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A design for life

From its cycle culture to its hip and happy citizens, Copenhagen might be the world's most admired city right now. Experts including the Lord Mayor and the world's foremost bike expert tell us why

A design for life

Illustrations Miss Lotion

An All-round Great City

British journalist Patrick Kingsley is the author of How To Be Danish, a book released in December 2012 that celebrates the world's happiest nation

It was the cyclists that did it for me. Everywhere you look in Copenhagen, there are people on bikes - gliding, sometimes two or three abreast, down the Danish capital's gorgeous rococo streets. But it's not just their sheer volume that's impressive - it's how stylish they look while doing it. Cyclists don't often wear lycra here and you won't see many mountain bikes. Instead, the lanes are jammed with skinny jeans and tight leather jackets, bright scarves and smart blazers. Copenhagen looks good.

I got to know the city quite well last year, while researching my new travel book, How To Be Danish - a short introduction to contemporary Denmark. At the time, Denmark was - and still is - the country of the moment. Recently named the happiest nation in the world, it's the motherland of TV thrillers The KillingBorgen and The Bridge, and home to Noma (www.noma.dk), the world's best restaurant. I spent a month zigzagging across Denmark, stopping offat the country's kitchens, TV sets and even the happiest town in the world (Ringkøbing). But, above all, I fell in love with Copenhagen.

In many ways, the city is perfectly proportioned. Small enough to cross in 20 minutes - on a bike, of course! - it is still large enough to house half-a-dozen distinct districts, each with their own auras, from the tasteful city centre Indre By to refined Østerbro, with its dainty terraced cottages, and the hipster haven of Vesterbro, which has echoes of London's Shoreditch.

Aside from the social aspects that make the city great - this is a place where lawyers' salaries are less than twice those of binmen and university is free - Copenhagen is just a fun place to hang out. There's a beach within striking distance of the centre and a huge outdoor swimming pool in the middle of the harbour.

Then there's the food. Most famously, there's Noma - named the world's best restaurant three years in a row, it's known for live ants, eggs you fry yourself and vegetables served in a trough of earth. Noma's just one example of the New Nordic Kitchen that prioritises local ingredients and local techniques. One night in Vesterbro I found myself cutting up my own table with a Stanley knife at a pop-up restaurant called I'm A Kombo, another place making waves across the North Sea.

Architecturally, the city's a gem. In the older areas, strict planning laws mean there's rarely an ugly or tall building: the traditional streets are wide and lined with graceful rococo houses. But the city that spawned the starchitect of the moment, Bjarke Ingels, is not without modern architecture. Ingels himself had a hand in Ørestad, an extraordinary if controversial new suburb in the south-east that is spiked with blocks of flats that look like roller-coasters and tenements built like mountain-sides. But you'll need your bike to get there. And leave your lycra behind.

It's Got Big Events, Too

Copenhagen Fashion Week

Held in January/February and August, Copenhagen Fashion Week is Northern Europe's biggest fashion event and draws international stars as well as local luminaries such as designers Malene Birger and Henrik Vibskov.

Roskilde Festival

The Roskilde Festival, held this year from 29 June to 7 July, is one of the six biggest in Europe, with Rihanna and Animal Collective already among those on the bill. It's not quite Copenhagen, but it's only 25 minutes by train.

Copenhagen Pride

Held every August, Copenhagen Pride is one of Europe's top LGBT events, with up to 70,000 people packing into City Square for concerts, art shows and a parade in this gay-friendly city (it was the world's first to recognise gay civil unions, in 1989).

A Thriving Bike Culture

Mikael Colville-Andersen is Copenhagen's Mr Bicycle. He coined the phrase "cycle chic" in 2007 with his now-famous Copenhagen Cycle Chic blog, and in 2009 formed Copenhagenize, a consultancy specialising in urban mobility

Copenhagen's long been ahead of the game when it comes to bikes. When I created the Copenhagen Cycle Chic blog in 2007, if you were in the US and said you were a cyclist, people pictured you in Spandex. The whole Copenhagen scene is the opposite of that. But even though there are now more than 200 cycle-chic blogs around the world, I don't think it's really about bicycle fashion - I don't think such a thing exists. People in Copenhagen look good while they're cycling because they just wear what's in their wardrobe.

