Sustainable Cities™

Copenhagen: sustainability at district plan level

In mid-August 2010 Denmark’s environment minister, Karen Ellemann, proposed that it should be easier for local authorities to make environment- and climate-related demands in district plans. But what are the essential challenges when it comes to promoting sustainable development at district level? Copenhagen City Council has made considerably headway in this respect and already has experience of the challenges of working sustainability considerations into district planning and the process of elaborating district plans.

Ørestad i København, hvor der skal arbejdes med bæredygtighed i lokalplanlægningen af den co2-neutrale bydel Amager Fælled Bykvarter.

Sustainability in relation to district planning came on the agenda in earnest in Copenhagen in 2007. An open competition was launched that year related to the development of the 33 hectare Carlsberg site in Valby, in the west of the city. One of five basic elements of the competition programme was how the site could be developed in a sustainable fashion. After the entries had been submitted it became obvious that the council faced quite a challenge when it came to evaluating the sustainability of the proposals. This was because it had not yet fully developed a sustainability assessment tool. When the winning project by Entasis was announced, new challenges arose for the council concerning the inclusion of sustainability in the initial statement and the district plan. Work on the Carlsberg site led in 2008 to the municipality implementing a project on sustainability in district planning, so that in future it would better able to work more systematically in its approach to sustainability.

Traditional environmental assessment of municipal and district plans often seems a rather disconnected activity, carried out at the end of the project and added to the final plan proposal. This results in the planning process itself and the environmental evaluation not being part of an integrated sequence. The potential of environmental evaluation to improve environmental conditions in the proposed plan is thus not exploited. Same problem frequently manifests itself when an attempt is made to apply holistic sustainability considerations to the planning process. The holistic view is in this case typically limited to a checklist which is gone through when the actual proposed plan has been drawn up. When developing sustainability assessment tools it is important to make sure that work to improve sustainability does not become a post-rationalisation, but is an integrated part of the planning process from the outset.

In the spring of 2009, the Economy Administration and the Technology and Environment Administration had together developed a sustainability assessment tool, in which 14 considerations define what the Copenhagen City Council understands to be sustainable urban development. The tool will be used as a dialogue and evaluation instrument in connection with all urban development projects for which district planning is mandatory and which involve more than 50,000 square metres of floor space. Projects will be subjected to a 'sustainability check' and the tool must ensure that sustainability becomes an important theme in the dialogue with the project developers from the outset until the new area is ready for occupation. It is not a quantitative measuring tool for the precise evaluation of projects, but a tool based on qualitative assessments carried out by the right experts. The 14 sustainability considerations also function as an overview instrument and to provide a checklist for developers, helping them to ensure that every aspect has been taken into consideration with regard to Copenhagen City Council's development requirements.

"The 14 sustainability considerations: land-use, transport, energy, water supply, handling recycling of materials, green and blue areas, social diversity, the urban space, urban life, identity, commerce and service, municipal economy, project economy and durability."(see more at (Danish only).

The municipality's sustainability tool was not, however, fully developed until the framework district plan for Carlsberg had almost reached completion, which meant that the tool had not been systematically applied throughout the planning process. Work on the Carlsberg district plan also made it clear to council planners that they lacked experience in incorporating sustainability into the various planning documents and in the type of materials they should request as background material to ensure that sustainability was incorporated into the district plan.

In order to better equip themselves for handling the initial phase of the planning process, they developed a 'sustainability analysis'. The 14 sustainability considerations also form the basis for the 'sustainability analysis', which takes the surrounding area as its point of departure and the purpose of which is to create a context-relevant, location-specific framework for planning and the dialogue with e.g. the developer. The analysis ensures systematic screening of the urban development area and the surrounding area in order to identify what the new area has to contribute in relation to the surroundings, what the surroundings already have to offer (and which will therefore not have high priority in the new area) as well as which natural and cultural values the plan must secure.
The sustainability analysis can be done on any size of area, what is important is that sustainability considerations relating to the surroundings of the project are relevant to how the project will be developed. This may e.g. mean that the existing traffic infrastructure and urban space network play a decisive role in the development.

"When an urban development project is initiated and a developer or site owner approaches the municipality, the sustainability assessment tool is presented and, if the project is large enough, a dialogue is initiated regarding the 14 sustainability considerations. The sustainability list functions as an overview instrument and a checklist to make sure that every aspect has been taken into consideration and that sustainability has been thought into the project from the outset." Annette Egetoft, special consultant, Copenhagen City Council, Centre for the Environment.

The analysis is carried out partly at screening level, which contributes to prioritisation of the 14 sustainability considerations, and at a more detailed level at which the individual considerations are more precisely evaluated. Screening is carried out very early in the planning process - when a developer approaches the City Council with a proposal for the development of an area for which district plans have not yet been drawn up. According to the district planning manual, the sustainability analysis at screening level is implemented immediately after the first meeting with the developer. The detailed location analysis entails a more precise evaluation of the individual sustainability considerations. The location analysis is prepared prior to the initial report and is included to the report. It also states in the district planning manual that the sustainability analysis at a more detailed level is carried out prior to the initial report.

It can be expected that the time spent on a sustainability analysis - and the initial phase of the district planning process - will be saved at a later stage since work done during the sustainability analysis should reveal what needs to be focused on later in the district planning process. It should also facilitate organisation of the work on the district plan. Entering into a dialogue on sustainable initiatives at an early stage of the planning process with advisers and project developers, before specific solutions have been found and where the goals have not yet been set out in the form of specific requirements, provides greater scope for creativity and alternative technical solutions to the challenges involved. The sustainability considerations thus become more of a possibility than a limitation.

"Carrying out a location-based sustainability analysis helps the council's staff to draw up the district plan and to enter into qualified dialogue with the developer about the project."   Annette Egetoft, special consultant, Copenhagen City Council, Centre for the Environment.

Last updated Tuesday, January 21, 2014