In Denmark everyone knows her by her first name. Not that she’s some folksy woman of the people. It’s just that few Danish Social Democrats have lost their ministerial office for living it up at the Ritz in Paris. Ritt Bjerregaard did in 1978, when she let the government foot the bill for a luxury suite on Place Vendôme during an official visit to the Unesco HQ.
But you can’t keep a good woman down and Bjerregaard soon returned as a central figure in Danish politics. After several ministerial posts, she became EU commissioner for the environment in the late 1990s and in 2005 left the Danish parliament to run for mayor of Copenhagen. She won.
Unlike her badly dressed comrades, she has always had class and an international aura. Yet she’s a working-class girl who grew up with two siblings in a two-room flat in the poor Vesterbro area of Copenhagen in the 1940s and 1950s.
Bjerregaard now divides her time between her organic apple farm in Zealand and her home in the sought-after Kartoffelrækkerne terraced houses by the lakes in Copenhagen, which she shares with her husband of over 40 years, historian Søren Mørch, who cooks her gourmet meals.
As mayor of Copenhagen, the main issues she has to contend with are traffic and housing. Top priority is the next stage of the newly inaugurated metro and a facelift of the so-called Metropol Zone around the Central Station and the City Hall Square. Monocle met her at the Copenhagen City Hall shortly after she returned from meeting her mayoral colleagues at the climate summit in New York.
Monocle:What did you get out of the climate summit in New York?
Ritt Bjerregaard: First of all, that the US now realises that cars destroy all other life in a city. Michael Bloomberg spoke of congestion charging – few would have imagined that. Here in Copenhagen I have trouble carrying through a congestion charge because of resistance from the government, so my experiences from New York help my argument. Second, I noticed the increased consciousness about CO2 emissions and I carried a message to the conference: in Copenhagen we have district heating, which supplies 97 per cent of the citizens. That made some jaws drop to the ground and was widely admired. It also got people curious about how you do such a thing. I felt I had a mission and also the technological know-how, which is easily accessible to all.
M:Even though the US uses more energy on cooling down than heating up?
RB: Yes, but you can do exactly the same with district cooling and I have started working on that here in Copenhagen. Instead of each building having its own air-conditioning system, you can have a common supply, which is more efficient and reduces CO2 emissions.
M:Does the world have a clear image of Copenhagen?
RB: Definitely. Everybody notices how many people ride a bicycle in Copenhagen. But you only get people on bikes if you plan the traffic carefully. There must be bicycle paths or curbed lanes, so that people feel safe riding a bike here. Our advice is to start out with the children. If they learn to ride, it will spread quickly.
M:Do you think people see Copenhagen as an over-privileged, Lilliputian society?
RB: Copenhagen is small but we have the same problems that we see on a larger scale in New York and other metropolises. On our scale these problems are just as important, which is why it is possible to compare and learn from each other.
M:So what can Copenhagen export to other cities?
RB: First and foremost, that collective thinking is good business. The single individual is put before everything else these days, but if we let everyone run his own business we will not succeed with the cities in matters of sustainability and reducing CO2 emissions. Or, for that matter, make families work – you see, the other side of the Scandinavian model is what we have named “You can have both”. By that we mean it is possible to have both a career and a family because your children can be taken care of in reasonably priced day-care centres with flexible opening hours and an educated staff.
M:What is this term “Copenhagenism”?
RB: That it is possible to make a modern life work. Both parents want a career and a good life with their children with the possibility to enjoy themselves in their spare time. If the weather is fine, they might wish to go bathing in the harbour and get exercise from that. Or go to a park. In Copenhagen you can reach it all on a bicycle and without leaving town. What’s so special about our city is that we are so close to the water and we have the wind blowing through the streets. We have a clean city with fresh air compared to lots of other cities. And we care about the environment: district heating and congestion charging but also things such as intelligent waste management and organic food programmes in the schools.
M:In spite of all the bicycles in Copenhagen, cars are an increasing problem.
RB: Yes, and that is why we have to continue improving the facilities for the cyclists. Besides that, we are expanding the metro in central Copenhagen. The main thing is to have decent public transport – reliable and comfortable buses and trains. And, of course, the congestion charge, which makes car drivers consider whether it’s worth travelling by car.
M:Isn’t the “You can have both” philosophy really the 1960s Social Democratic welfare state exposed to hectic 2007 metropolis?
RB:(laughs) At least you can say that the Social Democratic way of thinking shows in the way we seek collective and not individual solutions to our problems.
M:Don’t you fear that with the recent boom in house prices, the city will turn into a place for the rich and the young?
RB: Copenhagen is attractive to the elderly because they are close to the welfare services and different public entertainment activities. The challenge is to keep and attract families with children.
M:When you ran for mayor, you launched the idea of 5,000 new apartments in Copenhagen with a monthly rent of DKK5,000 [€700]. Unrealistic, your critics say.
RB: In New York, we spoke about affordable houses, which is a problem in many cities. Take, for instance, a family of teachers with a couple of kids. How much can they pay each month? Unfortunately, I was restricted by Danish law from selling land below market price. So we had to plan to build apartment buildings with bigger and smaller apartments. The big apartments will be relatively more expensive and will help pay for the cheaper ones.
M:What do you see as the main challenges connected to growth?
RB: The traffic, definitely. That’s why most of the urban developments are located close to the next stage of the metro. We want density and more people living close to metro stations. We need more skyscrapers in Copenhagen.
M:How will you ensure that Copenhagen maintains its tradition of high-quality architecture?
RB: By using good architects. We have a man like Henning Larsen and also young talents such as Lene Tranberg and Bjarke Ingels. But we are also influenced by the international scene. The five teams that are working on the development of the Metropol Zone were thrilled to work with Rem Koolhaas last month.
M:Do you agree that when it comes to integration, Denmark isn’t an example to follow?
RB: Maybe that’s the case for Denmark but not Copenhagen. We have the most people with an immigrant background combined with social problems in the country. Yet hardly anyone votes for the far-right here. Dansk Folkeparti holds only two out of 55 seats in the City Council. We don’t have ghettos either.
M:On a different note, do you ride the bus?
RB: Yes. I talk to people. People know me and they approach me and start talking.
M:Is there anything good we can use from the 1940s and 1950s?
RB: One thing that made an impact on me was the fact that there were a lot of kids in the working-class area of Vesterbro, where I grew up. We had a lot to do with each other. The life that arises when a lot of people are together, and the things you learn as an individual are stimulating. This was of great value to me as a person. That’s something that you can use in the new parts of Copenhagen today.