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.

Bybi (boo-bee) and Copenhagen: A City Buzzing with Sustainability

The Bruntland Report, also known as Our Common Future, was published in 1987 by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development. It was the first international document to discuss the interconnected nature of the environment, society, and economy in the context of sustainable development. In Copenhagen, one organization sets a shining example of development that acknowledges the responsibility of present generations to future generations through strengthening these three development frameworks simultaneously: Bybi, which literally means “city bee”, is a sustainable urban honey industry that promotes inter-generational equity. It takes people from the fringes of society, such as refugees seeking asylum in Denmark or homeless individuals and teaches them a skill set: making honey. By providing an opportunity for these people to work, Bybi stimulates the economy for current and future generations. Also, Bybi brings people together and educates them about the importance of bees for all aspects of life. Because of course the increased presence of bees in Copenhagen does great things for our environment.

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The colors of this honey represent the different parts of Copenhagen. Every neighborhood has a slightly different taste based on the flowers that grow there.

Equity is important for every species, not just humans

Baker discusses the normative principle of intergenerational-equity, pointing out that; “once the interests of future generations are taken into account, then concern for many features and aspects of the non-human natural world can be generated. This would include concern for other species, which may be essential prerequisites for future generations to meet their needs” (Baker, 41). Indeed, bees are one of the most important species.

Why are bees so important??

Well, bees certainly do more than just produce honey. Agriculture depends greatly on the honeybee for pollination. In fact, honeybees account for 80% of all insect pollination. Astoundingly, a single hive collects more than 66 lbs. of pollen per year. In other words, without honeybees, biodiversity would decrease, as would agricultural yield. So basically, without honeybees food security would become a serious problem overnight, leaving humans with little left to survive on. Therefore, by promoting a healthy honeybee population we are effectively feeding the next generation by maintaining the sustainable yield, or the regenerative capacity of natural systems.

This UNEP chart portrays the vast importance of bees for food production.

This UNEP chart portrays the vast importance of bees for food production.

Now more than ever it is important for humans to support honeybees because they are threatened by a myriad of modern problems such as monoculture, disease, urbanization, and habitat destruction. In recent years, colony collapse disorder, or CCD has concerned beekeepers around the world. It is not known exactly what causes CCD but some ideas include pesticides, genetically modified crops, radiation, pathogens, and much more. While the reason behind the disappearance of our bees is not certain, it is likely anthropogenic. That being said, as humans have contributed to the loss of honeybees we must also work to preserve the species for our own sake. According to Oliver Maxwell, the director of Bybi, “right now bees won’t survive until people are here to look after them. So the people need the bees and the bees need the people and that will continue as long as it is necessary.”  YouTube video about Bybi: “A New Buzz in Copenhagen”

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Oliver Maxwell, the founder of Bybi shows our class an small educational facility with several beehives.

Beekeeping as a worldwide model for sustainable development

Bybi is just one example from a strong international movement to save the bees. It works for Copenhagen and it could likely work for many other cities with enough green space to sustain a honeybee population. In fact, while doing research in Cameroon I personally witnessed the importance of sustainable apiculture firsthand. It was not much different than Denmark. A few Cameroonian bee farmers had the will to educate people on how to keep bees without damaging natural resources and they started a huge movement. Previously, it was common to use naked fire to smoke out bees, which often led to devastating bushfires. With the innovation of affordable smokers and other tools, the bee industry is in much better shape. Today, the effort to save the bees is underway all over Western Africa and honey production provides a sustainable income for local people. These worldwide initiatives to save the bees like Bybi and ANCO (Apiculture and Nature Conservation of Cameroon) just go to show that beekeeping is an incredibly successful model for pursuing sustainable development that drives inter-generational equity.

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A similar successful idea in a different country – Cameroonian honey!

To learn more about ANCO, watch this video on the founder Paul Mzeka who was awarded the United Nations Forest Hero award in 2011 and was the first person to teach me about the importance of apiculture. Or read this article.

To view the sources used to develop this blog post, visit the reference page.

