Ecocity Snapshots Real cities

Ecocity Snapshots, Chapter 6: Copenhagen, Denmark: Good cycle karma

Figure 6-1: Stroget, car-free since 1962, was the first of Copenhagen’s many pedestrianized streets.
Written by Rick Pruetz

To “Copenhagenize” means to design cities for bikes rather than cars. Not surprisingly, Copenhagen sits atop the Copenhagenize Index, an international measure of a city’s bike friendliness. But the accomplishments of this city of 562,379 people goes well beyond bicycles. Copenhagen also showcases car-free zones, a sprawl-curbing green structure, swimmable harbor water and a climate action plan aimed at making this city the world’s first carbon neutral capital by 2025. The innovations and investments needed to achieve its ambitious goals energize an economic development strategy which is making the “green sector” a significant engine of regional growth. Often appearing at or near the top of various quality-of-life indices, Copenhagen also demonstrates the positive link between sustainability and livability.

Ecocity Snapshots: Learning from Europe’s Greenest Places” is Ecocity Builders Vice President Rick Pruetz’ latest book, profiling 19 cities and their efforts to rebuild in balance with nature. We are publishing each chapter on Ecocities Emerging to make this important work available online. Visit Rick’s page for all chapters posted so far or get the paperback at Amazon.

In its 2007 Eco-Metropolis Plan, Copenhagen aimed to become the “World’s Best City for Cyclists” by 2015. According to many experts, including the Union Cycliste Internationale, Copenhagen achieved that goal ahead of schedule. By 2014, 62 percent of all Copenhageners biked to work. This remarkable mode share is made possible by 346 kilometers of separated bike lanes, 23 kilometers of other bike lanes and 42 kilometers of green cycle lanes, which are generally through parks or otherwise located away from busy streets (Copenhagen, 2007; Copenhagen, 2011; Copenhagen, 2013; Copenhagen, 2015; UCI, 2014).

Although Copenhagen had a robust bicycling culture in the first half of the 20th Century, the automobile threatened to take over the City in the 1960s. During this decade, some bike lanes were removed in an ill-conceived attempt to facilitate automobile use. But in the 1970s and 1980s, Copenhagen executed a U-turn thanks to rising oil prices and a realization that trying to accommodate cars only invites more to come. Car lanes and parking were converted to cycle tracks, which now parallel every major roadway. All other streets are restricted to speed limits of 30 kilometers per hour (19 mph) or, in some cases, 15 kilometers per hour (9 mph), and bikes are welcome on public transportation. As a result, Copenhageners can safely, quickly and healthily commute “door-to-door” by bike. In an effort to get everyone on bikes, Copenhagen widens existing cycle tracks, removes snow from cycle lanes first, gives bikes a head start at traffic signals and times traffic signals to match cycling speeds so that bicyclists can ride a “green wave” through the City. In addition to infrastructure, Copenhagen promotes the cycling habit using events and campaigns such as “good cycle karma” which rewards cyclists with free chocolate (Copenhagen, 2011; Copenhagen, 2013; Gehl, 2010).

Copenhagen has pioneered the conversion of streets to car-free zones. This process began in 1962, when Copenhagen removed cars from a one-kilometer stretch of Stroget Street. Proving the skeptics wrong, Stroget attracted significantly more pedestrians, creating what is now a thriving shopping district. Encouraged by this success, Copenhagen has since increased its car-free zones sevenfold. Copenhagen is also fortunate to be the home base for urban designers who have spent decades analyzing and advocating for streetscapes that attract and engage people using human scale, interesting facades, soft edges and many other techniques that are now part of every planner’s playbook. Starting with the City’s first “public space – public life” study in 1968, the approaches demonstrated in Copenhagen have been adopted in many cities around the world including Melbourne and New York City (Gehl, 2010).

Figure 6-1: Stroget, car-free since 1962, was the first of Copenhagen’s many pedestrianized streets.

Green areas cover 25 percent of Copenhagen and lie within 300 meters of 80 percent of all residents. These City open spaces are integral to a regional plan that concentrates development within urban corridors, or fingers, separated by rural land, or green wedges. This concept was first envisioned in 1928 and informally guided successive regional plans throughout the 20th Century. At first, most of the green wedges consisted of ordinary agricultural landscapes, making them vulnerable to sprawl since they had little official protection. But Copenhagen and its neighboring jurisdictions began transforming this farmland into parks, forests, athletic fields, community gardens, golf courses and landscape protection areas. Through these efforts, average citizens likely realized the value of these areas and the green wedges were formally adopted by the Denmark Planning Act of 2007 (Copenhagen, 2011; Veire, Petersen and Henchel, undated).

Figure 6-2: More than half of all Copenhageners commute to work by bicycle.

Protection of the green wedges provides the continuous habitat needed for wildlife to thrive. Copenhagen’s strategy for biodiversity, “Room for Nature”, also recognizes that preservation of parks and natural areas helps the city adapt to the growing threats posed by climate change, such as a projection that the storm water sewer system will not be capable of accommodating 30 percent of the run-off generated by future cloudbursts. In addition to physical solutions, Copenhagen aims to grow nature awareness, particularly in young people. The City runs a Nature Workshop attracting up to 10,000 visitors each year and offers a Nature Detectives game at several playgrounds which engages children in environmental education activities (Copenhagen, 2011; O’Neill and Rudden, 2012).

