What a cynical title, right? I move from an archetypal American city (see: car-dependent, mass polluting, inequitable metropolitan behemoth where even recycling is still a new idea) to the world’s beacon of sustainable light, and I want to focus on their flaws?
No place is perfect. New York City, Portland, Curitiba, Berlin, Vancouver, Reykjavik and Copenhagen are all doing some pretty incredible things, but the temptation to rest on laurels is a real danger.
Furthermore, some of the shortcomings in these cities are much more than nitpicky trivialities. If these cities truly wish to lead the world on a new path (as many have proclaimed they do), then major issues must be resolved. I’ll spend the next few months doing little besides singing praises about how brilliantly sustainable and well designed Copenhagen is and continues to be - but that song is new to no one. With this in mind, here are some of the issues I have seen in Copenhagen.
1. Public Transportation*
By American standards, Copenhagen has an excellent public transportation network. By European standards it is good, but still far from where it needs to be if Copenhagen is to reach its goal being the world’s “Eco-Metropolis” by 2015.
Though buses are frequent and clean, I’ve found myself crammed into buses so packed that the driver must tell would-be boarding passengers that they must wait for the next bus. Often this isn’t even during rush hour. To make matters worse, the buses are some of the jerkiest I’ve ever been on. Though I’m young and in good health, even I sometimes find it difficult to stand through the sudden accelerations and stops. Occasionally I’ve gotten off a few stops early to avoid more nausea than I can handle. I’ve heard it said that native Copenhageners aren’t fond of public transit themselves; this is perhaps a major reason.
The trains are fantastic here - clean, fast, and quiet. The S-trains even have free wifi and dedicated cars for bicycles. However, the train network seems geared towards suburban commuters over city residents.
Yes, the system is very strong as it is but it could clearly be improved. It seems that modern streetcars or even bus rapid transit down Vesterbrogade and Nørrebrogade into the city center would make public transit a more popular option in Copenhagen.
* I should note that this critique is based primarily on my commute from outer Nørrebro to the city center, which is mostly too dense to allow new rail transit stations to be built. I could take the S-train to the city center’s edge, but this would require backtracking out of the city a bit before heading back in. The rider of a different route may have a very different experience.
2. Meat Consumption
At the risk of sounding culturally intolerant, I’m going to call out the elephant in the room; Denmark has the highest rate of meat consumption per capita on the planet. The average Dane consumes approximately 146kg of meat every year, compared to a global average of 40kg and the United States’ average of 125kg*.
For a quick refresher of the environmental impact of meat consumption, here’s a fancy graphic from the New York Times:
Add in the pollution of rivers and streams due to livestock, the unsanitary conditions of industrial food production leading to rampant disease and chemical-based solutions, and the impact of that much meat on an individual’s health. I’ve not run any numbers on comparable energy intensiveness or carbon emissions, but meat consumption here is likely a sizable detraction from the gains made through transportation and renewable energy innovations.
This one’s been blowing my mind. Danish supermarkets package everything, and I mean everything. Walk into the produce section and you’ll find onions, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, herbs, and more, all wrapped in tight glossy cellophane. Hell, even the bananas are wrapped! I couldn’t for the life of me imagine why bananas would need packaging. Presuming there must be something I wasn’t seeing, I asked around for an explanation.
Nope, turns out it’s just an old bad habit. A similar frustration came about when discovering the largest milk container available was a 1 liter carton. I was initially ashamed of my frustration, presuming it stemmed from an American predisposition for massive quantities of anything consumable. I was certain the Danes would shake their heads at me solemnly if I asked whether 2 liter milk jugs were available, “You slovenly Americans…”.
Then I noticed everyone around me had two or three of these cartons in their basket, and sometimes more. That’s a lot of extra packaging for the same amount of milk.
Come on Denmark! I know most of that packaging is recycled or incinerated for energy, but we all know the best waste is no waste. You’re great, you’re wonderful, I’m head over heels wild about you but step it up a bit! There’s other “eco-metropolis” cities out there nipping at your heels, don’t let them take you out.