Denmark: Lessons From a Very Small Country (Logstrup, Viborg & Copenhagen, Denmark)


Last month Shawn and I visited the beautiful country of Denmark where he participated in a summer exchange program 25 years ago! He lived with a wonderful family in Viborg, a city roughly in the center of the Jutland Peninsula. Over the years, the families have stayed in contact and when we decided to make our first trip to Europe together, Denmark was high on our priority list to renew our acquaintances with all the members of the family, old and new.

I should just say in short that this visit to Denmark was a wonderful one. Travel can be a life changing experience as it teaches you so much about other places and your own place in the world, if you let it. This particular visit had a feeling like that for me. We spent time in the country around Viborg and also made visits to two cities, Copenhagen and Aarhus which are the second and largest cities in Denmark respectively. Denmark is an interesting country. It’s roughly the size of the US state of West Viriginia, which is not too large by US state size standards.  Another interesting thing to consider is just how long people have been living in Denmark. For well over a thousand years they have more “modern” settlement including the practice of agriculture, fishing, more contemporary religion, and more. That’s a long time in terms of continuous human usage of a small geographical area.

When you travel through the countryside around Viborg (which includes a great deal of breathtaking agricultural land as well as fjords and many picturesque small towns) it’s striking to see how manicured the fields, forests and land are. It’s obvious that growth is contained or prescribed  to a degree and farmland and forest alike are protected spaces. While there isn’t much of what we in the US would call “wilderness,” there’s also not a great deal of the sprawl that I am more accustomed to seeing at home. Granted, around Aarhus and Copenhagen there is a degree of sprawl that is what you expect from concentrated urban centers. But I’m musing right now about the more pastoral parts of Denmark I visited. It occurred to me while marveling at the landscape that the Danish government, over the years and probably centuries, has had a great deal of influence in bringing about the progressive country of Denmark that we see today. Denmark is self supporting for it’s energy usage. It produces enough oil for its own needs. Wind and solar power are used for a growing portion of general energy usage and the evidence is everywhere. Magnificent white wind turbines seem to greet you from every vista, reminding me that the countryside is not only beautiful in its own right, but also rich in agricultural and energy resources. Some of the tiny villages we drove through were part of government and village supported experiments with solar energy…imagine driving through a tiny rural town full of “very old” homes, some with thatched roofs, and seeing literally half or more of them covered with solar panels. Fantastic!!  Architecturally, I found little to complain about with this juxtaposition of old and new. It was amazing and beautiful, really. A valuing of both what was and what will be is evident everywhere. I felt overwhelmingly during my time in Denmark that the country is thoughtfully managed and very very rational. It was cheer inducing!  And I mean cheer in all its possible nuances. A toast could have been made, I felt happy inside, and I felt like cheering. Not a bad set of emotions.

So what did I learn that relates to our work on this website? I knew it would be hard to write about this trip without getting lost in impressions and details so I will try to reign myself in a bit.

In a small country with a strong centralized government, it seems relatively less difficult to implement policy that protects things that are important to the future well being of a nation and its citizens. For example, farmland is protected because there isn’t a ton of it to go around. Denmark is not an endless nation. It’s smaller size makes that easy to remember. So I’m getting back to smaller size. In a country that is not geographically humongous and has an active government that tries to make choices that will benefit the greater good and the greater number, how does this express itself architecturally? Well, open space is abundant and accessible. From our friends’ home in Logstrup, outside of Viborg, we were able to hike in managed fir and beech forests right outside their door, basically. They were hiked and traveled by many of the families (of all ages) living right in the area. The woodland was managed by a farmer who regularly sells the timber to a company in Sweden for pulping and wood and paper products, yet the land was not closed off. It remained a public place though privately and even corporately owned and the landowner had participated with local residents to create paths throughout the property with a tiny building for the kindergarten to use for student outings as well as posted maps for the trails crisscrossing the woods. If we struck out from home another way, we walked through the little town of Logstrup and passed to an old railway line that had been converted to a nice wide recreational path. This walking path was pretty impressive. The trails stretched for many kilometers (over 25) and you could walk, run or cycle all the way to Viborg if you wanted to. Fantastic!  Our walk took us to a beautiful fjord, partially frozen at the edges. The day was quiet and cold and peaceful. There were active farms around us and obviously this was a living, working, populated landscape but an absence of big roads with noisy cars, chain stores and fast food restaurants and gas stations made the surroundings seem far from anything. It was possible to be in a natural, open space but still be very close to established small town and city life.

I didn’t find homes in Denmark to be particularly tiny, though many would be comparable in size to homes typically built in the US over 50 years ago. Our friends’ home had four bedrooms (they have three intelligent and energetic boys) and a big open space area for the dining and living room areas. The floor plan was modern and open (this home was built around 2005). At the same time this was not a huge home by American standards.

Many of the other homes, especially older homes, are indeed small and quaint. They are well cared for and there are limits to the kind of exterior and interior renovations that are allowed to them so as to preserve the appearance and feeling of neighborhoods that have been established for such a very long time, often centuries. Seeing architectural continuity even in smaller communities was interesting for me especially since I come from a small west coast town where “anything goes” is a widely accepted theme that allows for great personal expressiveness at best – and at worst creates a mind boggling jumble of structural detail and design that makes even “expensive neighborhoods” seem mixed up and looking a bit chintzy.

In Denmark, small personal spaces seem to be “compensated” for by an abundance of shared community places including parks, walking trails and places for people to be active out of doors (not coincidentally, the country has a relatively low incidence of overweight and obesity issues). In large cities, where smaller and more expensive real estate is naturally de rigeur due to space constraints, there are wonderful (and extensive) car-free promenades lined by shops, cafes and restaurants. People can be out and about amongst one another enjoying the abundance of space and interest afforded by a lively street scene. I also noticed, particularly in Copenhagen where we were able to spend more time walking and exploring, that Denmark has some fantastic, highly modern and very large public buildings that take center stage in the city. The city features a tremendous new library, dubbed The Black Diamond, that is a shining example of modern Danish architecture and is available for public use. Another fantastic and ultra modern building is the Copenhagen Opera House. Museums of great stature and fine collections, some even free, are a huge part of the cityscape as well. So, while space in a personally owned piece of property might be set in a city or a rural setting and might be small, medium or large, what carried on was an abundance of things “for the people” generally within walking or biking distance. In fact, 90% of Danes own bicycles, and boy can you tell! Perhaps when people’s private space is so wonderfully flanked with truly public space, something happens mentally and architecturally that allows for the maintenance and expansion of good spaces for people to live, work, and be outside without the necessity for the massive and monumentally sized domiciles that often characterize modern North American suburbs.

Impressions and notions are easy to get when you spend a little time in a place. Our visit to Denmark seemed so very short: we had just 11 days in the country. But what a great taste we got; what a long lasting flavor to consider afterwards! I’ve a feeling that the lessons we learned in Denmark will be a long time in unfolding for us and just might influence some of our personal decisions about housing, living and the need to keep interconnected the nature of indoor and outdoor space for a long time.

Tusind Tak Danmark!