Category Archives: Denmark

Public Space and the Bicycle: Copenhagenizing Cities

Indian cities are in crisis. Spend any length of time in a large city there and you will notice the overcrowding, the power and water shortages and, during monsoon, the streets that transform into stinking, litter-strewn rivers. At times, these cities can be almost unbearable to live in. Little wonder then that the concept of ‘smart cities’ is taking hold among policy makers, however flawed the notion might seem to be.

And, not least, of course, there is the horrendous traffic chaos and congestion, the choking pollution and the increasing number of massive concrete flyovers: monstrosities that have taken their place among numerous other planning disasters that blight so many Indian cities.

A couple of years back, Delhi introduced an ‘odd-even’ traffic policy whereby vehicles with certain registration numbers were allowed on the road only on designated days to try to cut down on traffic congestion and pollution. But this failed to solve the underlying problem that stems from a model of ‘development’ that associates a (wholly unnecessary) push for urbanisation and car ownership with progress.

Despite the problems, the greater the urban sprawl and the more road building that takes place, the happier are the real estate, construction and car manufacturing sectors. That’s not idle speculation: the documentary How Big Oil Conquered the World describes how the car and oil industry criminally conspired to undermine public transport systems in US cities to get the population and urban planners hooked on the car.

As long as urban planners prioritise the car and wrong-headed notions of ‘development’ governed by powerful players continue, Indian cities will not only sprawl ever outwards and be defined by traffic congestion and air and noise pollution, but residents will experience an ever-worsening decline in their quality of life and increasing dependency on motorized transport.

Indian planners might wish to take note of a recent New York Times article which highlighted that Los Angeles has decided against adding lanes to a freeway. Although Andre Gorz noted this back in 1973, policy makers are waking up to the fact that building extra lanes merely means more cars, more pollution and journey times increasing. As soon as you build a highway or add lanes to a freeway, cars show up to fill the available capacity (known as induced traffic demand).

This induced demand imposes costs on us all in terms of degraded public space and serious health risks (recent research shows that a congestion charge in Stockholm reduced pollution and sharply cut asthma attacks in children).

Just as some countries are now realising the folly of widening and building ever more roads and jamming cities with cars, Indian planners carry on regardless by blighting the urban landscape with ever more huge concrete flyovers and expressways snaking across cities and dividing and destroying communities.

Smart thinking

A day before Delhi implemented the second phase of its ‘odd-even’ vehicle policy, the city announced it wanted to support the construction of more roads to solve congestion by enhancing road capacity via new roads, road widening, elevated corridors, flyovers and underpasses.

One would have thought that smart cities call for smart thinking. Not so in Delhi.

If there is one city that seems to be on the right track, it is Copenhagen. The city believes that cycling should be the foundation for sustainable transport strategies and is key to making cities clean, green and liveable. Copenhagen’s urban transport solution gives space to cars but more importantly to bicycles, pedestrians and public transport.

Back in the early 1970s, Copenhagen was just as traffic-clogged as anywhere. Now it has around 400 km of cycle paths. The city’s 2017 Annual Bicycle Report confirms that cycling is the preferred mode of transport for the city’s inhabitants. Each day, some 62% of Copenhageners use their bikes to go to work or school/college.

Copenhagen has in recent years been voted the ‘best city for cyclists’ and the ‘world’s most liveable city’. Throughout the world, there is now a desire to improve public health and combat climate change. As a result, Copenhagen’s renowned cycle-friendly policies are serving as a template for some of the world’s most congested cities.

Aside from health and environmental considerations, an effective urban transport policy should be democratic. Unlike cars, even the poorest segments of society can gain access to a bicycle. The bicycle is indeed democratic, not just for those who cycle but also for the rest of the population who are too often impacted by planning blight, pollution and the colonisation of urban space as a result of planning that privileges car users ahead of everyone else.

However, the bicycle is only truly democratic when spatial segregation is limited and bike lanes and appropriate cycle-friendly infrastructure exist to properly connect all areas. Inspired by Copenhagen, Mexico City’s bicycle strategy is attempting to address this issue through a comprehensive cycle path network, which aims to create mobility through areas that have been closed off due to previous planning strategies.

