Setting the Bar High
BY HELEN HERNANE
"SOMETIMES, CHANGE TAKES A LOT OF TIME BUT IN THE END, IT’S ALWAYS WORTH THE EFFORT."
COPENHAGEN IS THE 2ND MOST LIVEABLE CITY IN THE WORLD THIS 2023, PAINTING A PICTURE OF PERFECTION THAT MOST CITIES ASPIRE TOWARD, WE ASK COPENHAGEN LORD MAYOR SOPHIE HÆSTORP ANDERSEN, WHAT’S NEXT?
Known for the Little Mermaid statue, Nyhavn Harbour with its colorful houses, and jazz clubs, Copenhagen, Denmark tops nearly every positive list imaginable. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Union of Architects (UIA) dubbed it the 2023 World Capital of Architecture. Additionally, it is home to some of the world’s finest Michelin-starred restaurants.
Beyond the cultural scene, Copenhagen is also the poster city for cycling and happiness. It is the second highest city in the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)’s Global Liveability Index and is named by Forbes as the top city in the world for work-life balance. Copenhagen was also 3rd in the 2023 Global Destination Sustainability Index. No wonder its leader Lord Mayor Sophie Hæstorp Andersen (also the people and even tourists) sings the city praises.
“There are so many reasons why I’m proud to call Copenhagen my home, and why I could never dream of living anywhere else. Social responsibility is close to my heart, and I’m proud of the fact that the city welcomes people from all walks of life regardless of gender, race, and sexuality,” Andersen shares.
She adds that the city government is developing an even better future for the Copenhageners—one that is focused on climate change, cycling, and public transportation, while preserving the city’s unique architectural soul. On a personal level, the lord mayor confesses that she’s a huge fan of the city’s world-class gastronomy scene, theaters, and concert venues.
However, no city is perfect and even the most prized artworks have their flaws. Which is why Andersen believes that their local government shouldn’t rest on their laurels, saying “Although I am proud that Copenhagen is recognized as one of the world’s best cities, I believe that we should also look forward and develop our city [further]. So that Copenhagen never stands still, but develops in an increasingly equal and greener direction.”
But how did Copenhagen achieve this level of success? And what comes next for the city that has made sustainability the goal of every government in the world?
Denmark is the 2nd highest country in the 2023 World Happiness Report. In the context of Copenhagen, what do you think are the factors behind this achievement?
I think one of the reasons why Copenhagen or Denmark has been leading, or has been ranking high, for many years has to do with our welfare system. There’s a lot of safety nets in the Danish welfare system that we try to maintain [not just in Copenhagen].
That means that even though there are still people that we need to help, there are also a lot of people who, on a daily basis, feel safe in their neighborhood, their jobs. Or even when they lose their job, there is a safety net that takes care of them.
This is something we strive for in Copenhagen, liveability where safety is not only about having low crime rates but also feeling safe in knowing that you can easily get a job or education and the government and people will take care of you. These are some of the things that make people happy and make their lives easier.
What aspects of Danish (or Scandinavian) culture have cultivated a shared sense of responsibility among the people?
I think it’s a mix of how our society is built and how we interact as Danes. Our high level of trust in each other, our unique welfare state and educational system, our culture, and our consciousness toward each other and the environment [have contributed to this].
[I believe] much of the credit for Denmark’s present position as a wealthy and safe country without major social tensions can be ascribed to a welldeveloped public sector. In Copenhagen, this also means that we can develop the city in a green direction and prioritize more metro, bicycle lanes, and green spaces which also contribute to making the city an even better place to live in.
Speaking of security and culture, the spirit of hygge is also definitive of Denmark’s culture. It doesn’t have a singular meaning, but it revolves around making a person feel comfortable. As hygge is best experienced with people that you are close or familiar with, and given that 73 percent of the city’s population are of Danish origin, how does the local government ensure that immigrants to Copenhagen experience a sense of inclusion and hygge?
Hygge is something that we take very seriously in Denmark and Copenhagen. For Danish people, it is a concept that we can create but sometimes it can maybe also exclude others. This is something that we discuss a lot also politically because in Copenhagen, we want to be open for business. We want to open our country to other people.
A lot of people want to come and work in Copenhagen because Danish companies often have a very flat organizational PHOTO BY EHRHORN HUMMERSTON 28 LEAGUE culture wherein it’s very easy to get in touch with leadership or have a dialogue with them. This speaks to many people around the world, especially young people.
But what we also see is that immigrants come to Denmark and it’s easy to get good colleagues. After work, however, a person could feel very alone and excluded from the hygge culture. This is something we discuss a lot; what can we do differently?
