Copenhagen, Denmark

          With the ambitious goal of facilitating economic development and opportunities for choice and growth while limiting negative environmental consequences, the progressive city of Copenhagen, Denmark, is known as a forerunner in terms of sustainable urban development (Næss et al. 2011). Having received the top rank among 30 cities evaluated for the European Green City Index in 2009, Copenhagen has always been ahead of the pack with respect to many aspects of urban sustainability: bicycling has been a part of Copenhagen culture since the 1880’s, spatial urban densities have always been relatively high, and they implemented a world renowned urban development plan as early as 1947 (Troy 2012 and Næss et al. 2011).  With a focus on urban planning strategies and transportation trends, I will outline why Copenhagen is seen as an innovative leader in city planning. A summary timeline of the important events and trends with respect to these areas can be seen in Table 1.


          In a country of 5.5 million people, the population of Greater Copenhagen is around 1,890,000 inhabitants, and has been increasing moderately at a rate of about 7.5% for the past decade (Næss et al. 2011).  As both the capital and the largest city in the country, Copenhagen is in a strong position to gain from the presence of national government, parliament, central administration, and major national organizations within the city boundaries (Andersen 2008).

Table 1: Timeline of some important events and trends.

Spatial Urban Development and the Finger Plan

          Against a “general backdrop of ongoing urban dispersal”, Denmark shows a more concentrated pattern of development (Næss et al. 2011). Though densities were significantly reduced during the first three decades after the 1950’s, reurbanisation and reduction in sprawl can be observed in the most recent couple of decades (Næss et al. 2011).  The first municipal plan was the Finger Plan in 1947 (Figures 1), which was inspired by Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan from 1944 (Andersen 2008). This plan serves as an example of Transit Oriented Development (TOD), where the development of housing, employment, activity sites and public services is focused around hubs of transportation served by frequent, high quality, and efficient intra-urban rail services. This type of development is designed to create compact and high density urban form, and allowed Copenhagen’s development to be channeled into five radial lines of satellite suburb corridors served by public transit rather than multi-directional suburban sprawl (Knowles 2012). Furthermore, the Finger Plan proposed the retention of open recreational spaces called “green wedges” (Figure 2) in between each finger (Knowles 2012). Upon its implementation in the late 1940’s and 50’s, car ownership was still relatively low (30 cars for every 1,000 people in 1950), making the housing options along the designated corridors (or ‘fingers’) very desirable due to their proximity to rail lines (Knowles 2012).

Figure 1: The Finger Plan (Andersen 2008; Knowles 2012) denotes five fingers to serve as corridors for urban development, along existing or planned railway lines to provide rapid rail transit to Copenhagen’s Central Business District (Knowles 2012).

Figure 2: Regional green structure of greater Copenhagen, Denmark. Shows the open green areas or “wedges” that separate the 5 fingers of outward urban development (Caspersen and Olafsson 2010).


            As a result of the Finger Plan, urban development in Copenhagen has largely been on decentralised concentration close to urban rail stations (Næss et al. 2011).  This development strategy is based on knowledge about the influence of neighbourhood-level proximity to train stations on travel, rather than the proximity of development to the main city centre (Næss et al. 2011).  Though widely considered to be a successful approach, this may present some limitations and challenges that would be different from the more conventional concentric green belt approach in terms of access to a central district. It has also been said to be a plan for urban spatial expansion, rather than compact urban form, and the “green wedges” have been critiqued for being void spaces, without much user value for the urban population, and there has been minimal emphasis on saving farmland (Næss et al. 2011).

Public Transportation

            In the 1990’s a mutual interest over public transport spurred cooperation between national and regional governments, and investment in new transportation infrastructure. Developments included new regional and suburban trains, increasing capacity of the road systems, massive investments in research, higher education and culture, and a combined rail and motorway tunnel between Copenhagen and South Sweden (Andersen 2008, p. 214). The construction of motorways and rail lines took place as part of a large-scale transport infrastructure project, namely the connection between Copenhagen and Malmö. (Næss et al. 2011).   The Ørestad  project has been argued the most important regenerative project decided by the city (Andersen 2008). The Ørestad area is a 3 km2 space along the sea and located about 1 km away from Town Hall. The project was formulated at the end of the 1980’s to be a city annex for advanced services and research, and to include the metro line and motorway junctions (Andersen 2008). The urban area of Copenhagen with the major transport arteries is outlined in Figures 3 and 4.

Figure 3: The urban area of Copenhagen. Black lines show major transport arteries. Scale is approximately 1:275,000 (Næss et al. 2011).

Figure 4: Shows the development of Copenhagen’s train and metro networks (Knowles 2012).