The arrogance of space

For cities to fully embrace the bicycle, city planners must stop thinking like motorists or capitulating to powerful lobby groups and plan for the needs of cyclists. In Denmark, for example, the Copenhagen-Albertslund route is the first of a planned network that will comprise 26 Cycle Super Highways, covering a total of 300 km. The network is predicted to reduce public expenditure by €40.3 million annually thanks to improved health.

Consider that in Europe 50% of most city land is dedicated to streets and roads, parking, service stations, driveways, signals and traffic signs. And yet the average European car is parked for 92% of the time. Of the other 8% of time, 1.5% is spent looking for a parking space, 1% in congestion and just 5% is spent driving. There are 30,000 deaths per year on European roads and four times as many disabling injuries. Consider too that an average European car has five seats but carries 1.5 persons per journey.

In Copenhagen, city planners tend to give an adequate proportion of road space to cyclists: proper cycle lanes with curbs that separate cycling space from car space; cycle lanes that are usually also sufficiently wide. After all, why should cars hog so much road space when the majority of road users are cyclists?

In the article ‘The Arrogance of Space’, it says:

We have a tendency to give cities human character traits when we describe them. It’s a friendly city. A dynamic city. A boring city. Perhaps then a city can be arrogant. Arrogant, for example, with its distribution of space.

For too long the arrogance of car-obsessed urban planners has degraded our health and our quality of life. But when you have good-quality public transport and the opportunity to cycle thanks to appropriate infrastructure, there is no need to hand over excess space to cars and produce endless concrete sprawl for car parks.

Walk (or cycle) around Copenhagen and you will immediately appreciate there is much less traffic noise and pollution compared with other cities. It is indeed a spatially friendly and a compact city – and a less “arrogant city”. It is also less hectic and more tranquil than many other cities and – taking things even further – arguably more community-oriented.

The slow life

Of course, community-oriented living isn’t just due to transport strategies, although Andre Gorz said that to love your place or space, it must first of all be made liveable, not trafficable. He went on to state that the neighbourhood or community should be shaped by and for all human activities, “where people can work, live, relax, learn, communicate, and knock about, and which they manage together as the place of their life in common.”

In Copenhagen, the municipality encourages outdoor living by offering open-access communal table tennis tables, basketball facilities, well thought out kids’ parks, landscaped parkland and lakes. Even during cold weather, Copenhageners congregate on the streets and in the parks to socialise and embrace the concept of ‘hygge’, probably best defined as: a conscious appreciation, a certain slowness, and the ability to recognise and enjoy the present. Get to know the city and you will soon realise that hygge isn’t just a cliché.

The key word in that definition is ‘slowness’ because from there we arrive at the concept of ‘slow living’.

Writing in 1973, activist and writer Ivan Illich stated:

The use of the bicycle… allows people to create a new relationship between their life-space and their life-time, between their territory and the pulse of their being, without destroying their inherited balance… In contrast, the accelerating individual capsule [the car] enabled societies to engage in a ritual of progressively paralyzing speed.

Modern culture is an advocate of speed, epitomised by car worship. Cars, speed and high-energy living have become essential facts of life. In the process, our communities have become disjointed and dispersed. We have sacrificed ‘slow living’ – in terms of intimacy, friendship and neighbourliness – for a more impersonal way of accelerated living.

Where would be the need for the car when work, school or healthcare facilities are close by? Less need for ugly flyovers or six lane highways that rip up communities in their path. Getting from A to B would not require a race against the clock on the highway that cuts through a series of localities that are never to be visited, never to be regarded as anything but an inconvenience to be passed through.

Instead, how about an enjoyable walk or cycle ride through an urban environment defined by community and intimacy? An environment free from traffic pollution or noise and where ‘neighbourhood’ has not been deadened and stripped of its neighbourliness, local stores and facilities.

Clearly, many of the problems associated with modern cities are not just due to cars or transport systems. Urban planning and the colonisation of space mirrors capitalism and the needs of powerful corporations.

By focusing on capitalism and how culture reflects the division of labour, Andre Gorz said:

It cuts a person into slices, it cuts our time, our life, into separate slices so that in each one you are a passive consumer at the mercy of the merchants, so that it never occurs to you that work, culture, communication, pleasure, satisfaction of needs, and personal life can and should be one and the same thing: a unified life, sustained by the social fabric of the community.