“A Green and Blue Capital City”, one of the Eco-metropolis Plan’s four themes, challenges Copenhagen to protect water quality as well as greenspace. In response, the City has accomplished costly water quality restoration projects. This investment has paid off by restoring the aquatic environment, renewing the vitality of waterfront-adjacent neighborhoods, and generally improving the quality of life for the City as a whole. Rather than travel to distance beaches, Copenhageners can now take a dip in any of the three seawater pools in Copenhagen harbor (Copenhagen, 2011; Copenhagen, 2012).

Copenhagen wants to accommodate a growing population and economy as close to the City Center as possible. To concentrate development, former industrial, military, port, and rail facilities are being remediated and converted to residential/commercial districts. The Orestad neighborhood, a portion of which was previously military property, lies only ten minutes from downtown and now features a new metro rail line as well as several high-tech buildings including the Copenhagen Concert Hall. Orestad incorporates lots of open space, a preserved meadow and a storm water management system called SUDS. The Sustainable Urban Drainage System, or SUDS, locally treats runoff from roadways before adding it to rooftop discharge and releasing both to the meandering canals that add recreational options for residents and complement Orestad’s overall design (Copenhagen, 2011; Copenhagen, 2012; European Commission, 2012b).

Figure 6-3: Orestad features the Copenhagen Concert Hall, a new metro rail line and recreational canals supplemented by locally-treated storm water.

Copenhagen is a leader in fighting climate change. Between 1995 and 2012, the City cut carbon emissions a remarkable 40 percent. Much of this reduction resulted from switching from coal to biomass in the combined heating and power districts that serve 98 percent of all households in the City. In less than ten years, Copenhagen aims to be a net exporter of power from a biomass and wind-based system. To meet that goal, the City plans to add 30,000 square meters of photovoltaic panels on municipal buildings and erect 100 wind turbines with a combined capacity of 360 MW. With this aggressive strategy, Copenhagen has challenged itself to become the world’s first carbon neutral capital by 2025. Given the City’s past track record and approved funding plan, experts believe that Copenhagen will hit that target (European Commission, 2012b; European Commission, 2014; O’Neill and Rudden, 2012).

Copenhagen has not just survived but thrived on its carbon diet. Between 2005 and 2014, City population rose by 15 percent and its economy grew by 18 percent while its carbon emissions fell by 31 percent. In 2010, the Danish wind industry employed 25,000 workers and was growing by 30 percent every year. The green sector as a whole in the Copenhagen Region grew 55 percent between 2005 and 2009 and is now seen as an important wealth generator and economic engine. Public-private partnerships have formed to help firms profit from this momentum, including Green Businesses, a network of almost 1,000 companies working on noise reduction, air pollution and water contamination as well as fossil fuel consumption (Copenhagen, 2011; Copenhagen, 2015).

Although famous for bicycling and alternative energy, Copenhagen pursues every facet of sustainability. The City won the 2014 European Green Capital Award for an integrated vision that tackles economic and social issues as well as environmental concerns (European Commission, 2012a). The expert judges for this award gave Copenhagen high marks in every category and noted that the City is repeatedly recognized for its high quality of life. The judges also highlighted the role of public-private partnerships in using eco-innovations as an economic development strategy and praised Copenhagen as “…an excellent role model in terms of urban planning and design to cities across Europe and the world” (European Commission, 2012a, p4; European Commission, 2012b).


Chapter 6: Copenhagen, Denmark: Good cycle karma

Copenhagen. 2007. Eco-Metropolis: Our Vision for Copenhagen 2025. Copenhagen: City of Copenhagen.

Copenhagen. 2011. Application for European Green Capital 2014. Copenhagen: City of Copenhagen.

Copenhagen. 2012. Copenhagen: Solutions for Sustainable Cities. Copenhagen: City of Copenhagen.

Copenhagen. 2013. City of Cyclists – Copenhagen Bicycle Life. Copenhagen: City of Copenhagen.

Copenhagen. 2015. Copenhagen Climate Projects – Annual Report 2015. Copenhagen: City of Copenhagen.

European Commission. 2012a. Jury Report for the European Green Capital Award 2014. Brussels: European Commission.

European Commission.2012b. Expert Evaluation Panel – Synopsis Technical Assessment Report – European Green Capital Award 2014. Brussels: European Commission.

European Commission. 2014. Sharing Copenhagen – Copenhagen European Green Capital 2014: A Review. Brussels: European Commission.

Gehl, Jan. 2010, Cities for People. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

O’Neill, Katie and Rudden, PJ. 2012. Good Practice Report: European Green Capital Award 2014. Brussels: European Commission.

UCI [Union Cicliste Internationale]. 2014. Copenhagen, the most bicycle-friendly city in the world. Retrieved on June 7, 2016 from

Vejre, Henrik, Petersen, Hans and Henchel, Katja. Undated. The Copenhagen 1948 Finger Plan – A Comprehensive Plan for Urban Growth, Infrastructure and Open Space. Power Point Program. Retrieved on June 5, 2016 from

About the author

Rick Pruetz

Rick Pruetz, FAICP, is Vice President of the Ecocity Builders Board and an urban planner who writes about sustainability, most recently Ecocity Snapshots: Learning from Europe’s Greenest Places and Smart Climate Action through Transfer of Development Rights.