Star quality aids Copenhagen’s green revolution

Anna Minton
7 April 2009

Klaus Bondam, Copenhagen’s mayor of environmental administration, is leading that city’s drive to become provide the world’s best urban environment by 2015. We talked to him at the ParkCity green infrastructure conference in London in March 2009.

Klaus Bondham
Photo by A&M Photography

Move over Kyoto, here comes Copenhagen. The world over, ‘Kyoto’ is shorthand for the international agreement on climate change, but come next year it is likely to be replaced by ‘Copenhagen’, when a new protocol is agreed at the UN climate summit in Copenhagen in December

Copenhagen, which aspires to provide the world’s best urban environment by 2015, is an apt choice for the summit. The man responsible for his city’s green credentials is Klaus Bondam, the 45-year-old former actor and Danish TV comedy star. Bondam, who once starred in the movie Festen, is now mayor of environmental administration.

Speaking at CABE’s ParkCity conference on green infrastructure in March 2009, Bondam didn’t mince words when it came to his global aspirations. “In Copenhagen, we are looking for solutions that will save the world. Our target is to be an inspirational city and our main goal is to be the world’s first carbon neutral city by 2025.”

How did Copenhagen move from being a city which 20 years ago was “grey, dull and worn out”, according to Bondam, to this world leader in sustainability? He believes the role his generation has played has been critical to boosting city life there.

“Fifteen, 20 years ago, Copenhagen was very poor, it was just old people and students. People moved out. My generation decided to stay on after studying – we wanted urban life and we felt that there were many things that were uniquely ‘Copenhagen’ that were worth fighting for,” he says.

At the centre of this is green infrastructure. He has two goals. “Our first goal is that 90 per cent of citizens will be no more than 15 minutes’ walk from a park or one of Copenhagen harbour’s two swimming facilities.”

Before the Second World War Copenhagen’s harbour was swimmable and in 2002 two areas were re-opened for swimming, with a third planned. New green infrastructure planned includes green roofs, the adaption of the sewage system, 14 new ‘pocket parks’ and the planting of 14,000 new trees, which are all part of a green structure plan.

Our main goal is to be the world’s first carbon neutral city by 2025.

The second goal of green infrastructure relates to green cycle routes. When it comes to cycling, politicians leading by example in Denmark – it is a common sight to see government ministers riding about. Like London Mayor Boris Johnson, he cycles to work himself.

“The plan is to establish a network of green cycle routes for commuters,” he explains. Thirty seven kilometres of green cycle lanes have already been constructed, mainly in car free environments, and the aim is to create 110 kilometres.

Bondam describes how green infrastructure will feed into the “green economy”, which focuses on “inventing new processes and new technologies” which are carbon neutral. “Whether new construction is public or private, it will have a green aspect, and existing development is being retrofitted” he says.

Copenhagen’s aim is not only to be carbon neutral but to provide the world’s best urban environment by 2015. The city already has one of the world’s best recycling schemes, with 90 per cent of all construction waste recycled and 75 per cent of all household garbage used for heating. More than half of all food consumed in the city’s public institutions is organic and the goal is that 90 per cent will be organic.

In terms of financial outlay, he claims it’s more a case of “moving money around” and prioritising investment in green infrastructure, and points to evidence that increasing the number of parks and green space reduces crime and therefore expenditure.

Ultimately, though, he’s clear that it’s not an issue which can be avoided. “Cities from the beginning of time built up defence systems. Now, we have to defend ourselves against climate change,” he says.

Cars – which are taxed at 180 per cent in Denmark - are at the centre of the debate. “The car issue is a very tough discussion,” he says, comparing it to difficult debates in Denmark over immigration.

The man Bondam cites as his main inspiration is the Danish architect and urbanist Jan Gehl, who has become international renowned for his ideas about public space and the space between buildings. “He’s a fantastic man to work with and to be with. Politically we don’t agree – he’s more to the left than I am (Bondam is a member of the centre Social Liberal Party) but he is a big inspiration to me,” he says.

So, what’s next for the actor turned politician? If Bondam is re-elected, he would like to continue with his environment brief in the new year. He has no ambitions for the national stage. If anything, as a well-known actor in Denmark, he seems to prefer the idea of the relative anonymity of political life in Europe.

“Politically, I’m from outside rather than an actor turned politician. Sometimes I feel that I have to justify to the public that I am serious,” he admits. One possibility he is considering is running for the European parliament. But for now, he is off to Downing Street to talk about transport. Bondam, and Copenhagen’s pioneering example, is certainly being taken very seriously.

New thinking on green infrastructure

In March 2009, CABE and Natural England brought together an international audience of professionals - most of whose interests lie outside the established green sector – to discuss the latest thinking and share solutions, at the ParkCity green infrastructure conference.

Read our other interviews with:

Edward T McMahon – the founding father of the concept of green infrastructure is a leading conservationist, environmental lawyer and an inspirational public speaker

Wade Crowfoot – San Francisco’s director of climate protection initiatives is at the front line of the Californian city’s not-so-quiet climate revolution.