The Highway Projects That Almost Destroyed Copenhagen

Mikael Colville-Andersen
17 min readMar 31, 2022
Watch this Youtube video version of this article

While we are nowhere near the tipping point, there are many cities, especially here in Europe, that are redefining their urban development and scaling back their planning to something more life-sized. Back to a modus operandi that predated the automobile — and that attempts to fix the planning mistakes made because of it.

Things are very different here in Copenhagen and in Denmark, however, where they are planning megaprojects like it’s the 1950s. As I’ve highlighted before, they’re also just copy-pasting plans from the 1950s and 1960s instead of adapting urban development to the new century.

Watch this video about the environmental nightmare — Lynetteholm

The biggest monster in the city at the moment is the proposed artificial island at the head of the harbour called Lynetteholm. An environmental catastrophe unfolding before our eyes, propelled by developers and their political lapdogs.

This article is a history lesson as much as it is a cautionary tale about the current political desire for more motorways and vanity megaprojects.

Megaprojects generally cause two reactions among the general population. Firstly there is often a strong fascination bias when they are proposed. It’s so big and shiny and impressive that it has to be a good thing. Secondly, after a megaproject is approved, in comes a sense of surrenderism where people become resigned to the fact that the fight is over.

This article is about a series of massive megaprojects that were planned for Copenhagen, approved by politicians and then… disappeared. Which gives hope that we can defeat the current projects.

Awkward History

Urban development mega-projects are usually something that we associate with the years after the Second World War when the car started its advance on our cities and we desperately tried to make space for it. In my research, however, I discovered that there are examples that go farther back.

Drawing of the 1910 tunnel proposal in the iconic Nyhavn district of Copenhagen

In 1910, there was a serious proposal to build a tunnel under the harbour from the city centre to the southern shore — probably the Christianshavn neighbourhood. The proposed location was Nyhavn, the now iconic canal with the coloured houses and old sailing ships that provides Copenhagen with its most Instagrammable backdrop. Nyhavn was always the most colourful part of the city in many ways. Sailors went ashore here for centuries, in search of alcohol, tattoos and sex workers so it has always been a neighbourhood that politicians wanted to “fix”, even well into the 1950s and 1960s.

In the post-war years, as we know, cities around the world were seduced by American traffic engineering and the idea that the car was the only future we would ever need. The bombed cities in Germany offered clean slates for drastic urban renewal. Indeed, the transformation of Hannover was called The Miracle of Hannover when the wide, car-centric streets were completed.

Similar plans for massive highways in other cities. Only Stockholm went through with it.

Even cities that were spared the bombs started planning similar urban renewal projects. I’ve seen the wild plans for Amsterdam, Oslo, Helsinki, Glasgow, Paris and even Vancouver, to mention just a few cities that were intent on future-proofing themselves. Stockholm was the only Nordic city that actually went ahead with the American Dream. The urban planning joke in the Nordics is that they bombed themselves before and after the war — and they’re still dealing with the issues it caused.

The Big H plan for motorways to connect Denmark in the 1950s

Copenhagen was no exception. In the 1950s, a national strategy called The Big H was launched, aimed at connecting Denmark with motorways, inspired, like the US and other countries, by the Autobahn network associated with Hitler. What a role model. The right side of the H would run from the ferry from Sweden (this was long before the Øresund Bridge was built to Sweden), down through Copenhagen and onward to the ferries to Germany. The first motorways that were built were the ones that led to the capital, starting in 1956 and never really stopping since.

Søringen — The Lake Ring (1958–1973)

In 1958, massive megaprojects in Copenhagen were proposed. The Lake Ring — Søringen in Danish — was the first, and the one that would dominate the narrative for years to come. It would sweep into the city from the north, turn right at The Lakes and continue on to the south of the city. Over the next fifteen years, space for the coming motorway was found and buildings were bulldozed.

The areas and roads that are leftovers from the 1950s planning projects in Copenhagen

The most extreme examples are still visible today. Buildings along Lyngbyvej to the north were knocked down, the road leading to the city centre along the harbour was widened, as was the Langebro bridge over the harbour.

The green strip is where the motorway would be placed

Closer to the city, a green strip along Tagensvej and Fredensgade was where the Lake Ring would be placed. Amorparken at the top and what is now Fredenspark at the bottom.

