Copenhagen, Denmark has long been one of the more proactive cities when it comes to planning for climate change. It also happens to be the capital of the country with one of the most advanced clean energy portfolios on earth. And with most of the city only having an average altitude of 30 feet (9 meters) above sea level, Copenhagen is susceptible to storm surges and its temperamental climate. Cloud bursts over the last few years have smacked the city budget — one heavy storm in 2011 alone cost the city about 6 billion kroner, or over US$1 billion. As part of its climate adaptation plan, the city recently revealed what it says is the first neighborhood redesigned to adapt to climate change.
The district of St. Kjeld features a roundabout circling a main square at which seven streets converge. Long a patchwork of asphalt surfaces, the central plaza was typical of most of Copenhagen’s open spaces during times of extreme weather: worthless. The city’s sewer system had long been at maximum capacity, and therefore rain had nowhere to go, worsening its ongoing flooding problem. To that end, the city engaged the architecture firm Tredje Natur to come up with a plan to revamp and redesign St. Kjeld’s open spaces.
The inspiration of the neighborhood’s redesign is the regions of Denmark that had been sculpted during the Ice Age. While most of the country is relatively flat, glacial ice had been trapped in pockets of earth. Eventually that ice melted, leaving depressions in the surface that could help speed up drainage in the event of a storm. To recreate that landscape in St. Kjeld, the asphalt was torn up, and then replaced with grassy knolls that recreate those rural landscapes. Walkways weave amongst the small hills, encouraging locals to enjoy the space so the square will remain a vital meeting point. When a storm hits, the patchwork of grassy micro-parks will absorb some of that rain, while the small hills will serve as bowls and funnel excess water towards the city’s harbor.
St. Kjeld’s streets will also serve a purpose in addition to commuting under this plan. Previously the roundabout was way too wide for the amount of traffic it handled. The result was even more wasted asphalt surface and danger to pedestrians as commuters tended to drive too fast through the neighborhood. About a fifth of the roundabout’s surface has been reclaimed, augmenting the main square’s open space. Furthermore, over the next year raised sidewalks built along St. Kjeld’s streets will help prevent excessive flooding during times of extreme weather. When a storm hits, the streets will serve as temporary canals, discharging excess water away from open spaces to the harbor.
In a city as old as Copenhagen, to build a massive storm sewer system is not only too expensive, but logistically impossible. This vegetation and water approach is not only far more cost effective, but also helps beautify the city’s older neighborhoods.
While other cities such as New York are relying on infrastructure such as sea walls, a plan like Copenhagen’s could result in similar benefits at a far lower cost — and bring people closer to nature, hardly a bad trend as urbanization increases worldwide. Elements within St. Kjeld’s plan could be easily repeated elsewhere, from office parks to central downtown districts, and allow smart cities to also be survivable cities. Projects more integrated into neighborhoods are also a way to bring climate change adaptation directly to the people, instead of the top-down, heavy-handed approach that levees and sea walls impart to the public.
Image credit: Tredje Natur
Based in California, Leon Kaye has also been featured in The Guardian, Clean Technica, Sustainable Brands, Earth911, Inhabitat, Architect Magazine and Wired.com. He shares his thoughts on his own site, GreenGoPost.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.