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These Almost-forgotten Plans Would Have Ruined Copenhagen

If you are looking for someone to thank for the bike culture in Copenhagen, you have to travel back in time to the late 1940s when Copenhagen officials presented two ambitious car-centric plans that went really wrong and resulted in the opposite solution.

Bulldozing city centres was a big trend during the postwar period, and in Denmark, most of the cities were redesigned in many ways. But for Copenhagen, the plans were really bold.

The first plan was “Søringen,” an urban motorway that would cut through the city from north to south. The second plan was not much better: bulldoze all buildings and roads in the west Vesterbro quarter and build a modern megalopolis called the “City Plan Vest.”

Today this seems insane to me, but this proposal from the Stadsingeniør in Copenhagen and the Danish Road Council was heavily supported by the town hall members, and the Danish Parliament passed a bill in 1964 to make it possible.

Demolition works started. See what happened next.

Danish engineers, and their counterparts in other European countries, had to come up with solutions that would answer the emerging needs of the middle class and their cars. Inspiration were drawn from visits to the USA and their massive development of the interstate highway system recently approved by Eisenhower.

The urban motorway Søringen aimed to link the Helsingør motorway in the north with Amager in the south. Filling half of the Lakes with a six-lane motorway was not a problem at that time.

 

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A city cut in two not for walking or biking. (Visualization on Krak).

 

The City Plan Vest was a huge commercial area that made no sense by human scale; it was inspired by the recent developments in Norrmalm in Stockholm. It would require demolishing most of the existing Vesterbro and creating a system of levelled streets and motorways. The new developments would have cast shadows on the tallest building at that time, the SAS Royal Hotel designed by Arne Jacobsen.

 

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Søringen over the Lakes of Copenhagen and the City Plan Vest. (Stadsingeniørens direktorat).

 

This was one of the many mistakes committed in the name of modernism during the last century. A cheap version of modernist architecture filled the city with unnatural high-density urban spaces and motorways generating a induced demand.

 

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Vesterbro and the City Plan Vest viewed from Amager. (Stadsingeniørens direktorat).

 

Demolition works started, and the public sentiment changed when Copenhagen got a taste of things to come. Part of “Bispeengbuen,” one of the supporting motorway junctions for Søringen, was inaugurated under protest. This poorly designed elevated motorway, which was disconnected from the existing streets, left a no-man’s-land on ground level, an ideal set for an LA drug dealer movie.

 

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The half-finished Bispeengbuen. (Stadsingeniørens direktorat).

 

Things took a turn for the worse for these projects when in 1970 the newly approved local government reform decentralized governance, which halted support for the Danish Road Council and state fundings. For a city close to bankruptcy and in financial turmoil in the late 1960s, continuing with the works alone proved too much. Then the oil crisis took the final blow.

It was not until 1974 that these plans were officially cancelled. Bispeengbuen was left half-finished with two tunnels leading to nowhere. The already-demolished areas around Tagensvej were filled with parks and those in Lyngbyvej with new buildings.

The happy ending is that a more comprehensive solution was taken favoring cycling and public transport, and new local plans were drawn to preserve the city centre for future generations. This led to the current city where 50 % of all Copenhageners commute to work or study by bike and 63 % of all members of the Danish parliament, commute daily by bike to the parliament.