Walking around just about any European city—ornamental, idyllic Sevilla in Spain, the quiet farming village of Doolin in Ireland, and most definitely Copenhagen—is like stepping into a fairytale. Compared to the standard American metropolis, it is obvious how different these places are structured. In Europe, most amenities are available within a 15-minute walk radius within the city center, while cars, concrete, and sprawling suburbs seem to reign supreme in every place I’ve called home. Part of why I came to Europe is to seek refuge from this lack of aesthetic. Besides faith, trust, and pixie dust, what makes Copenhagen and Scandinavian cities in general the most livable in the world?
Along with our extended period of focus on the people and infrastructure in Copenhagen, my Urban Design class got the opportunity to travel to various cities across Norway and Sweden for an entire week during our Scandinavian Study Tour! We began by taking a 16-hour overnight ferry from Copenhagen to Oslo that brought us over 260 nautical miles through the Kattegat Sea, a channel that medieval seafarers joked was too narrow for even a cat to squeeze through. However, sailing near the coast of Norway also means tracing one of the country’s many fjords, long inlets created by glaciers and characterized by steep cliffs. As a longtime and vocal lover of the Maine coast, I found the geological familiarity of coastal bluffs incredibly serene during this leg of the trip. We watched tiny towns nestled in the Oslo archipelago pass us by, pointing out to one another which red or blue or green house we imagined one day owning.
Despite my history with motion sickness, I was surprised to find the mini-cruise itself luxurious, especially when compared to taking a plane. We had one of the best meals I’ve ever had during the dinner buffet—which was outfitted with every food you can think of including extremely tender steak, crispy fried fish, gnocchi, hoisin pork, and even caviar. We got a bird’s eye view of Copenhagen from the top deck as we were leaving the harbor, rushed around the sides of the vessel to photograph the sunset, and most importantly, got a full night of sleep.
Once in Oslo, we got some time to explore the harbor area and grab lunch before meeting up with our guide for the afternoon. Even on first impression, I found the city a lot more modern than Copenhagen presents; Copenhagen has chosen to preserve their historic district by embracing the uneven cobblestone streets and the densely organized shops that line them. A similar trend can be seen throughout Stockholm’s old town and the Haga neighborhood in Gothenburg. By comparison, Oslo’s long standing status as a shipping hub and the economic center of Norway becomes prevalent by observing the populace, materiality, and form of the city. It is also much hillier than flat Copenhagen, conjuring comparisons to San Francisco quicker than any other European metropolis, at least for a visiting American.
The U-shaped harbor area is an extensive section and was my favorite due to lovely views, intriguing waterfront architecture, the chance to watch huge yachts leave the docks, and the abundance of tactical urbanism interventions. Tactical urbanism is an approach to urban design that involves temporary solutions to a civic problem and is the focus of the main project in our course. Methods can involve murals, painted pavers, easily movable structures for shade or seating, planters, etc. Orange is a color you will notice all along the water, establishing an identity for the neighborhood that promises a reshaping of the streetscape to prioritize pedestrian activity.
We toured some of Oslo’s most photographed landmarks such as their Opera house, whose roof has been ingeniously utilized as a public square, and the barcode district, a namesake gifted by the area’s distinct skyline. Less traveled paths were just as interesting if not more so. Grünerløkka is one of the trendiest districts in the city, boasting colorful street art, industrial concert venues, clubs, cafes, and parks with lizard statues along the length of the Akerselva River. At night, after a long day of walking in the heat, we jumped into the clear waters of the harbor just as rain began to pour down on us. Despite having to sit in wet clothes during dinner, we unanimously agree this was the highlight of the trip.
After our time in Oslo, a 7-hour train ride was all that lay between us and Stockholm. It was immediately obvious that the city is much larger than Copenhagen or Oslo, but my class took to its vibe a lot faster. We first visited Sergels Torg Square, a highly trafficked black and white plaza whose function and iconography could be compared to that of Times Square. A quick ferry took us to the Viking Ship Museum, a building that houses the Vasa ship that sank in the 17th century. It remained preserved due to the clay that buried it at the sea floor and over 300 years later, was removed to be displayed in Stockholm. Later that evening, we enjoyed the best meal I had on the trip at Herman’s, a vegan buffet situated on a terraced garden overlooking the water. Other activities in Stockholm included a visit to the ice bar (underwhelming at best), Hammarby Sjöstad—a neighborhood reminiscent of Malmö’s charm, and the Claude Monet exhibit at the Moderna Museet, a museum tucked in woods outside of the city. The shining highlight was playing—and winning!—a game of boule ball against my classmates. Truthfully, my small team was comprised of 3 people including our instructor, who has experience playing and is very competitive no matter how much she denies it. I still think Grace and I kept up with her.
Our class took a 4-hour train to get to Gothenburg, the final stop in our study tour. We were all exhausted by the time we arrived in the city and missing Copenhagen like one would miss home, so unfortunately I found it the most underwhelming to explore. During a presentation by a representative from city hall, we learned of the massive construction projects taking place; ones that would last until 2040. I’m looking forward to coming back in about 20 years, but the noise, cranes, and blocked-off areas made it difficult to love in its current state. It felt like Stockholm in transition, stuck in a state of limbo. The one reprieve was the botanical gardens which we visited after a morning rain. Dewy conditions rendered the greens, purples, pinks, and yellows in the flowers and plants almost chemically vivid. I felt as though I could breathe again here, but after 3 more hours in the train, I was excited to be back in Copenhagen again.
These cities are alive—impressionable like people are—shaped by immigration laws, taxes, infrastructure budgets, climate, war, geology, culture, artistic movements, politicians, citizens, the list goes on. Copenhagen wasn’t always as utopic as the caliber of design the city has achieved today. Designers in the second half of the 20th century rejected the idea of filling every empty space with parking lots and building grand boulevards solely for the automobile, deciding to focus on improving citizens’ quality of life incrementally: the Danish way. In a talk on Tuesday, Jan Gehl admitted the plan to wane Copenhagen off a reliance on cars began as simply as reducing parking space by 3% each year, allowing time for inhabitants to adjust and momentum to gather. I have hope that potential for change exists for American cities too, even if it starts as just a wish upon a star.