Although it would be naïve and misguided to think that the bicycle (and cultural change) could transform the social relations of capitalism, it is at least emblematic of a different form of urban planning and smart thinking.

Inequality Social Dysfunction and Misery

Year on year the economic divisions and sub-divisions in the world deepen, and the associated social ills increase: The rich, comfortable, and the very extremely rich keep getting richer, and the rest, well, whilst some may be raised up out of crippling poverty into relative poverty, the majority of people continue to live under a blanket of economic insecurity and largely remain where they are.

Straddling the global ladder of economic and social division sit the Multi-Billionaires (there are now 2,208 billionaires), 42 of whom (down from 61 in 2016), according to a recent report by Oxfam, own the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of humanity combined. Together with their lesser cohorts this coterie of Trillionaires sucked up “eighty-two percent of the wealth generated [in the world] last year…while the 3.7 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world saw no increase in their wealth.”

The defining challenge of our time

Income and wealth inequality is not simply a monetary issue, it is a complex social crisis that supports and strengthens notions of superiority and inferiority, and was described by President Barak Obama in 2013 as “the defining challenge of our time.”

Today’s obscene levels of inequality are the result of the Neo-Liberal economic system. This extreme form of capitalism took hold first in America and Britain in the early 1980s when Reagan and Thatcher ruled, workers’ rights were trampled on, ‘society’ was a dirty word and community responsibility was abandoned to selfishness and greed. With the aid of the World Bank and the IMF, Neoliberalism swiftly spread throughout the world, polluting life in every city, town and village with its divisive, cruel ideology. Commercialization and competition are key principles and have infiltrated every area of contemporary life; everything and everyone is seen as a commodity, and the size of ones bank account determines the level of health care, education and housing available, as well as one’s access to culture and freedom to travel.

Social injustice is inherent in the system, as is inequality, which is itself a major form of injustice. Inequality strengthens deep-seated social imbalances based on class and social standing, and in a world where everything is classified, commercialized and priced; i.e., attributed value, external wealth and position have become the common criteria for determining the internal worth of a human being. Comparison and imitation follow, individuality is perverted and fear fostered; fear of inadequacy, fear of failure, fear of not being loved, because not ‘deserving’ love, not being able to ‘afford’ love. Resentment, anger and self-loathing are fed, leading to a range of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression and drug and alcohol addiction.

Happiness and inequality

The impact of financial inequality on the health and well being of society has been extensively studied by Richard Wilkinson; British co-author of Spirit Level, Professor Emeritus of Social Epidemiology at the University of Nottingham. In order to establish national levels of inequality Wilkinson and his team used a benchmark based on how much richer the top 20% is to the bottom 20%: Japan and Scandinavia (Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark) came out most equal, and now, Slovenia and the Czech Republic have moved towards this group. Israel, New Zealand, Australia, Britain, Portugal and USA were found to have the greatest levels of inequality, and by some margin. Recent data suggests that Russia, South Africa and Turkey should now be added to the most unequal pile. Germany, Spain and Switzerland sit somewhere in the middle.

Data relating to a range of social issues was examined: The most unequal countries were found to have lower life expectancy than more equal societies, higher infant mortality, many more homicides, larger prison populations (by 10-15 times), applied longer sentences; had higher teenage pregnancies, lower mathematic/literacy levels, more obesity, less social mobility, and, according to The World Value Survey, a great deal less trust. In more equal countries, like Sweden and Norway, around 65% of people trust others, whereas in unequal societies like America a mere 15% admitted to trusting their fellow citizens.

In all areas, countries with high levels of inequality did worse, in many cases much worse, than more equal nations. Mental health, for example, (figures from the World Health Organization): In Japan around 8% of the population suffers from some form of mental health issue, compared to 30% in America. Children are considerably healthier in more equal countries – based on UNICEF’s Index of Child Well-Being – and feel a good deal happier. Wilkinson concludes, “What we’re looking at is general social dysfunction related to inequality. It’s not just one or two things that go wrong, it’s most things.”