The old National Hospital with Amorparken — and where the motorway would be placed

Amorparken dates from 1910, when it formed splendidly landscaped gardens outside the main entrance of the national hospital. Most of the beautiful hospital buildings were bulldozed and, in 1970, the new Rigshospitalet opened. Across the street, construction of the Panum Institute (built 1971–1986) started later, but the idea was the same. These two brutalist monsters would be located on either side of the monster motorway.

Left: the buildings razed to make space for more cars. Right: Fredensgade street before that happened

Farther down from Amorparken, the road bottlenecked through a densely-populated neighbourhood around Fredensgade. In 1972, a large swath of buildings were removed, despite protests. The strip of green is, today, a welcome buffer between the buildings that remain and the busy road, but these are not parks that citizens write home about. They often feel like non-places due to their awkward location in the dusty, leftover motorway plans.

The route the motorway would have taken along the southern shore of The Lakes

The Lake Ring would roar down to The Lakes and turn right, running along the southern shore. In places, 30 metres of water would be reallocated to cars and flyovers would reach the height of the second floor of the buildings.

At the end of The Lakes, the initial 1958 plans featured a tunnel that would emerge in the area around Halmtorvet, to the west of the city centre. I have learned that the tunnel was later dropped when the plans evolved and grew in scale. Instead, the motorway would just plough through.

City Plan Vest (1958–1973)

City Plan Vest (West) plans from 1958

This is where the Lake Ring would now merge with its evil twin — City Plan Vest (West). In 1958, the tunnel would have preserved many traditional buildings and most of the motorway infrastructure would have been placed on the location of the Meatpacking District (Kødbyen).

Over the next decade, that changed drastically. The entire area was earmarked for destruction, with huge new commercial buildings rising up on the spot instead, with the motorway roaring through and then branching out to the south and west.

What City Plan Vest would have looked like — superimposed on Copenhagen’s Vesterbro district

This would have seen the total and utter destruction of an entire neighbourhood, with thousands and thousands of people displaced and hundreds of buildings knocked down. Below, you can see the huge scale of the City Plan Vest project and where the places we know today are located.

If you have ever been on Halmtorvet Square in the Vesterbro neighbourhood, you might have wondered what one odd-looking building is doing there, looking totally out of context with the traditional architecture around it. This is now a police precinct called Station City. Like the National Hospital and Panum Institute, it was built in anticipation of the coming motorway and urban development.

Model for the new City Plan Vest development 1960s

The Lake Ring and City Plan Vest were considered to be a sure thing — so much so that buildings were erected in advance of them. Now they all look so sad, awkward and out of place.

Car-free City Centre?

It is interesting to mention that the mediaeval city centre, in many of the plans of the age, was either going to be car-light or even car-free. Parking garages, in some of the plans, would be placed in the Nørrebro neighbourhood or even under The Lakes and people were expected to take trams into the centre.

1967 plans for parking garages in the Nørrebro district, with electric buses ferrying people to the city centre

One article even envisioned electric buses replacing the trams back in 1967. Later, in the mid-1970s, the Dutch city of Groningen adopted this model of garages outside the city centre, with marginal success.

Reading all of these old documents from back then is pretty scary. In the Generalplan of 1954, you can see how the bicycle — that traditional transportational workhorse in Copenhagen — was regarded.

“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.”

That was a different age, indeed.

Urban Hansen — Copenhagen’s Robert Moses

Urban Hansen — Lord Mayor (1962–76) and 1970s anti-Urban grafitti in Vesterbro

There were many actors through the decades who were tasked with these huge projects and other smaller ones but in Copenhagen there was really one primary protagonist — or perhaps antagonist.

New York had Robert Moses bulldozing his way through the poor neighbourhoods to make shiny new motorways for the future but in Copenhagen we had the most ironically named mayor in the history of urbanism: Urban Hansen.

He was Lord Mayor of Copenhagen from 1962 to 1976. He drank the American Kool-Aid and went to work planning massive motorways, as well as brutal redevelopment projects that cleared out undesirable, low income neighbourhoods.

Urbanplanen — social housing district named after Urban Hansen — they’re still trying to make it work

He built social housing developments that later failed miserably, like his namesake Urbanplanen and also Tingbjerg. He was the man who ripped out the Copenhagen tram network after 109 years, replacing them with buses in 1972 — the year before the first oil crisis. Oh, the irony. Today, Copenhagen is one of the few cities in Europe without trams having built a vanity mini-Metro instead and sending the city into a massive debt.

