• hannah wood

atlas of the copenhagens: book review

Updated: Nov 27, 2019


Atlas of the Copenhagens (Ruby Press, 2018)

The past two decades have seen a marked increase in city ranking indexes and urban metrics, yet across the board American cities continue to score poorly — last year no US cities made the top 25 in lifestyle magazine Monocle’s Quality of Life Survey. On the opposite end of the spectrum lies Copenhagen, the capital city of Denmark, presented time and again as one of the world’s most ‘liveable’ cities and celebrated as a global model of sustainable urban development. In the run-up to this year’s rankings, we look closer at Atlas of the Copenhagens, a thoughtful and engaging book edited by Deane Simpson, Kathrin Gimmel, Anders Lonka, Marc Jay, and Joost Grootens, to explore the multiplicity and complexities of Copenhagen today and how the city can begin to inspire new ways of analysing and interpreting the urban environments around us.


The point of departure for Atlas of the Copenhagens is not to view the Danish capital as a single entity, but instead as a multiplicity of overlapping and contrasting urban environments. These shifting scales and perspectives come to life in the book’s graphical and text contributions, which are best understood as an anthology rather than a linear narrative. From mapping the urban layout of Copenhagen’s most loved public spaces to comparing the number of plastic bottles used to other cities across the world, the maps and diagrams collected in the Atlas cover significant ground. Academic essays, insights and pull quotes compliment the book’s graphical elements and invite the reader to deepen their understanding both of Copenhagen as a model city and how it has influenced, and been affected by, the ways in which contemporary urban environments are measured and compared.


The Atlas was first conceptualized during a series of student workshops at the Danish Academy of Fine Arts(KADK) in 2011 which focussed on an increasing use of ranking indexes and livability terminology at municipal level. Questions emerged such as, “what constitutes a contemporary competitive and attractive city?” “How are concepts of sustainability and livability measured and communicated?” And, “what alternative ways might cities be mapped and what new stories might these cartographies reveal?” As the Atlas project continued to gain ground once the workshops had concluded, it was subsequently pursued within a research environment at the school. Atlas of the Copenhagens conveys the key findings and insights which subsequently emerged. The book includes essay contributions from academics Birgit Stöber, Simon Guy, Tom Nielsen, Peter Hemmersam, Thomas Sick Nielsen and Deane Simpson, Kathrin Gimmel from JAJA architects, Anders Lonka, founder of ADEPT, Marc Jay from JDS, and cartography by Dutch graphic design studio Joost Grootens.


The compilation of multidimensional snapshots and perspectives explored in the Atlas are grouped into six chapters, each offering the reader a distinct entry point into the city. Urban Formation looks into the history and ambitions underpinning Copenhagen’s development, Demography investigates city demographics and how they are interpreted, Textures maps the character of Copenhagen’s urban patterns and typologies, Spaces investigates Copenhagen’s reputation for having democratic and useable public space, Mobility looks at how transport has developed in the city and lastly Metabolism investigates infrastructural conditions such as air pollution, energy, and waste. Each section concludes with pull quotes from the press which provide topical perspectives while highlighting the significance of the media in forming public opinion of Copenhagen as a model city, both within Denmark and on an international stage.


For anyone interested in how cities will develop and be analyzed in the next decades, Atlas of the Copenhagens is a must-read. “We think the same dynamics which are affecting Copenhagen relate to the increasing unaffordability around the urban core and increasing levels of inequality in many global cities, for example the role which Manhattan plays in New York”, professor and Atlas editor Deane Simpson explains when interviewed. “Cities around the world are undergoing a process of gentrification which has the effect of pushing many urban dwellers outside the city limits. As this appears to be a universal condition, we are interested in looking closer at the role which these broader mechanisms play in city competition and striving towards livability agendas. In cities such as London, New York, Paris, Copenhagen and Amsterdam, it’s linked to the development sectors such as tourism, employment and innovation and the way in which those dynamics are placing huge focus and resources into a ‘winner-takes-all’ urbanism.”


The Copenhagen presented by recent city ranking indexes is a far cry from that of the 1980’s and 90’s, a time marked by high unemployment, municipal bankruptcy, and civil unrest, a recent history which makes the city’s transformation even more compelling as an urban development case study. It was not until the 2000’s that Copenhagen shot to global fame as an attractive, liveable, and competitive city through gaining credentials such as “Siemens European Green City Index” (winner, 2009), “Tree Huggers Best City for Cyclists Award” (winner, 2009) and “Monocle’s Global Quality of Life Survey” (winner 2008, 2013, 2014). This high ranking position has subsequently cemented the idea of Copenhagen as a “city for the future” both at home and abroad, which has inspired both local and regional urban planning decisions and built environment design.


