Enough with Copenhagen! It is Time for U.S. Cities to Learn From Models Closer to Home

Enough with Copenhagen! It is Time for U.S. Cities to Learn From Models Closer to Home

Juan Miró, co-founder of Miró Rivera Architects reflects in an opinion piece on the value of American cities. Stating that "when we idealize cities like Copenhagen, we risk losing focus of the fundamental historical differences between the urban trajectories of European and American cities", the architect and educator draws a timeline of events and urban transformations, in order to explain why it would be more relevant to look on the inside when planning U.S cities, rather than taking examples from the outside.

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I have nothing but good memories of my visits to Copenhagen. It is certainly an outstanding example of a historic European city. It puzzles me, however, as I reflect from the perspective of a dual citizen—born in Barcelona, raised in Madrid, and living in the United States for 32 years—that many of my colleagues teaching urban design harbor a bias that favors cities from Europe and undervalues those from the Americas. These days, for example, Copenhagen is presented to students as the pinnacle of best practices for urban planning. But when we idealize cities like Copenhagen, we risk losing focus of the fundamental historical differences between the urban trajectories of European and American cities.

The Compact City

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map of Copenhagen. Image Courtesy of Juan Miró

Jan Gehl is the leading exporter of the Danish brand of urbanism, focused on the human scale. The 84-year-old Danish architect published his seminal book, Life Between Buildings, in 1971 and applied his theories in Copenhagen, thus transforming the city into the poster child of pedestrian- and bike-friendly urban life.

Copenhagen is not alone. Most towns in Europe have realized that their intricate medieval urban fabrics were not designed for cars, and many have turned their centers into attractive car-free zones. American travelers often come back from Europe with a distorted grasp of the cities they visit, having spent most of their time in those charming central cores. But why are these historic centers so picturesque? The fact is that most European cities were conceived as closed settlements. Fortified for protection for hundreds of years, they stood in sharp contrast to the countryside around them. Confined by walls, these cities grew dense and compact out of necessity. Their defining urban DNA became the “compact city” model.

The Landscape City

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Austin’s city fabric . Image © Ibai Rigby

There are no comparable compact cities in the United States, especially among those founded during the 19th-century westward expansion, like Portland, Seattle, Austin, and Denver. The urban DNA of these cities is completely different from that of their European counterparts. Never confined by walls, these towns were conceived as open, planned from scratch on grids, with people living in single-family houses since. Their defining urban DNA became the low-density “landscape city” model. Gradually expanding outward, cities blurred into the landscape as the continent became a new “arcadia,” an aspirational place to live within nature.

This type of urban growth is often dismissed as simply car-oriented sprawl, ignoring a historical origin that predates the advent of the automobile. For example, landscape cities existed in the Americas since pre-Columbian times. The 7th-century Mayan city of Tikal consisted of a central core with soaring pyramids surrounded by thousands of people living in detached, perishable houses scattered throughout the tropical forest. Not only do many modern U.S. cities reflect the low population density of Tikal, but they also echo its physical structure: a downtown of skyscrapers surrounded by an urban forest with people living primarily in single-family houses.

The Consequences of Colonialism

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map of Austin . Image Courtesy of Juan Miró

The difference in density between Austin (the landscape city where I live) and a compact city like Copenhagen does not make one inherently better than the other. They are simply different—and wonderfully so. People dwell, move around and experience public space differently. So, why do we still look up so much to European models?

Colonialism left a lingering Eurocentrism in nations across the Americas after their independence. In the United States, a strong preference for Northern Europe was exacerbated by the eugenics movement in the 1920s, when universities taught racist ideas and urged the preservation of the Nordic “master race.” Consequently, immigration policies closed the doors to “undesirable ethnic groups” and opened them wide to Scandinavian countries. Although this retrograde vision for our nation officially ended in the 1960s, it still exists and can flare up anytime—like when Donald Trump complained about the U.S. receiving immigrants from “sh*thole countries” like Haiti, rather than from Norway.

Today, a common challenge for cities worldwide is racial equity and inclusiveness. In this respect, Copenhagen is not a good model to learn from. Denmark’s population has traditionally been very homogenous, and the arrival of immigrants in the last 30 years has proven to be very challenging for the country. For example, recent urban policies have designated certain immigrant neighborhoods of Copenhagen as “ghettos,” literally. To be included in the “ghetto list”—created by the government in 2010—neighborhoods must reach certain levels of unemployment and crime. Also, half of the population must be an immigrant descendant. In other words, a neighborhood cannot by definition be considered a ghetto as long as the majority of the population is white (descendant of non-immigrant Danes).

