Being Dense about Denmark

This essay is the second in a series of opinion pieces by Vishaan Chakrabarti, an architect and planner who believes passionately that dense urban environments are engines of sustainability, justice and economic opportunity that we can no longer afford to ignore as we establish priorities for policy and governance. Urban Omnibus heartily agrees, but the reason we air these opinions is not to lobby for a particular policy agenda but rather to provoke debate. What do you think? Where should a specifically urban set of policy strategies fit within our approaches to climate change, public health and unemployment? Whatever your opinion, we want to hear from you. Leave your response in the comments field below or email an op-ed to us here. –C.S.

Left: Copenhagen, photo courtesy of <a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener">BBC World Service</a>. Right: New York City, photo by Flickr user <a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Susan NYC</a>.
Left: Copenhagen, photo courtesy of BBC World Service. Right: New York City, photo by Flickr user Susan NYC.

Some years ago I was invited to lecture to a group of architects and urbanists in Denmark. The hospitality was outstanding, the setting modern yet warm, and the economy secure due to substantial offshore oil and gas reserves that allow the small, homogenous nation to be happily socialist. The majority of the country is middle class. My host explained to me that the big cultural taboo in Danish society was ambition – he admired people he knew who wanted to excel, and had therefore left for the UK or US, to seek something beyond the mean.

I thought myself lucky to have experienced this charming but – no offense – remote place, and relegated my admiration to a renewed love of egg chairs, sidewalk pavers, and wooden toys.

Who knew that years later Copenhagen would become the arbiter of our own success?

In New York last year, Copenhagen somehow became the paragon of urban design, the place against which our polyglot metropolis should be measured. It was the talk of the urban design town: The Danes are great! People use bikes! There are beautiful waterfronts! There are lots of clean blonde people! Who wouldn’t want New York to look like Copenhagen? The fact that the two cities have virtually nothing in common in terms of population, economy, morphology, history, or ambition – yes that dirty word, ambition – seemed not to matter.

All of Denmark has roughly five million people, ninety percent of whom are of Danish descent. New York City has roughly eight million people, all of whom are, in some sense or another, striving immigrants. What were New York’s urbanists thinking?

Left: Copenhagen, photo courtesy of <a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener">BBC World Service</a>. Right: New York City, photo by Flickr user <a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Susan NYC</a>.
Left: Copenhagen, photo courtesy of BBC World Service. Right: New York City, photo by Flickr user Susan NYC.

Then there was the President’s ill-advised trip to Copenhagen a few months ago to lobby for the Chicago 2016 Olympic bid. It was well known beforehand that the IOC had issues with the USOC, and that the Rio bid, with the first games to be held in South America, held all the allure. The vote wasn’t even close. What was Rahm thinking?

And now there is the tepid announcement that rather than assert true leadership at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, the White House, along with China and India, will set arbitrary targets that put no real pressure on we-the-people to change our profligate consumption. What was the President thinking?

He was thinking about health care. And who can blame him? Like Copenhagen, who doesn’t love health care?

After all, this is the Administration’s Social Security moment. It is their Medicare moment. But one cringes to think that it is not their Kennedy moment, it is not their Eisenhower moment – it is their Lyndon B. Johnson moment.

With 30,000 troops deploying against a true existential threat, crushing double-digit unemployment, a national debt running amok, and a global climate crisis running unabated, what is our primary focus? A new, unaffordable entitlement, an entitlement that once passed will join Social Security and Medicare as a third “third rail” in American politics. Just as wealthy elderly citizens refuse to pay taxes on social security benefits, just as no one wants to hear about extending the retirement age, just as people want an MRI for a hangnail – just as none of us want to hear that when it comes to health care, we are the problem we seek – we are about to adopt a mammoth new program that once passed, will be beyond our capacity to make rational.

Which is not to say that nearly 50 million uninsured Americans is acceptable, to the contrary, it is a national sin. But the question is whether we will insure those Americans on the backs of our children, or whether we will actually take action to lower costs in order to spread coverage.

One could imagine a very different first year for the Obama Administration. After the $700 billion TARP bailout, in which banks were said to be too big to fail, we could have been told that the nation and world were, in fact, too big to fail. Once Citibank was pulled from the precipice, they could have said “OK folks, you’re next.”

