Transition Streets: Revitalizing Housing for the Present and Future

To architects and city planners around the world, Copenhagen is synonymous with intelligent design and environmental innovation. The city is known for it’s progressive goal to be carbon neutral by 2025. Thus far, Copenhagen has made astounding progress towards achieving this impressive green objective. In terms of infrastructure, all new buildings must be built according to the latest stringent policies. However, as is often the case, the past places a burden on the present building infrastructure. The housing sector in Copenhagen experienced rapid growth after WWII and peaked in the 1960s. Therefore, the housing stock is relatively old in the Copenhagen Metropolitan area. In 2009, less than 10% of the total residential floor area was built in the years between 1991 and 2008. According to Copenhagen’s 2025 Climate Plan, more than 70% of the current building stock was built prior to 1961 before the adoption of the first building regulations. What does this statistic mean?

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A graph from the Copenhagen Climate Plan for 2025.

The majority of homes in the city are not in accordance with modern standards, meaning that there is a significant opportunity for energy retrofitting if the city intends to meet it’s goal of being carbon neutral in approximately 10 years. The buildings of the past are an environmental burden on future generations. Rather than tearing them all down and rebuilding (which would be very energy intensive), the city must strive to retrofit old buildings in order to help future generations.

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A photo of Copenhagen taken from the spire of Church of Our Savior.

An English model for “greening” housing

What is the best way to fix up Copenhagen’s housing stock? Transition Town Totnes set a good example for the world with their Transition Streets initiative in Devon, England. Much like Copenhagen, Totnes’ buildings are well below standard when it comes to energy efficiency. The idea behind Transition Streets is to engage a community to live more sustainably through fixing up their houses. Transition Streets accomplishes this through bringing together a group of neighbors – usually about 6 or 8 people, to meet 8 times and follow a clear lesson plan that aims to cut down energy spending and carbon emissions. Through coupling financial incentives with environmental progress, Totnes was able to “green” their homes significantly.

There are 28 Transition Streets groups in Totnes. Each of the 290 households has saved an average of 600 British Pounds per year, or about 940 USD and each stopped about 1.3 tonnes of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere. Residents found that they became “green aware by accident” after going through the program. To hear more from people that experienced Transition Streets, check out this video on their website.

Transition Streets has proved to be very successful for Totnes on a social, economic, and environmental level: the three key aspects of sustainability. On a societal level, people got to know their neighbors better and formed new friendships. Additionally, low-income neighborhoods became something “to be proud of” with the installation of solar panels and according to one member of Transition Streets. Economically, people not only saved money but the Transition Streets team helped connect people with information on government grants for solar panels and other sustainable retrofitting. Environmentally, the benefits are very obvious.

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The Transition Streets logo depicts people working together and supporting each other’s sustainable growth.

The behavioral change model used in Totnes could and should easily apply to Copenhagen for the benefit of the future. Knowledge and newfound green awareness can be passed down from generation to generation. The reduction in carbon emissions contributes to inter-generational justice in obvious ways – reducing CO2 will curb global warming and promote better health in Copenhagen.