Essay: How Copenhagen is providing a blueprint for the future of sustainable cities

As cities grow larger, urbanization exponentially expands through the world and a consumerist economy prevails, human species is constantly putting more pressure on the planet. Advancing climate change and our dependence on non- renewable fossil fuels are urging us to take action, which is where sustainability comes in.

Introducing the key aspects laid down by various theorists on urban sustainability, this essay will look at the specific case of the city of Copenhagen, which has been a milestone in applying these principles. Taking three projects of urban development, namely the Amager Bakke Resource Centre, the plan for future growth of the Copenhagen area ‘Loop City’ and the urban transformation project of Nordhavn, as examples, the aim is to evidence how architects, planners and governmental institutions are acknowledging sustainability as key to bring along a positive future.

Urban Sustainability

When analysing urban planning, Campbell (1996) illustrates the competition between three fundamental aims: environmental protection, economic development and social equity. Summing these up in the “planners triangle” or the “triangular model of the three E’s of sustainability”, Campbell (1996) describes how different conflicts arise between these divergent priorities, and how sustainable development, meaning “green, profitable and fair”, is at the centre of this strife. However, between the competing interests, planners should identify and apply complementary interests; the triangle should thus serve as an orientation tool to the planner, an indicator from which to fuse one’s vision of urban development (Campbell, 1996). So how can sustainability be practically accomplished in urban planning?

According to Knox (2011) sustainability is achieved when there is a balance between people and resources “without compromising ability of future generations to meet their needs”. Hence, following this definition, sustainability automatically involves a long-term perspective. Girardet (1999) gives a similar answer when defining a sustainable city, adding that the latter should “enhance their well-being without damaging the natural world”. Moreover, he distinguishes between civilisation and mobilisation, arguing our world today is characterised by the latter rather than the former (Girardet, 1999). If once villages and cities relied on the products of their local hinterland, today economies have changed and cities import goods from far away. Improved transport facilities and low cost have brought along a new perception of distance, so not only goods but also people travel over long distances (Girardet, 1999). Cities stand as centres of this wide-reaching mobilisation and as a consequence account for high ecological footprints (Girardet, 1999).

For cities to be at the centre of Campbell’s triangle explained above, cities should not be regarded as extraneous man made constructions superimposed onto the environment. Instead should cities, as Tickell (1998) quoted in Beatley (2000) suggests, be interpreted as living organisms. Just like nature’s own ecosystems, which have a “circular metabolism”, in which every output expelled by an organism becomes an input essential for the life of the environment in which it is contained (Girardet, 1999). Most modern cities however function with a “linear metabolism”, in which resources are pumped in and high amount of waste produced and subsequently dismissed outside of the city (Girardet, 1999). Therefore, since cities “rely on many inputs and produce many outputs” the challenge is to “reduce the size of the flows […], shorten supply lines […], and close resource loops” (Beatley, 2012, p.30).

Amager Resource Centre

The project “Amager Bakke” by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) is a prominent example of how Copenhagen is exemplarily setting sustainability as a priority. Replacing Amagerforbrænding’s existing facility, the new waste-to-energy plant sets new standards for environmental performance, energy production and waste management (Babcock & Wilcox Vølund, no date). Commissioned in 2010 and estimated to be completed in 2017, it will provide 97% of Copenhagen’s homes with heating and about 62.500 households with electricity (Quirk, 2013); through flue gas condensation 100 million litres of spare water will be recovered, metals extracted from waste will sum up to to 10 00 tonnes a year and bottom ash will be reused as road material (Babcock & Wilcox Vølund, no date). Moreover it will capture rainwater and sunlight and be nearly 100% energy efficient (Babock and Wilcox Vølund, no date). Exploiting the uneven architecture of the building, an artificial ski slope descends from the roof, which Copenhageners can use all year round. Glass elevators will allow visitors to glimpse at the internal processes of the plant (BIG, no date). The building will have other mountain like features such as trees, climbing walls and hiking trails. Another remarkable element of BIG’s plan are the smoke rings: instead of having the usual flow of smoke coming out of the incinerator’s chimney, the smokestack will spew out smoke rings, which will bring along a more tangible indicator to the population of how much waste has been transformed into how much energy and how much co2 is being emitted (Bergmann, 2016). Amager Resource Centre thus shows an excellent example of how to create a circular metabolism, but it goes further than that by engaging the community and hence redefines the relationship between the plant and Copenhagen. It should represent a “new breed” of resource centres, which are to be “environmentally, economically and socially profitable” (BIG, no date; a).

