What is New Urbanism? – Part 2
A personal experience with the European Urban Village movement
This examiner’s first project, after graduating from Georgia Tech, was an “urban village movement” project in Sweden. Well, to be accurate, it was a rural pedestrian village. By then, the Urban Village movement had become the accepted way of doing things in Scandinavia. I will provide you with an overview of the project so the reader can clearly understand the differences between Urban Villages in Europe and New Urbanism in North America. The small 600 year old city I lived in was the embodiment of what New Urbanists want to create. However, most of North America just does not have the transportation infrastructure to mimic Northern Europe, even if North American citizens wanted to.
I flew to Copenhagen the day after graduation; then took a transit bus from the airport to the Tuborghamn harbor, where the Dana Scarlett ferry was waiting. The Dana Scarlett was named after Scarlett O’Hara in the movie, “Gone with the Wind.” The Dana Scarlett took me across the Oresund Channel to Landskrona, Sweden in the Province of Skåne. Other than the magnificent scenery, the most memorable part of that journey was meeting two recently graduated teachers from Minnesota, who innocently asked me “what is it like to grow up in an underprivileged economic and educational environment?” The ferry station was directly adjacent to the bus station, but my new boss lived in a restored 16th century house, only four blocks away.
It was quite feasible (and pleasant) to walk or ride a bike to any destination with this city of 28,000. My second story apartment on Oëstergaten was about 8 blocks from the Landskrona Kommun Stadsarkitektkontoret (Landskrona County Town Architect’s Office.) I always commuted to work by bike to work and loved it – until there was little daylight in the late autumn. Then, I felt safer walking, since my bike had no lights. I was in easy walking distance of cultivated fields and pastures. The Province of Skåne is in Sweden’s most important agricultural zone, but also has some cities along the Oresund Channel and coast of the Baltic Sea.
However, bicycles in Scandinavia do have some restrictions. One day after work I was stopped by the Landskrona Police for speeding on my bicycle after leaving the IKEA supermarket! I was in a hurry to go out on a date with my Swedish flicka. Thanks to my mixed Native American-Scottish features that didn’t look like what Swedes thought Americans looked like – I escaped actually being issued the ticket. I convinced the officers that I couldn’t speak either Swedish or English and didn’t have a passport – only a Student Hostel ID card.. I spouted out some Creek Indian words mixed in with some Norwegian I had learned on a recent weekend trip. In disgust, the officers tore up the ticket and one growled in English, “Why do they keep letting these stupid Norsk Sammi (Norwegian Laplanders) into our country without a visa?” Yes, every country has its gripes about illegal aliens!
A pedestrian village on an ancient island
The project was on Ven Island in the Oresund Channel between Sweden and Denmark. It is a fascinating place – a high, verdant plateau carved out by ancient glaciers with distant views. On the island are medieval farm houses, the oldest surviving church in Scandinavia (900 AD) the ruins of astronomer Tycho Brahe’s castle, and numerous fisherman’s cottages. One also has a fine view of every Russian (then Soviet) warship entering or exiting the Baltic Sea. Russian subs have to come out of the water near Ven Island in order to reach the Atlantic Ocean.
In the early 1960s (first phase of the Urban Village movement) Landskrona Kommun had started a transit service on the island to eliminate the need for personal automobiles – either by residents or tourists. The transit consisted of small electric buses. However, through the years, the bus system had become a financial drain on the county government, because it had to be of sufficient capacity to handle the summer tourists. In the winter, most of the employees and buses sat around idle.
The solution first proposed was to build a new village for retirees on the island, in order to increase the year round population. An architect in nearby Malmö designed blocks of unimaginative 1 ½ story townhouses in a modernist style. The architecture had no relationship to any of the buildings on Ven. The people of the island and county HATED the project and voted it down.
Landskrona then sponsored an international design competition to design the new retirement village. Some of the continent’s most famous architects entered the competition. The winning design was by a joint venture of firms from Stockholm and London. It consisted of midrise apartments in the International Style overlooking the Oresund Channel from the cliffs of Ven.
The people of the island and county HATED the internationally praised design. There was a groundswell of opposition which also forced it to the polls. The design was overwhelmingly voted down. New leadership for the Town Architect’s office was brought it which was more sympathetic to the traditional architecture and villages of Skåne. Their names were Arkitekt Gunner Lydh and Planner Alex Petersen. Petersen was a Dane. They hired a temporary team of young Swedish and one American architect to work with the villages on Ven. The final design accepted by the island and county’s voters consisted of modest cottages clustered together on pedestrian streets like a medieval street, but with conventional alleys and a peripheral road on which service-emergency vehicles and the transit buses could operate.
To understand how really different from North America, the man-made environment is in Scandinavia is, you have to look at my recreational activities. In order to facilitate my, let’s say, extracurricular responsibilities while on Ven Island, I was introduced to a lovely law student at Lund University, who was head of the Student Division of the Center Party in southern Sweden. The Center Party was then pro-social welfare, pro-NATO and anti-Communist.
To go on a date with her, I would ride my bike to the transit station, take a fast light rail two car transit (i.e, fancy electric trolley) to a regional train station, where I would board a fast electric passenger-commuter train to Malmö. I then would take a bus to her family’s townhouse. We then would take a bus to dating sites around Malmö, or ride a ferry across the Ostersund to Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens – which was conveniently near the American Embassy. Never was the lack of an automobile an inconvenience to either of us. The ferries across the Oresund have now been replaced by one of Europe’s longest bridges and a transit system.
There is no agricultural region in all of North America that has a multimodal transit capability like southern Sweden already had two decades ago. My lifestyle in Skåne would be absolutely impossible in the United States and Canada.
In part 3 of this 4 part series, we will discuss the development of New Urbanism in North America.