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Blue Sky Thinking

Updated: Jun 12, 2020

Copenhagen is leading the way in the transformation to being a 'clean' city. Others are trying hard too, but the world needs more 'people and planet first' thinking and leadership.

Copenhagen has the world’s most ambitious plan to cut emissions: carbon neutral by 2025. This is pushing the Danish capital to go beyond the existing model of smart, clean urban design and cycle-centred transport that has turned it into one of the cleanest cities in the world.

Grassroots activism, pragmatic government and high taxes have been the drivers for change. Old photographs prove the city had as much of a car culture as any European city in the 1970s, when more than 100,000 citizens demonstrated in Rådhuspladsen (City Hall Square) to demand their streets back. Since then, town planners have steadily reduced parking spaces and widened areas for pedestrians and bicycles, reports The Guardian.

“It feels good to walk around Copenhagen,” says Jeppe Juul, of the Danish Eco Council, noting that it's a question of priorities. “Pedestrians have more space than bikes, and bikes have more space than cars.” And, as the picture above shows, a little snow doesn't put the Danes off!

Copenhagen now vies with Amsterdam for being the most bicycle-friendly city in the world. This means traffic lights with resting bars that riders can hang on to without touching the ground, take-away coffee containers designed for bikes, and groups that organise parent’s shifts for schools runs on “minibus-like” bicycles that can take up to six children at a time.

Copenhagen’s 2025 target depends largely on replacing coal-fired heating with biomass, wind and geothermal energy. A new district-heating infrastructure will allow neighbourhoods to scrap home boilers. Urban planners aim to use carbon capture and storage technology to trap emissions from the main municipal waste incinerator.

Some still doubt the city will be zero-carbon within five years, but Mikkel Krogsgaard Niss, from the mayor’s office, says sceptics have been proved wrong in the past. “From 2014-20, we reduced carbon dioxide by more than 50%, so we are on our way,” he says. 

These shifts will create up to 35,000 jobs, with most of the money coming from public coffers. Residents already pay some of the highest rates of tax in the world, but this is seen as an investment in health and quality of life. The city’s wastewater plant was also expensive, but now that it is operational, residents can swim in the harbour – something unthinkable in urban waterways elsewhere. Danes are consistently ranked among the world’s healthiest and happiest people - as OGN Daily reported recently in an article on Nordic Happiness.

The municipality also wants to completely phase out combustion engines by electrifying the bus fleet and banning petrol and diesel cars within five years. After that plan ran into opposition from the national government, local environmental NGOs lobbied for a revolutionary new traffic management scheme that hugely decreases the convenience of car use.

The “distribution plan”, which was pioneered in the Belgian town of Ghent, divides the urban centre into a handful of zones and prohibits drivers from going directly from one to another. Instead, they have to go via the suburbs. “It means there is no such thing as a short drive to the bakery or wherever in this system,” says Jens Müller, the air quality manager of the Transport & Environment NGO. As a result, walking, cycling and public transport become more appealing. “It’s the most radical thing you can do apart from creating a no-car zone,” says Juul.

Copenhagen is in a group of European cities, including Amsterdam, Paris, London and Oslo, that are trying to set the global pace for air quality improvements. Müller says London is a leader on ultra-low emission zones, Oslo on promoting use of electric cars, while Paris is exploring radical plans for “a city of 15 minutes” that aims to ensure every resident can get the shops and services they want within a short walk or bicycle ride.

Cities in Germany are pioneering pop-up infrastructure and tactical urbanism that allow communities to block roads at certain times for certain events. In Brussels, residents now have a say in when to close roads for children’s parties and barbecues. Müller says this reduces pollution because people spend more time outside their homes.

The foundation, he says, is community activism by previous and current generations. Amsterdam may now be aiming for zero-carbon boats and yet more bikes, but – like Copenhagen – the origins of its strong air-quality ambition was the parents’ movement in the 1970s, which campaigned against the number of road traffic accidents with banners demanding: “Stop murdering our children.”

More recently, Madrid has seen a fierce political contest for control of the streets, with 20,000 people rallying last year to oppose plans by the ruling rightwing coalition to reopen the city centre to cars. The “Madrid Central” zone in the Spanish capital had achieved more nitrogen dioxide reductions than any city in Europe. So far, people power has kept the cars out.

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