Copenhagen’s Urban Development is Just Old Wine in New Bottles

Copenhagen’s development is just old wine in new bottles

This is a time and an age where we are thinking differently about our cities for the first time in a century. Copenhagen is often revered as a benchmark city but hapless politicians with a shocking lack of modern vision merely dazzle with smoke and mirrors. City Hall continues to dust off urban development ideas that date from the 1950’s and 1960’s. It’s all just old car-centric wine in new bottles and none of it tastes good. Don’t believe the hype.

The political party that has controlled Copenhagen for well over a century — the Social-Democrats — have an dark, awkward history of urban development visions and the current Lord Mayor Frank Jensen is seemingly intent on continuing that tradition.

The political dream of a tunnel under the harbour goes way back. To 1910, actually. The Social-Democrats had a vision of tearing down Nyhavn — now the picture-postcard canal in the heart of the city, but there were plans to tear it down and build a tunnel to the other side.

The primary anchor of many of the proposals, past and present, seems to be a tunnel under the harbour. There is a bizarre obsession with completing the Ring 2 road. “It should have been a circle and by god it will be eventually”, is the mantra repeated ad nauseum by generation after generation of Social Democrats and their cronies.

I’m going to run through the current developments and proposals and show how they are just dusted-off relics from a previous century. Firstly, let’s talk about the latest monster.


Lynetteholmen is a current proposal to create a massive artificial island at the head of Copenhagen harbour. It will feature 35,000 expensive homes and about the same number of workplaces. Probably the same number of coffee shops selling cafe lattes for €8, but that study isn’t finished yet.

If it commences at all, it will be finished by 2070. The politicians will have you believe that it will protect Copenhagen from rising seawater levels during storms as climate change continues its rampage. This could make sense. They’ll also tell you that we need more housing, which we do. But the massive expense of this island will hardly mean that affordable housing will be included. The lots need to be sold in order to help pay for the damn thing. The island is, in a way, a distraction because the real goal remains the harbour tunnel, which City Hall has been trying to shove down Copenhagen’s throats for decades.

Induced Demand

When your primary source of “inspiration” comes from a previous century, it’s no surprise that none of these politicians are familiar with the very simple concepts of Induced Demand or Jevon’s Paradox. They still falsely believe that building a new motorway will lead motor traffic around the city, when in fact we know from a century of experience that traffic will increase when you make more space for cars.

Nevermind the fact that they’re essentially planning a motorway tunnel so that people in the wealthy neighbourhoods north of the city can get quickly to the airport and skirt around the city to enter from the south, instead. That’s just regular traffic. This project will also feature an estimated 720 large trucks — carrying dirt to the Lynetteholmen site — rumbling through Copenhagen every day FOR THIRTY YEARS. Nor is there any clear plan for how to pay for it and there have been no solid scientific studies about the massive environmental impact of such a mega-project, both during construction or after. You can expect some serious pushback from the citizens of this city.

Here’s the plan for a motorway tunnel and all the old-school ridiculousness that THAT entails. In their desperation to connect the motorways, a proposed tunnel will run around 10 km along the east coast of the island of Amager, with an exit on Lynetteholmen and another at the top of the island to pump more cars into the city centre.

An artificial island is no new idea. This proposal for creating new land at the head of the harbour is from 1986. The concept of creating land is as old as the Copenhagen that was re-branded back in 1167. Most of the city around the harbour is filled in land. (I try to avoid using “reclaimed land” since if there wasn’t land there, you can’t reclaim it)

Compare the drawing from the 1700's with the map of Copenhagen today to understand how much land has been created. Almost every one of the bars I go to would have been underwater back in the day.

In this article from 1967 describing a fantastic car-centric future for Copenhagen, it is clear that the harbour would be filled in even more. The purple shading is new land. And, indeed, Copenhagen continues to squeeze the harbour narrower.

An industrial area is marked at the southern end of the harbour — “Industrihavn” — and work had already begun in the 1960´s on filled-in land off the coast of Avedøre. It was a convenient location what with the motorways that were being built. Today, the whole area is frightfully Sixties in its context, layout and feel. Continuing this development is still underway.

A couple of years ago, the national government at the time proposed a blinged-up series of nine islands — all them earmarked for industry — as an extension of the old plans from the 1960´s. Just building upon the same-old, same-old.

Søringen — The Lake Ring

To return to the Social Democrats’ car centric visions for the city, we have to go back to 1958. That was the year that the Søringen (The Lake Ring) and City Plan Vest (West) projects saw the light of day. Like so many other places, cars were considered to be the future and massive infrastructure was planned to accommodate them and these projects were mammoth in their scale.

The Søringen project from 1958 was approved by parliament in 1964. It involved expropriating and filling in a swath of our iconic Lakes to make space for the 12 lanes of motoring goodness. Because of difficulties in finding the money to build it, it was finally killed off, but not until 1974.

