Long a model for smart urban development, the Danish capital is reclaiming its waterfront with ambitious architecture and pedestrian-friendly thinking.

Credit: © Christian Geisnanes

On a warm afternoon at the downtown harbor, Copenhagen feels like an ancient city enjoying its youthful vigor. Students, professionals, and retirees wheel past on bicycles banged-up enough to be parked on the street without fear that they’ll be stolen. Canalside cafés are full of people drinking Tuborg. There are bike racks and benches everywhere, and extensive bicycle lanes separated from traffic and equipped with their own signals. This is famously a pedestrian- and bike-friendly city—a model for many others—and its recent reclamation of the harbor area signals a new phase for what may be the ultimate 21st-century metropolis.

Copenhagen has been an urban laboratory for at least 40 years, exporting to the rest of the world its slow-simmered wisdom about the basic unit of urban life: the street. In less enlightened places, the street is a soulless corridor, engineered for the benefit of vehicles. In Copenhagen, it’s an asphalt common, where city dwellers learn to tolerate each other, where leisure intersects with business, and where people move at many different speeds, or choose not to move at all. The latest challenge here has been to channel the flow of street life toward the harbor, and turn a former maritime highway into another kind of public square. Once again, Copenhagen is at the forefront of urban evolution—this time as it relates to the waterfront. And once again, city planners worldwide are paying attention.

Amanda Burden, New York City’s commissioner of city planning, and her counterpart at the New York City Department of Transportation, Janette Sadik-Khan, recently made an official expedition equipped with cameras, notebooks, and a tape measure. “We must have biked sixty miles,” says Burden. “We measured bicycle lanes and counted café tables and benches and movable chairs. Many, many things that we learned in Copenhagen are now being done in New York. They privilege pedestrians and bicycles over cars in such a deft way.” One of Burden’s principal missions is to bring New York’s pedestrian culture right down to a water’s edge that has long been sealed off by traffic.

Burden and Sadik-Khan toured Copenhagen with Jan Gehl, the Danish sage of humane urban planning who has left his mark on cities from Melbourne to Riga. Gehl began his career by meticulously observing Copenhagen in the mid 1960’s—collecting data, noting changes and their effects, and creating a longitudinal portrait of a city that has transformed itself, radically but slowly, into a more pleasant place to live. Strøget, the Danish version of Broadway, evolved from a clogged traffic artery into a vibrant pedestrian boulevard. The city banished cars from gracious squares that had degenerated into arid fields of steel. It encouraged people to commute by bicycle again. It converted the once-forlorn canal of Nyhavn into the city’s most photogenic tract. And it did all this through a series of ad hoc stutter steps. “We have developed very incrementally,” says Gehl’s business partner, Helle Søholt. “We have not had a master plan saying, ‘By 2010, forty percent of people will be riding bicycles and we will have a harbor promenade and we will eliminate three thousand parking spots.’ If we’d had a master plan like that, it would not have happened.”

Copenhagen had long depended on its inner harbor, a deep channel that cuts between two islands. Like most ports, this one was, for centuries, a teeming thicket of masts, barrels, cranes, and stevedores—lively, exotic, dirty, and sometimes dangerous. But by the second half of the 20th century, goods were packed in huge steel containers stacked by cranes the size of buildings on the decks of giant freighters. Such an arrangement of automated juggernauts demands enormous ports with vast paved lots where 18-wheelers can maneuver with ease. For the shipping business, proximity to downtown has become obsolete. Virtually every large port city has developed similar symptoms: dilapidated docks, abandoned warehouses, and fences sealing downtown off from the fetid, suddenly quiet waters. The great urban project of the postindustrial age is to heal that coastal scar.

Copenhagen is working to change its harbor on two fronts. The first is high-end architecture. Frøsiloen, a pair of massive soybean silos in the southern harbor, lay derelict for years, and constantly cropped up in architecture classes as a theoretical problem. The silos have now been converted to apartments: Dutch firm MVDRV hung living quarters around the outside of the concrete cylinders, leaving the inside of each silo as a tall, tubular atrium. The buildings are sinuous yet spectacularly simple, and are conveniently connected by a foot-and-bike bridge to Fisketorvet, the shopping mall in the former fish market.

The city’s second harbor redevelopment tool is the power of culture. Three public buildings act as magnets, pulling crowds toward the waterfront and forcing the rest of the city to shift around them. The Black Diamond is a glossy, crystalline extension to the Royal Library designed by local firm Schmidt, Hammer & Lassen. The new building grows out of the ancient institution’s heart, bridges a street, and lands on the harborfront with such dramatic force that it thrusts toward the water. On its granite façade, dark and polished as a concert grand, the brick warehouses across the canal gleam in perfect reflection.

