The Danish city is leading the charge when it comes to creating a greener, more enjoyable lifestyle for residents and visitors—in ways both predictable and unexpected.

By Justin Davidson
September 12, 2018
Swimming pier in Copenhagen, with the Copenhill project in the distance; A cart at Reffen
Credit: Chris Tonnesen

On the summer’s longest Saturday, late in the day but hours before dark, I joined the currents of humanity converging on the former shipyards at Refshaleøen. Some headed for Copenhell, the heavy-metal festival that howls across the disused docklands. Others followed signs scrawled on blackboards (this way! almost there!) that blazed the path to Reffen, an open-air encampment of food vendors operating out of repurposed shipping containers, where all the cutlery is biodegradable. I headed for the restaurant Amass, where little is wasted: today’s leftover fermented-potato bread will be shaved into chips and packaged in a compostable cornstarch bag.

The activity at Refshaleøen jangles together in a district that hardly existed a decade ago. Recycling open space and filling it with people, food, and music (rather than vehicles or towers) helps fulfill the dominant aspirations of Danish-style urbanism: live well and do no harm to the earth. More than almost any other major metropolis, Copenhagen has committed itself to minimizing waste, emissions, and energy consumption, all while maximizing life’s pleasantness. The city has vowed to be carbon-neutral by 2025 and to wean itself off fossil fuels by 2050. It’s closing in on those goals after decades of investment, which saw the installation of coastal wind turbines and efficient but costly power plants that burn waste. The most hulking new monument on this once-desolate peninsula is Amager Bakke (CopenHill), a garbage-vaporizing power plant. Scheduled to open this fall, it’s expected to be so nonpolluting that its pitched roof, planted with trees and crisscrossed by hiking trails, will double as an artificial ski slope, a major draw in hill-deprived Denmark. The task of turning a usually unpleasant piece of infrastructure into a tourist attraction went to Bjarke Ingels, the charismatic local architect who has become a global star, partly on the strength of such swashbuckling symbolism. At Amager Bakke, the whiteness of the snow will be an unmistakable marker of pristine air.

But the most visible manifestations of Copenhagen’s environmental ambitions are the cyclists who fill the streets in peaceable, orderly swarms. Perhaps because biking is so deeply ingrained in the culture here, it doesn’t have the testosterone-stoked speed-demon attitude that infuriates pedestrians in other cities. Many residents ride helmetless, some push cartloads of children or groceries, and almost none are outfitted in fluorescent Lycra. About 40 percent of all trips to work and school take place by bike; officials are hoping to nudge that number closer to 50 percent. Even visitors who rent their wheels by the hour can feel the effects of the city’s investment in its cycling infrastructure. A new, futuristic foot-and-bike bridge crosses the Inner Harbor. Another, the Circle Bridge, designed by the artist Olafur Eliasson, consists of a chain of round platforms that privilege ambling and loitering over whizzing by.

A new elevated bike-and-pedestrian-only highway swoops around the Fisketorvet shopping center, part of a network that reaches far outside the city: you can, for instance, bike safely and pleasantly on lanes all 29 miles to Kronborg Castle in Helsingør.

Cycling in Copenhagen, Denmark
Credit: Chris Tonnesen

The synthesis of experience, environmental urgency, political will, and major investment expresses itself in daily routines. Winters are tough, but bikers are tougher. When it snows, municipal workers clear bike lanes before plowing the roads. I once asked a Danish architect who had just biked to work through a storm whether she wore special all-weather gear. She laughed. Her jeans were damp but they’d dry, she said. Office decorum allows for windblown hair and slightly rumpled outfits.

As an outsider, you notice the touch of smugness that colors the way Copenhageners broadcast their environmental virtue. Urbanist Jan Gehl has spent decades cheering the conversion of a noisy traffic artery, Strøget, into a popular pedestrian drag — work he has parlayed into a reputation as an urban guru. Cities, he insists, should focus less on buildings than on the spaces between them. Commandeering a derelict wharf for concerts or foodie havens can improve their citizens’ collective psychology.

After dinner at Amass, I boarded a harbor boat bus to another recently repurposed pier, Ofelia Plads, which acts as the national theater’s front yard. Thousands of people dangled their feet over the water and listened to a live balladeer. A fake bonfire made of LEDs flickered on a floating platform, and no motorized sound disturbed the beery serenity that hung over the scene.