Loop City

Amager Bakke is part of a bigger redevelopment concept imagined by Bjarke Ingles for the whole Øresund region. Indeed, BIG’ s plan envisions a bi-national ‘ring’, the size of the San Francisco Bay area, which connects Copenhagen to 20 urban areas in the North up to Helsingor and to the East to Copenhagen Airport; the ring should then cross over to Sweden, passing through Lund and Malmö (BIG, no date; b). The project builds upon Copenhagen’s post-war urban development plan of 1947, the ‘Finger Plan’ determined the growth of the city should connect five provincial towns with Copenhagen by means of suburban train lines. So, rather than a concentric expansion, the growth should develop “like fingers to the palm of the existing built-up areas” (Brüel, no date, p. 94). Between the fingers, the open land should serve for recreation and green areas to keep biodiversity. Towards the end of the 20th century, the fingers had “grown out of proportions, leading to urban sprawl and traffic congestion” (BIG, no date; b). Since the city’s population will continue to grow, Copenhagen needs to think of ways to adapt. BIG’s 50 years development perspective sees the new light rail, which is scheduled for construction over the next years, to create “a spine of dense urbanity with a series of peaks at the stations” (BIG, no date; b). The ring should create a dense and sustainable loop, maximising efficiency through a comprehensive system of public transport, energy, water and waste management.


A similar approach, but on a smaller scale, is being applied to the redevelopment of Nordhavn, Copenhagen’s Northern harbour. The long-term project (up to 40-50 years for it to be completed) was commissioned to architects COBE and SLETH and will provide new 40.000 residences and workspaces for the population (Lomholt, 2014). Based on the present structure of the area, new canals will be dug out and a number of old buildings will be preserved for cultural heritage. Again the focus will be on sustainability, aiming to fulfil all of the three E’s (economic development, environment and social equity). Public transport, sustainable buildings and a general efficient use of resources are all points of major importance. The key asset for Nordhavn will be the water: the quays will be surrounded by public spaces, squares and gardens, and provide space for recreation and even water-based sports activities (CPH City & Port Development, 2012). Moreover, the district should be developed as a “5-minute neighbourhood”, meaning public transport should never be farer than a 5-minute walk (BY&HAVN, no date).

In this project, Copenhagen’s general tendency to include and value public spaces becomes evident. Danish architect and urban planner Jan Gehl has contributed to this aspect of the city’s development. Highly praising public places, in his book Cities for People, Gehl (2010, p.6) stresses how to “achieve a vision of lively, safe, sustainable and healthy cities … the concern for pedestrians, cyclists and city life in general” must be increased. When in 1962 the Stroget (the high-street in central Copenhagen) was closed to traffic and became a pedestrian area, controversy upon how this would affect the street life and particularly the economy of the businesses located in the area. Common belief negative consequences would follow the intervention, proved to be wrong and city life actually flourished (Gehl, 1989). Since then the city’s pedestrian areas have increased and street life lies in the heart of every Copenhagener. Gehl draws attention to the power public spaces have to connect the community and be the link to other places such as educational, cultural and recreational facilities. “It is the easiest place to go. It is the place for everyone. It is the place in which you do not have to know anyone, or do anything in particular, except be there” (Gehl, 1989, p.17).

Copenhagen’s efforts in becoming a ‘green city’ everyone wants to live in have been officially recognised with the European Green Capital Award in 2014, and with the aim of becoming the first carbon dioxide neutral capital in the world by 2025, Copenhagen proves to want to keep up with sustainability and set high standards for the entire world. After having analysed the three projects above, all very different from each other but all closely connected by a love for the city, the environment and the people, there is little left to say apart from questioning ourselves why so many other cities are still doing so little to become sustainable.





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