If this doesn’t make American urban planners cringe, the evictions and relocations planned for the ghettos should. The government claims the goal is to foster integration by mixing populations in the ghettos. Critics claim that the policy is government gentrification targeting minorities, and it is being contested in the courts by those being forced out of their homes.

Unlike Denmark, the identity of the United States is built upon the concept of a nation of immigrants. The Declaration of Independence, consciously or unconsciously, created a country that is inherently global because it is based upon a powerful idea of universal appeal—that “all men are created equal”—rather than upon the attachment of one people to ancestral land. Paradoxically, the indigenous populations were deprived of their lands and, like the enslaved population brought from Africa, excluded from participating in the new country’s vision. The struggle to integrate these and other minorities—always brandishing the words of the Declaration to demand their rights—has turned the United States into an enormous social experiment in global coexistence that is still unfolding. Accordingly, cities in the U.S. have had to address their multiethnic makeup since the beginning—and the process has been painful. The eugenics movement not only influenced racist immigration policies; it also sanctioned the racist urban planning practices (i.e., redlining) responsible for the enduring segregation of cities.

Embracing the Americas

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panorama of Austin. Image Courtesy of Juan Miró
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panorama of Tikal. Image Courtesy of Juan Miró

Where to look then for lessons to be learned? Urban planners in the United States should shift focus from Europe to the rest of the Americas. The Anglo America of the North and the Latin America of the South share the same general arc of history—European colonization, indigenous decimation, slavery, and independence—and, consequently, face common coexistence challenges. Best practices should be exchanged among cities across the region, big and small—from Rio de Janeiro or San Juan to Miami and Chicago, from Mexico City or Santiago to Los Angeles and Denver. These cities share not only the same low-density urban DNA but also similar problems, such as economic and racial inequality, endemic violence, unchecked growth patterns, and natural disasters.

In addition, new lessons can be learned by acknowledging that modern cities across the Americas are part of an urban tradition started by pre-Columbian civilizations thousands of years ago: ancient cities like Cahokia, the great center of the Mississippian culture, or Teotihuacan, one of the largest cities in the world in the 5th century, which was masterfully planned after a volcano destroyed the southern valley of Mexico. Students need to be taught about these multiethnic capitals: how careful orientations towards cardinal directions, natural features, or celestial alignments guided the overall layout of cities and the spatial conception of monuments, public plazas, and domestic spaces. And how their quest for integration into the sacred environment around them resulted in an urban design imbued with meaning.

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Teotihuacan. Image Courtesy of Juan Miró

In the 20th century, great architects of the Americas sought to maintain this deep connection with nature. Frank Lloyd Wright created a new type of architecture—organic architecture—rooted in the American landscape. He also conceived Broadacre City, his vision for the ideal landscape city. Luis Barragán uncovered stunning beauty in the volcanic landscape of El Pedregal in Mexico, pioneering an innovative development adapted to its environment. Oscar Niemeyer, emulating the exuberance of the Brazilian landscape, created a bold architecture with sensuous forms. Beyond European models, these visionaries took Modern architecture in new directions inspired by their own land.

American cities facing the challenges of the 21st century should do the same: their urban design solutions should stem from their particular historical and environmental context. Let’s thank Mr. Gehl and Copenhagen for their compelling lessons, but let’s also expand our focus closer to home: humbly embracing indigenous lessons of deference towards nature and joining forces with our fellow Americans—North and South—to envision together the future of our cities.

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Casa das Canoas by Oscar Niemeyer. Image © SkyscraperCity
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Fallingwater House by Frank Lloyd Wright. Image © Western Pennsylvania Conservancy

Juan Miró is the David Bruton, Jr. Centennial Professor in Urban Studies at The University of Texas at Austin; co-founder of Miró Rivera Architects in Austin, Texas; and co-author of Miró Rivera Architects: Building a New Arcadia.

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Cite: Juan Miró, FAIA. "Enough with Copenhagen! It is Time for U.S. Cities to Learn From Models Closer to Home" 02 Jun 2021. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/962648/enough-with-copenhagen-it-is-time-for-us-cities-to-learn-from-models-closer-to-home> ISSN 0719-8884

Broadacre City by Frank Lloyd Wright. Image Courtesy of Juan Miró

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