Imagine that it is early in 2009. In that gray light of late winter, four terrifying, push-me-pull-you facts are clear to our leaders:

  1. Massive unemployment looms due to a sharp contraction in private sector spending, leaving the Federal government as the spender of last resort.
  2. Spiraling health care costs are threatening the deficit and the dollar, so there is limited spending the Federal government can or should do.
  3. Afghanistan and a nuclear-armed Pakistan are destabilizing, the petro-dictators who finance jihad are laughing, and the cost of war in blood and treasure are rising.
  4. Polar bears are perfecting the doggy paddle.

At that point imagine the road not taken. Imagine the Administration avoided the naiveté that said “America, if we pass health care reform, we’ll lower costs and fix the deficit” – a premise that never contemplated republican cries of death panels for granny and democratic cries about any measure that reduced benefits for anyone – a premise that from its inception failed the sniff test of cost control.

Perhaps we might hear our leaders promote time- tested ideas of density and mass transportation, of cities using far less energy per capita.

Imagine they instead said “America, we have a silver bullet. We are going to rebuild this country. We are going to build a new national landscape, and in the process we are going to create jobs, build an innovation economy, rein in health care costs, lower our dependence on foreign oil, and lead the planet to sustainability. We are going to do this with one fell swoop, with one big idea, called the American Smart Infrastructure Act. (ASIA).”

Imagine that in early 2009, they decided to accelerate and combine the Federal Transportation bill (currently decelerated because of health care), and Cap and Trade legislation into one consolidated bill, ASIA, which took as its premise the following:

  1. We will build and rebuild infrastructure that lowers greenhouse gas emissions and encourages urban density, emphasizing high-speed rail, transmission grids from alternative energy sources, national internet broadband, and critical roadway maintenance. We will deemphasize all infrastructure that exacerbates emissions, particularly roadway and airport expansion projects. The government will fund approximately $350 billion (about half of TARP) over three years, solving the nation’s mobility needs while lowering automobile use and censuring the energy devoured by McMansions. To expedite infrastructure construction and lower costs, NEPA will be streamlined and project labor agreements will be negotiated with unions. Millions will be employed, pouring liquidity into Main Street.
  2. Health care costs, which are mainly tied to chronic disease stemming from obesity, will lessen as people drive less. As people urbanize in response to new infrastructure and the tax reform described below, rates of diabetes and chronic heart disease will plummet. (A 2003 study from the American Journal of Health Promotion and the American Journal of Public Health studied over 200,000 individuals in 448 counties. The findings were conclusive: Those who live in the most sprawling counties are far more likely to be obese. The exception is poor inner-city residents, whose issues tend to be linked to the dearth of healthy food choices.)
  3. To pay for ASIA, we will recoup the $7.8 billion lost annually to traffic congestion, and we will charge people for the costs of their pollution, particularly coal emissions, creating a market for cap and trade exchange; we will pass a national $1 per gallon gas tax; and we will phase out the Federal tax deduction for mortgages, dismantling the false promise of the “ownership society” by putting renters, who are primarily city dwellers, on equal footing and on the forefront of a more agile, mobile labor force.

I know what you’re thinking: A new national gas tax? Eliminating mortgage deductions? The US government promoting urbanity?

Chakrabarti’s cheese has slipped off his cracker.

But consider the enormous political capital Obama has expended on health care – political capital that he could have instead expended on this silver bullet. Consider further that issues of energy independence, infrastructure, and climate change poll strongly among both independents and Obama’s base. Consider that as gas prices spiked two summers ago, mass transit use rose substantially nationwide. Consider that many municipalities have passed local tax increases to create transit infrastructure, and that California passed a state bond issue to support high speed rail. And consider that in the wake of the passing of such an infrastructure bill, the restoration of America’s economy could be so profound that by Obama’s second term, meaningful health care reform could be passed with a far more supportive public at his back.

Photo by Flickr user <a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Scorpions and Centaurs</a>.
Photo by Flickr user Scorpions and Centaurs.

Today Americans may be divided, but they share the knowledge that something is deeply wrong. Two thirds of the housing in Phoenix is in foreclosure, in contrast to one fifth of the housing nationwide. Unemployment rates in exurban California and Las Vegas are several points higher than denser areas, with the exception of aging industrial cities like Detroit, because most exurbs have no industry other than real estate itself. Among the leading killers in America are cardiovascular disease and adult onset diabetes, which used to rank much further down. Our young men and women are dying in the mountains of Afghanistan, struggling against an enemy funded by an Arabian peninsula we have enriched because of a profligate lifestyle we have endorsed. And to paraphrase Al Gore recently on SNL, “There are guys in flip flops outside the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center.”