The plan didn’t stay on paper. It actually left its mark on our city. Rows of houses were bought along Lyngbyvej and promptly torn down in preparation for the coming project and, farther out, many homes lost their front gardens.

Along Tagensvej, Amor Parken (from 1910) next to the National Hospital would have been sacrificed to become motorway and what is now Fredens Park along Fredensgade used to be buildings but they were bought up and torn down in 1973 to create the space for the motorway. That strip of green in the photo below could have been twelve lanes of motorway.

On the left side of the photo, the concrete, brutalist Panum Institut was built between 1971–1986 in anticipation of the project, as was the National Hospital’s new buildings (built 1960–1978) as well — at right in the photo.

The Lord Mayor of the time was the ironically-named Urban Hansen and he was a declared modernist and fan of Le Corbusier. He was in power from 1962–1976. Not so ironically he was the man who also single-handedly killed off the entire, proud and efficient tram system in Copenhagen, which served the city from October 1863- April 1972. Basically, not a man you want to come back and haunt your city. Although the current Lord Mayor Frank Jensen seems to be channelling him.

City Plan Vest

So the motorway would roar down The Lakes, elevated, at then it would hit the Vesterbro neighbourhood. Not much would be left of it near the Central Station. This area was regarded as a slum, with a poor population living in squalid conditions. Like elsewhere, prime for demolition, thanks to the influence of Robert Moses in New York. In the graphics, above, you can see the massive impact that might have been made on the city.

This is what the City Plan Vest would have done to the working class neighbourhood.

The left-wing newspaper Politiken had originally supported the idea but ended up calling bullshit on it in April 1968 and popular opinion began to follow. On the right, a right-wing newspaper, Berlingske, continued to support the idea, but they were out of touch with the age.

In the graphic on the left you can also see, in red, the plan for a tunnel under the harbour to FINALLY connect the Ring 2 road in a circle that would let traffic engineers sleep at night and connect up with the rest of the motorway network.

If we return to this graphic from 1967 again, we can see that most of the Nørrebro neighbourhood would be relegated to parking. The article describes how, “Copenhagen’s city centre, inside the old walls, will one day be completely closed off to car traffic. Parking lots, both on the surface and underground, will be placed along the streets outside the old defences. Motorists will have to continue their journey in small, electric busses”.

Well, that didn’t happen. And typical of the age, no mention of bicycles, even though at that time, 20% of the population rode bikes — down from 50% just twenty years prior. Indeed, in the Generalplan 1954 regarding future urban development you can read that, “The plan regards the massive bicycle traffic in the city’s streets as a spatial problem that must be addressed. Cyclists must be encouraged to take the tram instead. Trams take up less space in the city”.


When it became clear that the massive Lake Ring and City Plan Vest projects were falling out of favour, the City tried to bling it up a bit in 1970 with a new proposal. Forumlinien — or The Forum Line. It adhered to the ideology of the day — bulldozing poor neighbourhoods in the best Robert Moses style and planning motorways around “modern”, car-centric housing.

This time it was the Nørrebro neighbourhood that was slated for demolition. The street on the right of the superimposed graphic is Nørrebrogade and on the left is Åboulevarden — still the busiest road in Denmark with 50–60,000 motor vehicles per day, so we are still stuck with some of this legacy. Although the bizarre housing development, the smaller highways above it and a Corbousier treatment of Nørrebrogade never happened. It’s difficult to find information about this proposal and I have never heard of it before. But that it came out of the same City Hall as today is not comforting.

Ørestad & Amager

The photo above is of the Ørestad development, on the island of Amager south of the city. It’s a recent development measuring 600 m wide and 5 km long. Designed as a kind of “new town”, it’s origins date back to the early 1990s and a Metro line runs down the main boulevard. It is one of the biggest flops in modern Danish development history. Wind-swept streets, a huge American-style shopping mall (ironically named Fields for all the fields that died in order for it to live), motorway connections to the rest of Denmark and to Sweden — you name it. One of the main planners involved wanted to emulate the boulevards of Barcelona — and failed miserably. Everything that we know is wrong about urban development from the previous century is still being built in Copenhagen in 2020. This is really a sign that when you regurgitate last-century plans, you get last-century urban areas.

This is really a sign that when you regurgitate last-century plans, you get last-century urban areas.

Development plans from the 60’s and 70’s for the island of Amager look a lot like what’s happening today

It’s no surprise to discover that plans to develop the island of Amager like this have been around for a while. On the left is a winning entry in a competition to plan the west side of the island and, on the right, a similar proposal from 1970.