We've done studies on why people ride bikes here and most say it's because it's the quickest way to get from A to B - it's that simple. The grandparents and people riding with kids aren't doing it to look hip, it's just what they do.

There are more than 1,000km of bike lanes in the metropolitan area, so you can cycle safely on any street. Cities have proven time and again that if you build bike lanes, people will use them.

The problem in many places around the world has been that, since the 1950s and '60s, cities have planned for cars first. Even in Copenhagen, the share of bikes on the road went from more than 50 per cent in the 1940s to around nine per cent in the late '60s. That started to change in Copenhagen in the 1980s, when the council started implementing the fully separated cycle tracks that are now all over the city.

It was in the early '90s that the cycle boom really started to hit - now 36 per cent of all transport to work or place of education in Copenhagen is by bike.

It's also safe - there were no fatalities in Copenhagen last year, even though most people don't wear helmets. Helmets aren't designed to save lives and, in fact, a lot of the time the helmet companies promote the idea that cycling is dangerous.

One of my main jobs today is proving to other cities that this model can be copied. But we're competing against 80 years of traffic engineering in favour of the car. A lot of engineers around the world point to the fact that there are now more cars than bikes, but cities like Amsterdam and Paris have shown, if you build the right infrastructure, people will ride. Our message is that city planning should be about people rather than data flows.

One of the things that's now most appealing about Copenhagen is that there are people everywhere, moving about - they're on bikes, walking or on public transport, not trapped in cars. It's not just about being green, but about making a city more human - for me, this is one of the main reasons why Copenhagen is such a liveable place.

It's got great food (even without Noma)


A more relaxed (and cheaper) alternative to the New Nordic giants of Noma and Geranium, Relae in Nørrebro was 2011's restaurant of the year; think laidback wood interior and elegantly understated food, from DKK385 set menus.


Aamanns' deli serves what some say is the best modern smørrebrød (open rye sandwich) in town, while the small adjoining restaurant is all about Arne Jacobsen chairs and fresh seasonal Danish produce, including game and local fish.

Kødbyens Fiskebar

Anders Selmer, a former protégé of Noma's Rene Redzepi, sources only the best at this lively meatpacking district fish bar: think blue mussels from Limfjorden, herring from the Kattegat sea or sea urchin from the Norwegian coast.

Challenging TV

Vicky Frost is the television and radio editor of the Guardian (UK), and has regularly championed Danish television

Less than three years ago, the idea of Danish dramas being must-watch Saturday night television in the UK was ludicrous. Sweden had given us the Wallander adaptations, of course, but they came with a built-in audience thanks to the bestselling novels. So Forbrydelsen [The Killing], a 20-hour original drama performed in Danish against a gloomy, relentlessly rainy backdrop, seemed an unlikely hit even for BBC4, the niche British digital channel that champions challenging documentaries and subtitled imports. Which makes the success of The Killing even more surprising. Ratings topped a million - a fraction of those for a mainstream drama, but a huge number for a foreign-language drama on a small channel - and Forbrydelsen fast became a cultural and fashion reference point. Its success has been followed by Borgen and The Bridge.

So what has made viewers beyond Denmark embrace a socially uncomfortable Copenhagen policewoman, an unlikely pair of Nordic detectives and, most surprisingly of all, the intricacies of Danish politics? There are many factors that will have had an impact - the growth of Nordic noir and the crime genre will have given The Killing an initial push, for instance. But most of all, the success of Danish drama largely comes down to nailing the essentials: strong writing, great characters and brilliant acting.

Three fantastic female leads have helped, of course. While Saga Norén, the quirky female investigator in BronBroen (The Bridge), a Swedish-Danish co-production for broadcasters SVT and DR, is a Swede, her unconventional manner has echoes of Sarah Lund, the detective in The Killing. Hair pulled back, bulky jumper firmly on, Lund is the kind of plum part that would usually be written as a man. Ditto, of course, Birgitte Nyborg - Borgen's first female prime minister, appointed before Denmark's first real female prime minister.