This is why it is this bill, this silver bullet, that demands the fierce urgency of now.

And so, to the state of Denmark, we can imagine our young and noble President traveling not as Hamlet, wrestling the dagger of the trillion dollar health care bill he sees before him, but as Henry V at Agincourt, proclaiming “from this day to the ending of the world, but we in it shall be remember’d…”

Perhaps we can imagine the President being remembered in Copenhagen for something other than vague emissions targets and a sense that fluorescent light bulbs will save us from this morass. Perhaps we can imagine that beyond all the fancy talk of pollution sequestration and carbon offsets, we might hear our leaders worldwide promote time-tested ideas of density and mass transportation, of cities using far less energy per capita before a dollar is even spent on green technology.

Perhaps we can imagine the next UN climate change forum not taking place in quaint Copenhagen, but in exploding Shanghai or emerging Mumbai, where a real discussion could ensue about the terrifying, impending embrace by China and India’s two billion people of America’s most lethal export: the suburb.

And perhaps we can imagine ASIA in the US – perhaps we can imagine a new policy that generates a new landscape for a new millennium – one in which anonymous sprawl gives way to a green, healthy, prosperous urbanity.

Perhaps we can imagine a Country of Cities.


Vishaan Chakrabarti, AIA, is the Marc Holliday Professor of Real Estate and the Director of the Real Estate Development program in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University. He is also the founding principal of Vishaan Chakrabarti Design Collaborative (VCDC, llc), an urban design, planning, and strategic advisory firm based in Manhattan. Formerly an Executive Vice President of Related Companies, Chakrabarti ran the design and planning operations for the firm’s extensive development portfolio. Through VCDC, Chakrabarti continues to advance the Moynihan Station project, as well as consult on the urban design effort for the Hudson Rail Yards.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


A Country of Cities

A series of opinion pieces in which Vishaan Chakrabarti casts key current events as rallying cries in his evolving argument for urban density, for a Country of Cities.


Kris Scheerlinck December 17, 2009

Dear Mr. Chakrabarti,
Thank you so much for sharing these ideas. You made my day!
I am an Urban Designer living and working in Barcelona (one of those other idealized comfortable cities where people do not seem to have to work), and experience daily the difficulty of explaining to clients or students the real sustainable issues at stake. I agree we won’t save the world by using fluorescent light bulbs or adding more photovoltaic panels on our rooftops. It all depends on the structure and the density of us occupying territories, small ones as well as big ones. Compactness and short-distance-logistics are the answer to all.
Have a nice day,
Kris Scheerlinck.

faslanyc January 4, 2010

some really excellent points, starting off with the absurdity of the New York urban intelligentsia glorifying copenhagen, though admittedly the copenhagencyclechic website can be seductive and there are some lessons to be learned from Copenhagen, to be sure.

the initial impact of infrastructure-as-fixall is seriously misleading, however. Even just redesigning and updating a small portion of an existing system with existing technologies takes closer to a decade, at least in complex cities like New York. this is to say nothing of new, untested infrastructures and technologies. also, you would likely need the help of large beaurocracies and engineering firms, both of which are notorious for their ineffeciencies, politics, and hierarchical management.

And can you really wait on healthcare another 4 years? i suppose that you can, as could i probably, but it seems the president has decided he might not be around, and even if so we need to get people covered now.

a cogent presentation of many of the memes making the rounds these days. provocative and thoughtful. i love the idea of the next summit being held in mumbai or sao paolo. being in those places does make matters seem more pressing than in a stable, cozy European capital.

thank you for the article.

Michael January 8, 2010

nicely written but I don’t agree with many of your points.

you really lost me when you said this
“With 30,000 troops deploying against a true existential threat”

The US, with more than 300 million people is not existentially threatened by terrorism.

Average US Deaths, per year: Cancer: 565,000. Heart Disease: 425,000. Traffic: 43,000. Total number of Americans killed by terrorism from 1968-2006: 3,227.

Terror attacks, the Iraq and the pending conflict with Iran all stem from US policies towards Israel – read the transcripts from Osama interviews. US support of Israel is something US politicians support but most Americans dont care about.

The only existential threat to the US is from the off shoring of so many of its industries.