As Danes, we need to be better in creating new friends. A lot of Danish people, including myself, made friends at a very early time [during their childhood] that they carry on throughout their life. Danish people take friendship very seriously because as parents, you make sure that your children are in a good place and you help your children get along with their friends. Some people are closer to their friends than their families. [It’s opposite] the openness that we see in other societies where you invite more people, have more loose friendships, but have very close familial connections.
In Copenhagen, we have “international houses” or places where we try to create bonds between immigrants and integrate them into Danish culture and vice versa. It’s an ongoing political discussion about what we can do more to make sure that people not only want to come to Copenhagen and work, but also to want to stay there.
Denmark is among the highest consumers of antidepressants. How do you reconcile this contradiction given the happiness ranking?
The mental health crisis, it’s all over the world. It affects every kind of neighborhood, regardless of social class, and was made worse by the global pandemic. Some of it has to do with the complexity that we face today—crisis regarding our environment, climate change, crisis in who is actually running the world.
And I think one of the reasons why so many people in Denmark also use antidepressants is because they can afford it. We’re a rich country and we were among the first countries that invented antidepressants. I look at this statistic positively; for me, it means that it is easy to access good healthcare in Denmark.
What are the initiatives of the Danish government regarding mental health, especially for the youth?
Mainly, we are looking into our school system. We want to make sure that there is more room for creativity and play classes for the young. During the 1990s, we actually had a lot of discussions about testing and we wanted to improve the children’s skills in reading, writing, and math. We put a lot of focus on that and we were comparing ourselves to other countries, like China.
Today, I feel that maybe we went a little bit too far in trying to enhance those skills instead of building some of the most innovative, creative children and making sure they have life skills. It’s essential to ensure not only math, writing, and reading skills, but also creating a democratic society—helping children believe that they can change things, oppose during discussions, and that they can have a dialogue with grown-ups instead of just being dictated to on what they should do.
So this is what we’re trying to bring more to our schools, instead of focusing on the mere skill of testing and being ready to be tested. We’re trying to bring this to the national dialogue and enhance the school system as a more holistic approach that empowers the children growing up.
Denmark also stands out as a country with one of the highest personal income tax rates in the world. Among the top 10 countries in the world with highest tax rates, only Denmark, Japan, and Austria have cities that also rank high in the Global Liveability Index. This includes Copenhagen. Could you elaborate on the possible factors that allow your city to maintain its remarkable liveability status despite the relatively high tax burden on its citizens?
I think it’s exactly one of the reasons why we can maintain a high liveability ranking—because we pay high taxes. Trust is a very big issue when it comes to income taxes and we see, as citizens, what we get from complying. It is up to yourself to make sure that you have the right insurance systems—making sure that your children go to a good school until the point they need to go to a university, healthcare especially for the elderly, and more.
In Denmark, you can say that our tax system is our collective insurance system. That brings a lot of safety and trust for everyone. Locally, we have good schools for our children that we already paid for because we pay our income taxes. My children, for instance, go to a local school just 300 meters away from our house. And in that school, I feel safe that they have good teachers, a high level of education, and that they can thrive without the need for me to pay for a private school. Then when they want to go to university or get further education afterwards, it is very easy to get because you don’t need to pay for it. These give people a lot of safety and trust in society—thus leading to the liveability of Copenhagen. I have American friends and some of them are envious of the system. It is very difficult for them to grasp a system that is based on so much trust in the local government and the local state initiatives. For the example of education and healthcare, these are some of the things that only you could enhance yourselves instead of relying on the government.
A democratic politician named Elizabeth Warren said something about how we don’t succeed on our own as human beings. As somebody paid for that road you were driving on, somebody paid for that school you went to, and somebody made sure that we have educated people to take care of the elderly. In Denmark, we have chosen to make sure that paying our taxes is among the things we do collectively because it helps build a liveable and happy country.
(Andersen is referencing US Senator Warren’s quote, “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own— nobody.” Former US President Barack Obama also echoed this, saying, “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help… Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive… The point is, [that] when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”)
Moving towards climate action initiatives, Copenhagen initially had a target to be carbon neutral by 2025. With the ARC incinerator failing to meet the requirements for state funding, it’s clear that the city may not achieve this goal. In one article, however, you shared that you are optimistic in meeting this target in the upcoming years. Could you elaborate on the strategies you have in place to continue Copenhagen’s fight against climate change, building on the remarkable 80 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions since 2010?
