A Catalytic City

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Sophia Erhard

Oxidized, bronze statues seem ubiquitous in many modern European cities. Their signature, mint-green weathering- similar to the color of hospital scrubs- starkly contrasts with neutral walls and pathways. Thus, from a distance it was easy to spot one in front of the Danish Parliament building during our first afternoon in Copenhagen on Rice University’s Urban Sustainability and Livability Program. As we leisurely approached the Parliament building, the adjacent statue’s silhouette shifted from an anticipated knight on horseback into an unforeseen polar bear.

“Unbearable,” Christiansborg Palace.

Danish artist Jens Galschiøt conceptualized and executed this statue for the COP21, the 2015 United Nations climate change summit. Its disfigured body is pierced by an exponential curve representing the world’s cumulative carbon emissions. It is a statement symbolizing a global apathy for the “irreparable, self-reinforcing chaos” of many post-industrialized lifestyles, as Galschiøt puts it. The sculpture and its tone are shock-worthy; yet, its strategic placement in front of the Parliament building surprised me the most. Whereas climate change continues to be a topic for contentious political debates in the United States, the Danish government demonstrates a clear and pronounced stance: environmental consideration is central to the Danish way of life.

During this three-week study abroad program, which is overseen by Dr. Don Ostdiek of the policy studies department, five other students and I conducted individual, city-oriented research projects. Although my personal project focused exclusively on the social equity of a specific popular park, it was impossible to disregard this inherent ethic of environmental consideration within Copenhagen. The Danish government serves as only one of the catalysts for this consideration; a range of other examples rests underneath, above and throughout Copenhagen.

Viking Vigilance

At the core of this collective consideration is a history dating back one thousand years to the era of the Vikings. Contrary to popular belief that all were conquerors and pillagers, most Vikings of Scandinavia were farmers, and no Viking ever actually wore a horned helmet. Historical findings show that they were hygienic, literate, and resourceful.

On the outskirts of Copenhagen, in the city of Roskilde, we visited the Viking Ship Museum where locals interactively connect with their shared history by reconstructing complete replicas of Viking ships using thousand year old techniques. For example, the ships’ ropes are created from wood strips soaked for over three months in nearby creeks, and then carefully braided by skilled craftspeople. The hemp sails are maintained with a deep burgundy wash, gently boiled in an oversized pot until just the right chemistry is achieved. Primitive blueprints for the oars’ shape and length are followed as gospel. And so, the textures and contours of long ago are literally in the hands of those in Roskilde.

At the museum site, we rowed along the steady water in one of these crafted boats. We sat in two parallel lines, each person behind one another, with the frontperson serving as the cadence-controller. My arms reached forward and back, forward and back--rhythmically forming ellipses of air in front of my torso. There was an undeniable, sharp pressure change as the oar left the water, gaining momentum above the surface, then slicing back through the water’s edge. It was a Viking’s dance. We were told to close our eyes to feel the beat more innately. With the rowing left to our other senses, our novice apprehension vanished as the pitter-patter of slashing oars became harmonious crashes of thunder. In undulating unison, we rowed until our crew reached the destined shore.

Roskilde. Courtesy of Dan Lockton

This unison is the reason for the Viking Ship Museum, and all that it preserves. It fosters a powerful group identity rooted in this part of Danish culture. This communal dynamic has been translated into a present-day care for the outcome of the earth--for your own benefit and your neighbor’s. It is known that, in the end, what happens to your neighbor affects you, too.

Water (and) Parks

In tandem with this collectivism is water’s mark on Danish DNA. Copenhagen is a city surrounded by canalways--in fact, nobody in Denmark lives farther than 52 kilometers from the coast. Locals willingly dive headfirst into the crystal ripples. Houseboats anchor along each flowing cul de sac. Everything from an opera house to the National Library to a royal garden stands steps away from blue blurs.

