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Nordhavn in Copenhagen is being transformed into a sustainable ‘five-minute city’, and is fast becoming a tourist hotspot. Photo: Shutterstock

How Copenhagen’s upcoming tourist hotspot Nordhavn is setting the standard for sustainability and is a blueprint for future developments

  • The former shipyard in the Danish capital is undergoing a 40-year conversion into a green city housing 40,000 inhabitants
  • With repurposed buildings, upcycled materials, solar power and energy-efficient utilities, everything is geared towards sustainability

It’s a sunny Wednesday afternoon in Nordhavn – on the outskirts of the Danish capital, Copenhagen – and the former shipyard bubbles with life.

Along the waterfront, Gen Zs clad in swimsuits and frayed denim shorts dive into the water and lounge on the wooden decks. Cafes buzz with patrons, drinking coffee leisurely and sinking their teeth into slices of rye bread and fresh pastries.

The transformation of this former industrial area – about three kilometres from end to end and set across a series of piers and connected islets on the city’s northern shore – has been under way for more than 10 years, and when complete in 2050 it will provide housing for 40,000 inhabitants and workspace for another 40,000.

In the past 18 months, it has begun humming with action, with enough completed buildings to house almost 5,000 residents and office workers. This is thanks in part to the area’s design as a “five-minute city”, a term that means it’s possible to reach shops, institutions, workplaces, cultural facilities, and public transport within five minutes’ walk from any point in the 3.6 million square metre (890-acre) district.

Konditaget Luders is a recreational space on top of a multistorey car park in Nordhavn. Photo: Shutterstock

Easing access is a new metro line, which opened in March 2020 and connects Nordhavn to Copenhagen’s city centre in 20 minutes.

The area has welcomed outposts of much-loved local brands such as the Andersen & Maillard bakery and Sanchez, a Mexican cantina from Rosio Sanchez, who previously worked at Noma restaurant – creating the beginnings of a new tourism hotspot.

There are harbour baths and waterside wooden decks, performance spaces and cinemas. In the coming years, the area’s decommissioned fabrication yard will be converted into a cultural space spanning nearly eight square kilometres (3 square miles) called the Tunnel Factory.

There will be open-air performance spaces, a sculpture park, artist ateliers, maker studios with boutiques, high-design playgrounds for kids, and a range of “climate-conscious” restaurants, according to design plans, all focusing on construction styles and artistic disciplines that leverage upcycled materials.

Nordhavn isn’t just an example of innovative and highly liveable urban planning. It’s a trailblazer for urban greening, with master plans that rival any city in the world for sustainability ambitions.

Plastic waste from Hong Kong river upcycled into public benches

If those plans are carried out as intended – and they have been so far – Nordhavn will receive the highest certification from the German Sustainable Building Council (DGNB), recognised as the standard-setter in sustainability auditing.

It will then join roughly a dozen municipalities around the world that have been awarded platinum recognition, and, it is hoped, inspire some of the 10 million visitors to Copenhagen each year.

Denmark has weathered the coronavirus pandemic well and has already announced plans to end all pandemic restrictions in September. At the end of August the government raised its forecast for gross domestic product (GDP) growth because it expects the impact of the economic recovery to kick in sooner than expected.

Driven by a spike in private consumption at home, rising exports and low infection rates, GDP will grow by 3.8 per cent this year, up from a May forecast of 2.4 per cent, the Danish finance ministry now expects.

Nordhavn’s regeneration broke ground in 2009 and the project is expected to be completed by 2050. Photo: Shutterstock

“The Danish economy is currently running at high speed after the reopening of society following a wave of infections during the winter,” Finance Minister Nicolai Wammen said. “Economic activity and employment now exceed the level before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.”

Since breaking ground in 2009, the regeneration of Nordhavn has been a showcase of cutting-edge green building.

One of the first buildings to be completed in the district was EnergyLab Nordhavn, a “smart city energy lab” where more than a dozen local companies, utility providers, and government entities have collaborated over the past five years to engineer everything from energy-efficient heating pumps to electric transport infrastructure and sophisticated energy storage systems.

