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Friday, July 1, 2011

It's Time to Denmark-ify Our Cities: A Copenhagen Case Study

by Brian Merchant


Photo: Mik Hartwell via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY

If we're going to consider trying to Denmark-ify societies around the world, perhaps the first thing we should do is make sure that people would actually want to live in those societies. So let's take a closer look at Denmark's capital, Copenhagen. Along with being the most populous city in the nation (the greater metropolitan area is home to just under 2 million people), it's the political, commercial, and cultural hub as well.

And if you're a regular Treehugger reader, you're probably aware that it's one of the most highly regarded 'green' cities in the world -- and consistently ranked as among the most livable. Here's why:

First of all, it's perhaps the bike-friendliest city on the planet. A well-designed network of bike lanes and ample municipal support has enabled huge swaths of the population to take up on the bicycle as their main form of transportation. Half of Copenhagen residents own bikes, and 40% use them to commute to work.

And that's not just an overly rosy stat offered up by the city's PR team. Step out onto any major thoroughfare, and you'll see Danes of every stripe cruising by: businessmen decked out in suits, mothers carting their adorable Scandinavian children, older folks, kids -- everyone bikes in Copenhagen. No wonder cities as far away as Portland are looking to its example to increase bike ridership.

Secondly, there are ample public squares and green spaces, and the canal than runs through the city center is kept clean enough to swim in. Much of the city is walkable, and the main commercial district is largely pedestrian-only. Copenhagen is also in the process of expanding its popular metro system, so that it might reach further out from the urban area.


Photo: Poom! via Flickr/CC BY

The city is on track to be carbon neutral by 2025. It's in the process of phasing out its coal-fired power plants, which currently generate most of the city's power. The first will be gone within five years, and upgraded to run on biomass. Each of the plants are already outfitted to efficiently capture the heat generated in the coal-burning process, and enable Copenhagen to residents to enjoy an advance district heating system.

Strict energy efficiency codes ensure that new buildings won't waste power, and the progressive taxation rate (yup, Copenhagen residents, like all Danes, pay loads more taxes than you do) provides ample funding for city projects -- Jorgen Abildgaard, the city's Executive Climate Project Director, manager says the budget is balanced, despite this smorgasbord of initiatives.

And what's on the way? Here's Abildgaard:

Bike lanes that extend even further out, into the suburbs. 'Payment zones' for non-electric vehicles, to discourage driving. The city wouldn't mind seeming them go altogether. An expanded metro. Further efforts to revitalize waterside parks.

In my eyes, the only thing that keeps Copenhagen from being a truly replicable model for green cities is its relative lack of density -- the city's building codes prevent any structure from being more than six stories high, and only some 600,000 people live in the city's urban center. That's great here -- city planners project only an additional 100,000 residents over the next ten years.

But in a world increasingly crammed with megacities, the question will be whether the green initiatives can be scaled up without losing the livability we see here in Copenhagen.

Certainly, the core principles that make the city work can and should be adopted around the globe, but that's stuff we've been shouting about for years: Good public transit, interesting public spaces, strong bike-ability, energy efficiency, and so forth. The trick is doing all this stuff either a) with less funding or b) by convincing residents that it's worth ponying up more tax dollars for.

To me, the answer is clear -- if sacrificing some income means the place I live will be cleaner, healthier, and awesomer (not to mention more sustainable and more equal), show me where to sign. But there are a tangle of cultural and political obstacles preventing such an attitude from taking root in much of the world (the wealthy's keen interest in protecting their wealth chief among them). I'll look at some of these later in this series.

For now, allow me to heartily recommend that urban planners take a good hard look at Copenhagen. Your fellow residents will thank you.

More on how we might Denmark-ify societies 'round the world:

Denmark to say 'Goodbye' to Fossil Fuels by 2050 (Video)

Could Denmark-ifying the World Stop Climate Change?

Life in Denmark's Super-Low Energy Suburb, Stenlose South