Look to Scandinavia

If one of the primary purposes of any socio-economic system is to create environments in which human beings can grow and live happily together, then the nations suffering under the shadow of inequality need to learn from Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland, which are not just the least unequal, they are also the happiest countries in the world. Throughout Scandinavia public services – education (which is probably the best in the world), health care and housing, are valued, and taxes levied in order to fund them properly; there are greater levels of social justice, this allows for trust to develop, and where there is trust relationships flower. The extremes of staggering wealth and stifling poverty don’t exist as they do in the more unequal parts of the world; social mobility is greater and the dream of betterment more realistic, as Richard Wilkinson says, “if Americans want to live the ‘American dream’ they should go and live in Denmark.”

The first duty of government is to protect the people; this involves not only dealing with terrorism and the like, but requires the development of socio-economic policies that contribute to the creation of a healthy harmonious environment. By supporting extreme inequality (which has been shown to fuel a range of social issues) governments in the more unequal countries are totally failing in this fundamental duty. Politicians, who in many cases rely on big business and wealthy benefactors for their funding, are either blind to, or negligent of, the inherent faults of the current system, and the unhealthy, negative way of life it supports.

The case for fundamental change in the economic order, and a shift away from the destructive values it promotes is becoming irrefutable; however, change occurs only gradually and resistance is great. In the meantime, governments (particularly in the most unequal states) need to acknowledge the connection between the dysfunction and disease within society and their socio-economic methodology, which is literally making people ill, as well and poisoning the natural world. They need to invest properly in public services, address wage differences, ban bonuses, introduce progressive tax reform, and, unlike America and France which are taking retrograde steps by designing tax codes which will fuel inequality, look to the Scandinavian countries and learn from their example.

For too long socio-economic systems have been designed and maintained to cater to the desires and interests of a privileged few, while the majority live inhibited lives under the shadow of financial uncertainty. For harmonious societies to evolve this long-standing injustice needs to be addressed and a degree of balance found. This requires that those whose table is full to overflowing share some of their bounty, so that all may have enough, not excess, enough.

As a wise man has said, “The rich must give up what they want, so that the poor can have what they need.” What the rich and comfortable must give up is greed (another car, another house, more designer clothes, etc.), what the rest need is freedom from economic insecurity and the fear of destitution, freedom from exploitation and dependency; secure, comfortable, and well-designed accommodation, and access to good education, health care and culture. Such essential needs are the rights of all; when made manifest they go a long way towards establishing social justice, and where there is social justice, functional, compassionate communities do evolve, conflict is reduced and collective harmony is cultivated.

An Escalating Afghan Crisis of “Profit” Over “Life”

Surkh Gul with her daughter.

“My family’s water well has dried up,” 18-year-old Surkh Gul said.

“Ours too,” echoed 13-year-old Inaam.

A distressed Surkh Gul lamented: “We have to fetch water from the public well along the main road, but that water is muddy, not fit for drinking. I get bottled water for my two-year-old daughter. At least someone in the family should stay healthy.”

Inaam chipped in: “Fortunately, for now, the water that we fetch from a nearby mosque is clean.”

A U.S. and Afghan Geological Survey of Kabul Basin’s water resources found that about half of the shallow groundwater supply could become dry by 2050 due to declining recharge and stream-flows under projected climate change.

For years, the Danish Committee for Aid to Afghan Refugees has also highlighted this water crisis to the Afghan government.

But, the U.S./NATO/Afghanistan coalition and mainstream media have been so occupied with the business of a failed ‘war on terror’ that basic human development and needs are glossed over or ignored.

Because of worsening security, Surkh Gul’s husband and in-laws left Afghanistan to seek asylum in Europe, abandoning her and her daughter in Kabul. Surkh Gul can’t find any job. She stopped schooling when she got married, and though she re-enrolled herself in school this year, she couldn’t attend classes on many days. “I have to take care of my daughter and find some income sewing ‘odds and ends’ for people in the neighbourhood.”

It’s no wonder that on some days she feels like she’s going mad. Sometimes, when she visits us, we can tell she’s stressed and moody: she speaks in edgy bursts, her voice is harsh and her eyes are restless, underlined by tear stains.

Heavy piling and digging for a new well at the rented house Zekerullah stayed in. Photo by Dr Hakim

“Last year, the 28-metre-deep well in the house we rented dried up. The rich landlord hired well-diggers, whose cranes and shafts are everywhere these days. They dug 70 metres below ground to reach the dropping water table,” Zekerullah recounted. As such, Zekerullah had immediately understood the threat which an oil pipeline poses to the water resources of the Standing Rock community. On behalf of the Afghan Peace Volunteers, he sent a video message in solidarity with Standing Rock’s ‘water protectors’. “The oil companies and the U.S. government are just thinking about money,” Zekerullah concluded.

