The city of Copenhagen has long nurtured ambitions to be one the world’s greenest cities and to prevent urban sprawl, while also avoiding overcrowded cityscapes. Its strong environmental and urban planning credentials date from 1947, when “the Finger Plan was created by the Regional Planning Office... which at the time operated as a voluntary collaboration between three counties, 22 municipalities and several stakeholder organisations”. The “Finger Plan” was so called because it directed urban housing and business developments alongside five train lines and roads, separated by green areas for recreation. These urbanised areas formed the fingers, while the city centre could be seen as the palm of the hand.
With rates of urbanisation rapidly increasing in the postwar period, and peaking in the 1950s, modern metropolises around the globe struggled with the influx of new citizens and the impact this would have on cityscapes. Recognising this, the city sought to address the twin spectres of urban sprawl and overcrowding.
So, after the destruction that World War Two and the German occupation brought with it, Denmark introduced a new planning law in 1949. This stipulated that every municipality and region needed to have its own urban development committee and urban development plan (byudviklingsplan). It represented a unique challenge for the Greater Copenhagen Area, spanning dense urban, suburban, green, and even agricultural spaces. The Finger Plan was an attempt to provide a guiding framework for this. From its initial conception, the Plan rested on two rigid but simple principles:
- The station proximity principle (stationsnærhedsprincippe) allowed for new housing, businesses, and public services to be erected only close to train stations
- The green wedge principle worked to preserve the green spaces between these urban settlements.
This resolved the conflict between the usually competing aims of urban and green space development, because it allowed for a “dense mixed development with transit nodes” on the one hand, and a “well-distributed network of urban parks” on the other.
The Finger Plan survived decades of change and, in the 2000s, Denmark’s capital set itself a number of “eco-challenges” in the Copenhagen Climate Plan to be incorporated into the Finger Plan. These challenges included being:
- The world’s first carbon-neutral capital
- At the cutting edge of technology and innovation in Europe
- Free of air, water, soil, and noise pollution.
In the 2005 Regional Plan, the Finger Plan remained the leading principle, but a fourth ‘green ring’ around the city was introduced - green spaces were built to connect existing green wedges, which turned the green spaces into a network. The Plan gained the status of a national directive through the 2007 Danish Planning Act, when the Ministry for the Environment took over planning for the Greater Copenhagen Area. The 2025 Copenhagen Climate Plan is enforced by means of the central government’s authority over metropolitan planning, as is evident from the national directives on the Finger Plan from 2007 and 2013. This means that the two initiatives are intertwined.
These new objectives, which aim to make Copenhagen the “green capital of the future”, complemented the original objectives of the plan:
- Promoting high-quality urban living through good transport links and proximity to recreational green spaces
- Preventing urban sprawl
- Preventing overcrowded cityscapes.
The Finger Plan became a national planning directive at the same time as the administrative structure of Denmark was overhauled by the Danish Local Government Reform of 2007. The city of Copenhagen is part of a region called Hovedstaden, which means “Capital Region” and includes the city of Copenhagen, 28 neighbouring municipalities, and the island of Bornholm. It has over two million inhabitants, of whom 1.25 million live in the city of Copenhagen. The Finger Plan applies to the entire Capital Region, so over two million inhabitants.
The public impact
The Finger Plan and the Copenhagen Climate Plan have both left clear marks on the cityscape and city life in the Danish capital. For example:
- Wide bicycle lanes have been constructed throughout the city
- Transport-related carbon emissions decreased by 9 percent in the 20 years to 2011
- Over 56 percent of the residential population and 61 percent of jobs within the metropolitan region are within easy walking distance (a kilometre) of a metro or railway station
- Copenhagen received the INDEX: Award 2013 for the city’s climate adaptation plan, which “provides a unique and robust framework for a massive influx of sustainable design solutions in the future”
- As of 2014, “96 percent of citizens [were] able to walk to parks or beaches in less than 15 minutes”.
In addition, the Copenhagen metropolitan regional economy grew by 30 percent from 1993 to 2010, demonstrating that green initiatives can help promote economic growth. Copenhagen was also the European Green Capital in 2014.
Written by Stevan Ćirković
Public Confidence Good
Since at least the 1970s, public participation has been a strong feature of spatial planning in Denmark. “Public participation is ensured as an important part of the planning process. Together with local plans, planning proposals at the local level must be submitted for public debate, inspection and objection for at least eight weeks before they are finally adopted. Public participation is thus regarded as a significant democratic means through which objectives for economic development and environmental improvement are to be met.” Denmark was one of the first countries to embed public engagement so strongly in local planning, viewing it as an important contributor to political legitimacy: “the procedures of public participation are regarded as adequate for the legitimacy of the political decision”. Furthermore, it is believed that eco-friendly policies, such as the “Green Wave”, align strongly with the values of Copenhageners.
Stakeholder Engagement Strong
The Finger Plan is an example of a bottom-up initiative, which was gradually adopted as official government policy, thanks to the strong stakeholder engagement and consensus-building efforts that were a key source of its legitimacy.
When the Finger Plan was created in 1947, it operated as a voluntary collaboration between urban planners, local administrations, and several stakeholder organisations (see The Challenge above). It secured strong support from both the professionals who initiated the Regional Planning Office and the local community through public bodies and committees.
Although the initial Finger Plan was in fact promoted by a small, organised group of urban planners and architects, its key principles entered the public discourse quickly because of their simplicity. Thanks to presentations made to municipal committees, local politicians decided to give funding to the Regional Planning Office, which was “financed by the major municipalities and the central government”, and commission them to execute the Finger Plan.