The Copenhagen Harbor: An Urban Example of Sustainable Development  

For a multitude of reasons, Copenhagen’s harbor is critical to the urban environment and it has been for centuries. Today, the city of Copenhagen is focused on the sustainable development of the harbor area in order to preserve it as a natural resource for current citizens and ensure the positive future of the city. For the purpose of this analysis, I will discus the development of the harbor within the framework of the normative principle of inter-generational equity. At this point you may be wondering, what is a normative principle? Quite simply, “Normative principles are moral statements that specify what is good or bad, and mould attitudes and guide behavior” (Baker, 35). Specifically, inter-generational equity is one of the six key principles of sustainable development outlined by Susan Baker in the text, Sustainable Development. Essentially, it means considering the needs of future generations in the design and implementation of current policies.

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The Harbor Baths have been instrumental in the Harbor’s evolution from an industrial harbor to the social center of the city.

Why is the Copenhagen harbor important for inter-generational equity? 

First of all the harbor is a huge part of the city’s identity. The name København, meaning “merchants harbor,” reveals the importance of trade and water in the city. In fact, some historians believe the city was originally called Havn, or Harbor. Needless to say, the Copenhagen Harbor is an incredibly important element of the urban framework of the city; it has always been a lifeline for the city’s economy, society, and environment. As such, it is important to maintain as a center of city life.

Secondly, the harbor area may challenge the city as climate change affects the world. In particular, Copenhagen’s Climate Adaption Plan outlines two primary challenges resulting from climate change: more and heavier downpours in the future and higher sea levels. From this it is clear that Copenhagen’s adaption issues are centered on water and the harbor in particular. Already, floods have inundated the city on more than one occasion during my time here in Denmark. Not surprisingly, the most vulnerable area to flooding is alongside the harbor. This begs the question, how can the harbor be developed to be resilient to these changes? The city of Copenhagen has already begun to create a plan to redesign the harbor for future success.

History of the harbor 

In order to consider the needs of future generations, it is important to look into the past. The Copenhagen harbor has been around since the 1100s and it has been developed over time by previous generations to facilitate maritime trade – a key part of the Danish economy. Unfortunately, previous generations did not leave the harbor in good shape. Historically, urban waterways – particularly harbors – have been thought of as dirty and undesirable. Copenhagen’s harbor was no different several years ago, surrounded of industrial sites and full of all kinds of waste. However, in recent years there has been a trend to take back urban waterways for the people. Due to a mass exodus of industrial companies in the 1990s, this became possible in Copenhagen and the harbor is now regarded as one of the cleanest urban waterways in the world.

Our class learning about "Go Boats" an example of sustainable entrepreneurship by the harbor.

Our class learning about “Go Boats” an example of sustainable entrepreneurship by the harbor.

The Modern Harbor 

Today, major industries have abandoned the harbor almost completely – creating a huge opportunity to develop more “green” space in the city, which will bring people closer to nature and leading to a more livable environment. Existing examples of successful sustainable development in the harbor area include the harbor baths at Islands Brygge, a Water Front Park, and more. For example, during core course week, we explored an innovative new business called Go Boats, which hopes to bring people into the “blue space” of Copenhagen. Additionally, we took a boat tour through the Danish Architecture Center where our guide discussed the city’s efforts to bring people together by the harbor and create mixed-use developments in the area. I was really interested to see how successful development has been so far to increase resilience to climate change for the city and future generations!

This harbor-side development "Kalvebod Waves" won an award for reuniting the city of Copenhagen with its harbor.

This harbor-side development “Kalvebod Waves” won an award for reuniting the city of Copenhagen with its harbor.

To view the sources used to develop this blog post, please visit the reference page.

Sustainability in Europe

Hi, my name is Isabel and I am a junior at Dickinson College, although I am currently studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark. I am interested in urban planning, design, sustainable development, and much more.

This blog will serve as a platform for me to publish my observations in my core corse throughout the Fall 2014 semester. You can read more about my program (European Sustainable Development) here.

Danish Institute for Study Abroad, Fall 2014


By the way… I call this blog “Genius Loci: Copenhagen, Denmark” because in my architecture and urban planning class, Sustainable by Design, we learned that this latin phrase refers to a location’s distinctive atmosphere, or spirit of place. I figured it was an appropriately cheesy title for a blog – and also very suitable because Copenhagen is such an incredible city.