smart cities

How Copenhagen is tackling the climate and environmental crisis

With systematic responses in relation to its architecture, a reduction in emissions, and incentives for bicycle usage: this is how the Danish capital is seeking to become carbon-neutral by 2025. But is a development model based on growth still sustainable?

Home Life Sustainability smart cities How Copenhagen is tackling the climate and environmental crisis

Today around 56% of the global population, 4 and a half billion inhabitants, lives in towns and cities. By 2050, this percentage will be close to 70%, according to the estimations of the World Bank: taking into account that by then the population on Earth will be close to 10 billion people, that means that within thirty years 7 billion people, or just slightly fewer, will live in urban areas. The impacts of this trend are and will become ever greater; for this reason, the fight against the climate, environmental and social crisis must necessarily start in the towns and cities, which can transform themselves from cause to solution. Provided, however, they re-think themselves almost entirely.

Amongst the cities which are attempting to embrace change by focusing on a more sustainable development model, you can certainly find Copenhagen. The Danish capital, voted in a survey by TimeOut as the most sustainable city in the world in 2021 and defined as the greenest city on the planet by the Telegraphis seeking to become carbon-neutral by 2025, and its new architectural, social and legislative solutions are aimed at the double target of mitigation of and adaptation to climate change.

As can be read in an in-depth article in the magazine Dezeen, in Copenhagen over recent years they have built a number of public spaces and buildings which are eco-conscious and climate-resilient: it is not by chance that it has been chosen to host the World Congress for the architects of the IUA in July 2023, with the aim of organising a plan to help architecture reach the objectives of sustainable development by 2030. One symbol of this new way of interpreting town planning is certainly the Amager Bakke, or CopenHill, defined as the cleanest plant in the world for the transformation of refuse into energy. Designed by the Big studio (Bjarke Ingels group), it includes a ski slope and the highest climbing wall in the world attached to the biomass conversion plant. As well as this, there are many other projects which are less iconic, but with more obvious environmental and social aspects, such as the Klimakvarter in Østerbro, today the greenest neighbourhood in Copenhagen, which has been revolutionised in order to adapt itself completely to the climate crisis and become a model to be replicated around the rest of the city over the coming years. Fuelled by clean energy and enriched with green spaces, the real novelty of the Klimakvarter (literally climate neighbourhood) is that it will be able to withstand heavy rainstorms and floods, which are sadly ever more violent as a result of climate change.

The aspect for which Copenhagen is perhaps at the forefront of development is its cycle-friendliness, thanks to a holistic approach to town planning on a scale accessible to cyclists. Over the past 10 years the Danish capital has invested around 200 million euros in cycle-friendly infrastructure and today 42 per cent of all house-to-work and house-to-school commutes are made by bicycle. Nine in ten Danish citizens have a bicycle (the ratio of bikes to cars is 5 to 1) and every day 40 thousand cyclists cross the Dronning Louise bridge. The Karen Blixen Plads alone, the urban space outside the South Campus of the University of Copenhagen, designed by Cobe, has over two thousand parking spaces for bicycles. It is no surprise that the 2022 Tour de France chose to depart from Copenhagen (and was then won by a Dane, Jonas Vingegaard). Cyclists are the true protagonists of the Danish roads: there are bridges reserved for cyclists, timed traffic lights which allow those pedalling to pass first, and refuse bins suited for the passage of cyclists. Everything, in Copenhagen, can travel by pedal power, from removals, to even funerals.

However, not everything that glisters, in the Copenhagen development model is gold – or green. According to the research paper Are green cities sustainable? A degrowth critique of sustainable urban development in Copenhagen, published in 2020, there are some critical issues even in the plans of one of the most advanced cities on the route towards decarbonisation, resilience and sustainability. The strategy of Copenhagen for achieving climate neutrality (in 2025), above all, is based on outsourcing, since only emissions produced locally, which are decreasing, are taken into consideration, whereas those generated outside the city for products and services consumed locally remainhigh. What would instead be useful is a more comprehensive evaluation of the impact on the climate of town- and city-based activities. Not least because for the moment in Copenhagen they compute as a reduction in environmental impact the gains made in energy efficiency, when on the contrary these often simply represent a slowing in the growth of such impact. Then there is the question of growth: all the measures of sustainability adopted by the Danish capital's administration assume, nevertheless, that the economy will continue to grow, thus leading to an increase in competitivity but also therefore an increase in consumption. We should perhaps ask ourselves, say the authors of the research, whether in order to be truly sustainable, town planning should not instead be oriented towards a reversal of growth.