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Clean Copenhagen

Progressive-minded Copenhagen is way ahead in environmental sustainability. Clean energy, green hotels and low-carbon meeting facilities make this the perfect place for the UN climate change conference. Fleur Kinson looks at a city that’s setting new standards


From the air, Denmark is a shattered confusion of land and water, like a dropped plate lying on a slate-grey floor. The sea, wriggling into every intricate crevice, is as much a part of the country as the land. Descending toward Copenhagen, gazing at the fragmented islands and islets below, your eye is caught by something that’s neither land nor water: dozens of slender white windmills towering up from the waves. They form ‘Lillgrund,’ once the world’s largest offshore wind farm. Their serene, futuristic faces slice silently through the air, churning the coastal wind into clean, green electricity. It’s the first tip-off that you are about to enter one of the most environmentally forward-thinking cities in the world.

Step from the snazzy metro into the city centre, and the feeling of green enlightenment continues. While the booming cities of the Far East seem intent on replacing humble bicycles with grumbling automobiles, Copenhagen heads resolutely the other way. There are bikes everywhere – big and comfy-looking, with the plumpest saddles imaginable. Racks and racks of them loaf about, including some you can hire, shopping-trolley-like, by slotting in a 20-kroner coin. A constant stream of calm-faced cyclists spool past on the endless city-centre cycle paths. And we’re not talking notionally separate lanes flanking merciless traffic here. Oh no. We’re talking wholly distinct mini-roads, with their own dinky traffic lights, everywhere separated from motor traffic by a metre or more of concrete reservation.

More than a third of Copenhagen’s citizens take the bike to work or school every day. But this is far from being the city’s most impressive eco-statistic. How about the fact that it has one of the world’s best recycling systems, with 90 percent of the city’s industrial waste recycled and 75 percent of all household waste incinerated to create heat and electricity? Even the excess heat from human cremations is captured and used again (and distasteful as it may sound, the metal body parts of the dead, such as hip and knee replacements, are recycled as scrap metal). As you might expect, Copenhagen leads the world in consuming organic food – far better for the environment than non-organic. And an ever-bigger proportion of sustainably-produced energy (wind, wave and solar) keeps the whole city ticking over. All this puts Copenhagen on course for what could be its single most impressive eco-trophy: by 2015, it hopes to be the world’s first carbon-neutral capital city. Quite a goal.

Where better then, to hold the latest UN conference on climate change? The 15,000 delegates arriving here from all corners of the globe are sure to be wowed by a city that, environment-wise, has firmly put its money where its mouth is. Copenhagen seems to be valiantly trying to lead by example. If more cities were like this, we might not be in half as much of a carbon mess as we are right now. It makes you wonder whether modern cities might not be a fundamentally bad thing for the environment after all. With all those people in one place, cities are particularly good for spreading green ideas. Christer Owe, the affable sage behind Scandinavia’s ‘Ekocentrum’ think-tank, says “Cities can do a lot to mitigate climate change. Often they can be more advanced in this that the rest of their country.”

Second nature
In between their efforts to hammer out a successor to the underwhelming Kyoto protocol, the COP15 delegates should find some time to pound the pavements and get an eyeful of Copenhagen. They might see how eco-sustainability and general liveability seem to go hand in hand. This is an easygoing city where people set the pace, not cars. Buildings are low-rise, green spaces are plentiful, pedestrianisation is endemic (no surprise that the world’s longest car-free shopping street is in Copenhagen). Crucially, Copenhagen has a low population, with around a million inhabitants. No urban sprawl. No hostile outskirts. Copenhagen remains one of Europe’s most law-abiding cities, with one of its lowest crime rates.

How ironic that the pillaging Vikings should be the ancestors of today’s eminently peaceable Danes. It’s as if the nation purged all that lawless violence completely out of its system, like pus from a well-lanced boil. After three hundred years of terrorising much of Europe (and regularly sailing over to investigate North America), the Vikings cooled both their bloodlust and their wanderlust, and settled down to a peaceful Nordic life. In Denmark in particular, progressive-minded monarchs began steering the country toward an increasingly liberal social outlook from the 1200s onwards. Succeeding centuries brought an expanding bounty of enlightened laws, increased social egalitarianism, and an especially robust democracy. Cooperation and tolerance became – and remain – prized Danish virtues. Denmark was the first country to legalise pornography (in the 1960s) and the first to legalise same-sex marriage (in 1989).

