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Copenhagen & Malmö: urban liveability

In November 2014, IFHP had the pleasure of receiving the Dutch delegation participating in the Metropolitan Field Trip to Copenhagen – Malmö, lead by the Dutch organizations Deltametropolis, Pakhuis de Zwijger, Brainville and Stipo.

This Metropolitan Field Trip to Copenhagen-Malmö is the fourth in a series, in which a high-profile group of mainly Dutch experts, explore mechanisms of urban change and the current up scaling and the changing roles and interaction between top-down and bottom-up actions taking place in the European urban contexts.


Over the course of four days of exploration, conversations and discovering, the delegation examined the dynamics of the region. Here, Wilson Wong, Chair of Urban Development, Faculty of Architecture at TU Delft shares his findings from the field trip.


While Denmark’s capital may not be perfect, its successes in sustainability and liveability provide teaching points for metropolises across the globe

Copenhagen is amongst the happiest cities of the world. The city of 570.000 inhabitants consistently scores very high in quality of life and happiness rankings. As the stage of where it all happens, the capital can provide meaningful lessons. It has formed a strong economic and cultural bond with Malmö in Sweden. Connected by the Øresund Bridge measuring nearly eight kilometres long, inhabitants can travel freely and quickly between the cities. The metropolitan region is growing steadily. Urban development is continuously in progress, old spaces receive new functions, while culture and healthy living are stimulated by the Danish government. How do these champions of liveability do it? This is both a Dutch and personal reflection on some of the urban development practices in the Øresund region. A study tour by the Dutch organizations Deltametropool, Pakhuis de Zwijger and Stipo.


What stood out?

  • The government is very involved. Top-down developments appear to be preferred. This does not mean there are no bottom-up developments.
  • Large private fund Realdania allows unfeasible projects to be realised. The focus is not on the monetary balance, but rather liveability and quality.
  • It appears that above all, quality of life has the highest priority in planning and design.
  • Cars are kept out of the streetscape where possible. Much more so than in The Netherlands. This in turn yields a more pleasant streetscape.
  • Inhabitants of Copenhagen appear to be very conscious of a healthy lifestyle and sustainability.
  • The previously industrial harbour of Malmö has been transformed into a very liveable neighbourhood through attractive small scale urban design.
  • We came to the Øresund region to learn from the Danish and the Swedes. Oftentimes, they would in turn tell us they use Dutch planning as an example. Sometimes we should be a little less hard on ourselves.


The confident city

Copenhagen is characterised by its geographic location near water and its long, stretched- out fingers that reach into the surrounding green. The city has been planned in such a fashion that the forests and plains reach deep into the city. Most buildings are of medium height, streets are wide and there is plenty of open space. Because of this, the city feels larger than its number of inhabitants suggests. The sheer spaciousness and accompanying scale is different from Dutch cities. In The Netherlands, streets are typically narrower and spaces are more confined. The surface area of Denmark is roughly equal to that of The Netherlands, but there are three times as few inhabitants. Many of the buildings and neighbourhoods are filled with architectural delights. The quality of space and buildings appears to be very high. As for the public spaces, Copenhagen is a bustling and lively city. Yet at the same time, the ambience is calm and unhurried. Perhaps the darker November days play part in that. Just strolling along the streets, the city exudes a pleasant sense of peace and confidence.


This confidence can be found in some of the on-going urban development projects. Such a project is Ørestad. It is a large strip of new city, consistent with the ‘finger’-shaped extensions of Copenhagen. Bordering the new town is protected natural land. There were discussions with local environmental interest groups, but the development group pressed on. Hard borders have been created to ensure that the wetlands will be preserved. Ørestad currently consists of a fully automated metro-line and countless tall and large buildings. Every one of them has a unique design by a famous architect, each one more impressive than the other. It’s easy to feel dwarfed by the buildings. The wide spaces between the blocks are amplified by the flat, natural area to the west. It almost feels uncomfortably empty. This area definitely needs some more time to mature. Surely it will be livelier in a few more years.


Exterior 8 House, Ørestad


Copenhagen bicycle city

The Dutch are well known for their cycling habits and its incorporation in infrastructural planning. In Copenhagen, this is not different. Cyclists are protected by parked cars. The wave of green lights allow cyclists who can keep up with the pace to cycle unhindered. Paths cross throughout the city and extend beyond city borders to allow cyclists from 5, 10, 20 or more kilometres to reach their destination safely and quickly. While a cycling path is incredibly simple in its essence, it can stimulate healthier and cleaner choices. So having strong awareness of the option to take the bike is imperative. Of course, having plenty of spare space allows for such infrastructure. But do keep in mind that the Danish appear to be very conscious of sustainability and healthy living. The Danish and the government agree unanimously on being completely fossil fuel independent by 2050. An ambitious goal, but it is very telling of the determination and confidence found in the country. This consciousness is reflected by the urban environment.


