Copenhagen’s New Hotspot Is a Trailblazer for Sustainability

(Photo Source: Bloomberg)

Copenhagen’s New Hotspot Is a Trailblazer for Sustainability


It’s a sunny Wednesday afternoon in Nordhavn—on the outskirts of Copenhagen—and the former shipyard bubbles with life. Along the waterfront, Gen Zs clad in swimsuits and frayed denim shorts dive into the water and lounge on the neat wooden decks. Cafes buzz with patrons, leisurely drinking coffee and sinking their teeth into slices of rye and fresh pastries. 

The transformation of this formerly industrial area has been more than 10 years in the making, and it isn’t set to be complete until 2050, when it will have housing for 40,000 inhabitants and workspace for another 40,000. But in the past 18 months, it has begun humming with unprecedented action, with enough completed buildings to house almost 5,000 residents and office workers across the former shipyard.

This is thanks in part to the area’s design as a “five-minute city,” a term that means that it’s possible to reach shops, institutions, workplaces, cultural facilities, and public transport within five minutes’ walk from any point in the 3.6-million-square-meter district. That size translates to about two miles from end to end—all set across a series of piers and connected islets on the city’s northern shore.

Copenhagen’s New Hotspot Is a Trailblazer for Sustainability

Facilitating the ease of access is a new metro line, which opened in March of last year and connects the former industrial area to Copenhagen’s city center in 20 minutes. In the last 18 months, the area has also welcomed outposts of much-loved local brands such as Andersen & Maillard bakery and Sanchez, a Mexican cantina from renowned Noma alum Rosio Sanchez—creating the beginnings of a new tourism hotspot. 

There are harbor baths and waterside wooden decks, performance spaces and cinemas; in the coming years, the area’s decommissioned fabrication yard will be converted into a massive cultural space spanning nearly three square miles called the Tunnel Factory. It will have open-air performance spaces, a sculpture park, artist ateliers, maker studios with boutiques, high-design playgrounds for kids, and a spate of “climate-conscious” restaurants, according to design plans, all focusing on construction styles and artistic disciplines that leverage upcycled materials.

But Nordhavn isn’t just an example of innovative and highly livable urban planning. It’s also a trailblazer for urban greening, with master plans that rival any city in the world for their sustainability ambitions. If those plans are carried out as intended—and they have been so far—Nordhavn will receive the highest certification from the German Sustainable Building Council (DGNB), recognized as the standard-setter in sustainability auditing. In doing so, it will join roughly a dozen municipalities around the world that have been awarded platinum recognition, while hopefully inspiring some of the 10 million visitors that come to Copenhagen each year.

Green from the Ground Up

Copenhagen’s New Hotspot Is a Trailblazer for Sustainability

Since breaking ground in 2009, Nordhavn has been a showcase of cutting-edge green building. One of the first buildings to be completed in the district was EnergyLab Nordhavn, a “smart city energy lab” where more than a dozen local companies, utility providers, and government entities have collaborated over the past five years to engineer everything from energy-efficient heating pumps to electric transport infrastructure and sophisticated energy storage systems. Their 28-point report on the future of green living is now the backbone for the remaining Nordhavn projects, many of which feature architectural reuse rather than new constructions.

Some of the resulting innovations are simple: Nordhavn is scattered with more bike trails and walking paths than the average neighborhood. Others are extremely high tech, such as a citywide “energy data warehouse” that collects real-time information about wind and solar production, weather, energy costs, and how all of the area’s resources are being consumed at any given moment—be it heating, transport, electricity, or other uses. That allows authorities to drive down districtwide usage and efficiently manage renewables. (Already, the team at EnergyLab says it’s welcomed officials from multiple national and international delegations to study this system and its advantages.)

Every building plays a role in reducing Nordhavn’s overall footprint. The Copenhagen International School, near Orientkaj metro station, has the area’s largest solar array on its roof. Residents in the Harbour Park residential development periodically give up control of their own heat supply systems to enable officials to recalibrate and optimize citywide thermal systems as the weather changes. And the Meny supermarket location in the district has technology in place to capture waste heat from cooling systems and transfer it to a district heating network.

Setting a Standard

Copenhagen’s New Hotspot Is a Trailblazer for Sustainability

Nordhavn may not yet be complete, but its master plan puts it in rare company as a global standard-setter for sustainability. Of the districts that have received platinum ranks from DGNB, only a handful, including Cloche d’Or in Luxembourg and Berlin’s new Waterkant area, 10 miles west of the city center, are in major urban hubs.

Unlike LEED, which certifies green buildings after they’ve been completed, DGNB can help shape projects while they’re still in early design phases, offering clear guidelines for stakeholders and architects to follow from Day One. It not only certifies individual buildings but entire municipalities, encouraging them to think holistically about commonly overlooked issues such as contaminated soil, while also providing life-cycle cost analysis for different approaches to wastewater treatment and recycling.

“Nordhavn has the highest ambitions with regards to sustainability on a city district level,” says Mette Qvist, chief executive officer of the Green Building Council, a nonprofit with the exclusive rights to certify DGNB buildings within Denmark.

She adds that the city’s smart planning has also contributed to its high prices. With an average price per square meter of approximately 58,000 krone (around $9,200), Nordhavn has become the most expensive neighborhood in already-pricey Copenhagen, according to data published by the Danish Architecture Center. (The plan stipulates that 25% of the units built must qualify as affordable housing, and the Tunnel Factory’s blueprints also include residences for students and apprentices.)

“If you have all these different [sustainability] elements, climate change adaptations, and green spaces, the expectations are that these areas will be more valuable,” explains Qvist.

Inspiring Others

Copenhagen’s New Hotspot Is a Trailblazer for Sustainability

Already, Nordhavn’s initiatives have pricked the ears of leaders around the world. Prior to the pandemic in October 2019, Nordhavn hosted the C40 summit on sustainable development, which was attended by mayors from 40 of the world’s largest cities. In May 2019, it also played host to a group of mayors and technical advisers from IDB Cities Network, representing 16 cities throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Their shared goal was to get a master class in sustainable urban planning and to identify long-term solutions to common problems such as traffic management and overdevelopment.

The design team behind Nordhavn knows its cutting-edge ideas will only be cutting-edge for so long, though. “We can’t predict how society or the world will be in 10 or 70 years' time,” says architect Dan Stubbergaard of Cobe, the studio responsible for designing the city. “We will [have to] adapt and leave [more] development for the future.”

“It’s really a pilot project,” says Christine Lemaitre, CEO of DGNB, indicating the long road that is yet to come. But it’s already succeeded in setting rigorous sustainability standards across the board and finding ways to make them attractive to investors, she explains. In that sense, Lemaitre adds, “It’s the benchmark at the moment.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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