Safe, but without Spark
Denmark-based journalist, Michael Booth, has written for The Guardian and Monocle and has most recently penned the debated book ‘The Almost Nearly Perfect People – The Truth About The Nordic Miracle’. Booth talks to us about Nordic planning, “hygge” and conformist behaviour.
Interview by Cæcilie Skovmand
You have previously said that “hygge” can have a strangulating effect. How about its effect on cities?
“It's very hard to criticise “hygge” or “folkelighed”. They would seem to be so self-evidently 'good things', but in the case of Denmark they can also be socially excluding for people who either do not understand the rules and rituals associated with the way a certain type of Dane behaves, or even for Danes for whom such forms of social conformity are unappealing”.
How does ”hygge” influence urban planning strategies in Denmark?
“That's a very interesting question. I can only think of good examples, such as the lawns on Islands Brygge, the harbour baths, the regeneration of places such as Halmtorvet or Skt. Hans Torv, which have obviously been undertaken to foster a “hyggeligt” - albeit, essentially southern European - sense of communal outdoor life”.
How do you think the welfare state affects urban life and planning - and the other way around?
“Just yesterday I was interviewed by a crew from Canadian national TV about life in Denmark. The Canadians were impressed with Scandinavia and the way the journalist interviewing me described the difference between Montreal and Copenhagen was that, in Denmark, the State planned urban development rather than reacting to events or demographic changes or other influences. There is a sense that planning takes place above and beyond mere short term economic considerations.
That great thought goes into creating an environment that will foster quality of life, rather than merely meeting some functional or economic standards. The Canadians were also impressed by the lack of corruption within the planning and construction of state-funded works. This, I think, is one key area where the state affects urban life".
The power to foster a community
Booth emphasizes that planning and architecture of course have a “massive impact” on quality of life:
“They have the power to foster a sense of community. To help make people feel 'invested' in their environment can make life easier and more functional. Equally, planning and architecture can have a massively detrimental, long term impact on the lives of a society, as we have witnessed in high-rise districts in every major city in the world”.
Do you think urban planning contributes to individual freedom in the Nordic countries?
“I am guessing, but I wonder if urban planning might actually work against individual freedom - albeit probably unconsciously. This is in the sense that it tends to drive or encourage a certain type conformist behaviour. Spaces are designed to encourage people to behave and move in a certain way. One exception, perhaps, is Superkilen, which seems to have been designed to allow for a multiplicity of approaches to the use of open space”.
The urge to conform and “melt in” in Nordic countries – do you think this has an influence on architecture and planning?
“Yes, definitely, which is why every provincial Danish and Swedish town looks precisely the same!”
What do you think are the future challenges for Nordic planning?
“In terms of future planning obviously, this differs depending on the country, but one obvious challenge in all of the countries to varying degrees will be integrating the requirements of immigrant populations. The second clear issue, especially for Sweden, will be to accommodate the needs of an ageing population”.
Copenhagen has more than once hit #1 in the Monocle Quality of Life Survey. What is your opinion on the criteria of the survey?
“Each year, the survey broadens the criteria of what makes a liveable city - it ranges from hours of sunshine to number of cyclists, to schools and availability of organic produce - the kinds of things you would expect from a magazine with a progressive, socially conscious, environmentally sustainable agenda. If I were to criticize these kinds of lists, it would be to say that the cities that tend to do well are those with less diversity, less 'spark', basically, the boring cities! I live here because it is safe and functional, but I travel for stimulation and excitement!”
Save the Date
Michael Booth will speak on the conference New Nordic Planning, that takes place in Copenhagen on the 2nd of October 2014.
Foto: Fra Christianshavn, København - Ilija Weber