Top 10 Lessons from Copenhagen

The Civic Commons Learning Network kicks off its Copenhagen learning journey. Photo credit: Bridget Marquis

In June, the Civic Commons Learning Network in partnership with the Better Block Foundation hosted Civic Commons Learning Journey: Copenhagen, a four-day study trip that immersed learning network members in the public life, policy and culture of the city. Through explorations of the city by bike and frank conversations with local leaders on the work they are pursuing, we considered how the city is building and sustaining public assets that deliver more public value. On our final day in Copenhagen, we hosted a workshop session to distill learning from the two dozen participants representing Akron, Detroit and Philadelphia.

Here are 10 key lessons from the trip:

1) Pilot first. But follow with real investment.

Copenhagen is known as being one of the most liveable cities in the world. But it wasn’t always this way. In the early ’90s, the city faced bankruptcy. Seeing a bleak future, the leaders of the city came together to create several strategies for change. One of these was to focus on pilot projects. The city began to expand and scale pedestrian street conversions originally built in the 1960s and parking lots that, in the 1980s, had been transformed into public squares. The goal was to create visible changes quickly that would encourage the citizens to come together. Just as important as the pilot projects was following up with permanent investments when the pilots proved successful.

Copenhagen piloted car-free streets and then made them permanent. Photo credit: Bridget Marquis.

2) Biking, biking, everywhere.

In the ’60s, many cities around the world expanded their freeway infrastructure by building elevated highways. But when this idea was proposed in Copenhagen people protested. In the ’90s, when the city was nearing bankruptcy and had little money to invest, it put the money where it could be stretched — toward bicycling infrastructure.

Copenhagenize, which highlights cycling life in Copenhagen, said that because infrastructure investments of the ’60s and ’90s made it easier to bike, more people started biking. In fact, now 56 percent of Copenhageners use a bike every day. By making bicycling the most convenient option, and by keeping the cycling infrastructure simple and legible, Copenhagen has made biking the easiest, fastest and cheapest mode of transportation. “Copenhageners are just as lazy as you are,” said Morten Kabell, COO of Copenhagenize. “Fifty percent of us only ride a bicycle because the city of Copenhagen has made it fast and easy.”

Biking infrastructure is prevalent and prioritized in Copenhagen. Photo credit: Bridget Marquis.

3) Design matters.

In Denmark, design is everything. Every single element of every single space has been designed with the user in mind. One small example: trash cans. Each trash can has a lip on the outside for cans and glass. This way, it’s easier for people who need those items to grab them for recycling.

Even trash cans are designed for people. Photo credit: Bridget Marquis

The city has also found ways to maximize its spaces by taking down the fences and designing areas to support a wide variety of activities. An example: a large courtyard next to a marketplace that serves as both a schoolyard playground and common space with a basketball court. During lunch, multiple worlds collide in one cohesive space. And in terms of policy, the city is redesigning all of its schoolyards to be fenceless so they are open and welcoming to the community.

A plaza that serves a dual purpose: school yard and public park. Photo credit: Bridget Marquis.

We ended our trip at Gehl Architects, where Mayra Madriz talked through the firm’s approach to building cities, highlighting the importance of design. “Consider urban life before urban space and urban space before buildings,” Mayra said.

4) A city’s public life is the responsibility of the entire city government, not a single department.

Copenhagen’s architecture policy promotes a people-first approach. Chief City Architect Tina Saaby holds position of influence, advising politicians and city administrators alike. When a development proposal crosses her desk, her first question is, “Who is the landscape architect?” She recognizes that the space between buildings is where public life either thrives or fails to thrive.

When a crisis faces Copenhagen, the city’s response often comes in the form of investments in public life. While bankruptcy spurred some of the best bike infrastructure in the world, climate change catalyzed the concept of cloud burst parks. This network of green public spaces mitigates flooding by holding and filtering excess water. They also serve as a natural playscape.

An average day at Islands Brygge with quality public space that encourages people to live their lives in public. Video credit: Bridget Marquis.

5) Embedding in a neighborhood is a new way of working.

For significant neighborhood-wide investments, the project managers from the city’s urban planning department don’t do their jobs from city hall or in an administrative building downtown. Instead, they work in the neighborhood’s culture house. For example, Eva Christensen and Sia Boensen, project managers in the neighborhood of Nørrebro, lead a diverse team of architects, planners and social scientists who will be based in the community for six years. Their mission involves co-creating a set of projects. Together with neighbors, they’ll reimagine Hans Tavsens Park as a cloud burst park that combines stormwater management with recreation, complete neighborhood-wide transportation planning and develop safe streets. But the city and the planning team see their work as much more than capital projects. The team is also interested in understanding existing social networks and the exploring the connecting between infrastructure investments and building social capital.

Rendering of Hans Tavsens Park. Image credit: SLA & Rambøll

6) Great public spaces inspire play for all.

