Down to earth in squeaky green Copenhagen

A city where bikes take priority over cars and recycling is a way of life. Sue Wheat tours the eco-friendly Danish capital
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The Independent Travel
Copenhagen is not likely to be affected by Earth Summit Plus Five - after all most of the new proposals coming out of New York this week were implemented here years ago. "Urban quality," states the the Danish Tourist Board in the Green City pages of their magazine, "is naturally part of our culture."

People living in Copenhagen can't often get that feeling of "wanting to get away from it all". As last year's European City of Culture, Copenhagen was hyped for its arts and architecture, but the most striking thing about the city is the way it has embraced environmental living.

Travelling from the airport to the city centre on the airport bus you already get the feeling that things are different here. The first thing that struck me was the sight of someone cycling along a cycle path separated from our road. Not that unusual you might think, except that they were on a strange looking three-wheeled bike with a box on the front where two young children sat chatting away inside. How quaintly eccentric.

Then we passed another bike with a low elongated frame and a box between the front wheel and the handlebars, then an old lady pulling a small trailer full of shopping behind her bike, and as we got closer into town, I saw more of the same being used by people delivering goods. These people weren't eccentric, I realised. They were normal. In Copenhagen the highway code seems to be totally reversed - pedestrians have priority, then bikes, then cars. Pure joy.

The provision of free "city bikes" throughout the city (which you extract supermarket trolley-style with 20 kroner from a stand and can return to any stand in the city) is a bonus for both residents and visitors, although for the non-Danish cyclist, they take a while to get used to. To brake you have to back peddle and the braking system locks in - this is important to know so that you don't find out, as I did, when trying to stop at speed at a red light.

I gave myself a "green" city tour with the help of the Urban Ecology Guide which gives details of 45 ecologically designed houses and apartments, urban renewal projects, parks, community gardens, and Green Information Centres.

From Copenhagen Central Station I cycled through Vesterbro, a run-down area undergoing an urban renewal programme for its 33,000 residents. Oksnehallen, an old slaughterhouse close to the station, which is now renovated into an art and ecology museum, explains some of the environmental changes being made to the houses - including installing environmentally friendly loos. Surrounded by plants - which filter and clean rainwater and "grey" water (waste washing water) and then use it for flushing - the ecological bathroom is a green and pleasant place.

Next stop, Transformerhuset, a small shop tucked into a side street at Pilestraede 8B, district 1112. This is haute couture with an ecological twist - choose from beautifully tailored hemp jackets, organically cultivated crisp linen shirts, neck ties that feel like silk but are made from flattened tyres, and peat hats. Bizarre but chic. Then on to "The garden that was built in a night" at Guldebergsgade 8 in Norrebro. Its name says it all, and it is one of Copenhagen's many examples of how communities have got together to reclaim wastelands in the middle of drab urban landscapes.

"Bo 90" at Tjorngade 9, also in Norrebro, is another example of people getting together to improve their lives. The tenants of this ecologically designed social housing complex funded their dream apartments with money from the council and from a bank loan. The large solar roof provides heating and hot water and the temperature is regulated by a central computer. Rainwater is collected from the roof and used for flushing the toilets and gardening, and organic waste is composted and used on the yard's fruit and berry trees. The interior walls are made of gypsum and can be moved to change the number of rooms in an apartment and although the exterior is relatively plain, inside, the apartments are straight out of Homes and Gardens. The residents will proudly show you around by arrangement, proving that "keeping up with the Jensens" may one day mean comparing water storage tanks and solar heat exchangers. "Of course, there's no reason why they shouldn't be nice," said one of the residents. "Everybody wants to live here."

Down the road, I stopped for lunch at a small, trendy place called Den okologiske Cafe - the first ecological kitchen in Denmark. Not only is all the food organic, of course, but the whole kitchen is designed ecologically complete with energy efficient fridge, a cool room insulated with wine corks, a dishwasher which uses grey water for its first rinse and clean water for the second, and all the work surfaces made from wood from sustainable forests.

By this time I was feeling just a little bit squeaky green. Time to visit Copenhagen's most notorious community - Christiania. Here, the houses are not out of Homes and Gardens. These are more reminiscent of "The House that Jack Built" - ramshackle, characterful and frequently, ingenious. Christiania residents are into recycling in a big way, but we're not just talking paper and cans, this is serious stuff - timber, corrugated iron, anything that can be dismantled and used again looks as if it has been. Solar energy and rainwater collection has been part of Christiania life for years and the three-wheeled bike with a box on the front that I'd seen on my way from the airport is manufactured here and known throughout Denmark as 'The Christiania'.

Built by activists in the 1970s, now the community has become a tourist attraction, although you get the feeling residents would prefer the world to leave them alone. The best way to visit is to join their daily tours at 3pm at the main gate. Parts of Christiania are quiet and tranquil - a view across the lake to a large isolated house with a boat moored outside - was like something out of a film. But only a few minutes' stroll away I found Pusher Street - busy and brash - a small section of Christiania where men and women sit in stalls selling jewellery, postcards, hippie clothes, but most of all, drugs. Here they will slice and weigh you a chunk of hashish resin as if they are selling you fudge. The police have stormed Christiania on numerous occasions over the last 20 years, but now they are largely ignored. "The thing is - they are good for tourism," explained a Danish friend. "And the police realise that most people sympathise with the Christiania philosophy - they are trying to do the right thing." It might gall politicians to admit it, but they have been doing much of what the Earth Summit suggested, for years. And chilling out at the same time.


Guided Urban Ecology Tours can be organised with the Copenhagen Environment and Energy Office, Blegdamsvej 4B St., Copenhagen N. Tel: 35 37 36 36. Fax: 35 37 36 76.

City Safari, 114, th. Istedgade, DK-1650 Copenhagen V. Tel. 45 3124 0407. 2-3 hour tours. 75-105 ddk. Mon-Fri and Sun.

The Green Key is an environmental certificate granted to hotels and youth hostels that comply with a number of environmental requirements including energy and water conservation. For a list of members contact: The Green Key, Rosenorns Alle 41, 1970 Frederiksberg C, Denmark. Tel: +45 35 37 44 48. Fax: +45 35 37 33 18.

Sue Wheat travelled with Air UK which flies to Copenhagen three times daily, pounds 99 return. Tel: 0345 666777.