Other than token words, little is being done to address climate change or to save the people of Kabul from running out of a basic requirement of life — water. Instead, to extract profitable minerals like copper, the elite are ready to compromise on water protection.

President Trump had suggested that Afghanistan’s vast mineral wealth can be a good justification for the continued U.S. war.  He was in discussion with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, ex- World Bank staff, about this war-mineral business opportunity.

In 2013, the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage and an Afghan resident ‘requested‘ for an investigation of the World Bank’s management, oversight and funding of the copper mine at Mes Aynak just outside Kabul.

Supported by 110,000 Afghan signatories, the ‘requesters’ stated that the World Bank’s negligence “in not ensuring that environmental safeguards are in place, imminently endangers the health of the population living there, the quantity and safety of their water supply and (…) the Kabul River….. The mine will cause “heavy losses’’ to community members and to the culture and history of Afghanistan.

A Panel evaluated the ‘Request’ and concluded that it does not recommend an investigation” of the World Bank.

Mes Aynak is the site of ancient ruins that have been compared to Pompeii. (Photo from the film ‘Saving Mes Aynak’)

We have ample evidence of the lack of transparency and integrity in such enterprise in many parts of the world. In the recently leaked 13.4 million documents called the “Paradise Papers”, Glencore, a huge Anglo-Swiss mining and commodity trading company involved in copper and other mining in conflict-ridden DR Congo,      had made a loan to a corrupt Israeli billionaire middle man with close ties to the DR Congo government, asking him to negotiate for mining rights.

The eyes of potential investors and benefactors, corporations and governments alike, are fixed on ‘profit’, not on the potentially disastrous pollution and depletion of the water supply to Mes Aynak and Kabul residents! This does not auger well for Surkh Gul, Inaam, and the estimated 6 million residents of Kabul.

Crises like these have roots in our capitalistic belief that a ‘bottom-line’ policy of generating ‘profit and growth’, private or government, is good for a country’s economy, and that this would benefit everyone. But math, science, evidence and experience prove that this predatory ‘profit’ is inequitably directed to the pockets of the ‘1%’, many of whom are corrupt, leaving the vast majority of people deprived even of their basic human needs. Such profit is often secured from wars, and from exploiting Mother Earth and Nature. Wars have destroyed many irrigation and water retention systems. Only 2% of Afghanistan is forested, her trees extensively cut down through logging.

Kabul’s life-threatening water crisis will not illicit any action unless we dismantle our oligarchic practices and understand that when fellow human beings like Surkh Gul and Inaam don’t have access to water, each of us will hurt too, if not now, then eventually. We, Mother Nature and the human family, are all related.

We can empathize, just as Inaam did, with villagers in Zambia, whose drinking water, rivers, streams and underground aquifers have been contaminated by a London-listed copper mine. Inaam remembers the photos of turbid water he saw in the nonviolence class at the Borderfree Street Kids School he attends.

Drinking water in a Zambian village contaminated by a copper mine. (Photo by The Guardian)

I asked Inaam why governments and big businesses don’t respond to such images and human tragedies. Inaam answered:  “Because they’re only concerned about their own profit.  They never think for the people.”

I thought, “Don’t I have a responsibility to create a kinder and fairer world for children like Inaam and Surkh Gul’s daughter to live in?”

I fear for the decent survival of Afghans, our Earth and the human family, as we have become so attracted to ‘profit’ that we mistake it for ‘progress’. Such ‘profit and progress’ have no respect for science or life, so it may very well lead to our species’ eventual extinction. Stephen Hawking warns us that we may need to vacate to another planet in the next 100 years. More than 15,000 scientists have warned us that our current ways of living could destroy us.

If our ‘thinking as usual’ and ‘business as usual’ continue, we will leave no historical traces at Mes Aynak or Kabul except for mining and digging machines, in a parched desert of war ruins.

Surkh Gul, her daughter and Inaam will have to flee for their lives, but where to, on our warming and warring Earth?

• All photos by Dr. Hakim Young unless otherwise identified