Subway tracks are pictured in Copenhagen.
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A battle over a city park highlights a flaw in the city’s much-praised approach to balancing its books.

After a long fight, Copenhagen's environmentalists are breathing a sigh of relief.

For the past few years, a sweeping, wildlife-rich grassland called Amager Faelled, just south of the city center, had been under threat of potentially damaging (if limited) development. Even exploring the suitability for buildings last month caused upset, when tests to the proposed construction site caused the deaths of some rare animals. Then, abruptly on Wednesday, Copenhagen’s Lord Mayor Frank Jensen announced his about-face on a project he had personally endorsed. The city promised to look elsewhere for construction.  

A storm in a teacup, then? Not necessarily. The battle has highlighted some possible flaws in the sustainability of the model Copenhagen uses to develop itself. In this long-established, sometimes controversial model, the city’s fiscal health and infrastructure funding has often relied on semi-private development. This scheme of sell-offs and speculation on public land has drawn international praise, but also brought its fair share of problems.

The backstory, which CityLab has covered in the past, is as follows. Amager Faelled—its name translates as “Amager Common,” after the island on which it is located—is a rare wild patch protected by its low-lying bogginess and centuries-long use as a military training ground. The patch that was slated for development—close to the city center as well as a recently built metro line—was admittedly small and peripheral, compared to the park as a whole.

It was even deemed a brownfield site by the city. Biologists nonetheless asserted that this section’s dampness made it one of the parkland’s most valuable habitats, without which many species of rare insects and reptiles might disappear. It might seem like an unlikely plot for the proposed 2,500 homes, but Copenhagen has built entire neighborhoods on former wetlands nearby.

The development model dates back to the early 1990s, and has done much to transform the city. Faced with near bankruptcy by 1993, the city decided to look for ways other than tax increases to get itself out of its slump. To this end, it transferred ownership of large tracts of its (only recently defunct) harbor quaysides to a state-owned company called By & Havn (“City and Harbor”). By & Havn, which is now headed by none other than the city’s former mayor Jens Kramer Mikkelsen, then sold this land on to developers to build the housing needed to provide roofs for a growing population.

The company then plowed the extra money it received back into state coffers or new development. To build a new metro line out to the airport, the company calculated that, once the line was open, the value of undeveloped land along its flanks would appreciate hugely, enabling them to sell it and recoup some costs.

This all seems prudent enough, but it has come with some problems. In trying to maximise revenue from the sold-off land, the city has done little to make local housing more affordable—not least because most apartments built since 1991 are free from rent control, which until then was mandatory. As the center-right-leaning newspaper Berlingske notes, Copenhagen is now being over-provided with luxury homes that don’t meet its most pressing needs. Though not all has been constructed on ex-public land, By & Havn’s husbandry is nonetheless behind many of the most sparkling and prominent.

The city has since realized this over-emphasis was a mistake. Trying to allocate more space to less wealthy citizens—who, after all, had once been co-owners of the former public lands—it introduced new regulations in 2015. These specified that at least 25 percent of new homes should be affordable. In Copenhagen’s terms, that meant rent fixed at 60 percent of the local market rate.

In a very expensive neighborhood, even that rate can leave an apartment too expensive for many. New neighborhoods, such as the city’s conveniently located North Harbor, are way beyond the means of most; even some affordable housing there ended up as “luxury projects.”

In pushing for quick returns, quality often suffered as well. As the urbanist Jan Gehl told CityLab, new areas like the shiny but lifeless Ørestad, prized the creation of homes that looked good in real estate ads over the actual legwork of place-making. Following the legal minimum requirements, only a quarter of the homes built on this parkland fringe would have been “affordable,” meaning that the chunk bitten off the park at Amager Faelled would mainly have been homes at above-average prices of a type with which Copenhagen is already somewhat better provided.

Meanwhile, much of the revenue from the land sell-offs came from speculation. The city predicted—correctly—that a new metro line, which runs along Amager Faelled’s eastern flank and forms the spine of Ørestad, would cause land values to skyrocket. Protests over the potential destruction of the parkland, however, are something of a spanner in the works. The spat shows how the even the best laid speculative plans can risk unraveling.

Is this a major crisis for the Copenhagen model? Not necessarily. The housing planned for the site will still likely be built, just in a less controversial location, while all of Amager Faelled’s scrappy but teeming expanse will likely stay as open land. It is instructive to reflect, however, that while Copenhagen has a reputation as an urban leader, it’s not necessarily doing that well in providing affordable housing.

At least the lord mayor’s last-minute decision to find an alternative site to Amager Faelled for new housing reveals one highly positive aspect of the city’s DNA. When it comes to protecting the environment as a green champion, it is sometimes prepared to put its money where its mouth is.

This article is part of a series highlighting the themes of CityLab Paris, a convening of urban leaders.

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