Denmark is consistently ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world. Many have hypothesized various reasons for the happiness scores, but even Danes themselves shrug their shoulders when asked why their country always dominates happiness surveys. It is well documented that they have high-quality healthcare, education and welfare benefits. Many attribute Danish happiness to the cultural phenomenon known as “hygge,” which values intimate personal interactions with family and friends.

However, there may be another possible explanation for the happy Danish lifestyle. In Copenhagen, the essence of this Danish charm may also be contained in their urban sustainability as a way of life. It is a city where its human residents, nature, and urban biology are balanced (Cathcart-Keays, 2016). The city takes a broad view of sustainable transportation. The town is famous as a premier city for cyclists by realizing the social and economic benefits of cycling, in addition to environmental benefits. Copenhagen embraces a holistic approach to climate change adaptation that not only protects the city from the impact of climate change but simultaneously enhances the quality of life for Copenhageners.

Copenhagen autumn

Copenhagen as a Living Laboratory

Globally, cities emit 80 percent of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, increase pollution and congestion, compound the urban heat island effect, and contribute to declines in biodiversity as urbanization sprawls (Muggah, 2017). Cities are part of the problem, but also increasingly are pioneers of the most innovative solutions. Cities are unique “living laboratories” to study social and ecological interactions such as the impact of sustainable transport and urban greenspaces in Copenhagen on the social and ecological well-being of cities (McDonnell, 2016). Copenhagen, along with many of its peer cities around the world, has implemented innovative solutions that address the full breadth of and the interplay between environmental sustainability, built environment, and the social and community livability components of the city.

Copenhagen’s integrated systems-thinking approach to sustainability is an example of the recent evolution of the urban ecology field. Urban ecology is an interdisciplinary field that links the human (social), built environment, and ecological interactions in the city ecosystem. Copenhagen takes a social-ecological approach to explore the dynamic interactions between social and ecological components of the city system (McHale, 2015). In addition to studying ecology in cities, this approach examines the ecology of cities – incorporating the built environment, humans, and biophysical environment in a highly interactive social ecosystem (McPhearson, 2016). By definition, this integrated approach requires cross-sectoral coordination to ensure all aspects of sustainability are addressed. The interdisciplinary nature of urban ecology brings together planning, urban design, and the social sciences to holistically build resilient, livable, and sustainable cities.

Copenhagen park after cloudburst

Climate Change Impacts

On July 2, 2011, six inches of rain fell on the city of Copenhagen in three hours, causing over $1 billion in damage (Gerdes 2012). Copenhagen’s Climate Adaptation Plan was already under development when the flood occurred, but the extreme event accelerated the completion of the plan. The Adaptation Plan focuses heavily on the relationship between water and climate change impacts, especially in terms of extreme weather events and sea level rise. The Danish Meteorological Institute predicts an increase of 25-55% in precipitation during the winter, with a decrease in summer precipitation by the year 2100 (City of Copenhagen, 2012).

However, the intensity of the rainfall is expected to increase by 20-50% over the same period which poses significant runoff and stormwater management challenges for Copenhagen (City of Copenhagen, 2012). Sea levels in Copenhagen Harbor are also projected to increase by as much as one meter by 2100, putting coastal urban development at risk of flooding and storm surges (City of Copenhagen, 2012). For each threat posed by climate change, Copenhagen’s Climate Adaptation Plan takes a three-pronged approach that defines various levels of adaptation measures — reduce the likelihood of the threat materializing, reduce the scale of the damage, and reduce the vulnerability of the city’s infrastructure. The Adaptation Plan makes it clear that the impacts of climate change on the city of Copenhagen are somewhat uncertain, but proactively recommends policy frameworks and governance structures for the city to stay ahead of the curve. Cities can learn from Copenhagen’s master plan to provide an understanding of the major threats, priorities, and sustainable financing options of climate change adaptation measures (Richter, 2018).

The Climate Adaptation was just the first step in Copenhagen’s climate change adaptation measures. The Cloudburst Management Plan was developed as a supplemental document to the overarching Climate Adaptation Plan. The Cloudburst Management Plan calls for a combination of infrastructure improvements to the underground sewer system and surface solutions such as cloudburst boulevards to transport water to the harbor or detention areas that will store rainwater until the drainage system can catch up (City of Copenhagen, 2012).

One element of a myriad of stormwater management strategies in the Cloudburst Management Plan is to protect important roadways, commercial buildings, and residential basements from flooding and transport water towards parks and recreational areas where the water can do the least amount of damage. Central to this idea is to create urban spaces that can temporarily store stormwater and also serve recreational and social purposes. In an interview with Source Magazine, Lykke Leonardsen, Head of the Climate Unit for the City of Copenhagen said, “From the very beginning we said that we don’t want to look at this as only solving problems, but as a way of creating opportunities for urban development, for improving the quality of life in the city. Just reserving a space to be only used maybe once every ten years is not the wisest thing to do” (2017).

Copenhagen’s climate change adaptation projects are not simply larger sewers or higher flood walls, but building multi-purpose spaces that enhance the ecological and social well-being of the city. The city’s holistic approach to greenspaces puts people at the center of the projects, spurring local involvement and ownership and improve the quality of life for residents.

[In Part II of this two-part series, scheduled for publication on November 12, John will introduce Tåsinge Plads, one of Copenhagen’s world-renowned climate resilience projects, as well as other holistic approaches to climate change.]

cycling in the rain


John Hicks headshot

John Hicks is a graduate student in Master of Urban & Regional Planning program. His report on Copenhagen’s response to climate change was an assignment for a course taught by Dr. David Robertson for the Online Master of Natural Resources program (Online MNR).

The Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability thanks the following photographers for sharing their work through the Creative Commons License: Kristoffer TrolleKristoffer TrolleClaus Tom Christensen, and Comrade King.

Literature Cited