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The Sustainable City of The Future

The population in cities is increasing rapidly. More than half of us live in cities as of now and by 2050 that number will jump to nearly seventy per cent. With the ongoing climate crisis, one of the primary objectives is to achieve sustainability. But there is one city that is doing better than any other place on Earth- Copenhagen, Denmark. This city aims to become the first carbon neutral city by 2025.

It’s not surprising to learn that two-thirds of the world’s carbon emissions come from cities. And the number is getting worse as more people move into cities and have a higher demand for resources and infrastructure. Copenhagen’s target is to cancel out all of their carbon emissions. Frank Jensen, the Lord Mayor of Copenhagen, states that their plan focuses on mobility, pollution and energy. A lot of new infrastructure and solutions have been introduced to achieve this mission. Their bicycle infrastructure is famous all around the world because sixty-two per cent of the Copenhagener’s use their bike for daily transportation today. In the last 10 years, the city has invested nearly 300 million dollars to improve biking infrastructure and all that money has paid off. There are more than five times the amount of bikes than cars in the city.[1] This has helped the city in becoming more sustainable.

But the effort doesn’t stop there. Copenhagen has transformed its waterways as well. Only a few decades ago, the harbour was contaminated with industrial waste, oil spills, and even dead fish. Back in 1987, the harbour was so polluted that one could not even dream of swimming in the harbour but now they can. It also has a harbour bath to promote this activity.

For cities, space is a luxury. It is an even bigger challenge for coastal cities like New York, Tokyo and Shanghai. Cities like these are running out of land to expand upon. However, in Copenhagen, Denmark, the city designers are getting creative by using the water to their advantage. It is not just about figuring out where people are going to live and work, incorporating green space is also important. They have created the first ever floating park, and there are plans to build dozens more across the city. Like the floating park, Copenhagen is turning other challenges into solutions as well. Rasmus Romeling, the CEO of Urban Riggers, said, “Real estate is getting more and more expensive and you get more and more people that want to live in the city. So, you have to be a little creative. And one way to solve that problem could be to utilise the water.” Urban Rigger is a new way of living. Being one of the most sustainable student housing in the world, it is an apartment building floating in the middle of Copenhagen’s harbour. The apartments are made from old shipping containers with the building being completely carbon neutral since it uses low energy pumps and solar panels. Urban Rigger has been a success in creating more liveable space. They have built 5 more riggers in the past year which makes up a total of 72 apartments on the water. Now, they plan to build floating hotels, food markets and senior citizens’ homes.

But coastal cities like Copenhagen face an additional concern on how they should scale sustainably. Time is running out for Copenhagen and 500 other cities around the world. In the next 30 years, sea levels in these areas are projected to rise by at least one and a half feet. This may not sound like a lot but it is putting 800 million people in the danger zone. The answer to this solution might be projects like Holmene, which is rather utopian. Holmene is Copenhagen’s newest neighbourhood that will consist of nine man made islands off its coast. Although Copenhagen is a relatively small city, its population is expanding rapidly. Their approach is that when they develop these areas, they make sure that those areas are liveable and they also give something back to the city. The first three islands will be constructed over the next decade and the project will be completed by 2040. The team is getting creative with the design by actually not planning out what will be on some of these islands. Instead of just making one huge area for production, they have decided to slice it up into several islets, start up with three or four islets and then before making the next ones they can adopt the design in order of the demand. Man-made islands are not new. Off the coast of Dubai, there are islands shaped like palm trees. Tokyo built one for Disneyland, the US for homes in Miami. The list goes on. But in Copenhagen, how they are going to do it solves a third problem for the city: that of the leftover dirt from construction. The idea here is that they work with nature and hence don’t need to maintain it. It is also about leveraging the potential that Copenhagen as a city by the water has. They have started it in Copenhagen but are thinking of making it a global project. They already have a lot of requests from London, US, Hong Kong, Singapore and all over the world.

For many people, waste is a black box. We have our garbage can, we go out in the morning, we throw something out there. We don’t really know what is happening. We are not so good at looking at trash as a valuable resource. However, it has always been a resource. Now, imagine a city where there is no waste problem, there is virtually no landfill, no dump, no overflowing trash cans. It is a reality for one city in Denmark that is, again, Copenhagen. In Copenhagen they have figured out an innovative solution to waste management. They are turning piles of trash into a ski slope! And to get it there, they are using a sensor. To solve the trash problem, it first has to be collected. For cities all over the world, trash just piles up on the street. But in Copenhagen that is not the case. It is because of the Nordsense sensor, which is about the same size as a pack of cigarettes. The sensor is typically installed in the lid of a bin and it measures the distance and the volume of the content. So, the people controlling it have sort of a depth map of what the content looks like. Then they use that 3D image to determine how full each trash can is around the city. From there, they use a data platform to optimise the collection rounds to only pick up bins that are full. The answer is not no more bins. The answer is better placed and better sized bins. It is a simple solution that started in Copenhagen but it is catching on in the rest of the world, like other parts of Europe, Israel and San Francisco. Nordsense has helped cities cut their waste collections by 50 per cent. [2]Additionally, the sidewalks stay cleaner and there are fewer trucks on the road.

