Learning from the world’s happiest city: Why you should travel to Copenhagen

The term urbanists use to describe a city like Copenhagen is ‘liveable.’  Monocle Magazine ranks the world’s most livable cities based on categories such as urban design, diversity, or sustainability; Copenhagen usually tops the list.  Around the world, city leaders and urbanists are working to create more liveable cities, but Copenhagen seems to have already cracked the code. Beyond cycling, the city is on track to be carbon free by 2025 and is already a global center of design and innovation. Planners and citizens around the world turn to Copenhagen for inspiration and ideas on how to make their home cities more like the Danish capital.


Copenhagen seems to me like a fairy tale. The harbor is home to the original Little Mermaid as well as a giant offshore wind farm. It is inspiring, but I frequently stop to ask myself: how can I bring it home? Can my home in Los Angeles become as liveable or as happy as Copenhagen? Can biking to work in Boston eventually be this much fun for me? Could some of these brilliant ideas in Denmark translate to the US?

A Role Model City

The small cafe in the tree-shaded square made me want to sit outdoors and enjoy a coffee and a book. The harborside ‘beach’really just a dock with a diving boardlined with swimmers enjoying the summer sun made me wish I had brought along a bathing suit. The converted boathouse apartments made me strongly reconsider moving to Copenhagen that instant and never looking back.  The bike lanes made the city feel small and free; on my second morning I rented a bike and made my way to the far end of the old city to visit the famous Little Mermaid statue.

But as you fall in love with all of the great ideas in Copenhagen, and all of the traits that make the city so liveable, you begin to see that a lot of them are not just good ideas, they are part of the culture. The outdoor cafe is a key aspect of Danish culture, where the whole country drinks more than one cup of coffee per person every day, while seated at the cafenot in to-go cups, which is how most Americans drink their coffee.  The harborside beach is a product of a coordinated effort to reduce boat traffic in the harbor and the love of sunshine in the summer in a country that is dark for most of the winter. The converted boathouse apartments are a government effort to provide good quality housing for the rich and the poor. And the bike lanes only fill up if people feel comfortable and safe riding their bikes.


Packing a City in a Suitcase

I can’t just pick up Copenhagen’s bike lanes and plop them down whole in the Los Angeles of today: Danish culture and the extensive infrastructure and history is what makes biking so popular and effective in Copenhagen. An Angelino isn’t going to ditch his car overnight because we repainted the roads.

We will be studying livability this summer in Denmark and Sweden on our Smart Cities workshop. Our intention is to tease apart the innovation from the culture. We will be working to understand how a new innovation in a city can be adapted for another part of the world. When you think about urban progress in this way, you can develop neighborhoods that learn from the worlds leading cities, but also know themselves well and understand what is truly possible.

If you are interested in helping plan happier, more sustainable US cities, come with us this summer toexplore the world’s most liveable city, Copenhagen. We will learnfirst hand from urban innovators while we attempt to make sense of how Scandinavian ideas from Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Malmo, Sweden can translate back home.

– Adam