Eva Lin, a rising sophomore, found that “flood-relieving parks in Copenhagen are cheaper to build, less obtrusive, and more approachable than traditional flood-relieving systems.” The City of Copenhagen estimates the intensity of future rainfall will increase by 20-50% due to climate change, and is “planning and constructing parks that can store water to prevent flooding,” says Eva. One example of this phenomenon is Tåsinge Square where umbrella-shaped structures store rainwater for surrounding plants.

Tåsinge Square. Courtesy of Eva Lin

Although the definition of ‘true’ sustainability is often multi-faceted and circumstantial, my personal definition of park sustainability formerly rested on its employment of and dedication to “real” nature (i.e. native flowers and trees). However, Eva’s observations highlight the value of the areas I had overlooked as potential park spaces--areas where there is no “real” nature in sight, yet offer square footage for the indirect preservation of this broader natural world.

In fact, Kathleen Snider, a rising sophomore, researched this design of waterfront space and the effect of Copenhagen’s canalways on the built environment. She found that parks, in particular, play a significant role in sustaining the literal and emotional connection to this natural wonder. In her studies within the Christianshavn district, she encountered a park originally conceived by the surrounding community to retain the expansive waterfront space from structural development. “It continues to be used as a park and will be able to be used in the future without becoming outdated.”

Christianshavn Park.

Kathleen researched how waterfront parks promote sustainability of the surrounding community, though, parks seemed nonexistent within the general scale of waterfront development in Copenhagen. On a ferryboat tour of the harbor, we witnessed the uniform pixelation of condo windows patterning the panoramic views. Without developments like the Christianshavn park, these constructions could urbanize the entire landscape as well as demolish any natural area overlooking water. These parks provide space for sunbathing swans and avid people-watchers, as well as sites for sustainable land use. And sometimes space is all you need to get people outside. Although the Christianshavn park seemed like a rare find along the water, it predominantly felt that you could pick any point on a Copenhagen map, walk in any direction, and you’d be destined to run into a public park.

Spindles of Energy

In parallel to the high density of parks in Copenhagen, a high density of windmills consistently occupies the city’s sea horizons. In 2015, wind energy provided 42% of Denmark’s electricity, the largest proportion of wind in any country’s electricity portfolio. Renewable energy is seen as a policy imperative for combating climate change and there are many citizens who are passionate about its implementation. One of these people is Jens Anker Hansen, Chairman and Operator of Lynetten Wind Power. We met Jens on the outskirts of Copenhagen at the Lynetten wind farm, where he guided us up a 200-foot windmill. The journey to climb was through a series of metal ladders, each standing at a 90 degree angle. As we ascended, the surrounding cylinder became increasingly narrow until we reached the top hatch, inhaled a cleansing breath, and traced the windmills spinning all the way in Sweden in the endlessness of hazeless air. It was here that I also noted the vast, emerald sparkle of the Danish canal water.

Via Wheels

Still fixated on this Google Maps view of Copenhagen, I rented a ‘Gobike’ and pedaled back over the canal bridge alongside bands of helmetless riders (an homage to the widespread trust in road safety). For tourists or locals without their own bikes, Copenhagen employs a bike-share program which offers rented Gobikes from stations around the city. The success of this program has to do somewhat with the city’s scale. For example, New York City, which is ten times larger in area than Copenhagen, fundamentally requires an overall increase in distance-travelled. Copenhagen’s opportunity for accessible, short rides is made possible by an abundance of stations and bikeable areas. Additionally, they deck out these electric Gobikes with navigation screens. In an instant, an unfamiliar city becomes familiarly accessible.

To give you an idea of the popularity of biking, 50% of Copenhageners bike to and from work. By contrast, the U.S. city with the most bike commuters is Portland, Oregon, and its percentage hovers only around 7.2%. With so many using a bike as their main means of transportation, cars seem unnecessary. In fact, cars carry a 150% tax in Denmark, making them unappealing to the average citizen. There are bike lanes along almost every roadway in Copenhagen; you can ride across a canal, through a park, or within a plaza. At the main transportation hub, Nørreport Station, a massive collection of locked bikes rests 24 hours a day, its abundance never seeming to dwindle.