Whimsy. That was the one word that kept coming to mind when visiting the various parks and public spaces throughout Copenhagen. Trampolines embedded in sidewalks are just the start. Each park was unique, playful and a reflection of the neighborhood that surrounded it. For example, Monstrum, a playground design company, created the Crooked Houses in the Brumbley neighborhood. The houses can be climbed in and on, slid down and crawled between. They are a near-identical reflection of the neighborhood homes, yet slightly topsy-turvy.

Monstrum’s co-founder, Ole Barslund Nielsen, shares the Crooked Houses playscape. Photo Credit: Kyle Kutuchief

But the parks in Copenhagen aren’t just about kids. They allow for unexpected moments of joy, relaxation and, in some cases, the thrill of fear for all ages. At Folkets Park, for example, a bridge was designed that wasn’t reflective of the community’s needs, so a new designer transformed the bridge into a parkour course. The bridge has self-moderating aspects (such as a second step that is too high for most children to make) to keep it safe while still allowing for a thrill. And many parks offer cafe kiosks for adults to buy a coffee and chat with a friend or a stranger.

Folkets Park now includes a parkour course bridge that challenges all ages. Photo credit: Bridget Marquis.

7) Food markets can deliver multiple benefits.

From Torvehallerne to Reffen by Copenhagen Street Food, there is no shortage of great food markets in Copenhagen. These sites are serving as on-ramps for entrepreneurs to test their products. They make it easier for vendors to focus on their products, while providing shared services like bathrooms, seating, trash, permitting and marketing. They also happen to be public spaces capable of attracting people from every background, if they keep an eye on price points to ensure they remain welcoming to all. Reffen’s founder, Dan Husted, has proven his concept once before with a temporary food court that gained acclaim. He hopes to do the same with this new concept in a forgotten area. “We decide the primary colors, then we invite the public to paint the canvas,” he says.

Copenhagen Street Food’s founder, Dan Husted, shares his newest market, Reffen. Photo credit: Kyle Kutuchief

8) Create platforms to continue to strengthen resident-driven programming that aligns with values.

Jacob Hartmann is an instigator turned city bureaucrat, and his Sharing Copenhagen mini-grants capture a spirit of “yes” in a way not often seen in municipal government. The grants are tied to the vision for the city and allow everyday citizens to test new ideas for change, from a floating sauna to a pop-up farm to a program that encourages hitchhiking. And when the easy answer is “no,” we can’t allow for that, he works with urban innovators to get to “maybe” — and sometimes asks for permission later. From inside city government, he has developed a program that fosters active citizen engagement in making the city more sustainable, and more fun.

Jacob Hartmann talks about his work as we explore Islands Brygge’s waterfront. Photo credit: Bridget Marquis.

9) Don’t turn your back on natural assets that are stigmatized.

Nearly every city has them: natural features that were once polluted and still carry the stigma of being dirty and unsafe. Just 15 years ago, the water in Copenhagen’s harbour was so polluted that it posed a health risk. Alongside unsexy municipal efforts to make the waters clean, like wastewater treatment plants and a modernized sewage system, the city also made public space investments like the harbour baths, parks and pathways along the water that have drastically changed the use and narrative of this waterfront. Now harbour baths are packed on warm summer days, a bicycle chef uses a harbourside spot as his homebase and a maritime education center cultivates oysters and mussels in the urban waterways.

Bicycle chef, Morten Kryger Wulff, hosts meals along the harbour’s edge and in public spaces throughout the city. Photo credit: Bridget Marquis.

10) Copenhagen isn’t perfect.

There are many reasons Copenhagen is studied, imitated and beloved. The bicycling infrastructure alone makes it something to strive for. However, the city is not perfect. No city is. While we experienced many beautiful examples of infrastructure, public space and collaboration in Copenhagen, we were jarred by the discussion of race, immigration and who truly belonged. Or, perhaps, by the lack of discussion. In some of our conversations and experiences in the city, multiculturalism was characterized as a burden, rather than a value. This article offers context for what we witnessed.

Learning Journey participants were at times jarred by the discussion of race, immigration and who truly belonged. Photo credit: Bridget Marquis

It was a stark reminder of why Reimagining the Civic Commons holds socioeconomic mixing as a goal for public space investments. Bringing people of all backgrounds to share in public life and build trust will not happen without intention.

We realized that, while we went to Copenhagen to study and be inspired, our demonstrations cities are inspirational, too. Through their approach to revitalizing and connecting public assets, they are setting a new standard for advancing civic engagement and “creating the welcome.” This realization reflects the value of learning journeys: they create moments for team members to experience, to learn, and to reflect on our shared work with a fresh perspective.

Civic Commons Learning Journey: Copenhagen participants at Superkilen.

Co-authors: Bridget Marquis, director of the Civic Commons Learning Network and Krista Nightengale, managing director of Better Block Foundation.

Reimagining the Civic Commons is a collaboration between The JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation and local partners.