Seeing the City

Two weeks ago, I moved to Copenhagen to start my semester abroad. Of course, Copenhagen is a dreamscape of creative, people-centered urban design, so between classes and my own adventures, I've been sufficiently immersed in high-quality public spaces. The pace of orientation weeks is always quick. It crams a lot of experiences and information into just three days, so it's taken a while for the me to slow down enough to reflect on what I've encountered so far. I'm still in the shallow end of acclimating, but as streets become more familiar and the grocery store starts to seem less confusing, I find myself at last able to focus on the highlights of everyday wandering in a new place.

 Winding bike path cutting through a small park in Amagerbro, Copenhagen.
While there is a lot to see and write about in Copenhagen, especially when it comes to urban design and great public space, the small, charming pieces of the city have been my favorite part of these last two weeks. As a stranger to everything here, I've found reassurance in the minutiae of different streets and neighborhoods. Being distracted for a moment by something tucked away and easy to miss offers moments of simplicity amid otherwise larger and (for me) more overwhelming projects and spaces.

A hand-painted sidewalk feature that I don't know the name of.
The objects and nooks I'm talking about have been equal parts surprising design work, products of human artistic contribution, and nature making itself known wherever it can. The bike park, for example, is maybe 20 feet square and tucked away near the middle of Amagerbro, in east Copenhagen. Paving stones line multiple pathways that wind over artificial mounds or through a hedge for no apparent reason other than serving its small function as an unexpected and playful space.
Inter-cobblestone sprouts underneath a bench near the Black Diamond extension of the Royal Library.
These little pieces, the urban minutiae, take on many manifestations around the city and everywhere else in the world. Some things, like the bike park and the courtyards within old city blocks, can be planned, but the emotional response they generate can't be projected like other factors that influence design choices. Meanwhile, other small charms of the city rely on the creativity and sense of humor of the people, and the freedom they feel to take ownership of space and contribute to how others experience it. My appreciation lies in the visibility of people and my sense of human connection in encountering things and spaces I can tell have been touched by others, or that I know must delight other people too. As someone getting most places on foot or by bike, I feel that there are many layers of space meant for me, some of which are obvious and some of which are intended to be discovered accidentally.
Buildings framing an interior courtyard somewhere in Indre-By.

Related: Christopher Alexander's 'A City is Not a Tree'


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