Happiness is Copenhagen

This should be interesting. The lord mayor of Copenhagen is due any minute. We’re about to set off on a one-hour interview and bicycle tour of Denmark’s capital city.

It’s a clear day – not a cloud in the Delft-blue sky – but chilly, so I’m content to wait for the lord mayor, 54-year-old Frank Jensen, atop my bicycle outside his offices at the ornate City Hall, the Rådhus. Across the street is the Tivoli Gardens, one of Europe’s most famous and – at four-million-plus visitors a year – one of the most popular, amusement parks.

As I wait, I watch stylishly dressed Danes earnestly biking down Hans Christian Andersens Boulevard, the city’s main thoroughfare, named after the nation’s literary luminary. Among the bikers I spot women wearing high heels and men in suits. Nearby, tourists climb onto the lap of a larger-than-life bronze statue of the 19th-century writer and snap selfies.

“Hello,” says Jensen as he bikes over to me from cobblestoned Longangstraede. “I’ve just come from a meeting with our prime minister.” I am impressed. No limousine with police outriders for this lord mayor; a three-speed bike will do nicely.

“Follow me,” he says as we steer our bikes into the bicycles-only lane on Hans Christian Andersens Boulevard. “There’s a lot I want to show you.”

for years I’ve BEEN hearing and reading about the city as, well, a modern-day Utopia. It is, for example, often referred to as “The World’s Most Livable City”, “The World’s Happiest City”, and one of the world’s top two most-bicycle-friendly cities. Oh, and let’s not forget “Europe’s Greenest City”, “Europe’s Best Town for Foodies” and “Europe’s Design Capital”.

The UK’s Daily Mail newspaper called it “Oh-so-cool Copenhagen”. USA Today claimed, “It’s not hard to be happy in Copenhagen.” The UK’s Guardian (a newspaper not usually given to gushing) gushed, “Copenhagen really is wonderful.”

Can Copenhagen live up to such high expectations? I’ve come to the city to find out for myself. My first stop: this bike tour with the lord mayor.

I soon discover that in Copenhagen the bicycle is king.
As the lord mayor and I join a steady stream of bikers pedalling past Tivoli Gardens in a 3m-wide bike lane that’s separated from car traffic and pedestrians, he tells me, “More than half of Copenhagen’s residents cycle to work or school every day. It’s healthier, greener and cheaper than travelling by car. We have more bicycles than people and five times as many bicycles as cars.”

He holds up his right arm to signal he’s stopping at an intersection and adds, “Even politicians bike to work. Sixty-three per cent of the members of our parliament ride to work daily.”

Copenhagen regularly vies with Amsterdam for the top spot in the list of the world’s most bicycle-friendly cities. Jensen explains, “We’ve had a series of ‘action plans’ over the years that have helped us continually improve our biking infrastructure.”

Indeed, the city seems to have been designed around bicycling. Copenhagen has more than 350km of cycle paths and lanes, many of which are separated by curbs from car traffic. Bike lanes have their own traffic lights for cyclists and such added touches as footrests and handrails so bicyclists can prop themselves up while waiting for a red light. Computerised lighting systems, called “green wave technology”, help bikers maintain just the right speed to zip through town without having to stop at light after light.

“And there’s more coming,” says Jensen as we cruise down a newly-built bike path on Kalvebod Brygge, a redeveloped area along the waterfront that’s packed with luxurious hotels and glimmering new office buildings. “We are developing more than 26 bike superhighways, some as long as 22 kilometres, so even more people will be encouraged to commute into Copenhagen from the suburbs.”

These new “super” bike paths pass by picturesque fields, through forests and around duck ponds, and allow bikers to commute without having to stop for car traffic. And there’s a free air pumping station every kilometre. “We’re always looking for ways to make Copenhagen more bicycle friendly,” says Jensen.

By the time we reach the 4m-wide, Cykelslangen (“Cycle Snake”), the new DKK32 million (US$4.8m) elevated cyclist roadway that is cantilevered high over the harbour, I’m convinced. When it comes to biking, Copenhagen is supreme. But the greenest, the happiest, the oh-so-coolest?

“Well,” says Jensen, “we were named ‘Europe’s Green Capital’ last year by the European Commission. We’re committed to becoming the world’s first carbon dioxide-neutral capital by 2025.” A 2010 law requires all suitable new buildings, from office buildings to parking garages to sheds, have green (as in garden) roofs. A government policy mandates that all Copenhagen residents be able to walk to a park in less than 15 minutes. And the once-polluted harbour is now so clean it’s safe to swim in.

OK, I ask Jensen, what’s the secret behind this success? “I think almost everyone in Copenhagen takes pride in living here,” he explains. “We realise how lucky we are and are willing to cooperate.”