Urban Hansen was one of the main proponents of the Lake Ring, City Plan Vest and all the other mega-projects. Calling him the Robert Moses of Copenhagen is not an understatement. I would go as far as to say that he was the most destructive mayor in the history of this city.

Razing buildings in Vesterbro in the early 1970s

The desire for motorways back then was as strong as the desire to raze low-income neighbourhoods to the ground to make space for social housing. The neighbourhoods of Vesterbro and Nørrebro — traditional working-class areas — were constantly under the threat of urban renewal. They were poor areas for decades well into the 1980s and were at the top of the list when the suits in City Hall looked at “improving” and “modernising” the city.

Forumlinien — The Forum Line

The Forumlinien highway project from 1970

A new transport minister, Ove Guldberg, launched the idea of Forumlinien (The Forum Line) in 1970. I stumbled across it a few years ago and could only find a couple of visualisations of it. Few people have ever heard of it and it’s hard to find any reference to it at all, even though it hung around for two years.

A mysterious drawing I found a decade ago — massive housing complex next to Nørrebrogade

I’ve stared at this drawing — one of the only ones that I could find — for more than a decade, wondering what the hell it is.

Motorways above and to the left and a Corbusier-esque street on the right with car traffic below the new buildings along Nørrebrogade. But right there in the centre is a huge housing project on The Lakes in Copenhagen. It looks like it is six floors high on the left and maybe up to twenty on the right. Surrounded by leafy green areas.

It wasn’t hard to figure out the proposed location of this monster so I overlaid it on a current map of this part of Nørrebro — Denmark’s most densely-populated neighbourhood then and now.

Where the massive round housing project would be placed.

Look at that. Total destruction, total elimination of an undesirable low income neighbourhood and even reaching over into the City of Frederiksberg on the left. But that’s all I knew about this project, despite hunting for more information.

The original documents for Forumlinien plan 1970

Recently, I succeeded in tracking down the original document. Very few remain, and it has taken me literally years. What I saw in it completely blew my mind.

In response to the growing resistance against the Lake Ring, the government and city didn’t propose a softer option — they went ballistic. The Forum Line route runs through Nørrebro, Frederiksberg and Vesterbro — and on to the south of the harbour.

With morbid fascination. I zoomed in on the details and saw how my own neighbourhood and many places I’ve lived in this city would have been completely destroyed.

I can’t imagine how many people would have been displaced and how many buildings would have been knocked down. But in the next image, you can see they had already figured that out.

Remember that weird round building I mentioned? I discovered in the document that it was just part of an entire row of them on the north shore of The Lakes. It was just one visualisation of social housing. There are other proposals as well. All dystopian images of a future that was seriously proposed by politicians and the national Road Directorate.

Massive housing projects planned along The Lakes in Copenhagen in conjunction with The Forum Line

A lot of work was put into these proposals, complete with detailed maps of the entire route, with the motorway casually superimposed on densely-populated neighbourhoods.

Various renderings for a total transformation of the area around Blågårdsplads in Nørrebro

There seems to be a lot of focus in all of these documents on one particular area of the proposed project near a square called Blågårds Plads. It seems to be an epicentre for all of the plans to raze that entire neighbourhood to the ground.

After two years of work, the Forum Line was killed off in 1972. It simply wasn’t a feasible replacement for the Lake Ring. The Transport Minister Ove Guldberg took a last stab at it and started work on an outer motorway ring road called Ydre Ring (Outer Ring). But it didn’t gain much ground. All traffic investments in Copenhagen were stopped and the first oil crisis in 1973 slammed the door on the whole debacle.

What the new plans would look like today

It’s amazing to think that all of that over there on the far side of The Lakes would be gone forever.

We are so incredibly lucky that none of it happened, but this was the kind of insane thinking that was the norm back then. Unfortunately, it’s the norm in Copenhagen again today with the current politicians in City Hall, the National Parliament and the company overseeing all the new crazy shit: By & Havn.

By 1972, the pushback had grown so strong that a last gasp attempt to save the project was proposed. Same-same, but different. A tunnel beneath The Lakes instead of an elevated motorway. The people, however, didn’t buy it. Time was running out for the Lake Ring project.

Even back in 1965 there was increasing pushback from the public. One architect was the public face of the project and a massive fan of it: Ole Nørgård. He was quoted as saying this:

“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.”

Yeah. Okay, Boomer.

See?! Everything is going to okay! Hardly any cars!