Far from turning viewers off, these brilliant, complex female characters - Nyborg, played with great aplomb by Sidse Babbett Knudsen, can plot and scheme with the best of them - seem to be fulfilling a desire for female characters with depth. It's noticeable that US series Homeland's Carrie, the latest maverick agent on TV screens, is also a woman who comes with contradictions and problems.

Great acting makes for great characters, but so too does strong writing. Søren Sveistrup, creator of The Killing, worked closely with actress Sophie Gråbøl to create Lund, which helps explain her depth of character and great appeal. But Sveistrup also introduced family as a central theme, as the Birk Larsens deal with the loss of their daughter in heartbreakingly emotional scenes. We're not just focused on driving the plot through, or developing only the central character, but rather investigating the social and familial consequences of actions.

Readers of Nordic crime literature will be familiar with this, of course, but it's still the case that we rarely see beyond the procedural when it comes to detective drama. It's what sets The Killing apart - and is a theme we've seen repeated since in both Borgen and The Bridge: Birgitte trying to balance home and family, conscience and ambition; Martin Rohde grappling with his worst nightmares in The Bridge. It's these human elements that have got us completely hooked on Danish television.

It's liveable (officially)

But it’s not all good news…

Copenhagen's weather is rubbish. As well as darkness at 3.30pm in the winter, there are an average of 170 rainy days a year. And it's not cheap. According to Forbesmagazine, it's the third most expensive city in Europe.

Good Urban Planning

Frank Jensen is the Lord Mayor of Copenhagen, a post he has held since January 2010. His team is responsible for everything from urban planning to infrastructure, schools and social issues in the city

One of the things we have been good at in Copenhagen is long-term planning. Take the harbour. Twenty years ago it was not a place you wanted to hang around - the water was dirty and there were no nice buildings. Now the water is so clean you can swim in it, there are bike bridges and there has been lots of development. Making the area appealing encouraged the world-famous restaurant Noma to move in, and has attracted more people and businesses to the harbour area.

One of the central aspects of our planning has been creating mixed areas and avoiding ghettos. You can't just build high-end luxury compounds in Copenhagen - even in smart new developments, you need a mix of social housing and smaller apartments, so everyone gets a chance to live well. Ultimately, if you avoid ghettos, it's better for a city in the long run, in terms of social problems. Part of that is our way of planning. Any major plan requires a public hearing, so the citizens are involved. You hear from the shareholders, but you also have to listen to the people.

A lot of what makes Copenhagen work is getting that balance of people right. For example, we do a lot to keep families inside the city. We make sure we have good schools and day-care institutions as soon as the child is one year old. We also want people to be out and living in the city - we have made it easy to set up shops, cafés and restaurants, and have not been too prohibitive. Rather than clamping down on things that make noise, say, we've encouraged citizens to do what they want.

We're also committed to being green. Since 1995 we have cut CO2-emissions by 40 per cent. Some of the first things you see when you fly into the airport are the wind farms in the sea. Wind energy produces up to a quarter of the power in the national grid. We use the left-over capacity for heating houses and have a number of green initiatives, like using cold water from the harbour for our district cooling system.

Of course, all this costs money, but when you invest in making the city a better place to live you ultimately generate wealth. I am proud to be the Lord Mayor of one of the best cities in the world to live in, and we strive to become an even better place to live and work.

Three Iconic Danish Designs

Egg Chair

Architect and furniture designer Arne Jacobsen came up with the Egg Chair in 1958 as part of a commission to kit out the interior of Copenhagen's Royal Hotel. That sleek interior remains, but it's been out-famed by the Egg, which was partly inspired by Eero Saarinen's Womb Chair.

PH Artichoke Lamp

Also from 1958, this lamp by Poul Henningsen, Denmark's most famous lighting designer, is still popular. Henningsen also designed the PH Grand Piano and the Glassalen concert hall in Tivoli Gardens, but it was lighting that was his true passion.

5W Flowing Rhythm

Christian and Grethe Flensted created their first mobile to celebrate the baptism of their daughter in 1954, and still run their business out of the island of Funen with a team of 60. Their most iconic design is the sleek Flowing Rhythm. 


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