But the challenge does not end here because the problem of garbage disposal still exists. What they do is use the residual waste as fuel on par with coal or oil or whatever otherwise would burn. So, they take the waste that is not recycled from the city and burn it. Hence, they attain electricity and central heating. Copenhagen’s trash goes to the Copenhagen power plant. Every day, 300 truckloads of waste arrive at this plant located at a distance of 10 minutes from downtown. They burn that trash to create high pressure steam which drives the turbines to create heat and electricity. The plant is so successful that they even import trash from other countries to keep up with energy production. In fact, they burn 400,000 tons of garbage per year. And while that has a carbon footprint, instead of sending trash to landfills, it is transformed into electricity for 60,000 homes and heat for 100,000 more.

The Copenhagen power plant is one of the world’s cleanest waste incineration plants. Normally this kind of plant would be far away from the city centre and people would not be welcomed there because of too much pressure and heat. But in Copenhagen, they have broken new ground, and developed new standards to make it possible that the waste to energy plant can be in the centre of a capital city. It is so safe that they turned the roof of this power plant into a massive public space. It was an extremely difficult task to create an artificial ski slope and a green roof park on an uneven slope. It is now Copenhagen’s only ski slope and it can be used year-round no matter the weather. There is also a rooftop café, a climbing wall, and hiking trails. The climbing wall is so tall that they can do multi pitch climbing for the first time. Being an interesting activity, it has gained a lot of attention and popularity. They have media from all over the world and a whole skiing community is waiting eagerly to visit there. People visiting there get the fantastic opportunity to learn about what is going on the other side of the garbage can. At the same time, they are sure to enjoy this marvellous roof park.

Patrik Gustavsson, the Foundation Director said, “We need to find ways of living and working that does not destroy the planet we have, It is very nice to hear people wanting to colonise Mars and build space stations on the moon but I think we should start with taking care of what we have here.”

Though Copenhagen has made huge strides with their mobility and pollution efforts, their biggest focus is on energy use. It makes up about 80 per cent of their carbon neutral plan. To cut down on their consumption, Copenhagen uses one of the world’s largest and most successful district heating systems. It works by using a network of pipes to capture leftover heat from electricity production, then delivers the heat to homes across the city. Ninety-nine per cent of all households in Copenhagen are linked to their very efficient district heating system. They have also introduced district cooling so that the temperature of the buildings can be reduced. In factories, they can reduce electricity use by cooling down buildings by 70 per cent.

To come up with these kinds of sustainable solutions, Copenhagen collaborates with partners across the city like Copenhagen Solutions Lab- an incubator for smart city initiatives. It solves some of the bigger problems of the world by using technology in order to accelerate the transition to a carbon free economy. Getting rid of their waste, measuring air quality and managing traffic are some of the problems they are focusing on. Contrary to how it sounds, the Street Lab is not really a laboratory. It is a two-kilometre-long chunk of downtown Copenhagen that serves as a testing area. Placing a lab in a real urban environment like the downtown makes it very realistic. Everything they test there will be able to survive in other parts of the city. It has a new generation of technology that makes it possible to measure air quality by a sensor. Now, they are looking into mounting sensors on a Google Street View car to make it possible to measure pollutants in each and every street of Copenhagen. The technology has already proved so useful that the Copenhagen Solutions Lab, led by Marius and his team, is already shipping sensors to countries like Norway, Mexico, Austria, Greece and the US.

The real reason for Copenhagen’s incredible success is its residents. The citizens demand a high-quality urban life. They are willing to do a lot themselves. They want to sort their own garbage, they want to bike to work. Citizen’s involvement is key to the way in which the government thinks in Denmark and other Nordic countries. It is a huge driving force behind making Copenhagen a carbon neutral city by 2025.

Since 2010, the growth rate in the number of citizens has been 20 per cent and even with that, the city has managed to cut down its emissions by 42 per cent in the same period. Copenhagen has shown the world that we can have growth along with green transformations by making the right investments in the city. Copenhagen’s transformation, however, has not been easy. Their size and wealth help them but they have managed to bring in creativity and innovation. Regardless, if it hits the carbon neutral deadline, Copenhagen’s ultimate goal to serve as an example for cities everywhere is sure to be achieved!

By Vanshika Malpani
A First year Undergraduate at SRCC

More than just a concrete jungle – Cities as Urban Ecosystems

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