DevotedToOmnibus January 12, 2010

I like the creativity and the ambition of the argument. Of course, the author never asks if the masses actually want to live in an urban environment; he seems to think that the people exist for the city, not the other way around.

Robert January 12, 2010

Dear Mr. Chakrabarti
I feel like I am being told the same thing over and over again, and each time the volume increases by a small increment in an attempt to improve clarity. I’m sorry but it only increases the confusion. Perhaps in simpler times it was possible to develop steel from iron ore and social impacts would be felt for centuries. Today systems are far more complex, the silver bullet may exist but it is much more of a really big shotgun shell. Experts from all industries both professionals and technicians have to step up and pull their weight and who would be more appropriate it is our responsibility to not stand in their way.
Urban planners have to be much more understanding and explain more specifically the redevelopment issues we face as a country. For example the German land area and its 88 million people fits comfortably into the state of California which is only 30 million people. If we were to match Germany’s density (1/3 greater than China) in the US our entire population would fit into California, New York and Texas with room to spare. Upon closer inspection (using the fits in California model) the largest city is Berlin at 3 million and Munich the next largest with 1.25 million. As you stroll these cities the lion’s share of the highly mixed use development is 4 to 8 stories and the surrounding area is natural/agricultural reserves. This suggest two important things; in spite of the high per square mile densities everyone need not live in an environment like New York where perhaps 50% of the residential units have sun light for 1-4 hours a day or less, and that environmental sustainability can be achieved at quite low densities. In fact in the developed world communities that are the closest to zero carbon today are moderate to low livable densities with simple transit connections and access to natural amenities and close in agriculture. Ironically a third of the world population which has the smallest per capita carbon footprint is based on these same characteristics?
So how do we explain to the public at large about this density issue and not make it contingent on the health care debate or the war in Iraq and how do we avoid yet another brainless US model of development with characterless neighborhoods snuggled up to endless parking structures, with of course an obligatory shopping street.
How do we use our expertise to develop a model of a sustainable community that realistically reflects the variety of densities that will and should occur and the role each plays in the equation? I’m afraid it will require experts from other fields to achieve an understanding of environmental equilibrium and a quality community, but probably not the health care policy pundits.

Colleen Thornton February 4, 2010

I lived in Copenhagen for 15 years (1993-2008) and worked closely with the architecture, planning and design profession during that time. Denmark has a closed door immigration policy, and its educational system is woefully out of touch. To say that “ambition” is unacceptable is an understatement. Social programming begins in the day care system with a focus on controlling all normal behaviors into a sameness that defies individualism. Despite this “socialistic” agenda, the taxpayers support the extravagance of a monarchy and single state religion. And Denmark is now in violation of several key EEA environmental regulations. While positive actions and policies exist there, the Danes are deeply conflicted and often the negatives cancel out the positives. Take for instance the new DR Radio Concert Hall designed by starchitect Jean Novel and paid for by taxpayers: geothermal heating & cooling is canceled out by the building’s exterior PVC cladding that has a non-recyclable life span of 8 years – and huge cost overruns that will continue as only 2 firms in the world can manufacture this temporary facade. Denmark suffers from a strange combination of denial of overt personal and professional ambitions (but plenty of hidden ones), deep rooted and a lack of honest cultural self awareness, all leading to the current situation of social stagnation and collective complacency. Danes do not invite close scrutiny for a reason, they prefer you believe the shallow PR hype. Barack and Oprah included.

Mayraj Fahim February 26, 2010

Copenhagen is now also part of the capital region as of 2007. Denmark has abandoned countries in favor of regions.

Please see:
The Capital Region of Denmark
The Capital Region of Denmark is one of five administrative units in Denmark. The region provides healthcare, mental healthcare, regional development and research for 1,6 mio. people – approx. 30% of the population.

The region consists of 29 municipalities from the island of Bornholm in the east to Hundested in the west.

The administrative headquaters of The Capital Region of Denmark is situated in Hillerød, 40 kilometres north of Copenhagen.

The region employs 36.000 people – mainly health care professionals – making it one of the largest employers in Denmark.

See also:
More description:
The Capital Region of Denmark is an administrative region of Denmark established on January 1, 2007 as part of the 2007 Danish Municipal Reform, which replaced the traditional counties (“amter”) with five larger regions. At the same time, smallermunicipalities were merged into larger units, cutting the number of municipalities from 271 to 98. The reform was implemented in Denmark on January 1, 2007.

K. Laia July 22, 2010

“Make no little plans… “