Copenhagen — a lesson for Manchester and other UK cities?

4th September 2020

Out of a crisis comes opportunity. Copenhagen offers an example of how UK cities, including Manchester where I am based, could use the current disruption to add new ideas and to challenge the status quo, focusing on the quality of the human scale experience and an improved connection to nature.

The Danes do things differently. Long established as a pilgrimage for urban designers, transport planners and architects, the city is a shining example of how active lifestyles can be seamlessly incorporated into urban life. As Manchester realigns itself and aims to ‘build back better,’ what can we learn from the island city?

Cycling is a way of life for CPH residents, and the roots of the movement go a long way back. Kick-started by the energy crisis in the 1970s, with the ubiquitous bike infrastructure installed in response to demand in the 1980s, the convenience and sheer intensity of use is startling for a first-time visitor. The ambition shown by Greater Manchester’s Combined Authority and Cycling and Walking Commissioner Chris Boardman should be matched by political and financial backing to respond to the current crisis, and the people of Manchester need to demand that it happens, rather than revert to commuting by car.

The CPH climate is broadly similar to the Manchester’s, perhaps a little colder in the winter and warmer in the summer, and it rains a bit less, but the environmental conditions aren’t that different. What the city seems to do really well is to adapt to the weather, with spaces that create and encourage outdoor occupation, like the neighbourhood parks of Norrebro, which support a positive attitude to living outside generally, and the waterfront park of Islands Brygge. What would Manchester’s response to this look like, and could we think more about urban space in this way?

CPH is green, and the surrounding suburbs are greener still. There is a connection to the natural world that is deep-rooted in the Danish way of life. You see this in many aspects of the city, but the most striking example is to the east of the city centre between Christianshavn and Holmen, the former naval yards. Now the new home for the world-renowned NOMA restaurant, this area is characterised by water, natural planting and a rural feel, that is a 10-minute bike ride from the centre of the city. Manchester’s answer could be Mayfield, with its ambitious urban park and opening up of its waterways, and this theme could be picked up at ID:MCR too, through the Corridor and throughout the city centre. Manchester can’t match Copenhagen for waterfront of course, but continuing to unlock the potential of the city waterways has to be further integrated into the future of the city centre.

Architecturally Copenhagen has invested heavily in bold, confident architectural impact buildings that have driven its regeneration, and has revelled in the contrast between new and old, which gives the city its distinct personality. This is nothing new, but there is a hint in the design of NOMA’s new home, by the shy and retiring Bjarke Ingels, that suggests that the approach is shifting, with a farmhouse aesthetic that is sensitive, calm and restrained. This maturity of design thinking and connection to nature, albeit in a highly exclusive location, is something for Manchester to think about there’s nothing wrong with bold and confident, it has been the city’s calling card for many years, but design that focuses on the people of the city, their relationship with the natural world and the quality of their shared urban experience. Now that’s a truly radical approach.

Copenhagen isn’t identical to Manchester it has palaces and royal parks from its heritage as a capital city, and it has a higher overall population density (but not much higher, Manchester has 2/3 the density), which supports the cycle network, and it is eye-wateringly expensive as a visitor, but as an example to aim for it has a lot going for it.

As Manchester continues to grow at a fantastic pace, the Copenhagen blend of human-scale thinking coupled with city-scale ambition is one that could provide a benchmark for where we go next.