How did Copenhagen become Copenhagen?

CC BY 2.0 Lloyd Alter

It took a lot of work to make it a healthy, happy city; it didn't just happen.

In the cycling community, Copenhagen is Heaven on Earth. But according to the Guardian's Sarah Boseley, it is a lot more than just bike lanes, which she says are "testimony to the success of a city that is aspiring to be one of the healthiest in the world." According to Katrine Schjønning, the city’s head of public health, it took years, and a number of initiatives.

copenhagen cyclingCycling in Copenhagen/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0
Promoting health in everyday life is the first, says the city’s plan, “by making it attractive to cycle, by serving nutritious lunches in our institutions or by enabling educational institutions to offer quit-smoking programmes. Healthy thriving people are … more likely to complete an education and find employment. In other words, health enables us to live the life we want.”

MikaelMikael Colville-Andersen/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

We often quote Mikael Colville-Andersen who reminds us that "Copenhagen wasn't always "Copenhagen"- it took a lot of hard work since the seventies to make it the bike-friendly city it is. A lot of it had to do with making it less car-friendly, so that the bike becomes an easier choice. Boseley writes:

It may look as though Copenhageners crave the outdoors, get a kick out of exercise, want to be fit and healthy, but no. It’s none of the above, say the city authorities. It’s just the easiest way to get anywhere. “We bike all the time. We bike to the moon several times a year in Copenhagen,” says Schjønning. An extraordinary 62% of people living in the city cycle to work every day and the vast majority keep it up through cold and wet weather. “It’s not because it’s the healthy choice. It’s because it’s the easiest choice,” says Schjønning. “The city is designed for bikes and not cars.”

trash can for bicyclesTrash can for bicycles with Mikael Colville-Andersen in the distance/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Meik Wiking of the Happiness Research Institute concurs.

“What I wanted to show you is over there,” he says, gesticulating to the far side and what looks like a drunken green bin, tilted towards the road at an angle. It’s for cyclists. “Everybody likes to cycle or walk with coffee,” he says. “Now they’ve designed it so it is easy for cyclists to throw their garbage when they are done.” At the edge of the cycle lane, where bikes have to stop for a red light, is a raised platform where riders can rest their foot without getting off the saddle.

It works in many ways- not only as a place to throw your garbage but as a reminder that this city is built for bikes.

picnic in the parkPicnic in the park, Copenhagen/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

There are other features that make Copenhagen and Denmark different; other initiatives included good physical and mental health care, free education right through university, and they even give students a living allowance to cover room and board. But it comes at a cost: really high taxes.

Meik WikingMeik Wiking speaking in Toronto, Rotman Institute/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Copenhagen comes first in a country where people can pay as much as 60% of their income in taxes. Wiking believes that may be part of the reason. The Nordic countries, he says, “have simply been better at converting wealth into wellbeing. We invest in quality of life. Yes, if I paid lower taxes I could afford a bigger car, but that’s not going to bring me happiness. What brings me happiness is knowing that everybody I love and care for is taken care of. That’s the key to understanding Scandinavian happiness. In a sense, I feel the Scandinavian model has removed the price tag on happiness.”

no stressA bar named "No Stress"/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I have been to Copenhagen three times as a guest of the INDEX: Design to improve life competition and it is indeed a happy and healthy place, but I have only been there in late August. I am told that it can be really dark and depressing in winter, and Boseley notes that there are high rates of depression and alcoholism, signs of which are all over the sidewalks on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

“We have many people who suffer from stress and depression and anxiety,” says Sisse Marie Welling, the 31-year-old mayor for health and older people... “We must be doing something wrong to make so many people suffer from mental health issues. Right now, we are trying to make it free to get the help you need.”

But they are doing a whole lot of things right. It is the happiest and healthiest place I have ever seen. More in the Guardian.

How did Copenhagen become Copenhagen?
It took a lot of work to make it a healthy, happy city; it didn't just happen.

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