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.
One of the city’s ruling political parties wants to abandon plans for new housing on an open wetland.
Copenhagen needs wetlands more than it needs a new neighborhood. That’s the message coming this week from Danish political party Enhedlisten (aka Red-Green Alliance) after party members called for the city to scrap plans to build on a piece of open land near the city center.
The land in question is a scrubby tract of marsh by the name of Amager Fælled (“Amager Common”). It was first slated for partial development in the early 1990s, and a portion of it is the site of a new neighborhood called Ørestad that has already proved controversial (more on that later). Now Enhedlisten, a minority partner in the city’s ruling coalition, says further development must cease. The initial decision to build was made under duress when the city was close to bankruptcy and needed to offset the cost of a new metro line through the area, they say. But the city’s fortunes have changed, and party members say it’s far more important to save the area’s plants and birdlife.
For outsiders, it’s something of a surprise that Amager Fælled’s exists so close to the city’s heart. Located on the island of Amager, you can reach its edge on foot from Copenhagen City Hall in about half an hour, or less than half that by bike. As you push farther south through this boggy, minimalist landscape, the dense inner city surrounding it opens up into single-family-home suburbia then on to open countryside. As you walk, you come across sweeping seascapes, grasslands, birch woods and thickets of reeds stretching out toward the horizon, a bleakly beautiful space that most cities would envy. Most of this landscape will thankfully still be preserved in perpetuity regardless.
It’s in the somewhat drabber northern half that is contained within the city limits, where the grasslands are already bracketed by highways and new development, that building work is planned. Sometime this year, work will begin on 2,000 to 3,000 new homes in a section of Amager Fælled that isn’t protected by law. Located next to an existing metro stop, the still undesigned development (bids are still pending) will also contain stores, parking and day care centers.
It might seem incredible that land like this is being considered for development at all, but for centuries Amager Fælled was considered Copenhagen’s dirty backdoor. Due to the city’s habit of dumping sewage there, the entirety of Amager was once referred to as Lorteøen, or “Shit Island”, while the wetland itself was a dumping ground until the 1970s and only opened to the public in 1984. The area nonetheless teems with life, with deer roaming through its grasses and wading birds gorging on the insects that flourish around its ditches and ponds.
Despite the value of all this, Copenhagen’s need for new homes is very real. This year the city passed 600,000 residents (part of a metro area population of around 1.2 million), and by 2027 there will be an estimated 100,000 more. They will have to go somewhere, and simply shooing construction work from one end of the city to the other won’t put roofs over heads. When cities grow they absorb land, and Amager Fælled is both quite centrally located and well-connected already to the metro system. If the axe has to fall somewhere, the area isn’t the worst candidate, not least because a large stretch of open land will still remain.
The development nonetheless has an Achilles heel. The part of the neighborhood that’s been built on so far has done little to alleviate Copenhagen’s housing shortages or provide a truly vibrant new section of the city. Ørestad is an architecturally eye-catching but ultimately alienating new neighborhood that has been criticized by Copenhagen’s pioneering urbanist Jan Gehl. Its high rents are unaffordable to many Copenhageners, and while its new blocks have spacious apartments, they are poorly aligned and too sparsely scattered. It creates a wind-lashed, unpeopled feel that can be wonderful when found in a semi-wild wetland, but rather miserable in streets that people actually live on. If Copenhagen’s planners want to argue that the new development is essential to give the city a liveable future, the example that already exists does little to back them up.
On its own, Enhedslisten can’t necessarily swing the city against the plan, but as a major coalition partner with the ruling Social Democrats, they hold key positions within the administration and can certainly prompt a rethink. An alternative plan proposed by architects in December is adding heft to their argument. Instead of breaking new ground, this would involve building more blocks around the fringes of Ørestad, pushing up its population density and, if planned carefully, giving it some more sheltered public spaces. It’s a plan worth careful consideration before the city starts paving over one of its last truly open spaces.