COPENHAGEN/BRANDING A CITY. A visitor getting a first glimpse of rush hour traffic in the Danish capital will easily be overwhelmed.
Not by the number of cars, but by the number of bicycles.
The statistics are as impressive. More than a third of the city’s residents ride their bicycles to work or school. The city of Copenhagen has some 520,000 inhabitants, but local authorities estimate the number of bicycles at 560,000.
The bike-loving Copenhageners have become perhaps the strongest symbol of a city with no lesser ambition than to be the Climate Capital of the World. And the people running this pleasant city have become masters of putting a positive spin to everything about Copenhagen.
It has paid off. Copenhagen now has a reputation to be everything from “The best city in the world for bicycling” to simply “The most liveable city in the world”.
The cool and cosmopolitan magazine Monocle, which covers urban issues out of a global perspective including everything from politics to culture and design, ranked Copenhagen number one in the world for “liveability” in 2008 (the Danish capital finished second in 2007 and 2009).
It’s not only about bicycling. Copenhagen is a young and creative city with cutting-edge new architecture and world-class restaurants.
The story could easily look different (and sometimes does). Denmark is plagued by a xenophobic political climate, creating tensions particularly when it comes to Muslim immigrants.
The uproar after the publication of controversial cartoons of the prophet Muhammad by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten a few years ago has raised the fear for terrorist attacks in the Danish capital.
Gang wars leading to shootouts in the multicultural neighbourhood Nørrebro has been seen as yet a sign of tensions in Danish society, even if the reason mainly has been fights over turf in the illegal drug-trade.
But overall, the image of cosy Copenhagen prevails.
Last month the world focused on Copenhagen as global leaders gathered there for the United Nations Climate Summit. The Danes renamed their city “Hopenhagen”, and even though many hopes were crushed when the Summit failed to reach its goals Copenhagen got a chance show off its good intentions as a role model for modern cities.
I spent a couple of days at the Climate Summit for Mayors, held during the UN Summit, and couldn’t help to be impressed by how this tiny city has taken the initiative to lead the urban giants of the world towards a greener future.
During a panel discussion including the mayors of huge cities like New York and Jakarta, London and Mexico City, the participants were asked to list their climate achievements and put a number on their ambitions for reducing CO2 emissions.
As figures flew by, a 35 percent reduction by 2030 here or a 16 percent reduction by 2025 there, the host of the event, Copenhagen’s mayor Ritt Bjerregaard (right), put everything to rest with her city’s bold ambition.
“We will be the first carbon neutral capital by 2025”, said Bjerregaard to a round of loud applause from impressed colleagues from around the world.
Bjerregaard, who became Lord Mayor of Copenhagen in 2006, left office in late December after a long political career. The Mayor’s Summit was her last chance to promote Copenhagen, and she did it in grand style.
Copenhagen has a long way to go to the “carbon neutrality” Bjerregaard promised. Today, renewable energy only meets a fraction of Copenhagen’s needs. In fact, 73 percent of the city’s electricity today is still generated by fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas.
The city makes no secret of this, but there wasn’t much talk about it when the mayor’s met in “Hopenhagen”. But Copenhagen’s claim to fame in the climate field is based on more than promises and high ambition. The city was recently ranked number one in the European Green City Index, as we reported earlier, mainly because of good overall performance in all categories assessed in this environmental study by the Economist Intelligence Unit.
“Copenhagen” has also become the label to put on climate initiatives. We saw a couple of examples during the Mayor’s Summit.
When researchers from MIT presented a smart new bicycle wheel that boosts the ride with self-generated electric power it was, of course, called the Copenhagen Wheel.
An on-line register of climate initiatives in cities around the world is called the “Copenhagen world catalogue of city commitments to combat climate change”.
I was standing next to Claus Juhl, the CEO of the City of Copenhagen, during one of these presentations. He was understandably pleased.
“This is all part of our brand building. We want to be the most environmentally friendly city in the world. That can bring us new businesses and we want to be a laboratory for green tech. This has been a clear strategy for us the past three-four years. With this we are aiming to get the World Expo 2020 to Copenhagen”, said Juhl.
In fact, the term “copenhagenize” is already being used to describe a form of expertise knowledge being exported to cities around the world.
The term was first used by Jan Gehl, a Danish architect and urban designer of world reputation, whose firm Gehl Architects as “urban quality consultants” works with cities around the world to improve their public spaces.
Gehl is a pioneer in the field who was instrumental in the work creating Strøget, the famous pedestrian street in Copenhagen that for decades has been copied in many cities.
Last year I met Helle Søholt (left), founding partner and managing director of Gehl Architects, after a lecture in Copenhagen. She spoke of the work to “copenhagenize” cities around the world.
“In this field we are absolutely a role model. The quality of life in Copenhagen has a lot to do with our urban space”, said Søholt.
Gehl Architects has worked with New York to improve bicycling in the city and to create a pedestrian zone at Times Square. In another project, Gehl is introducing bicycle lanes in Mexico City. London, Melbourne and many other world cities are among the firm’s clients.
So the next time you see a new open space or a pedestrian street somewhere in the urban jungle, the city might have been “copenhagenized”.
This is the first in a series of reports on Copenhagen.