We stop in front of a new office building. “We had a meeting with the building’s owners and skateboarders who wanted to use the building’s park at night,” he tells me. “The owners agreed to let the skateboarders use it in exchange for promising not to spray graffiti on the building. It’s been a huge success. Isn’t that cool?”

I drop in on Mikael Colville-Andersen,
an urban designer who works with cities and governments around the world to make them more bicycle friendly. “Copenhagen has become the model for livable cities everywhere,” says Colville-Andersen, who’s been dubbed “The Pope of Urban Cycling”. He’s made a business out of spreading Copenhagen’s gospel of sustainability and livability and is urging other cities to, as he says, “Copenhagenise”.

As we sip coffee in a small café near his office, he tells me, “It’s about being user-friendly, having a well-designed infrastructure and the right attitude. There’s a feeling in this city that we are all in this together.” He tells me that hundreds of foreign urban planners and politicians visit Copenhagen each year to see how the city works. Most like what they see and many decide to import what they’ve discovered here. Says Colville-Andersen, “That’s further proof that Copenhagen is about the best place to live in the world.”

That’s another “yes” vote for Copenhagen. To get an answer to my “Is it cool?” question, I jump on my Gobike, an electric, Wi-Fi-connected share bike complete with a GPS monitor, that I’ve rented for the day. I punch in the coordinates for Freetown Christiania, Copenhagen’s hippie haven.

As I pedal to Christiania I remember what local newspaper columnist Henrik Vesterberg had told me a few days ago when we discussed Copenhagen’s claims to fame. “Don’t believe everything you are told about Copenhagen. We’ve got our share of problems.”

I run into some of those problems after I park my bike outside of Christiania, a private self-governing 34ha island neighbourhood that bans both bicycles and cars. Founded in 1971 by hippie squatters in an abandoned military barracks, this bohemian commune has resisted almost all efforts to clean up its act.

After repeated efforts to evict the squatters, in 1972 the Danish Ministry of Defence temporarily agreed to let Christiania use the government property and land. Now home to around 1000 non-conformists who pride themselves on living free from government rule, it is a collection of funky homemade houses, art galleries, and organic cafés. Graffiti, tie-dye designs and free-form artwork, especially hand-painted green marijuana leaves, cover almost every wall. Music wafts out of smoke-filled cafés.

In 2011, the government agreed to sell the land to the Foundation Freetown Christiania, which in turn gives homes for free to residents. Technically there is still no individual home ownership here and that’s fine with the ageing hippies. A hand painted sign says it all: “We seek a lower standard of living for a higher quality of life.”

On aptly named Pusher Street the air is ripe with the sweet, pungent smell of hashish. Small market stalls openly sell soft drugs such as marijuana and more than 20 varieties of hashish. It’s like a doper’s dream delicatessen come true.

Christiania is the city’s second most-visited attraction (after Tivoli Gardens) and tourists are advised to observe its rules, which are posted everywhere: “Have fun, don’t take photos and don’t run.” The last rule is to prevent panic; buying and selling drugs is still technically illegal in Christiania and running might indicate a police raid. Sure enough, when a tourist raises his camera to take a picture of a stall on Pusher Street, I hear a seller shout, “No photos!” The tourist quickly stashes his camera.

Christiania may be changing; the Copenhagen city council is keen to legalise marijuana and crack down on criminal gangs in the area. But longtime residents are fighting change. As I pass by a tumbledown house covered in psychedelic, dayglo paint, I recall Vesterberg’s comment about Christiania: “Old hippies are clinging to their ideals and doing their best to keep Copenhagen weird. I like that.”

So do I, I think to myself as I spot a message painted on an exit sign at the edge of Christiania. It reads: “You are now entering the EU.” Further proof that Copenhagen is cool.

Regrettably I didn’t manage to land a reservation at Noma,
the “new Nordic” restaurant that’s been named the world’s best. But I spent time in Tivoli Gardens, wandered trendy suburbs like Vesterbro, and learned how to eat Smørrebrød and translate the almost untranslatable Danish word hygge as “cozy” or “sociable”.

I’m beginning to understand why one writer described Copenhagen as “a city that exists primarily to inspire a deep regret among those cursed to live elsewhere.”

To cap off my visit I signed up with “Dine With The Danes”, and found myself enjoying a delicious dinner with charming hosts, Dorte and Thomas Winther Bruhn and their teenage daughter Rasmine, in their ultra-hygge home.

Like many Danes I asked, the Bruhns admitted the “Danes are so happy” thing was more cliché than reality. “It’s not as if we go to work singing, ‘Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to work we go,’” said Thomas. Dorte added, “I think a better word than ‘happy’ is “content.”

But when we talked about Copenhagen, there was no disagreement. “It really is great,” said Rasmine as her parents nodded in agreement. “There’s no place like it.”

After a week exploring the capital city I had to agree.

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