Denmark’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and tourist promotion agencies Wonderful Copenhagen and Visit Denmark have integrated and promoted this string of international city ranking success stories through their associated media channels. Simpson suggests in his opening essay ‘Copenhagen under the Metric Regimes of the Competitive and Attractive City’, that this has further validated the credibility of the ranking systems themselves which for the most part have not undergone rigorous analysis. “I was invited to the Quality of Life conference last year in Berlin”, says Simpson, “it was interesting to see how the top position was argued for and how the ups and downs between the top cities were articulated. In many cases, the reasoning behind the decisions was very vague, such as subjects not being able to get a decent cocktail, or that the city didn’t do enough to lift up the level of the airport. There are references to a certain kind of lifestyle or a certain lens through which the city is experienced”, he continues, “it’s very much from the view of a global business traveller. I think that opens up a lot of questions to what the priorities are, or who does that approach exclude?”


Copenhagen’s international recognition as a sustainable and livable city has since influenced ambitious urban planning strategies and progressive legislation concerning environmental degradation and climate change at national level. In 2010 the ‘Technical and Environmental Administration’ stated in its publication ‘Copenhagen City of Architecture’ that its aim was to “make Copenhagen the global environmental metropolis as a model and an inspiration for cities the world over”. In his contributing essay, professor Peter Hemmersam agrees that Copenhagen is still step ahead of the curve when considering the environment in urban planning and architecture, referencing the ‘Copenhagen Climate Plan’ published in 2009 which set out the ambitious goal for Copenhagen city to be carbon neutral by 2025. This approach has since filtered down to building level, for example in the ’14 Bæredygtighedshensyn’, a set of tools for sustainable development published by the Center for Bydudvikling at the City of Copenhagen. Hemmersam also notes that this ambition has impacted upon the city’s business culture, with the concept of ‘greenness’ being both a conceptual and marketable quality and “an attractive urban environment for resourceful entrepreneurs”.


A central concept studied in the Atlas is the idea of ‘livability’. In Simpson’s introductory chapter, he suggests that “the terms sustainability and livability (and to an extent, smartness) have emerged in recent years to perhaps define our epoch’s primary urban goals or perspectives.” While in the past a city may have been ranked in terms of economic performance, a recent shift can be seen towards more qualitative measures such sustainability and livability. Simpson references professor David Harvey’s 1989 publication ‘From Managerialism to Entrepreneurialism’ to explain how competitive livable city ranking can be understood in the context of a broader shift from governments performing managerial functions towards them adopting an entrepreneurial planning outlook. While an idea of livability has been able to capture less measurable ideas of what makes a good life, Atlas of the Copenhagens raises questions over how these terms are measured and communicated and their tendencies towards subjectivity and exclusivity.


An illustration on page 48 maps the most livable cities according to ranking indices against measures of their wealth disparity, or unaffordability. Simpson terms a city which is both livable and unaffordable for most citizens as a paradox of “two distinct but coexisting urban objects and spatial visions: on the one hand the competitive city, and on the other, the attractive city”, the attractive city being that which underpins urban livability and sustainability metrics. “Livability is not speaking to those on lower incomes, the homeless, the disenfranchised members of society”, Simpson suggests, “instead, it’s very much focused on an idea of livability for a certain understanding of the middle-class and upper-middle class which is translated to a specific set of policy agendas”. The use of this exclusive understanding of livability if used to map cities and subsequently define public policy in the US (where wealth disparity remains significantly greater than in Denmark), would likely result in significant oversights and outcomes unsuited for most urban dwellers.


