Copenhagen: Still wonderful?

6 Nov 12
Ask a mayor which city they most admire and the answer is often “Copenhagen.” Here, city leader Pia Allerslev explains the secrets of its success

By the editorial team, Ernst & Young | 6 November 2012

Ask a mayor which city they most admire and the answer is often 'Copenhagen'. Here, city leader Pia Allerslev explains the secrets of its success

"How to build sustainable cities is an issue of global concern,” says Pia Allerslev, Mayor of Culture and Leisure for the city of Copenhagen. And certainly, when it comes to sustainability, the world’s eyes have for some years now been on Copenhagen — fascinated by the hundreds of cycle lanes, clean harbor and much more.

Mayor Allerslev confirms that the aim to be clean and green has an overriding influence in City Hall. “The ambition to become a carbon neutral city by 2025 has influenced everything we do, especially in the field of urban development,” she says. “When we develop new parts of the city — whether its regeneration of older areas or entirely new buildings — we always aim for innovative architecture due to our ambitious climate action plan. Copenhagen strives to deliver sustainable urban solutions that combine environmental, social and economic benefits.”

For example, since 1993, all buildings in the city have been required to join the district heating system, which now supplies 98% of the city and 500,000 inhabitants with reliable and affordable heating. District heating — which distributes heat generated in a centralized location for residential and commercial requirements — is one of the most carbon-efficient ways to produce and supply energy locally. Today, the system achieves lower carbon dioxide emissions than the gas (40% lower) and oil (50% lower) boilers it replaced.

And, in order to further reduce Copenhagen’s reliance on fossil fuels, the use of energy generated from waste and the integration of renewable fuels has been prioritized. The city owns public companies within waste management, transmission and energy that share the primary goal of reducing CO2 emissions. The current focus is on waste disposal — some of which will be burned in incinerators to generate energy and heating for the city, and some will be recycled to generate biomass and bioethanol.

But the city’s myriad cycle lanes are perhaps the best example of Copenhagen’s commitment to all things green. At least 55% of Copenhageners use their bike as their main means of transportation and first-time visitors in particular cannot help but note the sheer number of cyclists on the city roads. Cars are far from the dominant presence they are in other cities and, indeed, the number of car trips within central Copenhagen fell from 350,000 in 1970 to 284,000 in 2012. And thanks to clear and well-marked cycle lanes that are often separated from the main traffic lanes, there are few of the tensions between cyclists and other road users that exist elsewhere.

“A very important aspect of urban planning is the large number of bikes,” says Mayor Allerslev. “We have heavily invested in uninterrupted cycle lanes so cyclists can travel non-stop. We have 412km of cycle lanes and try to make it easy to get around by bike.” The city is also developing a system of interconnected green bicycle routes to enable fast bicycle transport from one end of the city to the other. This network will cover another 100km and will have 22 routes when finished, including stations with air pumps and water.

This expansion is occurring at the same time as an extension of the city’s underground metro system. The metro, which carries 150,000 daily passengers, was opened in 2002 and links the suburbs, the new city district Ørestad and the airport to the city center. The next phase is scheduled to open in 2018 with the introduction of a new city circle line.  Such development is needed to cope with rapid population growth. Copenhagen is a city of half a million inhabitants with a 20% rise projected by 2020. And, like almost every other city in the world, the high expectations of citizens and limited budget means that civic leaders do not want for policy challenges.

To address some of these difficulties, Copenhagen is increasingly operating in partnership with its neighbor, the Swedish city of Malmö. The combined twin-track railway and dual carriageway bridge across the Øresund strait between the two cities symbolizes their joint approach. “In Copenhagen, we have realized that we can’t solve every problem by ourselves and we have to be part of a bigger region in order to find new innovative solutions,” says Mayor Allerslev. “Copenhagen is part of a Scandinavian region that, along with Malmö, will have four million inhabitants by the year 2025. Malmö and Copenhagen work very closely together — on issues such as city planning, infrastructure, promotion and attracting new business and events to the area.”

Copenhagen is also expanding its collaboration with the German city of Hamburg. Focusing on areas such as cleantech, energy, tourism and the creative services, the partnership will be strengthened by the opening of the Femern Bridge between the two countries, which is expected to be completed by 2020. “Cooperation across borders benefits everyone,” says Mayor Allerslev. “We need to inspire each other by becoming even more innovative in the years ahead.”

To this end, she and her colleagues are seeking to combine the pursuit of economic growth with a high quality of life. “We want healthy, creative and green growth in order to give our citizens the best opportunity to live long, meaningful and healthy lives,” she says. “Therefore, the main focus is on enterprise in growth sectors such as cleantech, life sciences and the creative industries.”

The focus on quality of life was one of the driving forces behind the cleanup of the city’s harbor. “Until recently, swimming in Copenhagen’s harbor would have been out of the question — the water was badly polluted from industry and the city’s old sewerage system,” she says. “We initiated a cleaning program that has improved the water quality so much it is now possible to swim in the harbor — giving joy and exercise opportunities to our citizens. This program began in 2002 and we now have three specific harbor bathing areas. We have also built two beaches, so there is plenty of opportunity to swim in the harbor and the ocean.” As a result, housing areas in the harbor areas have been revitalized, new commercial and cultural ventures have sprung up and apartment prices have increased by 57% between 2002 and 2011.

But for Mayor Allerslev, creating a sustainable city is not only about creating green solutions. “It is also about securing social sustainability and a livable city,” she says. With such a variety of initiatives and programs, as well as deep commitment to the environment from city leaders and citizens alike, there seems little doubt that Copenhagen will continue to blaze a green trail in the years ahead.

This article first appeared in the October issue of Citizen today

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