Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
As rapid growth changes the Danish capital, one group is making sure the city understands why it needs its plant life.
Since 2013, the group Save the Urban Trees (Red Byens traær in Danish) has been fighting to protect Copenhagen’s trees from being needlessly felled for construction, or simply killed slowly by poor planning and slapdash conservation.
Starting with a series of micro-fights saving trees one street corner at a time, the group has grown into a small but increasingly influential force, by encouraging decision-makers to think harder about how city works affect Copenhagen’s plant life. By helping to instigate Copenhagen’s first citywide tree policy this year, the group may have put an end to the worst excesses of local real estate developers and reshaped the future look of the city. This success that may be driven further home by grand plans for 2017. CityLab caught up with Sandra Høj, the group’s co-founder, at the end of what’s been the group’s most effective year yet.
Outside of Denmark, Copenhagen has a reputation for having far better than average green policies. Has something been going on this year to put these policies under stress?
Well right now, there are large numbers of new Copenhageners moving to the city every month. Over 2016, I think we’ve grown by something up to 100,000 citizens—a huge number for a city of around 1.25 million—so we're really growing fast. That's like heaven to a real estate developer, or anyone who wants to speculate, but it creates a lot of stresses on city space and on people’s quality of life.
Developers tend to flatten everything. They see two or three trees growing in a gap between two houses as a potential place to make money and just rip out the lot to build something shitty. Right now, they want to take out a beautiful 100-year-old beech tree just to make parking spots. It's insane—we may need homes, but it doesn’t have to be this way. After all, people who move to Copenhagen still need some nature in their lives.
What ways have you found to counteract this uncontrolled felling?
This year we actually had a major breakthrough. We successfully campaigned for the city to adopt a tree policy. When it comes down to it, the policy is nothing more than stating that trees have a place in the city, that they should be taken into account whenever we develop it. That still makes a huge difference, as up until now trees have been almost invisible in planning. The city even put together a report on air quality without mentioning them once.
We’re also getting a lot more members with specialist knowledge for our Facebook group—biologists, academics—who aren’t necessarily in communication with the city. On a day-to-day basis, it’s still a real struggle. In my local neighborhood, I spent three years campaigning to save a really beautiful, mature group of trees being pointlessly cleared out to widen a cycle path. I don't think I can spend another three years of my life like that—it was so hard. In the end we managed to save one corner tree, but they have been replaced very badly with new plantings. In cases like that, a lot of what we do is really just damage control.
So what needs to shift to improve the situation for Copenhagen’s trees?
We want the city to create a tree team that preps construction sites before work begins, to make sure that trees are properly protected. Even during pre-construction work trees nearby are often killed because they dig in and around the roots. Politicians also need to be made aware exactly what kind of trees are out there. It isn't good enough to remove 300-year-old trees and replace them with a few young twigs.
Now you have a city tree policy in place, what’s your next big push going to be for 2017?
For next year, our inspiration is actually coming from New York. We want a tree map that logs every single one growing in the city. That would need to be crowdsourced from citizens, but it turns out that this is an area people really care about. We would like to use i-Tree software [a program that quantifies the individual value of a tree, totaling up such factors as its ability to counteract air pollution, reduce a heat island effect etc]. We’ve been pushing for this for a while assuming we would have to crowdfund it entirely, but now the University of Copenhagen has started translating i-Tree values into Danish equivalents.
This could really help build a wider movement—as will another big event, the creation of a Save the Urban Trees group in [Denmark’s second city] Århus. Danish media have noticed that ordinary people really care about the tree issue, and I would like to get more people participating by doing more than clicking “like” on Facebook.