Are some Copenhagens less livable than others? Throughout the Atlas, inherent contradictions in urban mapping techniques and methodologies are presented to the reader, exemplifying how different interpretations may emerge from a map depending, for example, upon where the boundary line is drawn. Comparative maps of ‘Greater CPH’ and ‘Regional CPH’ presented side by side for different topic areas show that if a wider sphere of influence were to be taken into consideration, an altogether different conclusion may be drawn. This is especially interesting when extrapolated to a global level: how can an aspiring ‘eco-metropolis of the world’ sustain a Danish average environmental footprint of 4.5 earths, placing the country fourth lowest ranked in the world after Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE? “We are interested in trying to expand the discussion, to acknowledge the limitations of a purely rationalised engineering perspective on one hand, or a purely subjective experiential perspective on the other”, Simpson points out. “Drawing a line around the city and calculating to a great level of detail, while at the same time ignoring the other realities outside of this line leads to a narrow view of these situations. In fact, the environmental footprint is a lot higher in the middle of Copenhagen than one might first expect: when the environmental degradation and consumption required to make the system work is factored in — for example, the logistics centres and all of the single family houses placed outside of that border and the huge amount of industrial production the city relies on which is taking place in Eastern Europe, China and in Bangladesh — a strikingly different picture emerges”.


The multitude of approaches to cartography which gather in Atlas of the Copenhagens shift across scales to influence new readings of the city, some explicit and some which require closer investigation. Joost Grootens’ editing of maps, diagrams, statistics, drawings and information graphics reference the meticulous presentation of Atelier Bow-Wow’s Graphic Anatomy (Toto, 2007) to create a book which appeals directly to its visual audience. In addition, Atlas of the Copenhagens is bound with an exposed spine and printed in four custom inks — black, dark blue, fluorescent pink and fluorescent yellow, which offers the graphics an eye-catching and vivid palette.


Isometric projections catalogue both Copenhagen’s favourite old hangouts, such as Dronning Louises’ Bro, and new urban development projects, including Nørreport Transportation Hub by COBE, and Superkilen by BIG architects and Superflex. While the clean graphic style somewhat neglects the material and textural qualities of Copenhagen — which could be argued directly affects the quality of the space, and therefore its livability — many of the images are accompanied by photos of the same location at different points through history, hinting at more ephemeral architectural qualities. For Grootens, it is the reading between these representations which can transcend individual interpretation to become an “instrument of knowledge”. He writes, “in this age of a superabundance of information, on the internet for instance, there is a need for formats which can clearly present enormous quantities of data and subsequently make it manageable.”


In his contributing essay ‘The Rhetoric of Withholding Judgement’, Grootens goes on to ask, “what is a neutral map”? If neutral is to mean “the sense of being uncontaminated by rhetoric, containing pure information and being impartial, such a map would be an unmanipulated reproduction of its original (…) unfiltered and as difficult to handle or to read as the territory it is trying to represent.” For Grootens, it is therefore a requirement for clear interpretation that the map is further manipulated by the cartographer (ie., designed) who in turn creates “a fixed rendering of a situation in flux”, therefore presenting to an audience a partial edited image of the original. “The map I have in mind follows an approach that prefers both-and to either-or, to quote architect Robert Venturi”, writes Grootens, “it scrutinises aspects like crop, scale and legend to highlight preconceptions about completeness, overview and clarity.”


As countries across the world continue to urbanise at an exponential rate, Atlas of the Copenhagens raises an important question — “can one measure something as complex and manifold as a city”? When analysing a ‘pocket of sustainability’ such as central Copenhagen, readers gain only a partial picture of a city, dependent upon the map’s viewpoint and which spheres of influence the cartographer has selected for inclusion. The multiplicity of views and representations of Copenhagen gathered in the Atlas bring to light both assumptions in the way cities are mapped, motives behind how they are analysed and the subsequent impacts of these methodologies upon the city itself and how it is experienced. In an age of superabundance of information, Atlas of the Copenhagens illustrates that through changing the lens through which we view a city, it is possible to inspire new understandings and approaches to urban design and policy making.


From an academic perspective, the Atlas opens up the concepts of sustainability and livability to a wider audience and therefore more nuanced crossdiciplinary debate. Copenhagen’s rank in the ‘premier league’ of cities offers unique position in which to begin the conversation. If the Atlas is to be understood as an iterative project which emerged from a series of workshops to form a book, how might a future stage of the project emerge? Might the Atlas expand to include a detailed comparative analysis of other cities across the world to further explore city ranking indexes and livability? How might it transcend the paper boundary and move beyond a ‘snapshot’ map to creatively explore the effects of time in the transformation of cities, and therefore new dynamic media formats and representations?


Book review: Atlas of the Copenhagens (Ruby Press, 2018, 480 pages. Edited by Deane Simpson, Kathrin Gimmel, Anders Lonka, Marc Jay and Joost Grootens).


This book review was written for Archinect. Read the original article here: https://archinect.com/features/article/150142142/atlas-of-the-copenhagens-book-review

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