Town Hall Square

Britain and Denmark have shared a long and frequently volatile history. Viking invaders terrorised Saxon England with a bloodthirsty ferocity that made the Romans seem like pacifists. Centuries later, British soldiers exacted revenge by blockading the port at Copenhagen and using the spire of the national cathedral for target practice. Thankfully relations are far more amicable today and few areas are more reflective of this rapprochement than the relationship and similarities between our two capital cities.

Both London and Copenhagen harbour relatively young populations many of whom are unable to mount the housing ladder due to expensive property prices, particularly in the city centres. There is also an acute affordable housing shortage in both cities, which in turn has been partially responsible for spiralling property prices and a relatively high cost of living.

The powerful manufacturing base that once flourished in both capitals has now been largely replaced by the service economy, a development that has wielded multiple urban as well as economic challenges. One of these has been the regeneration of formerly industrialised areas in both cities, many of which are concentrated along their respective waterfronts. And in both the London terrace and Copenhagen row-house, both cities nourish a stubborn historic commitment to the concept of low-density suburban housing as a cultural aspiration and social ideal. 

But it is not the similarities between the cities that is most intriguing but the different ways in which each city faces the parallel set of challenges and opportunities their shared experiences present. It is this comparison that reveals how London can learn from Copenhagen. Both cities have a strong tradition of public space. But in Copenhagen extensive city-centre pedestrianisation and palpable efforts to redistribute priority from cars to pedestrians reveal a strong civic and political commitment to a balanced and flourishing public realm.

This commitment is all too often absent in London where it took 17 years simply to close the northern end of Trafalgar Square to traffic. By contrast, the astonishing popularity of cycling in Copenhagen provides constant evidence of a thriving and inclusive public realm. Although in its infancy, London’s recently installed bike-hire scheme and the introduction of our alleged cycling “super-highways” are steps in the right direction. However, at a staggering cost of £140m, London’s complex and expensive system could learn from the economic competitiveness and operational simplicity of Copenhagen’s which – incredibly – is absolutely free. A nominal returnable deposit of a 20 kroner coin (just over £2) is all that is required to hire a bike for as long you want.


Sluseholmen is a new residential canalside development in Copenhagen Harbour where visual diversity has been created by different architects designing each facade. (Arkitema)

Sustainability now enjoys a high profile within the UK built environment sector and rightly so. However, scratch the surface all too often the term here refers solely to its environmental manifestation whereas in Denmark, a far more holistic approach is generally taken. Cultural, social, economic and even demographic sustainability are all given equal prominence to the environmental form with the consequence being that the new developments are measured against a much broader and more rigorous performance criteria. Communities may well develop by evolution rather than design. But they have a greater chance of being truly mixed and sustainable if all elements that affect their long-term impact are actively considered right from the start.

Danske Ark is a Copenhagen based organisation that actively promotes strategic business interests for Danish architects at home and abroad. It is assisted by government recognition of the ‘brand’ value of Danish architecture and a collective political desire to establish a strategic infrastructure that would maximise the economic benefits this could potentially entail. Sadly, such sophisticated and proactive political initiative is largely absent in England where architecture generally summons only the most meagre political voice.

In theory the RIBA protects the welfare of individual architects but a conspicuous void exists when it comes to the consolidation and promotion of business interests within the architectural community as a whole. Even worse, the RIBA is an institution that has skilfully turned apathy as well as architecture into an art form, as their indifference to the desperate plight of thousands of struggling architects during the recession continues to prove. A more sympathetic, robust and politically active architectural business framework along the lines of the Danish model would be welcome here.


Scandinavian design enjoys a global reputation for being a high quality product that ingeniously combines natural materials with dynamic experimentation. For a long time in the UK, Dutch housing in particular was considered superior in design terms to its British counterparts. Blanket stereotypical simplification of this kind rarely has much basis in truth and London arguably now maintains the most competitive and creative design community on earth. However, the sheer boldness and energy of some of Copenhagen’s recent new architecture makes for a truly stunning and seductive compendium of modern design.

Much of this is centred in Ørestad, an entirely new urban district being built from scratch to the south-east of Copenhagen on former industrial land. Lundgaard & Tranberg Architects’ Tietgenkollegiet (above) is a timber-clad circular student accommodation block whose centre is hollowed out to provide a landscaped communal area overlooked by randomly projecting double-height boxes. BIG Architects’ 8 House is a stunning new housing development whose ‘8’ shaped footprint is comprised of a stacked spiral of units and gardens that attempts to reinterpret the traditional typology of low-density suburban house into an unmistakably modern, high-density format. And Ørestad College (below) by 3XN Architects contains a central hall that is a spectacular and operatic spatial vortex of swooping staircases, plunging voids and dynamic views. All these projects and several others incorporate the very best in contemporary Danish architectural design.


And finally there is the useful precedent Copenhagen has set when it comes to the subject of tall buildings in historic contexts, always an incendiary topic in London. A recent tower proposal by Norman Foster on the edge of the city’s historic centre provoked a wide-ranging civic debate amongst architects, planners and residents about the future of Copenhagen’s historic skyline and fabric. Ultimately, the result was a rejection of the proposals and a commitment to keeping high-rises away from the city centre.

To some Londoners with their indigenous inclination towards commercial dynamism and spontaneous development this may seem like a regressive step. But it is the process Copenhagen employed that is important here and not the outcome. All too often the development of London’s skyline is the whimsical preserve of mayors and developers; neither of whom articulates a collective vision for what they want London’s skyline to be. This enables them to escape the civic responsibility that would otherwise force them to identify the shared values and priorities on which the future of our skyline and urban fabric is based. The result is an uncoordinated planning framework and haphazard patterns of high-rise development, both of which could be prevented by exactly the kind of civic debate that Copenhagen engaged in and the political consensus that emerged from it.

As with all frank exchanges, London can also learn from Copenhagen’s mistakes as well as her successes. Unlike London, local government in Copenhagen has no legislative mechanism by which to force the private sector to build a set quota of affordable housing. This restriction presumably does little to redress the chronic shortage of affordable homes in the centre of the Danish capital.

Copenhagen Opera House

Copenhagen Opera House (Henning Larsen)

The earliest phase of the Ørestad masterplan also involved the construction of Scandinavia’s largest shopping centre as a means to ensure the project’s commercial viability. However its subsequent success has sucked much of the life and animation away from surrounding streets and imposed a rather sterile character on a new neighbourhood still struggling to construct its urban identity. And although the new Metro line that links Ørestad to both the airport and the city has been key to its success, its elevated railway structure severs one of the main routes through the neighbourhood and creates an anonymous hinterland underneath.

Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that in the main, Copenhagen sets a captivating and courageous precedent for urban development that could serve as a useful template for future projects and attitudes in London. Its buoyant public realm, emphasis on holistic sustainability, commitment to adventurous design and promotion of civic debate are a welcome relief from the bureaucratic complexity and legislative inertia that all too often stifles London.

And there remains one other momentous reason why our two capitals may well be ideally placed to exchange experiences and ideas when it comes to enhancing our built environment. Both London and Copenhagen are widely recognised as exemplary models of civilised urbanism. Seminal London biographer Rasmussen (a Dane) claimed that for all its size and frenzy, London remains one of the most humanist cities in the world. Similarly, Copenhagen’s streets and public spaces also exhibit an extraordinary level of intimacy between citizen and city. So all that is required for one city to learn from the other is a cultural reaffirmation of the progressive urban values that underpin us both.