Today we welcome Strong Towns member, Jonathan Holth, as a guest contributor, sharing his experiences traveling from his hometown of Grand Forks, North Dakota to the "people-first" city of Copenhagen, Denmark.

“This community seems so desperate for change, that we’re actually sending a couple of people to Copenhagen of all places.  Copenhagen!  What in the world could Grand Forks possibly learn from Copenhagen?  A European city with over a half a million people, and a northern American city with 60,000 people.... that’s quite a stark contrast.”

These were the words that I heard as I sat in a committee meeting in Grand Forks, about two weeks before I was scheduled to go to Copenhagen with a planner from the city of Grand Forks.  Our city was selected, along with twelve other American cities, to be a part of a study tour in Copenhagen, focusing on pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure and public spaces.  What an opportunity.  And, although it was completely funded by a grant, there were people in our community that thought it was a waste of time for us to go.  This is an argument that has always bothered me when we discuss how we build our cities.   To think that we shouldn’t take any opportunity to see what other cities do successfully and talk about how we can apply those techniques to improving our city because we “aren’t them”, and “we’re unique”, is ridiculous, and flat-out dangerous. 

Upon arriving in Denmark, we took an evening to stroll around to take in the sights.  Beautiful, rich history.  People of all ages biking and walking everywhere.  Smiles abound.  No police anywhere in sight, yet people following every rule of the road.  It was evident that citizen happiness and trust reigned supreme.  Frankly, it was a bit overwhelming, in the best possible way.  It was immediately evident that the people of Denmark valued of public spaces, and knew how they could create community engagement and happiness on a level that we rarely see in American public spaces.

Throughout the week, we had the opportunity to meet with and learn from a diverse group of people in Copenhagen: city leaders from different departments, architects, bicycle program coordinators, parks department employees, and many others, who all took the time to explain to us what they’ve done to build one of the most desirable cities in the world.  And, not surprisingly, there was a theme. It was quite simple: “We just focus on what people want and what makes them happy.  We start all discussions with that premise.” 

I feel very fortunate to live in Grand Forks.  Being a community of 60,000, we have the opportunity to make significant impacts with small, intentional investments.  My outlook on how to implement and foster change was altered by my time in Copenhagen. All too often, we’re dazed and hypnotized by the grand vision and master plan.  “What can this place look like ten or twenty years from now?  We better start planning for that right now!  Twenty years from now, we will have a lot more people enjoying this area of town, so if we’re going to be ready for it, we better build that parking lot now.”  In Copenhagen, it was clear that the peoples’ vision for ten and twenty years from now was developed without disregarding what was happening in front of their eyes today. “People-first design” has become the mantra of Copenhagen, both within city hall and with local architects, and you can see it everywhere. 

Effective, thoughtful measuring and data collection is also critical for this city.  In Copenhagen, they don’t build additional bike lanes without first testing them as a pilot project, measuring the results, tweaking the plan, and repeating that process until it’s exactly right.  They don’t build public spaces and parks without first having an extended period of community engagement, and simply asking people what they desire in these spaces.  Every decision that is made at every level has a people-first methodology to it.  It’s not complicated.   Rather than have all pedestrian and bike counts be automated, the city puts people out to actually count in the streest.  That way, those counters can talk to people and ask them why they’re walking or biking.  Better data means better results, and in the end, an efficient, inclusive city, and happier people. 

Grand Forks is not Copenhagen.  Neither is Detroit, Akron, Tallahassee, or any other city.  But we all have one pretty important thing in common – people who want to be happy, and people who want to be in love with their city.  We can’t copy and paste Copenhagen on top of our city.  We shouldn’t adopt their model, but we should adapt it.  As Jan Gehl said, “First people, then spaces, then buildings – the other way around never works.”

You can read more about this trip on the Knight Cities Challenge website and 8 80 Cities website both of whom made this tour possible.

Jonathan Holth is a lifelong Grand Forks resident, who loves his city and the region.  He is co-owner of The Toasted Frog restaurants, with locations in 3 historic North Dakota downtowns – Grand Forks, Fargo, and Bismarck.  He is the co-founder and current board president of the Grand Forks Downtown Development Association.  For over five years, he has been an advocate for strong downtowns throughout the state of ND, serving on the board of directors for downtown advocacy groups in both Grand Forks and Bismarck. He is a strong advocate for both pedestrian and bike friendliness throughout the city of Grand Forks, and that has been the focus of his work with the Downtown Development Association since its inception.  Holth lives in Grand Forks with his wife, Emily, and their three daughters, Sophia, Evelyn, and Violet.