Copenhagen International School in Nordhavn. Photo: Shutterstock

Their 28-point report on the future of green living is now the backbone of the remaining Nordhavn projects, many of which feature architectural reuse rather than new constructions.

Some of the resulting innovations are simple: Nordhavn is scattered with more bike trails and walking paths than the average neighbourhood.

Others are extremely hi-tech, such as a citywide “energy data warehouse” that collects real-time information about wind and solar production, weather, energy costs, and how all the area’s resources – heating, transport, electricity, or other uses – are being consumed at any given moment.

Nordhavn has the highest ambitions with regards to sustainability on a city district level
Mette Qvist, chief executive of the Green Building Council

That allows authorities to drive down districtwide usage and efficiently manage renewables. (The team at EnergyLab says it has already welcomed officials from many national and international delegations to study this system and its advantages.)

Every building plays a role in reducing Nordhavn’s overall footprint.

The Copenhagen International School, near Orientkaj metro station, has the area’s largest solar array on its roof.

The Portland towers are two former silos which have been converted into office buildings. Photo: Getty Images

Residents in the Harbour Park residential development periodically give up control of their own heat supply systems to enable officials to recalibrate and optimise citywide thermal systems as the weather changes.

And the Meny supermarket location in the district has technology in place to capture waste heat from cooling systems and transfer it to a district heating network.

Nordhavn may not yet be complete, but its master plan puts it in rare company as a global standard-setter for sustainability. Of the districts that have received platinum rankings from DGNB, only a handful – including Cloche d’Or in Luxembourg and Berlin’s new Waterkant area – west of the city centre, are in major urban hubs.

It’s the benchmark at the moment
Christine Lemaitre, CEO of DGNB

Unlike Leed, which certifies green buildings after they’ve been completed, DGNB can help shape projects while they’re still in early design phases, offering clear guidelines for stakeholders and architects to follow from day one.

It not only certifies individual buildings (the German Enterprise Centre, in Qingdao, China, has platinum certification) but entire municipalities, encouraging them to think holistically about commonly overlooked issues such as contaminated soil, while also providing life-cycle cost analysis for different approaches to waste water treatment and recycling.

“Nordhavn has the highest ambitions with regards to sustainability on a city district level,” says Mette Qvist, chief executive of the Green Building Council, a non-profit with the exclusive rights to certify DGNB buildings within Denmark.

New flats in Nordhavn. Photo: Shutterstock

She adds that the city’s smart planning has also contributed to its high prices. With an average price per square metre of around 58,000 krone (around US$9,200), Nordhavn has become the most expensive neighbourhood in already-pricey Copenhagen, according to data published by the Danish Architecture Centre.

The plan stipulates that 25 per cent of the units built must qualify as affordable housing, and the Tunnel Factory’s blueprints also include residences for students and apprentices.

“If you have all these different elements, climate change adaptations, and green spaces, the expectations are that these areas will be more valuable,” explains Qvist.
We can’t predict how society or the world will be in 10 or 70 years’ time. We will adapt and leave development for the future.
Dan Stubbergaard of Cobe, responsible for designing the city

Nordhavn’s initiatives have already caught the attention of world leaders.

Before the coronavirus pandemic in October 2019, Nordhavn hosted the C40 summit on sustainable development, which was attended by mayors from 40 of the world’s largest cities.

In May 2019, it also played host to a group of mayors and technical advisers from the IDB Cities Network, representing 16 cities throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Their shared goal was to identify long-term solutions to common problems such as traffic management and overdevelopment.

The design team behind Nordhavn knows its cutting-edge ideas will only be cutting-edge for so long.

“We can’t predict how society or the world will be in 10 or 70 years’ time,” says architect Dan Stubbergaard of Cobe, the studio responsible for designing the city. “We will adapt and leave development for the future.”

“It’s really a pilot project,” says Christine Lemaitre, CEO of DGNB, indicating the long road ahead. But it has already succeeded in setting rigorous sustainability standards across the board and finding ways to make them attractive to investors, she explains.

In that sense, Lemaitre adds, “It’s the benchmark at the moment”.