Copenhagen – A Pioneer in Sustainable Urban Development

Copenhagen is famous for its cycling culture.
Copenhagen is famous for its cycling culture.

By Bambang Susantono

Asian cities have much to learn from the Danish capital on sustainable urban living.

Visiting Copenhagen this week to attend the International Anti-Corruption Conference, it was a chance to also view the city’s work on pioneering sustainable urban transport and lessons we can take back to Asia. In 2014, Copenhagen won the prestigious European Green Capital award, presented by the European Commission, which recognizes efforts to improve the urban environment, the economy and the quality of life. The city was chosen as “a good model in terms of urban planning and design” and especially for its work as a “transport pioneer.”

With a population of up to 775,000, the city has set itself high goals. For example, Copenhagen wants to go CO2-neutral by 2025. Overall following the principle of providing people accessibility rather than car mobility, the city is also famous for its cycling culture. According to the Cycling Embassy of Denmark, 41% of all trips to work and study to/from Copenhagen in 2017 were by bicycle and 62% of Copenhageners chose to cycle to work and study in Copenhagen. Copenhagen is targeting that half of all its residents should cycle to work.

It was clear even in my short stay that there had been a massive investment in infrastructure and transport inter-connectivity in pursuit of sustainable urban development. There is now an extensive cycle lane network of about 411 km in an area of about 90 km2. The city has been improving cycling conditions through innovative transport planning with impressive results – cyclists now outnumber cars in the city center. Everywhere you find spacious bike lanes parallel to streets, convenient cycle parking spaces, and free-cycle repair shops. Quite rightly, Copenhagen has been ranked No. 1 as the most bicycle-friendly city in the world. The city is further working to optimize and extend the city’s cycle network. Actions such as widening existing cycle tracks as well as offering additional services to aid cycle usage in general (e.g., air pump stations, LED warning sensors on special intersections) will enhance Copenhagen’s reputation as a cyclist’s paradise.

The city is crisscrossed by canals and surrounded by water, with several bridges restricted to pedestrians and cyclists, while cars need to detour back and forth. Harbor buses offer additional shortcuts for the city on the water. In 2020, these currently yellow colored ferries will turn green. By then, all harbor buses will be electric-powered and CO2-neutral. The city of Copenhagen is investing DKr10 million (about $1.54 million) to electrify the entire fleet and to put in place a sufficient charging infrastructure. The municipality has also set a target of switching all of the city’s public buses to electric power by 2030. This will further contribute to the clean and green ambience of the city.

Equally important from the perspective of sustainable transport are measures to minimize urban car traffic. Copenhagen’s bicycle and public transport planning gets priority over cars. Car parking spaces in the inner city district have been reduced at a rate of 2% to 3% per year and future street closures for cars are planned. In early October, the Danish government announced that it will ban the sale of new cars with internal combustion engines by 2030 and hopes to have 1 million electric and hybrid cars on the road by then.

[tweet="VP @bsantono: Learning from other livable cities’ models is at core of ADB's mission" text="Learning from other livable cities’ models is at core of ADB's mission"]

What is the secret behind Denmark’s success in going green and greener? Governments at all levels, national and municipal, champion the needs of the population and put people first, a philosophy that I wholeheartedly support for any city environment. Most Copenhageners live in walking or cycling distance of a few minutes to some green and open space. Thanks to massive investments to reroute wastewater, build overflow-barriers, and create underground water storage vessels, the water in the harbor is so clean that residents can enjoy a swim. Mobile saunas at the riverside add to the pleasure. The city plans to add more public spaces such as parks and community sport facilities to strengthen the urban social cohesion.

However, a change in circumstances has put climate change front and center in Denmark. On 2 July 2011 a cloudburst producing 135 millimeters of rain flooded in less than three hours basements, streets and major roads in the low-lying and mostly flat city. According to the authorities, 80,000 homes were flooded and the city suffered damage amounting to more than $1 billion. Copenhagen reacted with a Climate Adaptation Plan to improve the city’s defenses against water and extreme weather. Among the actions being taken are the building of dikes and better management of storm water. The city is also working on warning systems for rain, and waterproof cellars. But as many point out, it will take several decades to fully implement the plan. Floods continue to affect parts of the city, with many pointing to climate change as accelerating the problem. But I am impressed by the political will to recognize and then positively tackle these issues.

This is something that Asian cities need to take on board if they are to be green, smart, inclusive, resilient and sustainable, which I believe must be the target for all. Of course, the circumstances are very different in Asia, where cities face many challenges compared with Denmark. Most obviously, Asian city populations are usually so much larger and the streets more congested with commuters having little option but to crowd onto relatively unregulated mixed transport.

A first stage is recognizing the scale of the problems and then mustering the political will to effect change. This needs to be backed by innovative ways of fostering community participation and consensus on a “vision” across institutions, and mobilizing finance and know-how to create sustainable living. It is sustaining such finance and know-how and fostering peer learning from other livable cities’ models that is at the core of ADB's mission in Asia and the Pacific.

We should be open to all models from other parts of the world. The task will not be easy. Every context is site-specific and there is no one-size-fits-all for Asia cities. But there is much to inspire us from a livable city like Copenhagen on sustainable urban living.