North Star

Here’s How Copenhagen Lives And Breathes Sustainability

Visiting the Scandinavian city is about embracing sustainable living — from pedal power transportation and New Nordic cuisine to wondrous industrial design and architecture.

Here’s How Copenhagen Lives And Breathes Sustainability

As I land in Copenhagen, my eyes are drawn to the sight of windmills in the ocean, like storks standing sentinel to its generally flat terrain. With some of the best wind conditions in the world, it is hardly surprising that Denmark is a global leader in wind power technology. The wind industry employs over 25,000 people in Denmark, is growing 30 percent in size each year, and this Scandinavian country designs almost half the world’s wind turbines. 

As part of its climate strategy, Copenhagen is on its way to becoming the world’s first carbon-neutral capital by 2025. The city is full of green vibes and environmentally conscious transportation, restaurants, hotels and public spaces to revel in. One of the first things I notice is the sheer number of cyclists here. “The worst thing a tourist can do is to walk inadvertently into a cycling track,” warns my guide on the very first day. 

The city has instituted the Green Wave — traffic lights that are coordinated such that if cyclists ride at a speed of 20km/h, they will hit a wave of green lights  beating morning rush hourDaniel Rasmussen

“In Copenhagen, we bike in sun, rain or snow,” says my friend Giuseppe Liverino, an Italian from Florence, who fell in love with the city and decided to settle here. You can rent an electric bike from any train station. Locals cycle to work, to bring the kids to kindergarten, to shop for groceries and even to social gatherings. 

“Copenhageners honestly love their bikes, no matter how rich they are. Even top politicians ride their bike every day to parliament, and if you are lucky you may even find the royals on a cycle,” says Giuseppe with a smile. 

In Copenhagen, more than 60 percent of residents bike to work or schoolDaniel Rasmussen

According to the city’s government, some 62 percent of the city’s 1.3 million residents now bike to work or school, which makes Queen Louise Bridge the busiest cycling spot in the western world. Part of what makes biking in Copenhagen such an organic experience is the fact that it is socially integrated into the culture. I am told that most companies have a changing room set aside for cyclists and it is very common to see top level business professionals and CEO in suits commuting on their bikes like everyone else. The city has even instituted the Green Wave — traffic lights that are coordinated such that if cyclists ride at a speed of 20km/h, they will hit a wave of green lights all the way into the city, beating morning rush hour.

And, of course, Danish bicycles boast simple harmonious lines, keeping with the minimalist sensibility and lack of superfluous accessories that make Danish design stand out. 

Copenhagen is also a pioneer in the 20th-century trend of urban renewal, which saw derelict buildings being transformed into spaces offering recreational and community facilities, with a focus on sustainability. For many years, the Copenhagen harbour was used for heavy shipping traffic and the water was polluted and dirty. These days, the city has improved the water quality to such a degree that it’s possible to go swimming there. Islands Brygge used to be a rundown industrial area; today, the area where mounds of coal once stood, are green lawns for enjoyment. I see young people stand on a high diving pool and playfully jump down, taking turns to enjoy the sunshine and water. Imagine that: open-air swimming right in the centre of the city. 

For a further lesson in sustainability, I visit the fascinating alternative town of Christiania in the Christianshavn district, where residents have been proponents of recycling for years. The self-governing community sprang up in the early ’70s, after a group of outcasts turned an abandoned military area into their home. Residents pay the Danish state for water and electricity, but pay rent to the community itself. These days, the commune may be increasingly gentrified but Christianites are known to help each other build homes from recycled materials. There’s even a warehouse where everything from old doors and windows to reconditioned washing machines can be bought at a low cost. 

At Design Museum Denmark, I come across chairs made from corrugated cardboard that’s stacked together and old newspapers repurposed as seats. I learn that a deposit is paid on every plastic bottle in Copenhagen, meaning that when you return the plastic, you get paid; the same goes for aluminium cans and some glass bottles. Even Copenhagen Fashion Week takes sustainability very seriously, with a Fashion Exchange Market where people can meet up to swap out outfits they no longer use. 

Most new buildings in the city are required to have roofs covered with plants and vegetation. More than two-thirds of the city’s hotels hold an eco-certificate. The Green Lighthouse — the country’s first carbon-neutral public building — was constructed in 2009 and uses 70 percent less energy than regular buildings. It was inspired by the sundial and the movement of the sun around the house. 

The most futuristic building around has to be Amager Bakke, a waste-to-energy incineration plant that also houses CopenHill, a 90m-high artificial ski slope and rooftop park designed by noted Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. The plant handles the city’s heating needs while cutting CO2 emissions by 99.5 percent. 

At new waterfront hotspot Nordhavn, vacant industrial buildings and land have been converted into an ambitious eco-friendly urban hub, with even old silos converted into stylish office buildings and modern apartment complexes. Konditaget Lüders, situated on the roof of a multi-storey carpark with views over the district, has also returned 2,400sqm of recreational space to the community, who use it to exercise, play ball or jump on a trampoline. 

Amass’ Matt OrlandoImage: Giuseppe Liverino

Copenhagen’s sustainable philosophy extends to eating and drinking too. The city is Europe’s largest consumer of organically grown food, with an emphasis on local where possible. Gro Spiseri in Østerbro has a lush rooftop garden while Geranium is the only all-organic restaurant to earn three Michelin stars. Amass, housed in an old shipyard building, serves contemporary cuisine sourced from local farms and its onsite garden; and as part of its sustainability code, all food “waste” is creatively turned into seasonings or crisps. At Reffen, an organic street-food market that opened in 2018, stalls are repurposed from shipping containers and stall owners are committed to “climate, environment and man”, particularly reducing food wastage and energy consumption. 

The city is also filled with gardens and parks that educate visitors on the importance of sustainability. The Royal Danish Horticultural Society Garden, located within Frederiksberg Gardens, is home to a delicious vegetable garden. 

Copenhagen also adds a playful element to environmental awareness. The Green Kayak initiative gives you a free trip on the waters in return for collecting trash and sharing it on social media. 

I opt to discover Copenhagen by water, captaining a GoBoat to explore the harbour and canals. The boats are powered by solar energy, which is generated via the boat rental’s photovoltaic roof at Islands Brygge. Made partly from empty recycled plastic bottles, the small blue boats are so easy to operate they require no prior sailing experience. We even made a stopover under a low bridge to catch a cello concert. 

The Danes consistently rank as one of the happiest people in the world, and by the end of my trip, it’s easy to see why: a true appreciation of nature with calming sanctuaries of lush gardens, coupled with efforts to reduce our environmental impact does indeed up the happiness quotient while inspiring us to work towards a low-carbon future.

This story first appeared in the November 2020 issue of A Magazine.

Related Stories