We’re not Italians

Three years ago, I spent a few days with my (now) Buckley Vann International colleague Warren Rowe in Copenhagen. You know, that Danish poster child city where cycling is king of the transport heap. It really is a great city, and its long term investment in separated cycling infrastructure is just one reason why it has real prospects of becoming carbon neutral by 2025.

But that is not the purpose of this review. On the same day while there, I had two conversations which clarified something for me about the response I often hear to new ideas from elsewhere, along the lines “that won’t work here. We are different because (insert reason of choice)”.

Here’s what I heard and what I learnt on one day in Copenhagen….

Conversation 1: In Gehl Architects‘ office

I was very fortunate to be able meet with Lars Gehmzoe from this famous firm, whose work I admire a lot. In a wide ranging and very generous discussion, he spoke of their work in NYC assisting the initiatives of the admirable Janette Sadik-Khan to pedestrianise and introduce bike lanes on Broadway, including through Times Square.

My recollection of the discussion was that they worked for 18 months behind the scenes doing their usual evidence and survey based work to prove this was a good idea. Apparently many they talked to in the city told them something like “We’re not Europeans. We don’t sit around drinking coffee on the street. If we want coffee we get takeout and keep walking. And footpaths are for pedestrians, roads are for cars, and if we want to sit down, we’ll go to a park“! In other words, that stuff might be okay for Europe, but we are American and we’re different. That won’t work here.

Of course, the administration gave it a go, and it has been a runaway success. I’ve been there several times since it opened and it is always full of people, locals and tourist alike, sitting, drinking coffee, eating, people watching, soaking up the vibe, riding bikes, and generally enjoying being able to use the space. This photo of the area is courtesy of this blog, written at about the time this initiative was implemented.

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Conversation 2: with Mikael Colville-Anderson of Copenhagenize:

After making contact via Twitter, I met Mikael for a drink in the evening. We spoke of many things cycling, but the point I recall from the discussion that is relevant to my story here was about Copenhagen’s main street, Stroget, a car free pedestrian street which is the longest pedestrian shopping street in Europe.

Apparently it was pedestrianised in the 1960s, at which time it was a narrow “traffic sewer”. But when this was suggested, there was a strong reaction form many Danes along the lines “we’re not Italians. We don’t sit around all day drinking coffee.” But its proponents persisted, and built what is now a very famous and successful pedestrian street. This picture of it comes from this blog.

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And my point is…

What this day and these two conversations brought home to me forceably is that in most places, when something new and different is proposed, there is a tendency for an immediate response from many in that place which is along the lines that this won’t work here because we are different. But what I realised is that we are all the same animal, a mammal species known as humans, and we have certain innate or inbuilt properties to respond to the same things in a similar way regardless of local cultural differences. We all like to people watch, and as animals we mostly have a herding instinct – most of us like to hang out in crowds, watch other people, and generally be part of a happening place.

So be alive to the “we’re not Italians” syndrome. It can get in the way of things that do work and will enrich the quality and liveability of our cities.

Greg Vann
October 2013

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