It’s not often that an advertising slogan sums up the spirit of a city, but the one adorning a billboard for new homes designed by young Danish architects – “there’s something modern in the state of Denmark” – encapsulates Copenhagen’s current mood of creative maelstrom and youthful dynamism rather adroitly.
Not that the charms of Danish society in general, and those of its capital in particular, have previously gone unremarked; a 2006 survey found Denmark to be the happiest place in the world, based on standards of health, welfare, and education. But commentators were starting to insinuate that the city’s cool might be sliding into complacency; after all, weren’t the main attractions still the twee Little Mermaid and the quaint Tivoli Gardens amusement park? Even the design legacy of Arne Jacobsen – the Radisson SAS Royal Hotel stuffed full of Egg chairs, the National Bank – was more heritage than here-and-now.
That has all changed. A new wave of Danish architects, designers and chefs, plus some joined-up thinking by city officials, has seen Copenhagen reborn to the extent that locals now refer to it as the gateway to mainland Europe. “A few years ago, Sweden was the place to be,” says a stylist at a fashion shoot on the harbour-front. “Now everyone in Scandinavia wants to move to Copenhagen.”
The reasons are self-evident, from the award-winning glass control tower and teak-floored extension at Kastrup airport to the freshly-minted statement buildings lining the harbour, including Henning Larsen’s Opera House and the redoubtable national library building, known as the “Black Diamond”. New design boutiques such as Hay showcase Jacobsen’s heirs, while once down-at-heel areas such as Vesterbro (the old red-light district) and Nørrebro are seeing a rash of restaurant and bar openings. These give locals even more opportunities to pull up on their bicycles (their favourite activity: six out of ten residents use a bike daily) and enjoy a drink and smoke (their second and third favourite activities, to the extent that life expectancy is among the lowest in western Europe; a fact they are serenely unmoved by).
The bullish mood is aided by the fact that Copenhagen is a young city – 35 per cent of its population is aged 20 to 34 – and that the Danish National Bank announced in March that Denmark is now a creditor nation (owed more than it owes) for the first time since the Second World War.
“The city is awash in money,” says a local journalist. “Ten years ago, heads would turn if a Porsche went by on the street. Now they’re everywhere.” There’s even a mooted rethink of the moratorium on skyscrapers, passed by referendum in the 1970s that keeps Copenhagen a defiantly low-rise capital.
Some worry that the city is already reaping the boom-town whirlwind in the form of prohibitive property prices and an erosion of the freewheeling hippie idealism that’s been a part of Copenhagen’s self-image since the 1960s. This is epitomised by attempts to “normalise” Christiania, a commune in an old army barracks; attempted evictions recently sparked street riots. But, for all the changes in their midst, a Copenhagener’s default mode is always sanguinity. “I can’t think of any other city in the world where you could bring a picnic to the park and then go off and swim in the harbour,” says a design student. “I would never live anywhere else.”
Looking beyond our key criteria, Copenhagen scored high for less tangible reasons, including:
Ease of decorating: for fans of Mogensen, Jacobsen and Klint, you couldn’t ask for a better city to play house in.
Strong café culture: Copenhagen has its own unique café culture and does it better than any neighbouring capitals.
Brisk dips: it’s difficult to measure but the city has definitely had a lift since it cleaned up the harbour and encouraged swimming.
A creative thread: few cities have embraced the power of the creative community message better than Copenhagen.
Perfect pace: despite the restrictive shopping hours, the city moves at a comfortable pace which is neither harried nor sleepy.
International flights: flights to 125 international destinations (13 long haul).
Crime: murders, nine; domestic break-ins, 3,475.
Education: Copenhagen has a textbook network of state schools and universities.
Medical care: healthcare provision is universal – appropriately for a country with one of the highest cancer rates in Europe.
Sunshine: annual average, 1,670 hours.
Temperature: January average temperature 0C, July average 17C.
Wired: 147 public Wi-Fi hotspots.
Tolerance: Denmark legalised same-sex unions in 1989. Attempts to evict residents from the alternative enclave of Christiania have raised hackles. Let’s not forget relations with the Muslim community.
Drinking and shopping: alcohol laws are liberal, with bars staying open as late as their patrons demand. Shops adhere to a more rigid regime; most open around 11.00 and close dead on 18.00, while nearly all close on Sundays.
Public transport: the first phase of a metro system opened in 2003, with another two phases ready for this year and 2012 respectively. From April to December, the City Bike season allows you to release one of 2,000 bikes provided across the city for €2.70 – it can then be returned at any rack.
Local media: the city is well-served, with six daily papers, including the Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten, which printed the Prophet Mohammed cartoons last year.
International media: leading newspapers and magazines are widely available.
Green space: most apartment blocks boast communal gardens at their rear. Locals are partial to picnicking in the Kongens Have (King’s Garden).
Access to nature: forests, beaches and parkland all a short trip away.
Environmental initiatives: extensive recycling programmes. The mayor is also attempting to bring in congestion charging and car-free zones for the city centre.
Look out for: the New Royal Theatre building which will open next year. There are also plans to build three new swimming facilities in the harbour following the huge success of the Copenhagen Harbour Bath.
Five things that would make life better: 01 A few more street sweepers. 02 Embrace longer trading hours. 03 Why not become northern Europe’s 24-hour creative hub and bridge Asia and North America? 04 Work faster to improve the area around the central station. 05 A network of better newsstands. The city deserves better places to buy print media.