In Copenhagen, we have a track record of being at the international forefront on various climate topics, and we strive to support healthy and meaningful lives for our citizens. I am confident that our liveability ranking is not despite of, but in many ways because of, our ambitious climate policies and To answer your question, we are working on several tracks to succeed with our goal, and carbon dioxide capture is still something we are working to realize. Other than that, we are investing massively in an integrated sustainable mobility system where a world-class biking system is combined with green and new metro, buses, and electrical “harbour buses.”
We are placing an emphasis on circular economy and energy efficiency to support a sustainable building sector. Plus, I am to minimize single-use consumption and reduce rubbish in our streets by introducing deposit solutions for takeaway.
Copenhagen has also implemented an extensive resource and waste management plan with the target of tripling all reuse in the city as well as recycling 70 percent of all household and light industry waste by 2025.
I’m also proud to add that our children and elderly are provided with sustainable, healthy meals in kindergartens, schools, and nursing homes that are 90-percent organic. Lastly, we have invested 1.4 billion Danish krone in the implementation of a wide Cloudburst Management Plan, including 300 projects and with strong integration of urban nature and public green spaces for leisure.
Copenhill, the waste-to-energy plant with an artificial ski slope on the roof, transformed the idea of sustainable infrastructure. What are your thoughts regarding this iconic energy plant?
In Copenhagen, space is limited and we need to prioritize the creation of green spaces by being creative in our utilization of our square meters. This includes the city’s rooftops, which I advocate for being used more effectively—for example, rooftop gardens or installation of solar panels.
Copenhill represents an impressive fusion of sustainability and innovation. The concept of integrating a waste-to-energy plant with a rooftop artificial ski slope is not only an architectural feat, but also a powerful symbol of how we can embrace sustainability in a creative way. It demonstrates that infrastructure doesn’t just need to be functional; it can also be beautiful and inspiring. It’s a positive step toward changing our perception of what is possible within sustainable development.
On a personal level, you have 16 years of political experience. You were a member of the Folketing (parliament) and then became the regional council chairperson of the capital region. Could you tell us a moment that shaped your leadership?
There are, of course, many highlights since the beginning of my political career. For example, I have always been very focused on treating people who are living with drug addiction.
When I was elected the first time to parliament, it took time but I managed to convince my party that we should change the way we help people who have drug addiction. After 10 years, I succeeded in getting my proposal through parliament. Now that I’m the Lord Mayor of Copenhagen, we continue to make sure that these parliamentarian results are concretely felt by the people, that they actually get out to affect those with drug addiction and those people who live on the streets.
That’s been very memorable for me. Sometimes, change takes a lot of time but in the end, it’s always worth the effort. If the younger me knew how many years it would take me to make these changes, maybe I wouldn’t have [entered politics]. But today, I’m very glad that I stayed on message and sought more alliances in order for us to make massive institutional changes on this issue because it means a lot to people; these results save lives on a daily basis.
What principles or values do you consider central to your leadership style?
It’s all about authority, to be brave in making decisions even though we cannot always see the results immediately. We should look more into the future, on what’s good for Copenhagen not only five years from now but also 10, 30, sometimes 50 years from now, especially when it comes to climate change.
Dialogue is also very important for me, to talk with the Copenhageners. Every month, I take one or two days off to talk to the people and be a part of the city, to make sure that the ideas that we are politically bringing forward are also something that we do together with the people.
Especially since 80 percent of businesses in Copenhagen are very small with 20 to less than a hundred people. It’s important to be in close dialogue with those about how to develop our city, as well as the elderly and other minority sectors of society
WALK THE TALK
Success, of course, also comes with a price, and for Copenhagen, it is the immense responsibility to keep leading the charge when it comes to climate action. Recently this 2023, Andersen was elected as vice chair of the C40 Cities Steering Committee. It is “a global network of nearly 100 mayors of the world’s leading cities that are united in action to confront the climate crisis.”
Andersen said in her statement: “Cities are doers, not talkers. As new C40 vice chair, I will bring decades of green innovation and best practices from Copenhagen into the C40 network. I also aim to take a leading role in reducing consumption-based emissions at the city level while focusing on the balances and synergies between climate impact, green jobs, health, and liveability.”
Despite taking the lead, Andersen also wants Copenhageners to do their part in this initiative as the world has high expectations. The lord mayor concludes the interview by stressing that their society has reached a place wherein people cannot say that it is the sole responsibility of the state or the local municipalities to make climate adaptations.
“This is something we need to take upon ourselves, to take responsibility, and to have this dialogue with each other. We need to look more into how we can adjust our individual lives to create a world that is more fair, to take leadership in changing our ways when it comes to climate change.”