At ULI, we believe our members are building compact, livable, environmentally friendly cities, towns and suburbs. Many “regular” folks disagree. They protest unfettered growth and congestion. They blame developers and politicians, some of whom were recently voted out. Meanwhile building is constrained, and our housing crisis gets worse.
For example, Lakewood voters just passed a growth cap that could stunt transit-oriented housing development along the West Line.
And when Boulder’s leaders strive to build clusters of affordable housing near transit, protesting residents ask rhetorically “does dense make sense?”
Recently I attended the Downtown Denver Partnership’s “Urban Exploration” in Copenhagen, Denmark. There the answer was a resounding “ja.”
Our group of 100 from the public, private and nonprofit sectors met with the Lord Mayor and other city officials and biked around the city for many pleasant miles.
We learned that Danes plan, design, finance, develop and build differently than we do. Rather than just adding density and hoping this will somehow cohere into a walkable neighborhood, they plan comprehensively for housing, transportation, schools, recreation, retail services—all the essential elements for healthy, sustainable neighborhoods and districts.
Thirty years ago, times in this port city were dire. Unemployment was 17.5 percent, the auto was king, gridlock rising, and families leaving the city for the suburbs. Nearly bankrupt, Copenhagen could have been any Rust Belt city.
Today’s Copenhagen is thriving economically and socially. There’s four percent unemployment; bicycle use is up 165 percent and accounts for 63 percent of all transit; only 8 percent use cars daily.
The “no stress” cycling network has grown to 225 miles including beautiful bicycle/pedestrian bridges over waterways. Rather than logjammed with honking cars, most city streets are quite pleasant. You can actually converse without shouting while walking or cycling with a friend. Contemporary architecture is stunning but fits the historic context.
These improvements occurred while the city’s population grew nearly one-third, from 600,000 some 20 years ago to about 775,000 today. Most of the growth is guided toward reclaimed port lands, where new schools and playgrounds are often the indicator species for a sprouting new neighborhood. The city is extremely family-friendly and kids too bike everywhere from age 6.
And here’s the kicker… the city’s carbon footprint is way down and heading toward net-zero by 2025.
As an enthusiast for urban cycling and livable cities, I returned wide-eyed. Friends counseled me to simmer my enthusiasm because, well, the Danes are all blond socialists who established a Cycling Embassy, Copenhagen is a big city, and We Just Can’t Do That Here.
I’d argue that most measures needed to create a walkable, bike-friendly and yes, dense city are quite practical. For example:
• The Danes adopted biking because it’s cheap and efficient. Not because they are rabid environmentalists. I met many Danes who said, “I am not a cyclist, just a person who uses a bike to get around.” The entire bike network was about equal in cost of one piece of freeway. People bike because they have the option to live close to work and transportation planning creates direct routes and shortcuts for bikes. Most trips are 15 minutes or less. While everyone rides, the average distance is just over two miles a day. (And owning a car is expensive—70 percent forgo.)
• Housing development on surplus public land is managed by the quasi-private Public Asset Corporation. This corporation acquires vacant port sites, prepares them for redevelopment, and then sells them to private developers with specific requirements for things like roof terraces, water access, retail services and affordable/workforce housing. The corporation also builds infrastructure by borrowing against future property values—not so different from our TIF. The private sector does the rest and makes money at it. This is not socialism but what you might call guided capitalism.
• Like many northern Europeans, the Danes are fond of courtyard-style apartment living. This gives everyone access to greenery as well as light and cross-ventilation. It is actually illegal to build a residential building with long, dark, dreary corridors, unless it’s a hotel or student housing.
• Getting people out of their cars has improved the quality of the public realm. While auto use has dropped 57 percent, the use of public spaces is up 1,400 percent.
The challenge for Colorado and other U.S. cities and towns is getting better at planning and designing density in concert with alternative transportation and assurances for affordable housing, parks, and schools. Today we’re building a series of high-density buildings more or less in isolation. It all has to work together as a total environment for all kinds of people.