious than it actually is.

I remember struggling through Norrebro from Sankt Hans Torv square to pass through Dronning Louises Bridge in order to reach the local beloved Torvehallerne (or the glass-house market, as my group prefered to call). But if such the sentence would (hopefully) cause some imaginations of a long distance, let me assure that it usually only took a slow biker like myself around 4 mins to cover. Yet on one fine spring day, exactly on June 1, 2016, it took me almost two hours to finish the trip by walking.

So on that day, starting from late afternoon until early morning of the day after, there was an event called Distortion. From what I understand, Distortion is an annual city get-together party, which takes a few days and throughout different parts of the city. When it happened in Nørrebro, the whole Dronning Louises Bridge and its immediate neighboring Norrebro areas were closed to traffic so that people could party hard.

And they did.

What I am trying to say is that I think Vietnamese people don’t really party outdoor. Maybe our weather is different. Maybe our culture is different. But I remember during the Danish Architecture and Urban Design class, architect-lecturer Lars Gemzøe mentioned people used to argue that Denmark was not Italy and so there shouldn’t be any expectation of  lively public life. Yet Copenhagen proved that such a conservative perception was unfairly wrong: people are now enjoying their outdoor lives because they have the spaces to do so (of course given acceptable weather condition- but that’s probably just me because the Vikings’ descendants don’t concern much about such a mundane thing) . The physical transformation of the city from an automobile-focused city to the current human-focused city was one key component to its success in creating public life. (Of course, one could argue more about “human-focused”, but that should be saved for ,perhaps, later).

So my beloved home city Sai Gon is also going through a series of significant changes during recent years. Just like Copenhagen and many other cities around the world, it is now under mass construction to become more competitive in attracting resources and talents. Except that our struggle to build a world-class city is likely to cover our own insecurity. And so we want to emulate (if not copy) Singapore, Seoul, Bangkok or whatever Asian city one can think of, instead of finding or celebrating our own urban identity. What is the purpose of luxurious skyscrapers that keep popping up around the city while majority of the population cannot afford them? Why cutting down heritage trees when we don’t have much greenery left in the city, just to have a metro station that can be rationally relocated elsewhere? Why demolishing old buildings with history just to have new buildings (aka shopping malls) that look like appalling imitations of the past? Or maybe I am such an emotional individual who is not ready for change (?!).

As a returnee, I am not much different from newcomers in term of seeing and experiencing this seemingly new place. Yet because of the old memories I’ve kept for the city during my years abroad, I cannot help but feeling a sense of betrayal when I walk down the streets of Sai Gon and discover the changes as well as the refound familiarities with having no spaces to walk (sidewalks turn into mini parking lots or restaurant frontages while traffic is completely merciless), having to tread through flooding water when it rains, or simply having to endure the trapped heat of concretes all the time, for instances. Perhaps if it were somewhere else and not Sai Gon, I would take it less personally. But since it is Sai Gon, I have to admit that sometimes I feel lost at home.

And when I feel lost in Sai Gon, I usually reminisce my days in Copenhagen. Of course, Copenhagen has its own problems and I also have some problems with it as well. Yet because it is Copenhagen and not Sai Gon, I have the benefit of being an inside outsider, someone who lived there to actually get to know the place but could not totally immerse into the place due to language barrier and some other reasons. Furthermore, there is always a romanticizing sense of freedom in a completely new place. And that is easily longed for when it is no longer there.

So what’s my point? It’s that I hardly found myself lost in Copenhagen. At least not physically for the most parts. As I say above, Copenhagen is at the right scale – it is a very manageable place: not too big to still have privacy, not too small to still be able to have diverse experiences of what the capital of the wealthy Northern European nation has to offer. In other words, the scale of Copenhagen makes it accessible and flexible. Firstly, the bike infrastructure fosters biking culture, which fosters city bodily experiences. Moving from point A to point B is of individual’s control (which I understand for families, groups, and elders might not always be a good idea). I believe my thoughts of the city would have been very different had I driven a car around Copenhagen instead of biking. In fact, during the time when I still solely relied on public transportation, I had no concrete perception of the city at all. Secondly, the city is multi-functional; being mixed-use means that the city can accommodate flexibility of movements and functions. Thirdly, the city is “of human scale”, like Lars Gemzøe said when he convinced us the foreign crowd about the architectural significance of the Little Mermaid as it, as the icon of Copenhagen, reflects the design mentality of the city. The Little Mermaid is actually little, a charm that many tourists would find disenchanting while the locals would fondly joke about it like they would about their mountains (there is no proper mountain in Denmark). After all, it might suggests that Danes find charms in honest expression as opposed to showery exhibition. And fourthly, I don’t know – I think I’ve written too much of rambling. I also might have given the Danes too much benefits of a doubt.

At the same time, if I first had came to Copenhagen as a tourist, like I said before, I would have been a little disappointed. I could have been complaining more about the power of the Danish kroner and the efficiency of the Danish public transportation system than I always did when I had a chance: I could get so little of the latter with so much of the former. I still haven’t figured out what Danes think of having to pay roughly $4 (DKK 24) for a one-way two-zone trip. But I heard that’s how they’d rather get damned on their bikes by bad weather than to get on the buses.

To suddenly conclude, I should stop here. Much more to come. Especially since I haven’t touched on alleyways yet.

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