            Copenhagen has been a pioneer city in terms of recognizing the social value of pedestrian paths, starting in 1962 when the main street, Strøget, was pedestrianized (Mega 2000). This trend continued over the following 30 years.


         Boasting incredible bicycle transport rates, Copenhagen has a sophisticated network that was likely already Europe’s best in the 1980’s (Næss et al. 2011).  In Copenhagen, 35% of all transport trips are made by bicycle, and currently 90% of all Copenhagers own a bicycle (Mega 2000). 37% make their daily commute by bike, which is up from 30% in 1996 (Troy 2012). The amount of people who use bicycling as a mode of transportation in the city is due to a variety of factors, however 54% of Copenhagers said in a 2006 survey that they ride because its both easy and fast (Troy 2012). In other words, cycling is popular in Copenhagen largely because of good city planning.

            The city of Copenhagen invests 20-25% of its road budget ($10 million annually) into bicycling infrastructure. The city has 246 miles of combined cycle tracks, lanes and greenways, giving cyclists plenty of prioritized room to ride.  It has about 35,000 bike-parking spaces along roads, increasing convenience and reducing the hassle of bike parking. Meanwhile, downtown parking policies have eliminated 2-3% of car parking spaces annually for decades (Mega 2000). Furthermore, innovations such as the “green wave” give priority to cyclists, where the traffic lights along many major arteries are synchronized during rush hour for the benefit of cyclists (Troy 2012). “Pre-green” signalization and designated spaces for cyclists to wait between intersections and car stop lines (which have been pushed back 15 feet at 120 different intersections) not only give preference to cyclists, but give them a head start to ensure fast and safe commuting (Troy 2012). Additionally, the public transport system is designed to complement cycling, with bike-friendly rooms on trains and parking facilities in metro stations (Troy 2012). Not only does Copenhagen boast a high bicycle mode share, but it does so year-round, keeping 80% of it’s cycling population throughout the cold winter (Troy 2012). In the winter months, bike lanes get priority for both clearing and salting (Troy 2012).

            In addition to incentivizing bicycle transport through the ease and safety of travel, driving a car is actively discouraged. Though car ownership in Copenhagen has traditionally been considerably lower than in other Nordic capital regions, it has increased significantly in the last 15 years, reaching 50% in 2008 (Næss et al. 2011).  Both municipal and national governments are working against this through an imposed 180% tax on car sales, high gas prices ($10 per gallon), and expensive and scarce (2-3% of parking spaces are eliminated annually) parking (Troy 2012; Mega 2000).

Lessons Learned

            The city of Copenhagen represents a very unique case study in terms of both its cultural and political history. Indeed, cycling has been a part of Danish culture for over a hundred years, and more than 20% of the Danish population lives in Copenhagen; however, the urban sustainability of the city is also largely as a result of early and smart planning. Copenhagen, like cities in North America, has also experienced the “car invasion” of the 1950′s, however they were able to foresee the potential problems and implement policies to mitigate these before car usage overwhelmed the city. The lesson learned from Copenhagen is the power of good city planning, and this lesson can be applied anywhere, including Montreal. Alterations to the planning for public and active transportation in the city need to be a priority for city planners and politicians. However, it is important to keep in mind that making sustainable lifestyles an accessible option is only half the battle, and there is much to be done to address the culture and mindset that influences people’s individual choices.


Andersen HT. 2008. Copenhagen, Denmark: Urban Regeneration at Economic and Social Sustainability. In: Kidokoro T, Harata N, Subanu LP, Jessen J, Motte A, Seltzer EP, editors. Sustainable City Regions: Space, Place and Governance. Volume 7. Japan: Springer. 203-226.
Caspersen OH, Olafsson AS. 2010. Recreational mapping and planning for enlargement of the green structure in greater Copenhagen. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening. 9: 101-112.
Knowles RD. 2012. Transit Oriented Development in Copenhagen, Denmark: from the Finger Plan to Ørestad. Journal of Transport Geography. 22: 251-261.
Mega V. 2000. Cities inventing the civilisation of sustainability: an odyssey in the urban archipelago of the European Union. Cities. 17(3): 227-236.
Næss P, Strand A, Næss T, Nicolaisen M. 2010. On their road to sustainability? The Challenge of sustainable mobility in urban planning and development in two Scandinavian capital regions. Town Planning Review. 82(3): 285-315.
Troy A. 2012. The Very Hungry City: Urban Energy Efficiency and the Economic Fate of Cities. New Haven (CT): Yale University Press.

One Response to Copenhagen, Denmark

  1. Pingback: Guest post: Parking reform should start at the State House | Greater City Providence

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