Garden City principles already inform the Danish ‘Finger Plan’

It is clear that the current health pandemic will have a significant lasting effect on the way we live in the future. It will be important that towns and cities adapt to the conditions under which the population is operating, in order to protect ourselves as well as each other, until a vaccine is developed and distributed.  

The solution to this, however, does not lie in the implementation of the Garden City model. The idea, promoted initially in the late 19th century by Ebenezer Howard, was seen as a solution to inner city slum clearance and poverty, with work on the first ‘New Town’ of Letchworth beginning in 1903 in England. The turbulence of the war years delayed further growth, with 14 additional New Towns built across the UK post-1950.  

Howard’s vision of the Garden City consisted of a self-sufficient city population of 30,000, with adequate jobs and industry, intertwined with green belt and agriculture catering for all. Low-density housing would typically be provided at c. 28 units per hectare. There would be no reason to go beyond the city limits of the utopian environment, with a municipality regulating population and density. Dismissing the approach, Jane Jacobs, in ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ remarks that the result would be ‘really very nice towns if you were docile and had no plans of your own and did not mind spending your life among others with no plans of their own’

In reality, the idea is a social one, rather than an urban planning one and yet maintains a substantial role in planning culture in modern day terms. Hanne Schmidt points out that the liberalised planning legislation and municipal reform in Denmark over the last 30 years has resulted in a rural-urban imbalance. 

However, the Greater Copenhagen Area Finger Plan (originating in 1948), already shares principles with Garden City model and may well have been informed by it. This includes towns of Helsingør, Hillerød, Roskilde and Køge, which are all roughly comparable in size to the 30,000-population new towns envisaged by Howard. These towns exist at the tip of each ‘finger’ with green wedges maintained between each. Sustainable forms of public road and rail travel provide links to Copenhagen, highlighting the importance of connectivity.   

In reality, it would be difficult to prevent ‘leakage’ from such new settlements by way of commuting to the city. This is due to the nature of the modern employment industry, based around the tertiary service sector, which is unlikely to have a presence within all such new towns capable of sustaining an equal jobs to population ratio. In this regard, mixing with city dwellers would be unavoidable, although a greater number of employees home-working is expected beyond the Covid times. 

In addition, things are constantly improving in urban Copenhagen. The City’s ‘Urban Nature in Copenhagen’ strategy 2015-2025 measures a ‘green factor’ within every project site and helps incorporate more urban nature into local development plans. The city’s tree canopy cover is moving towards 20%. Additionally, the Tree Policy 2016-2025 aims to protect and improve conditions for existing tree by planting an additional 100,000 trees by 2025. The concepts of both regulated urban farming, and unregulated guerrilla farming, are increasing, with enhanced provisions of shared gardens and green roofs forming the focal points of new residential developments. 

Public green space plays a central role in the new masterplanned areas and local area plans, increasing public green space for Copenhageners, which already stands at c. 40 sqm per resident, in addition to private spaces and communal gardens. These are enviable figures in comparison to other countries, such as the UK and Ireland which routinely plan for around 25 sqm of public open space per resident, which is generally an improvement on the status quo in urban area. 

In terms of density, Copenhagen ranks 16th in a list of European cities, with a density of c. 6,000 people per kmin the urban area. This is broadly similar to that of Stockholm, which is a larger city by population and notably by approximately 100km2 in area. In this regard, city sprawl is considered to increase risk of infection for residents. 

In New York, the city worst hit by the spread of the virus, data has shown that outbreaks are worst in the least populated areas of the city such as Staten Island and the Bronx. The distinguishing point here is not surrounding density, but overpopulation in areas with limited facilities and services, where it is more difficult to keep distance from others. It is also how people have responded personally, taking responsibility for their own safety whilst respecting others. 

Notwithstanding the government’s approach to the pandemic, it is clear that excess density or overpopulation is not a problem in Copenhagen. Therefore, the future focus should be on enhancing the status quo in order to maximise public investment in strategic transport links, community facilities and education, which should be within an accessible distance for all.

The existing urban area of the city should be retained and improved through smarter planning, better use and reuse of spaces and increased densities (not necessarily through greater height) which promote social interaction within neighbourhoods. The continued reclamation of lands from the sea to form new communities relieves development pressure on green wedges whilst creating green space within new extensions to the city. The evolving planning landscape places ‘green’ development and biodiversity firmly at the centre of this. 

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