Life in Copenhagen, a Living City

In January, I set out on my own to spend a semester in Copenhagen. My professors had told me tales of cycling culture and ski-slope-power-plants, and I was determined to see it for myself. I was a little nervous, very excited, and more prepared than I thought for life in Denmark’s capital city.

Some part of me had this expectation that all of Copenhagen is this quaint, cobblestoned dream resembling the historic Nyhavn waterfront. And you know what? Some of Copenhagen is a quaint, cobblestoned dream resembling the historic Nyhavn waterfront. And some of it is a weird, geometric hotel jutting out of the flat brush. Some of it is modern apartment buildings like nothing you would ever see in Chapel Hill. Some of it is a neighborhood introduced by my Danish friend as “not having a face yet”; there’s just a shopping mall and a library. Yep, that’s the neighborhood where I live.

A particularly out-of-place building on the flat landscape of Amager: the AC Marriott Hotel. Photo Credit: Molly Auten.

Green City, Green Space

I knew there had to be a reason why Copenhagen was the darling of all my planning AND environmental studies professors. The city has committed to becoming the world’s first carbon-neutral capital by 2025, and obviously it has impeccable transportation infrastructure. I assumed that all of that would come with dense development and minimal open space.

In reality, I actually haven’t seen one single-family home. Even on my brief commute out of the city center to my student housing in the suburbs, I pass a long row of low-rise apartments, including the Mountain Dwellings, a terraced apartment complex nestled atop an above-ground parking garage that blends right into its suburban landscape. When I was in the tenth grade, my Environmental Science teacher had a poster hanging up with a conceptual drawing of a “city of the future”. It had multi-use developments, high-speed rail, and high-density housing galore. When I look at my neighborhood, I can’t help but think of that picture.

The Mountain Dwellings: one of the tallest “mountains” you’ll find in Denmark. Photo Credit: Molly Auten.

Open space, on the other hand, is not necessarily in short supply. On the other side of my route home is a vast, flat bushland interwoven with walking and bike paths. There’s a park and playground right down the road from my apartment, and there’s a gated park akin to NYC’s Central Park nestled in between Copenhagen’s main shopping district and museums. Unfortunately, I’ve found much of this open space to be empty during the day. It’s not that these aren’t good places to enjoy public life, it’s just cold. And usually cloudy. So until those long summer daylight hours come around and the weather warms up a bit, I’ll be spending my time in Copenhagen’s abundant cafes soaking up the hygge.

Finding My Way

Even in the cycling capital of the world, I was convinced I couldn’t manage to make my way around on two wheels. In Chapel Hill, I just couldn’t crack it. The hills are too steep, Martin Luther King Boulevard is too treacherous, the bike lanes are too… wait, what bike lanes? And I don’t particularly enjoy showing up to class sweaty. Once I arrived in Copenhagen, it took me a whole month to work up the courage to rent a bike.

It turns out even I, the out-of-shape, directionally-challenged American, could get the hang of biking around Copenhagen in just a couple of days. There are dedicated bike lanes on most of the city’s streets, and on the occasional road that lacks them, drivers are accustomed to sharing the street with cyclists. I do often get sweaty before arriving to my destination, but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make to save money on the metro. I will say it’s a strange sensation to sweat while bundled up in a coat with freezing wind in your face.

Speaking of the metro, I assumed before I came that a “small-town” (Greensboro, NC) girl like me would inevitably get lost on the metro at least a couple of times. Wrongfully so, because the Copenhagen metro is two lines. Just two lines, and they run on the same route for half of their stops. I haven’t gotten lost once.

Copenhagen’s metro system is simple. Like, really simple. Photo Credit: Molly Auten.

Preservation Meets Innovation

If there’s one more thing Copenhagen has gotten right, it’s placemaking. Granted, I’m sure there are some similarities among the rest of Europe and Copenhagen’s shoulder-to-shoulder 18th-century buildings lining cobblestone paths. But there are certain things that are just so Copenhagen. The huge bike-ped bridge stretching across a main waterway. The trash-burning power plant-turned-ski slope (yes, you read that correctly). Whimsical trampoline insets in the sidewalk.

Some of the most distinct parts of this city are not just its historic churches and palaces, but the modern-day innovation sprinkled in among them. I think many cities with such a long, storied past are afraid to build anything that could detract from their quaint, old-time aesthetic. But Copenhagen strikes the perfect balance between preservation and innovation. It’s a living city, and I’m happy to be living in it.

The Metro speeding by mixed-use housing and retail. Photo Credit: Molly Auten.

Featured Image: Nyhavn waterfront is bustling with sightseers on a rare sunny day. Photo Credit: Molly Auten.

About the Author: Molly Auten is a junior undergraduate studying sustainability and urban planning at UNC. She interns with the UNC Three Zeros Environmental Initiative working to plan events and engage the campus in sustainability efforts. Molly is currently spending the spring semester taking classes at the University of Copenhagen in Danish architecture, GIS, and developmental planning and policy. Outside of class, she enjoys singing, drinking chai lattes, and browsing New Urbanist Memes for Transit Oriented Teens.