Urban Densification in Copenhagen (with a special focus on the Østerbro district)

Policy’s Political Origin

In the early 1980s, policies related to urban aspects were primarily a welfare issue in Denmark, and it was not until a decade later that social resources in urban politics became a prioritization. However, the central government’s influence was strongly reduced and in late 2001, the right-wing government replaced Denmark’s political position. This political change caused a prominent shift in urban politics, with strong goals of resolving urban renewal problems. Even though there was still a welfare approach towards urban policy, the shift gradually stimulated growing social differences and segregation in the housing market.

This change in government in 2001 passed a number of new acts and modified a number of existing legislations, with the majority of them aiming to reduce immigration and turning to a stronger focus on social benefits. Within the next few years, the government proposed a new act on urban renewal that was intended to reduce costs and stimulate local private businesses. This new political position believed that selling dwellings in the least attractive parts of the cities will be able to raise living standards and revenues earned can be used towards constructing new housing or improving residential complexes. This change in government also gave rise to the introduction of a new model, where socially marginalised groups were allevated from dominating one region by evenly allocating dwellings throughout neighbourhoods.


Since in mid-1990s, the Danish government has supported densification in hopes of achieving higher urban densities and sustainability. This was because they believed that higher densities will be able to help them in to achieve sustainable urban development more successfully. Through the evolvement into higher densities, infrastructure will be more efficient and improved, as well as bringing distances between urban locations closer to each other, which in turn will improve the energy efficiency in the region.

Densifying the city is designed to achieve more efficiency in the usage of existing resources that are available, and encourage more utilization of public transit at higher urban densities over private vehicles. This prospect is also attractive to developers because they tend to be more profitable than re-developments of building complexes. Urban densification is an on-going decision in politics as building sustainable cities are becoming more and more popular, and requires the accomodation of acknowledging how another many people being added to the city would affect the desired outcome (marginal effect).

Coverage and Distributional Effects

Since Copenhagen is Denmark’s capital city, it underwent rapid urbanization and we can focus into this city to see how it has fared thus far. The district of Østerbro has felt the greatest impact from densification out of all the districts in Copenhagen. In this district, there are three main divisions: an area of housing complexes that are about 5 to 6 stories high, with a few scattered detached houses; central area where the main services like hospitals are located; and an area near the port that underwent redevelopment. As a result from all these intense building activities, this district has seen an increase of 5.9% in population density, exceeding the average increase of Copenhagen as a whole.

Figure 1: Østerbro district is circled in yellow, with regions near the port in red. Credits to Anne Skovbro1

The Copenhagen Region Development Council has proposed that the coverage of densification among the central parts of Copenhagen would expect to result in less traveling and more utilization of public transportation. However, in the future, the areas are still available for densification will eventually be limited within the central parts, and would have to take place outside the municipality of Copenhagen in the suburbs.

Currently, the housing in Østerbro has the greatest proportion of large flats compared to other districts in Copenhagen. Consisting of mainly flats with a few rooms are very common and popular among new developments in the district, and many of them are offered at sky-level prices. Needless to say, these new housing are geared towards high-income groups even though there is a need for housing for the elderly and students in the municipality as well. The region that is near the port along the harbour are where the most expensive dwellings can be found, so compared to those, the ones built in the central parts are relatively lower and more reasonable prices.

However, the urban policiy in the municipality of Copenhagen is to attract familes and high income groups. In order to further encourage and ensure that this goal is met, low income and social housing have all been ordered to cease construction, which further deters lower income familes away from the district.

In the long-run, the location near the port has attracted mostly high-income retired seniors and young families or single people with no children. The relatively lower-cost in the centre of the district is more affordable, and thus has found to be attractive to high income familes with children. However, on an overall basis, the residents living in Østerbro district typically earn a higher income than other districts in Copenhagen. Policies implemented is to attract families with higher-income groups back to the city, which also leads to social exclusion due to the city being more compact with more uniform residents. As a result, the high price housing in the metropolitan areas eventually led to displacement of the poorer people out of the core districts of the city. The on-going urban densification further strengthens and supports this trend, which is what the city has set up in its policy, but at the same time they aim for sustainability as well, and by exluding the poor people is not achieving sustainable social development as the city is unbalanced. This results in greater gaps between gender, age as well as soci-economic differences.

Those higher-income groups living near the port do not view themselves as a port of the Østerbro district because they are mostly elders who moved in from the suburbs and do not work or shop in the central district, but travel to more exclusive parts of Copenhagen, which requires traveling by car. The other group living in the central district are those who generally work and do their shopping locally in the region. Through these observed findings, we can see that those who moved into Østerbro district in Copenhagen have also brought with them their different lifestyles. The most expensive housing near the harbour is those from the suburbs, and not much effort have been done to encourage them to embrace the urban district and integrate their lifestyles with the city.

Tax Revenue from Urban Densification

Since decades ago, Copenhagen has been building many housing complexes with the goal of attracting more people into the city, since the government has experienced a significant decline in tax revenue from the 1960s to the 1980s. Thus, the municipalities in the city compete with each other to attract more taxpayers and businesses into their district.

The municipalities believe that higher revenue collected from businesses in the region and more people moving in will allow them to transfer into higher density construction, including better roads connecting the different regions. For example, right now the port area near the harbour is quite isolated from the central district because of a lack of public transport and sufficient roads linking them to the city’s core. Thus, a partial of the earned revenue goes towards new growth and urban redevelopment in the city. Since local governments are responsible for a major portion to finance their transit solutions, this additional revenue will go towards public transit and road constructions.

Effectiveness and Final Thoughts

Urban densification is trying to intensify the development within the city rather than encouraging peripheral expansion. This is believed to be more sustainable and more compact, having more services within reach with minimal private traveling required. However, consumers may not prefer to live in dense residential land because this could also mean rise in urban crime, sanitation, congestion, and problems of the like. Thus, I believe some crucial challenges that local governments and developers will face would be learning to accommodate and overcome the issues that accompany new growth within the city.

Copenhagen has invested quite heavily in a new Metro as well as increasing road capacity throughout many parts in the city. This has led to an obvious increase in car traffic, where private transportation in the metropolitan area increased by 23% after taking into account population growth from years 1995 to 2007. On the other hand, public transport was found to have decreased by 7%. Thus, to limit growth in car traffic, urban planners have tried to change the car-oriented culture by lobbying towards investment in public transport. In the Østerbro district specifically, metro lines have been built for bringing people to the airport and to the new offices in the proximity for those who do not live in the district. This is to stimulate greater economic growth in the district by connecting those who live in the neighbourhood with those who do not. 2

Currently, planners are making efforts to increase Copenhagen’s attraction through incorporating culture and recreational facilities throughout the city. I believe besides upgrading the housing, the city should also look at providing residential complexes at lower ends to accommodate to attract more balanced groups of people migrating into the city. This would also stimulate different types of businesses and services that are not only geared towards high-income groups, so in the long run, the city would be more sustainable with a variation of groups living in the city.


  1. Anne Skovbro. Urban Densification: An innovation in sustainable urban policy?
  2. International Journal of Urban Sustainable Development

3. http://thisbigcity.net/plan-or-be-planned-an-urban-densification-dilemma/

One thought on “Urban Densification in Copenhagen (with a special focus on the Østerbro district)

  1. Hi Lisa:
    Nice Job. Lisa.
    Copenhagen is heavily rely on its public transportation when applying densification policy in this City. What is your suggestion about connecting the separated metropolis part in Copenhagen? Do you think Copenhagen densification policy should considering more about its distribution effect and let more people enjoy more benefit of better urban planning?

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