Awkwardly for those who wish to continue with plans from last century, Amager Common — the vast, 223 hectare, green space on the north-west side of the island was granted protected status in two stages in 1990 and 1994. The Ørestad development took a slice of it and lately the politicians in Copenhagen City Hall have been working hard at reversing the protected status. There has been considerable pushback and protests from the citizens and this back and forth continues. Almost 13,000 people are members of a Facebook group against the development of the green space.

The City ended up cancelling a planned development on the Common, but then promptly moved to another location. Complete with glossy renderings of a proposed development with 2000 homes. The architect Henning Larsen and his team have been soundly chastised by experts for claiming that their development would strengthen the biodiversity of the area and for greenwashing the hell out of it.

The desire to complete visions from the 1960's is so strong that City Hall will continue to force their will. Before the Lynetteholmen project showed up on our radar, the plan was a harbour tunnel running under Amager Common. Now the plans have changed to the aforementioned tunnel along the coast. But by god, that tunnel MUST be built.

On a side note, one of the few plans that never happened was moving the entire Copenhagen Airport on Amager over to the island of Saltholm. In the two-page spread graphic from 1967, there were already plans to build a tunnel/bridge link to Sweden, with a stop at Saltholm for the airport. We ended up with the expensive tunnel/bridge link, but the airport never moved.


This is a photo of Nordhavn — or North Harbour — one of the largest developments in Europe. It is still being filled in and when completed there will be 40,000 homes and 40,000 workplaces. So that we’re not in doubt about transport, a three kilometre motorway extension was built to lead motor vehicles to Nordhavn. It cost around €280 million — the same price as a decade of bicycle infrastructure and facilities in Copenhagen. Make your choice: three kilometres of motorway or a bicycle-friendly city.

This development could have been the ultimate symbol that Copenhagen wishes to be a sustainable leader in the world. It could have been a next-level development to rival the Vauban development in Freiburg, Germany and set the standard for the next century of urban development.

They could have pulled out all the stops and used every available sustainable technology in every building. Instead, there are just gimmicks and gadgets and greenwashing. They’re just going through the motions that have been so familiar for decades. The City bangs on about how we have no space to expand so we need to create it. But the Nordhavn development with 40,000 homes planned, is six times larger than the traditional neighbourhood next to it — Inner Østerbro — with 46,000 residents (visible in the photo above, at right). So much for building for density and a strong urban fabric. The City is just building suburbs.

Metro Instead of Trams

There will be a Metro reaching into Nordhavn, as well and cycle tracks are a given. But the obscenely expensive Metro does nothing to remove cars from the streets of Copenhagen. It only serves the existing public transport users and people who could be cycling instead. Cycling is expected to drop by 3% after the Metro ring is complete. The routes for the Metro merely follow plans from the 1960's for expansion of the S-Train network in Copenhagen. They’re just underground now.

Instead of reestablishing the tram network that was removed in 1972, like so many other cities are going, which would reallocate space from cars to public transport, citizens are sent underground. Out of sight, out of mind. The coming Metro extension to Sydhavn, for example, will remove a measly 1000 cars from the roads. With a budget of around 9 billion kroner, that means we’re spending 9 million kroner per car for a Metro.

Since the Metro City Ring opened last year, bus lines are being changed and downgraded in such a way that people are being shepherded to Metro stations. I have European urban planning colleagues who laugh when I tell them that we have bus lines with 50,000 people a day in Copenhagen and yet the City isn’t building trams.

The roads are as sacred to the City of Copenhagen now as they were in the 1960's. They accept that each day, our streets are filled with motor vehicles from the surrounding municipalities. They continue to build parking facilities which will only create more induced demand. We have a fantastic network of cycle tracks in the city, but the narrative has changed of late. Now there is talk of “green routes” and building bicycle infrastructure away from the streets. This idea has been around since the 1990s and it is in line with the aforementioned vision from 1954 that cyclists are are irritation on the streets.

A Tired, Repeated Narrative

In 1965, the architect who was pushing for the Lake Ring and City Plan Vest projects — Ole Nørgård — was quoted as saying, “Copenhagen, in its development, has reached a point where it is necessary to expand a network of motorways through the city to ensure its orbital functions. Motorways will change the city’s appearance. If this change is to be for the better, then the normal fear of development must be replaced by the courage to control that fear.

The end of the two-page spread article I’ve used, above, ends with this: “Most of us mourn when the city grows and obliterates accustomed landscapes, but the coming city will have totally new values. Future generations will hopefully think that our time acted wisely and rightly when we finally pulled ourselves together and planned urban development”.

Both of these quotes from the 1960's are the unchanged narrative that we hear from City Hall today, in 2020. Nothing has changed. There are no new visions for the future of this city. There are only sour old wine being sold to a new generation in shiny, new bottles. The politicians are still fighting for their harbour tunnel and a new artificial island is supposed to distract us from their century-long struggle.

This is the Copenhagen of the past and the future. No visions for innovative change like in so many other cities.

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