Food with Thought

Just down the street from Nørreport Station, a large indoor-outdoor food market called Torvehallerne stands adjacent to a concrete public park space. On a Saturday mid-morning, the lines for fresh, organic, and local food interweave into one massive gathering of hungry customers. This intense demand is matched with the availability of wholesome food, and serves as a theme throughout Copenhagen.

Torvehallerne. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

With modest outdoor signage, it would be possible to mistake the two-time winner of the Most Sustainable Restaurant Award for another apartment building. Upon entering, though, the open-layout kitchen flamed with crackling pepper while the aromas delicately followed us to our table. Because of the Klaus and Eugenia Weissenberger Scholarship awarded to Kajal Patel, a rising fourth year architecture student, our student group and mentors had the immense pleasure of dining at Relæ which serves 90-100% of all their produce as certified organic, including fresh-baked bread bicycled in every morning.

These pure tastes manifest themselves within the dishes at Relæ. The chefs produce simple courses with three main ingredients or less, praising the uncomplicated tastes of an untouched harvest. And even at a highly tailored and upscale restaurant, Copenhagen’s presentation is simply grounded: allow nature to speak for itself.

Relæ menu and courses. Courtesy of Eva Lin and Richard Johnson

This mission of Relæ is not singular to Copenhagen’s high-end restaurants. Having the “world’s leading organic nation” status and enough agricultural land to sustain three times their current population, organic food in Denmark is just common practice. The organic red emblem, analogous to the USDA certification seal, is stamped on more produce than not at the local grocery market. In addition to its immense accessibility, organic food is also very affordable. I frequently visited the local grocer and noted the low-cost (much cheaper than in the U.S.) and high quality of the organic produce. For certain items like carrots, organic was the only option. Street vendors also promised fresh and inexpensive produce, and delivered consistently on both. From layers of carts and crates, we shared dusty yellow donut peaches and red lacquered cherries, praising the tastes and colors of the countryside.


Copenhagen’s history, parks, windmills, bikes, and food all catalyze its citizens’ environmental consideration: our simple, yet solid and unfailing, biophilic bond with the natural environment. In these activities and developments, Copenhagen provides tourists and locals a chance to at least sense this bond within the backdrop of an interconnected and urbanized city. I personally sensed it while rowing the Viking boat, while feeling the breeze at the windmill’s peak, and especially, while biking.

On my last day in Copenhagen, I borrowed a friend’s bike and rode with the intent of getting lost. One moment I was pedaling along speed bumps in the suburbs, the next I was crossing a main thoroughfare in the city center. With such connectivity, it was never challenging to find my way back to the central streets, and I appreciated the ease in the adventure. At my final destination, Amager Beach, I sat watching the pink sunset paint itself behind the backdrop of a row of spindled, white windmills.

Amager Beach.

Biking to this dotted Danish horizon contributed to an intrinsic interconnection with the outside world. On a bike, you do not just witness the sky in passing. Your lungs fill with its openness. You don’t merely wonder about the activity behind the park gates. You wonder at the flowers adding multi-colored dimension to the grassy plots. You wonder at the duck sleeping, turning his head 180 degrees to rest on his feathered body pillow.

Biking allowed me to gain a sense of what Copenhagen is. In this reflection, it was clear that the choices of the national government, city, and citizens to promote renewable over non-renewable, park space over highways, organic over pesticide-poisoned, emphasize an inherent ethic of environmental consideration. There, of course, is a time and need for the doomful and threatening tones of the pierced polar bear; however, Copenhagen focuses on the broader picture: why those tones grasp our moral capacities.

From left-right: Dan Lockton, Flora Bowden, Marie Hoeger, Richard Johnson, Eva Lin, Kajal Patel, Kathleen Snider, Ben Baldazo, Sophia Erhard. Courtesy of Eva Lin