Copenhagen — too smug to learn?

Aerial photo of Ørestad neighbourhood in Copenhagen, Denmark
Aerial photo of Ørestad neighbourhood in Copenhagen, Denmark
Aerial view of the urban planning disaster that is Ørestad. Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo by Mikael Colville-Andersen

I originally wrote this article in Danish for Politiken Byrum. Here’s the English translation.

Copenhagen is about to get a unique opportunity to learn from other global cities when it hosts the C40 Cities Conference. The question is whether a city as smug as Copenhagen is willing to exploit the opportunity. I doubt it.

The C40 network is bolstered by strong city brands with renowned mayors and is trying to act as a counterweight to national governments and their molasses-like politics, with an agenda strong on action. Cities are an absolute key in the fight against climate change but we’re not exploiting their potential near enough. Copenhagen is in the C40 club, since the city’s status quo is on a high level. Perhaps Lord Mayor Frank Jensen might even drag his bike out of the garage for the event. THAT would be epic.

It is clearly an advantage to work internationally in urban planning and design and say that I come from Copenhagen. It gives street cred. In 2007, I coined the word copenhagenize as a way of describing how other cities could be inspired by all the — back then — exciting things the city was doing. The word hit a nerve around the world.

It is quite telling that I came upon copenhagenize rather than something like denmarkification. Regardless of which political block is at the nation’s helm, the state still focuses on motorways and car sales, as though it’s still 1955. They haven’t understood the concept of induced demand — if you make more space for cars, you get more cars. It is hard to see the difference between the different transport ministers. The latest incarnation has recently been in Oslo to “look at electric cars”. We don’t need fewer cars in Denmark. No no no. Just different cars.

For years I have put Copenhagen on a pedestal regarding sustainable development and I have been an eager exporter of inspiration and transferable solutions with Copenhagen as a role model. I’ve worked in over 100 cities and, with my tv-series about urbanism The Life-Sized City — I curate so many amazing things that are happening in cities around the world. For 12 years I have taken hundreds of politicians, policymakers and professionals around my city on bicycle urbanism tours and I have given countless keynotes and interviews about the city. The pedestal, however, is getting wobbly.

Where arriving home in Copenhagen from my travels used to be pure pleasure, it is now often a bit of a bummer. There are simply so many amazing things happening out there in the world that Copenhagen is looking more and more old school. The brand is dusty and tired. Lately I have to answer puzzled questions from colleagues like, “why the hell did you build a Metro instead of reestablishing the tram network you removed in 1972?!” As on urban planning colleague from France put it, “car-centric cities build metros and people-friendly cities build tramlines”.

I live in Frederiksberg, a city in its own right in the heart of Copenhagen. It’s too small to be in the fancy C40 club but brags ad nauseum about being “The Green Heart of the Capital”. Here on the corner of Godthåbsvej and Nordre Fasanvej, where I’m writing these words, more than 30,000 cars groan past my windows. Windows that are consistently dirtier than any other apartment I’ve lived in in the capital. Frederiksberg is building underground parking garages but without removing the same number of street parking spots. Induced demand is a foreign concept to them, too. It’s wild to think that with the current parking licence fees for residents (only about €100 per year) it takes 900 years to pay off one underground car parking spot. Rumour has it the parking prices will increase, but let’s see if they actually rise to a price that makes sense. It costs 50,000 Danish kroner (€6700) just to paint and maintain an on-street parking spot. So the fee should be at least that.

The city is throwing around taxpayer money like it’s going out of style in the form — among other things — of expensive noise reducing asphalt. If you lower the speed limit from 50 km/h to 30 km/h it will give you the same noise reduction in our densely-populated neighbourhoods as the new asphalt — for a lot less money. The Black Heart of the Capital.

I’m an optimist but I’m also an impatient idealist. I simply have to be inspired in my daily work in order to bother continuing. Luckily there is inspiration to be had around the world. If Copenhagen dares to stand up and kick their laurels aside, here’s a quick and dirty list of modern ideas they can learn from.

