Detour: The Grain of the City

Copenhagen is designed for cycling. A strong national emphasis on sustainability and self-sufficiency encourages bicycle cultural while municipal attention to such values expresses them elegantly. With specialized lanes and traffic signals, the most basic elements of the urban infrastructure incorporate cyclists, enabling over 40% of commuters to reach their destination by bike. It also helps that Copenhagen is flat, dense and has an expensive public transit system, encouraging individuals to be self-mobile.

What is so admirable about the bicycle system isn’t its glaring environmental sheen or the equity shared with automobiles but the vantage point it affords. I grew up in Pasadena and I got to know my town by driving through it. I oriented myself by the mountains and freeways and told time by exit signs – I had no coherent vision of the city, only the individual transit pathways that took me across it. The driver can be detached and alienated from the city and the pedestrian is easily marginalized. But, under the right circumstances, a bicycle can access the texture of the city.

I began to realize that the nodes of the city were enmeshed in how I accessed them. I started associating certain locales with their transportation venues: the parking lot, the underground station, the curbside intersection. In turn, my experience of a certain location was subject to how I arrived and eventually, my vision of the city would turn upon a footstep or a bicycle wheel or gas pedal.

Now, when I think of certain places, I also imagine the pathways leading towards them: the intersecting streets, surrounding buildings and northern skyline. When the city’s design is hospitable to that coherent perspective, I am oriented within the local area and the entire city.

All of this is not necessarily accessible through maps. I am proud of my dumb-ass cell phone and its inability to be anything other than a phone, even when I am completely lost and in need of a global positioning. Aerial views and satellite imaging are useful referents, but they limit experimentation. Some of the best city encounters have arose from getting lost on purpose.

Such exploration begs the question: what transportation logic designs cities? And what means do people in transit have to affect their city’s design? Of course there’s the ability to vote on civic measures and forums for discussing regional projects but, during actual transportation, how do people express their relationship to a place? Graffiti art, guerrilla knitting projects, ritualistic honks at a given intersection ― these can become territorial exhibitions of localism within the public spaces.

UC Berkeley professors James Holston and Greg Niemeyer, along with a slough of undergraduate apprentices, have developed CitySandbox ― an online forum for discussing local issues related to public spaces. Members of the website post a question or issue related to a specific area. Then, members can vote on the post to promote its visibility on the site. The visual expression of this is simply a map, on which the issues appear as question marks. Postings can be spontaneous and immediate through phones with internet access and are written in the author’s own voice.

This democratic strategy for local improvements and urban identity creates a dissonance with “top-down” city planning measures that may try to respect localism while also cultivating the municipality as a whole. They’re not necessarily opposed to one another but, the individual is still subject to the municipal: there is no local autonomy.

Although there is in Denmark. Christiania, a self-proclaimed autonomous neighborhood in the Christianshavn area of Copenhagen, is regarded by civic authorities as a commune and arose from a squatted military base in the 1970s. The area is not considered its own nation and is subject to the Danish government but is a strong assertion of local autonomy and identity in that it is essentially self-sufficient with its own businesses and currency. That the area is mostly inaccessible by car acclimates the individual to a different type of movement within and through it, specialized to the domain.

Localism may arise in a variety of ways, but its expression is elegantly mediated through the means of transportation. The first impression of a city begins with how we arrive there.