Thoughts on Copenhagen – Chris Bailey

There’s ‘listening’ and there’s really listening …

A short way into the Copenhagen episode of his series on Liveable Cities, Mikael Colville-Andersen emphasises the importance of listening in creating good spaces. But as we all know, human interaction is a bit more subtle than that. There’s ‘listening’ (as in “I hear what you say …”) and there is real listening, which results in taking account and in change.

Listening, often managed through a consultation process bringing together experts and the representatives of the public, is an inevitable, but often unsatisfactory, part, of the planning and development processes. All too often the default model is the kind of consumer study carried out by large manufacturers in the heyday of mass consumption. The departmentalised structures within these companies bred a culture where each specialised group performed a task on a product, then pushed it ‘over the wall’ to the next team to deal with. Only in the lofty realms of management was a complete picture available. The public response in focus groups or surveys was just part of the process. ‘Listening’ took place, but there it ended. Expertise went unchallenged, and there was no accountability.

Listening properly challenges both the experts and the elected representatives charged with governing the process. It can be painful for specialists to hear ‘non-experts’ suggesting other ways, and generally having to accept the status of equal in the dialogue. Politicians, having received a mandate from a majority of electors to get on and deliver manifesto commitments, might also struggle to deal with conflicting views from diverse communities, regarding them as something to be overcome in pursuit of an objective, when in reality they are part of a process of shaping it. One of the biggest flaws in the Government’s recent White Paper on the planning process is that the creation of a new local plan, however much debate is entailed, marks the end of the consultation with the people who will live with the consequences, rather than its beginning.

Having declared a climate emergency in 2019 York has set itself the task of becoming both more liveable and to emit net zero carbon by 2030. The urgency of the issue has focused some truly impressive brainpower on the situation, as the recent York Climate Change Commission report shows. Writing the report involved a ‘citizen jury’ to give their views on priorities, the stated purpose of which is to secure ‘licence’ for the actions recommended. There listening might end, unless a genuinely mutual partnership emerges that monitors, shapes, and helps govern York’s progress towards that utterly vital target.

In what we must hope is a sign of a better year to come, the UN has declared 2021 the Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development. As you would expect of a UNESCO Creative City, My Future York is only one of several models of good practice in partnership and co-production. York is part of a national programme, Enabling Social Action, that promotes ways of working with communities to commission council services. In York the Local Area Coordinators ‘walk alongside’ members of their community, sharing their stories, and helping them to find support, whether that is medical, social or cultural. They are not just being consulted; they are co-producing their own support. The ‘ladder of co-production’ – seven steps we can take to enable people to be fully and properly involved in shaping their surroundings – is transferable to the process of making cities more sustainable.

We could ask ourselves ‘How far up the ladder are we with York Central?’ and feel somewhat depressed. But I reflect on my single experience of Copenhagen, around twenty years ago. Then Christiania was not in such good shape, even for a hippy commune. It had yet to recover from the economic and ideological pasting it got from the Danish government, which was always keener on Thatcherite dogma than their Scandinavian neighbours. Although Stroget was already a stroller’s paradise, even in the bitterest depths of winter, it was at what Jan Gehl called an early stage of pedestrianisation, devoted to conspicuous consumption rather than sociability. I saw very few bikes back then, and I was not surprised to learn that 20% of the growth in cycle usage has happened since 2006.

In twenty years, in other words, Copenhagen has been ‘Copenhagenized’. It’s wrong to think of that as a planning prescription, for bike lanes, play spaces or any single ‘solution’. The result, which is never finished, owes its richness and vitality to layer upon layer of listening, dialogue, changes of mind and direction. Two decades in a city’s life is not such a long time, provided you are constantly trying new things, learning from mistakes, and making things stick.

Chris Bailey
10 January 2021