Different layers

While there is a consensus on certain topics such as sustainability, sharp contradictions can be found as well. Such a contradiction is Christiania, a self-proclaimed autonomous area. Located near the heart of Copenhagen, it is difficult to miss it. It is a squatted former military area that nowadays is populated by open drug selling, alternative cultures and gangs. It is a clear protest against the established order. Copenhagen feels organised and tidy. Christiania is wild and anti-authority. Whoever leaves the area will be greeted by a sign that says “now entering the EU”. Yearly, it attracts a half million tourists. Its inhabitants are rather cold towards visitors, but everyone may enter and leave as long as they obey the nine rules that make up the Christiania common law. Yet, they pay taxes like anyone else and have discussions about parking spaces with the local government. A large hall on the grounds of Christiania is used as a concert venue or as the location of Denmark’s largest start up and entrepreneur event.


As Copenhagen developed rapidly in the past few decenniums, it has become an attractive destination for immigrants. However, the city centre – especially compared to a random large city in The Netherlands – does not seem to reflect this trend. But travel a little bit further into the surrounding neighbourhoods, and the increased non-Danish population is evident. An example of this is Superkilen in Norrebrø. This park between the apartment blocks has been transformed into a celebration of the different cultures. It contains elements of a number of countries. Among others are a Moroccan fountain, a Japanese slide and a hill built from Gaza soil.




Another interesting development is that of the meatpacking district. As the name suggest, the area housed meat industries for decades. Now, the area has been transformed into a creative cluster. New creative businesses have found accommodation in the old industrial buildings. They nest tastefully without changing the visual history of the district.



The involvement of Realdania in a large number of projects stood out. The non-profit organisation finances urban developments, architecture and heritage with millions. Its goal is to improve the urban living environment. It decides which projects it funds, which makes it a rather powerful organisation. This causes some controversy as decision making is not entirely transparent – they do not have to be, as it is a private organisation. However, the general opinion is positive as it allows for the realisation of projects that otherwise are not feasible.


More information on Realdania.


A harbour transformed into a space for living

The Swedish city of Malmö makes up the other part of the metropolitan region. The city makes a pleasant first impression. Spending only a limited amount of time in the city, we saw a lively inner city area and a newly transformed harbour. The train stations were fitted with gorgeous materials and there was a great sense of space. Every day many Swedes travel to Copenhagen to work. Strolling past the waterfronts, the city almost feels like a smaller scale Rotterdam.


Not unlike Rotterdam, areas in Malmö experience a functional transition. Industry has left the old harbours, leaving room for new functions. Functions such as places where creative entrepreneurs can gather.


Station Triangeln, Malmö


The Västra Hamnen (Western Harbour) of Malmö is an old industrial harbour that has been transformed to a residential area. Living near the waterfront is rather attractive. The plan takes advantage of its location. There is plenty of space along the Øresund to take in the view, with its impressive bridge that connects the city to Copenhagen. The open water leads to strong winds, so the waterfront buildings have been designed to form a micro-climate. The taller buildings on the waterfront block out the harsh weather. Passing through one of the many pathways into the inner areas, it’s striking how the wind suddenly dissipates while a sense of calm permeates the streets. The streets are relatively narrow and meander along the different homes. There are many signs of sustainable measures; it’s not strange that this district claims to be carbon neutral. The 190 meter tall tower stands out. At first it is indeed a strange sight, as there is nothing remotely comparable in the vicinity. But there is a clear reason why it’s here. The Turning Torso is a residential tower that doubles as a navigational beacon. Before the transformation, one of the largest shipbuilding cranes in the world stood in its place. It was sold to South Korea when the area lost its original function. That left a large empty space, and suddenly ships lost a navigation point.


Western Harbour waterfront apartments, Malmö


The waterfront is a wide open, car-less space. Especially during the summer, it’s a great place to spend time. Even during the colder days of our visit, plenty of people were running along the waterside. It certainly is a welcoming place.


Western Harbour, Malmö



The Scandinavian metropolitan region left a strong impression of prosperity and tidiness. With much confidence great projects are carried out top-down style. The bottom-up story, which is very strongly present in The Netherlands, is much less present in the developments we saw. Many of the expensive projects would be almost unthinkable in The Netherlands of 2014. The position of a fund such as Realdania would face much critique, even though they allow the realization of many unfeasible projects. Another large difference is the sheer amount of space that is available to the Danes. It really is a luxury that should be cherished.  A direct comparison is therefore rather difficult.


As the Dutch ambassador told us, Danes work from 8 to 16, after that offices are abandoned. There is a strong realization that quality of life and happiness goes above all. While the first impression is that of a sober and disciplined nation, the urban developments are ones that celebrate architecture and abundance.


This article is based on the Metropolitan Field Trip to Copenhagen and Malmö, organized by Vereniging Deltametropool. Pakhuis de Zwijger and Stipo.