A little farther north, the new Royal Danish Playhouse, too, seems to want to slip into the water. The theater, by the Copenhagen firm Lundgaard & Tranberg, offers drama even before the lights go down: a slab of darkened blue-green glass reaches westward, anchored to the dock by a copper cube that the sea air will soon turn green. The lobby welcomes everyone, not just ticket buyers; a great glass wall makes the theater feel like a maritime experience; and a field of starlike fiber-optic lights twinkles up above.

From the playhouse, it’s a short trip by water bus across the canal to the Operaen, an opera house built in 2005 on a former Navy pier. Designed by the dean of Danish architects, Henning Larsen, the building features a silvery, wafer-like canopy resting on a glass-and-steel egg. It’s too bulky and self-important to be great architecture, but even so, the Operaen could anchor the ongoing metamorphosis of the adjacent islands of Holmen and Christianshavn, which served as the epicenter of Denmark’s military and industrial complex until abandonment and neglect made it fertile ground for Bohemian chic. (In 1971, a group of youths moved into the disused military base of Christiania and began planting gardens in the polluted soil. The area is now a hippie park, a tourist-friendly enclave easily identified by the permanent scent of marijuana.)

Copenhageners greeted the building with mixed feelings. Some were suspicious of a $470 million project entirely funded by one man, the nonagenarian shipping magnate Mærsk McKinney-Møller. Others took sides in a squabble between architect and donor over the design, or hated the resulting compromise. Many lodged an irrefutable complaint: since the Operaen lacks a subway stop, getting there means making a long drive through downtown Copenhagen. A proposed foot-and-bike bridge between the playhouse and the opera will help, though it’s not clear how many operagoers will park on one side of the canal and walk to the other through the Scandinavian winter wind.

But Copenhagen has made good use of its mistakes. In the early 1990’s, the city allowed developers to put up a shiny but dismal phalanx of offices and apartment buildings in the south harbor, creating a drab strip of boardwalk and sealing off the harbor from the inland neighborhoods. This resulted in an invigorating burst of outrage, and a consensus that the urban waterfront should be a public amenity. Suddenly, Copenhageners understood what they did not want and demanded more intelligent development. Their involvement means that virtually all quayside building is potentially controversial, and every construction site a spur to activism.

The latest battleground is the Bryghusgrunden, site of a now- vanished brewery just south of the Black Diamond. A billboard is festooned with renderings of a new headquarters for the Realdania foundation and the Danish Architecture Center, designed by Rem Koolhaas. In theory, it would be hard to name a more promising project: Koolhaas has a global reputation, and Realdania has $100 million a year to spend on a pertinent altruistic mission to “improve quality of life for the common good through the built environment.” But the project threatens to interrupt the boardwalk and commit what has become a cardinal development sin in Copenhagen: privatizing the waterfront. A few yards away, an artists’ collective, Parfyme, recently set up a temporary harbor laboratory for alternative ideas, right next to the Bryghus site. Volunteers cobbled together a rickety structure—an anti-building, really—linked to a floating “museum” and emblazoned with the slogan alle kan bruge havnen (everyone can use the harbor). That could almost be Copenhagen’s new battle cry.

When To Go

Summertime brings the best weather, with temperatures in the seventies.

Getting There

More than 60 international airlines fly nonstop between Copenhagen and 110 cities around the world. A 15-minute metro ride connects the airport to the city center.

Where To Stay

Copenhagen Admiral Hotel

1787 waterfront warehouse, now a high-design 366-room property. 24–28 Toldbodgade; 45/3374-1414; admiralhotel.dk; doubles from $319.

Hotel Fox

GREAT VALUE The 61 rooms in the centrally located hotel were designed by international artists. 3 Jarmers Plads; 45/3313-3000; hotelfox.dk; doubles from $91.

Where To Eat

Søren K In the Royal Library’s lobby.

1 Søren Kierkegaards; 45/3347-4949; lunch for two $37.

Architectural tours

Scale Denmark

Tours and lectures focused on sustainable design, led by architects. 45/3313-1036; scaledenmark.dk.

What to See

Black Diamond

1 Søren Kierkegaards Plods; 45/3347-4747; kb.dk.

Fisketorvet Byens Shopping Center

59 Kalvebod Brygge; 45/3336-6400; fisketorvet.dk.


Gemini Residences, Islands Brygge.


10 Ekvipagemestervej; 45/3369-6969; kglteater.dk.

Royal Danish Playhouse

36 Sankt Annæ Plads; 45/3369-6969; kglteater.dk.