Everywhere you go in Copenhagen there are new environmental strategies, smart city projects, test-beds and innovations. Like the giant carpark battery that charges up or draws down energy from cars while optimising the local electricity grid, clever new apps that take the sharing economy into all dimensions of city life, supermarkets using ingenious scanning technology to sort packaging and reward customers for recycling.
In this highly prosperous city, saving the planet is not “the road to serfdom” that so many naysayers in Australia claim. Indeed, a booming sustainable industry sector is proving to be a road to riches for entrepreneurs and businesses in Copenhagen.
Local politicians talk about Denmark as a “Green Superpower” that is exporting its sustainability smarts to the world.
A stunning example of this philosophy is found in the new CopenHill waste-to-energy facility that towers like a mountain to the east of the city. It is the most efficient plant in the world and provides power and heating to 150,000 households. It also happens to be an architectural wonder, complete with a man-made ski slope on the roof and the tallest rock-climbing wall in Europe on one side.
Copenhagen provides a lesson in how great cities are not created overnight. Rather they are built up in a cumulative way over decades as a result of one good idea or intervention building on another, underpinned by long term thinking.
Copenhagen was not always a cycling and pedestrian friendly city. For many decades primacy was given to cars – roads were widened to make way for more cars and public squares were converted into carparks.
But from the late 1970s Copenhagen started redesigning its transport system to encourage cycling, walking and public transport. After decades of investment the city now has 50 per cent of all trips to work and school made by bicycle. Compare that to less than two per cent for metropolitan Melbourne.
Copenhagen’s harbour was once one of the most polluted in Europe, reflecting the city’s history as an industrial and maritime centre. But after 20 years of significant investment, Copenhagen is now one of only a few cities in Europe where the harbour is clean enough to swim in. This is a source of enormous pride for the Danish people and the new harbour baths dotted along the shoreline have become extremely popular. Surely a city like Melbourne can achieve the same for the Yarra River, Victoria Harbour and other waterways.
Greater Copenhagen has a population of about 2 million and is more densely populated than Melbourne or Sydney. But clever design means you don’t feel it. The dominant built form is five- to seven-storey buildings in well-planned walkable neighbourhoods. A feature of the Copenhagen building typology is the use of brick, timber and stone with fine grain detail in both heritage and new buildings. Tough planning laws mean the cheap renders, unvarnished tilt slab concrete, or featureless glass buildings that are a blight on Australia’s cities are few and far between.
Underpinning all this is a mindset and civic culture. The people of Copenhagen are extremely proud of their environmental credentials and reputation for being design savvy. Designers and architects are national heroes.
In Australian politics we tear ourselves apart over a commitment to cut emissions by 26 per cent by 2030. In Denmark they have signed up to 70 per cent cuts by 2030, while Copenhagen has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2025. Danish Prime Minster Mette Frederiksen openly admits she does not know how Denmark will achieve its target. But she knows it is the right thing to do and she is making some big bets on investment in research and new technology to get there.
In the Marvellous Melbourne era of the late 1800s Melbourne was known as the Paris of the South. It was a reference to the grand ambitions of boom time Melbourne with its magnificent public buildings, tree lined streets, beautiful boutiques and the emerald ring of parks with sculptures and fountains.
Modern Melbourne is a cosmopolitan mix of influences from around the world, replete with our own city making innovations that contribute to a world class level of liveability. But we would do well to embrace many of the ambitions and attitudes of modern-day Copenhagen. In the 2020s, we would do well to be known as the Copenhagen of the South.
Nicholas Reece travelled to Copenhagen in 2019 to attend the C40 Cities Conference.
Nicholas Reece is councilor in the City of Melbourne and Principal Fellow at the Melbourne School of Government.