Former Mayor of Paris from 2001–2014, Bertrand Delanoë spelled it out perfectly: “The fact is that cars no longer have a place in the big cities of our time”. He is far from alone on this. The woman who took over from him, Anne Hidalgo, is trying to continue where Delanoë left off. Mayors around the world have been quoted for similar, modern statements. It is simply the new normal to work towards fewer cars in a city. Okay, maybe not THAT new. Since the 1990s, French cities with over 100,000 inhabitants have been obliged by national law to develop mobility plans that would reduce car traffic and strengthen public transport, walking and cycling. Maybe when the current transport minister is done with looking at those Norwegian cars he could get started on intelligent legislation.

What else do we have? Hmm.

Over the past four years Oslo of all places has removed over 5000 car parking spots and made it impossible to drive into the city center unless you live there. Amsterdam plans to remove 10,000 parking spots for cars between now and 2025 in favour of making the city safer and adding public space. Helsinki is almost proud when they say it won’t be necessary to own a car in the city in the near future. They’re putting their money on MaaS (mobility as a service) instead. Vancouver is trying to turn the transport budget paradigm on its head — money goes to public transport, walking and cycling first and whatever is left goes to cars.

Now it’s getting awkward. Congestion charges. The national government promised us on around Copenhagen a few years and then failed to deliver. They’re a success in Stockholm, Oslo, Milan, London and Singapore and there is now serious talk of implementing them in many cities, including New York and Belgian cities. Are you as tired as me that your tax money goes to benefiting motorists who don’t even live in — or pay taxes in — your city? Shouldn’t we try to get some of that money back? Other cities have done the math.

Soon 85% of all the streets in Paris will be 30 km/h zones and the “30 Zone” movement that started in Germany in 1986 continues to roll. Soon Central London will slow down to 30 km/h like over 150 cities around Europe. Outside my windows it’s 50 km/h — in Denmark’s most densely-populated city.

I can go on. Ljubljana is in the midst of a massive green paradigm shift. Mexico has an official “laboratory for the city” created to think out of the box. Barcelona is developing people-friendly “superblocks” to reestablish life in the streets after the destructive reign of the automobile. Dublin has banned large trucks from the city center. Several cities are rebuilding or expanding their tram networks. Large logistics companies like DHL and UPS have been using — for a few years — cargo bikes for their last-mile logistics in over 75 EU cities.

Just look at Malmö, Sweden. You can literally see it from Copenhagen. They have a policy to strengthen density, they’re working on being the world’s most skateboard friendly city and they’ve built a bike-friendly apartment building without car parking.

Back to Copenhagen. Things are going well. So well that we don’t need to think about doing it better and maintaining our leadership position. World’s best and safest bicycle city — sure, until further notice. Massive investments in climate change adaptation. Super. But think about it. We have so much money that we have lost touch with reality.

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Amager Bakke — the new incinerator/vanity project. Photo: Mikael Colville-Andersen

The City just completed a bombastic new waste incinerator called Amager Bakke right near the city centre. One of the greatest singular vanity projects in recent memory. Oooh, there’s a ski hill on top! Nevermind that we don’t generate enough garbage to fill it and we have to import garbage from abroad to make it break even.

Is there really talk of a harbour tunnel that will pump more cars into the city when other cities are removing their last-century, fossil fuel infrastructure motorways? No serious action on affordable housing? More car parking spots that will just give us more cars? The same mistakes in the Nordhavn development that we didn’t learn from after the Ørestad and Carlsberg City disasters?

Imagine if Nordhavn was designed to be the world’s most sustainable development — like a huge version of Vauban in Germany — by using the whole arsenal of modern solutions. THAT is leadership. But no, all we have at the moment is a pile of marketing hype about being C02 neutral in 2015. A plan that activates my bullshit detector like never before.

Copenhagen thinks it’s in the boxing ring with the great fighters but in reality the city is merely the hot bikini-clad woman holding up the sign in between rounds. It is time to send copenhagenize into retirement. Personally, I’m more excited to see what vancouverism, barcelonification or osloism — or whatever the next one will be — has to offer up as inspiration.

When the cities of the world come to C40 in Copenhagen, we need to shut up and sit up straight. We need to listen. We need to learn.

Urban playmaker, designer, host of The Life-Sized City tv series about urbanism. Author of “Copenhagenize”. Impatient Idealist.

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