This reputation for easygoing tolerance is one of the things that makes Copenhagen a magnet for the travelling young. Backpackers and stag partygoers love the place. Wander through the city’s central station on a Saturday afternoon and you’ll be confronted by any number of lairy British revellers wearing neon wigs, plastic breasts and other in-your-face tokens of revelry. They’ve come to drain the city dry of Carlsberg. Other youngsters are drawn from all across Europe by the promise of Christiania – the autonomous ‘free city’ or hippie commune that sprawls across 85 leafy acres in Copenhagen’s Christianshavn district. A long-term social experiment, Christiania was set up in the 1970s by free-thinking types who longed for a place to practise benign anarchy and smoke lots of drugs. They’re still getting away with it, despite occasional dark mutterings from the powers that be.

Most Copenhageners secretly admire the citizens of Christiania. They wouldn’t dream of indulging in anarchy themselves, but they’re proud of the fact that their city can tolerate such a community. And the social experiment has proven at least one reassuring thing: that even anarchists can’t live together without rules. The folk of Christiania exhort their fellows not to litter, not to urinate on walls, and to stay away from hard drugs. They even manage collectively to pay for their own street-lighting and rubbish collection. Typical of Copenhagen that even its anarchists end up running a sustainable society! They’ve invented a great bicycle too: the ‘Christiania bike’ is a stout tricycle with a big boxy container between its two front wheels, making it a sort of cross between a bike and a wheelbarrow. You can fit shopping, kids, or a full-grown friend into the box, making the distinctive anarchists’ trike hugely popular across all of Copenhagen.

The greater good
Thanks to a long line of influential liberal thinkers, Denmark, along with other Scandinavian countries, can be said to have taken the idea of a free and fair society to its global extreme. This doesn’t come cheap though. High taxes sustain the country’s excellent social welfare, health and education systems – which include the heavily subsidised childcare that allows both parents to work and so maintain the country’s exemplary gender equality. The Danish ideal is that no one – regardless of their age, health, gender or other circumstance – should be too rich or too poor, nor regard themselves as socially superior or inferior. As a traveller, one of the most refreshing things this means is that you never have to tip! Tipping insinuates an inequality between service-giver and service-receiver, and Danes instinctively wrinkle their noses at any whiff of disparity. So be sure to seize this one chance to save money in what is an otherwise eye-wateringly expensive country.

Of course, even a society which strives for minimal social inequality is going to have those who fall into serious trouble. In Copenhagen, there’s a conscious attempt not to shy away from the fallen or to pretend they’re not a part of society. Take the district of Vesterbro near the city’s main rail station. An increasing number of super-stylish hotels, trendy bars and restaurants are opening in this area full of sex shops and highly visible prostitution. Amidst the chic boutique hotels, you’ll spot the occasional small office advertising free counselling to help women rebuild a new life for themselves off the streets. Local people are trying in various ways to accommodate and assist those in their midst.

In the heart of Vesterbro, one conference and hotels business has an innovative Corporate Social Responsibility programme, which has been run entirely in secret for the past twelve years. DGI Byen, which operates a large eco-friendly conference centre plus several stylish, green-thinking business hotels, decided to help the people on its doorstep rather than the needy in a distant land. They began quietly adding local prostitutes and drug-addicts to their existing staff, starting them off with a few hours on reception, and slowly increasing their time at work as the new employees became more confident with the job. By offering constant support and respect, and by showing what a different life could be like, the company has given effective, hands-on rehabilitation to a great number of people – people who are, in effect, the company’s neighbours. It just goes to show the power of a sense of community.

Free and forward thinking
The same instinct that prompts Danes to try and organise society along the fairest possible lines also pushes them towards environmental sustainability. Both require an instinct for balance. A balanced society requires personal contribution to reap communal benefit, as does a sustainable ecology. For travellers to Copenhagen, there are lots of opportunities to take part in the eco-game. First of all, you can assuage some of your green-guilt if you flew here by staying in one of the city’s many eco-minded hotels. There are a dozen sporting the ‘Green Key’ – an international certificate awarded to leisure organisations reaching a high standard of environmental care. And there are around thirty other plush hotels in the city that meet this standard but haven’t applied for the ‘Green Key’, or have opted for the ‘Scandinavian Green certificate’ instead (wearing your environmental credentials on your sleeve is a growth area, and it’s only natural that there should be various green-label schemes running concurrently).