But as the years progressed, he and other proponents had to change their approach and start selling it all differently and reassuring people that there would still be pedestrian access to the water. Well, in certain places, anyway.

Fervent support for the whole shebang from Samvirke magazine in 1967

Some publications fervently supported the whole idea. They put an enormous amount of effort into a multi-page article singing the praises of the whole urban development plan for the city. Moving the airport to the island of Saltholm, parking garages in the Nørrebro neighbourhood, filling in the south of the harbour to create more land. And so on.

In this article you can read 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 age acted wisely and rightly when we finally pulled ourselves together and planned urban development.”

Oh, boy.

Politiken newspaper (left) calls bullshit on the project. Ingeniøren (right) is still hopeful

It was a national newspaper called Politiken who really added fuel to the fire of the protests in 1968 with an article entitled The Lake Ring — Fake News or Fact? They had previously been on board (HELLO, fascination bias) but with this article they called bullshit on the project. Other more conservative newspapers were still fans, but question marks started appearing.

There are still leftovers from the project in this city. Large buildings and widened roads. Most of them eyesores to this day. One particular leftover has to be the biggest regarding infrastructure. The motorway flyover named Bispeengbuen.

Aside: isn’t it ironic that many large developments in the world are named after what they ended up killing? Bispeengen (Bishop’s Meadow) was killed with the flyover. The Lake Ring would kill The Lakes. City Plan Vest would kill the west of the city. Even shopping malls adopt this sub-conscious naming concept. Here in Copenhagen, Fields Mall occupies the fields that used to be there. You can see what other malls eradicated — it’s in the name: Fisketorvet (Fisherman’s Square), Spinderiet (The Weavery), Waterfront. Same thing wherever you live.

The archaic flyover Bispeengbuen from 1972 — now and then

Anyway, Bispeengbuen is today a piece of dinosaur infrastructure and a barrier between two thriving neighbourhoods. It was opened in August 1972 at a time when protests against the huge projects were reaching a peak.

Protests against The Lake Ring project in the early 1970s

After it opened, Copenhageners could see what the future might look like and the protests increased by a notch or two. No more wooden models to discuss. There was now concrete evidence — quite literally — that motorways through the city were probably a bad idea.

Left: Renderings of the plans to bring back the water. Right: Like Aarhus has done in their city centre

There is now a popular movement to remove this urban highway and to bring back the original stream currently buried in a tube beneath the cars. Like they’ve done in other cities like Milan, Aarhus, Seoul, Utrecht, and so on.

The Seventies, man!

It’s important to remember that it was also the early seventies back then — an age of radical social change. All these factors led to the Forum Line and the Lake Ring projects being put to bed in 1972 and 1973, respectively. And of course, without the Lake Ring, City Plan Vest was rendered irrelevant.

After spending so much time researching these failed megaprojects, it is completely mind boggling to me to think about how close we were to having this negative, destructive urban planning forced down our throats here in Copenhagen. Other cities in the world were not as lucky.

It is also just as mind boggling to think about how there were humans living here in this city who thought this was a good idea. It was a different era, I know that. It was a different generation of planners and engineers doing what was considered normal back then.

It is of utmost importance, however, to point out that this is not only a tale of all those crazy people back in the day. This is, sadly, very relevant today. Megaprojects are once again being planned.

Left: more artificial island south of the city. Right: plan for a new motorway (no trains) in blue
  • Avedøre Holme — the nine artificial industrial islands south of the city.
  • The Kattegatforbindelsen — a proposed motorway (no trains, just cars) connecting the island of Sjælland with the Danish mainland.
  • The Harbour Tunnel that will feed more cars into Copenhagen.
  • Amager Fælled — while not a megaproject per se, still a massive, full-frontal attack to secure development of some of the last remaining original nature and the rare species that inhabit it.

Those crazy people from back in the day? They are back from the dead. With the same communication strategies, the same verbatim quotes and approach. The same arrogance towards the citizens of this city and this nation. From municipal and national politicians and from the company By og Havn. They all ridicule citizens who oppose these projects in interviews and op-eds. I’ve experienced it myself.

But let’s remember one thing. This cautionary tale about megaprojects that ended up dying should also serve as both a wake-up call and call-to-arms for modern Copenhageners. Megaprojects can — and should — die. Citizens can push back and decide the fate of their city, region and nation.

Keep up the fight.

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Mikael Colville-Andersen

Urban designer, author and host of the global documentary series about urbanism, The Life-Sized City. Impatient Idealist.