You might be wondering what sort of things a hotel can do to minimise its impact on the environment. This is the hospitality business after all, and they can’t ask paying guests to forsake creature comforts. Don’t worry, there’s no sleeping on hemp sheets or going without a shower. As you’d expect, hotels nab green certification by minimising their waste of energy or resources, and by using environmentally-friendly materials. There are many possible ways to achieve all this, from the little to the large. Glass water bottles are obviously preferable to plastic. Butter and other condiments need not be served in wasteful individually-packaged portions. Organic food is a winner. Fragrant soaps and shampoos can be provided in refillable wall-dispensers rather than in throwaway packets and bottles. Televisions need not be pointlessly left on stand-by. Meeting rooms can be designed to maximise cheery daylight, and make electric light unnecessary. Energy can come from sustainable sources, of course. Cleaners can adopt various eco-practices including using biodegradable cleaning products. Staff can cycle to work, or share the hotel’s electric cars. And so on.

A tiny gesture that’s sure to spread around the world is the wooden key card. Exactly like the plastic, credit-card-sized things we’ve all used many times to open our hotel room doors, these are fashioned from good old sustainable, biodegradable wood instead. And yes, the magnetic strip on the back works just as well. Pleasing to the eye and fingertips, wooden key cards are currently all the rage in Copenhagen’s greener hotels. Another cute novelty to the traveller from less eco-minded lands is the divided wastepaper bin – just as small as most litterbins in hotel rooms, but cleverly partitioned into spaces for paper waste, food waste, and other waste. All of it fodder for later recycling, of course. It is business hotels in particular which seem to be adopting many of the practices outlined above, so if you’re off to Copenhagen on business, keep a curious eye out for them.

Living green
After breakfasting on a hotel’s organic fare, you can easily continue with organic lunch or dinner in Copenhagen if you wish. Organic restaurants, cafés and delis are springing up all over the city. BioMio, which opened this year in the Vesterbro district, is typical of the breed. Affordably-priced and hugely popular, it serves creative Danish and international dishes in stylish premises, where acoustic ceilings ensure you don’t have to shout to be heard above all the usual clatter and chatter of a packed restaurant. Nutrition and calorie information is provided for every dish on the menu. Live off nothing but organic stuff for a few days, and you’ll really notice a difference in your general feeling of well-being. Follow it up with, say, a cheap chocolate crêpe from a street vendor, and your body will flinch and demand, “What’s this poison you’ve just put inside me?”

Whether you choose organic or not, Copenhagen is a surprisingly good place for public dining. The Danes may not have bequeathed many great dishes to the world, and their climate might seem to preclude much outdoor eating, but the whole city goes for fine al fresco nourishment with great gusto. The outdoor tables of bars and restaurants are packed and convivial, and if it gets too cold they just wrap a blanket round themselves or cosy up to an overhead heater. A classic spot to join the outdoor throng is Nyhavn, the canalside stretch of vivid-hued Dutch townhouses that adorns a thousand postcards.

Nyhavn is a great place to admire old-fashioned ships and their tidy maze of rigging, but for optimum ship-gazing you should make your way up from Nyhavn along the seafront all the way to the statue of the Little Mermaid. This is one of Copenhagen’s best walks, with constant views of big ships on one side and lots of small gardens on the other. When you finally reach the famous statue – which commemorates a story by Copenhagen’s greatest storyteller, Hans Christian Anderson – you’ll be surprised by how small she is. Or so say all the guidebooks. In fact, she’s human-sized, and perfectly proportioned. Gazing out to sea with a soft and poignant expression, she makes a fitting emblem for this city. Spread across land and water, and long having earned its wealth from marine transport, Copenhagen has its soul in the sea, while being equally at home in the sun and the wind. Especially these days, when the sun fires up the city’s solar panels, and the wind whirls those pretty, white turbines.

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