Ever since then, both the city and national administrations have supported its funding and invited citizens to engage with the plan locally. Citizen activism is prominent, and Copenhageners are strong advocates for improved facilities for cyclists and “green living” in general.
Overall, it may be difficult to single out particular strategies which led to strong support from important stakeholders. The willingness and commitment from all sides to integrate expert advice with political willpower and citizen engagement do, however, appear to be central to the Finger Plan’s success.
Political Commitment Good
There was strong political support for Copenhagen’s 2025 eco-challenges, whereas the original Finger Plan from 1947 was, in comparison, more of a bottom-up initiative. It enjoyed significant funding and involvement from public bodies (see Stakeholder Engagement above), but had limited political authority. “The ‘Draft Proposal for a Regional Plan for Greater Copenhagen’ should have been followed up by a formal regional plan suitable for approval by a Regional Planning Committee set up by the parties. However, the plan was never followed through and the Regional Planning Office was closed down in 1950. As the draft regional plan with the Finger Plan was not drawn up subject to statutory authority it had no legal effect, but because the municipalities had been consulted during its preparation its influence was significant.”
For the current eco-challenges, though, there is a strong support from all levels of government –national, regional, and municipal. The Copenhagen Climate Plan was “developed with a broad spectrum of input from opposition parties, as well as different government agencies, to ensure widespread support and potential for being adopted by city council. Copenhagen’s Climate Change Plan was then adopted unanimously in 2009.”.
This has enabled the provision of substantial funds for projects towards a greener city, such as the metro expansion:
- Copenhagen's city administration promotes the transport system and funded 55 percent of the construction of metro lines 1 and 2. It has also invested in the city-ring line, at a total cost of DKK21.3bn.
- The Danish Government has funded the construction and operation of rail network over past 60 years, along with 45 percent funding for metro lines 1 and 2.
- There is a committee, comprising representatives from the relevant government ministries, to assess the plan’s progress.
Clear Objectives Strong
The Finger Plan has the following measurable objectives, including those to be attained as part of the 2025 Copenhagen Climate Plan:
- To reduce the level of carbon emissions and be the world’s first carbon-neutral capital, through a climate adaptation plan, with its focus on the city’s transport
- To be the world’s best bicycle city with 75 percent of all trips to be by foot, bicycle or public transport
- To invest in the metro system and the promotion of bicycle use, including the station proximity principle, which requires new, large offices to be located within 600 metres of a metro or railway station
- To create and conserve valuable buildings, settlements, urban environments and landscapes
- To prevent pollution of air, water and soil and noise nuisance
- To involve the public in the planning process as much as possible
- To be a hub for business in Scandinavia, including being a laboratory for testing green innovations.
Importantly, the Copenhagen Climate Plan quantified how much certain areas would contribute in CO2 emission savings: 375,000 tonnes were to be saved annually through converting away from fossil fuels into renewable energies, while energy-efficient buildings were to account for an annual reduction of 50,000 tonnes in CO2 emissions.
The original objectives of the 1947 plan have also been clarified over time. Through the 2007 Finger Plan, the central government “tightened the finger city structure by curbing urban sprawl” and defined the station proximity principle more precisely, allowing for walking distances of 600m in the city core – or palm – and up to 1,200m in peripheral areas (the fingers). 
Growth, quality of life, and sustainability go hand in hand in Greater Copenhagen. These principles have been consistently maintained and reaffirmed. According to the 2015-2025 Regional Growth and Development Strategy, which was a commitment to further specific investments, quality of life means a sense of security, freedom, and an easy daily life. This is seen as consistent with achieving growth and innovation together with sustainability – through clean air, water and soil, local health services, and infrastructure.
The minister for the environment assumed overall responsibility for urban planning for the Greater Copenhagen area as part of the municipal reform that came into force under the 2007 Planning Act.
A committee was set up to assess the need for modernising and specifying the transport corridors in the Finger Plan. The main principles of the overall Finger Plan structure were continued. The minister for the environment initiated plans for both urban and rural areas, which were laid out in the Finger Plan 2013.
Overall, the initiative was feasible as the Finger Plan became a national directive, providing the appropriate legal framework for enforcing its key tenets. The eco-challenges were furthermore broken down into manageable smaller initiatives, however, gaps and open questions were also identified.
Taking the shape of a national directive, the Finger Plan established a clear hierarchy for planning. “Local plans made by the municipalities must contravene neither the municipal plan for the area nor national planning. Therefore, planning in the Greater Copenhagen area must not conflict with the Finger Plan or other national planning directives for the area.” This minimised the risk of competing priorities amid a multilayered legal system for planning, and assigned legal competency to the relevant decision-makers.
The Copenhagen Climate Plan specified a number of steps towards achieving the annual CO2-saving goals per focus area. For example, the goal of converting the energy mix to more renewable sources was split into seven distinct “energy initiatives”, including:
- Replacing coal with renewable energy at Amager power station Unit 1, which converts 100 percent to biomass
- Modernising the district heating network to reduce heat losses from the pipes.
The Plan also identified the need for a “system for storing energy over days and seasons and which can operate regardless of wind and weather conditions”, which was a gap in the delivery plan. This transparency about limitations rendered planning more resilient on the one hand, but at the same time acknowledged that it would be contingent on aspects outside the control of the Copenhagen mayoral office.
There is limited information on how well other aspects, such as human resources and the commitment of financial resources over multiple budgets, were considered as potential risks.
There has been a proper management structure to direct the initiatives and plans, however, responsibilities have been gradually institutionalised.
Initially, the leadership role rested with the group of urban planners who launched the Finger Plan in 1947 as a bottom-up initiative. However, the Finger Plan is now under the direct supervision of the Ministry of the Environment. Any conflicts arising during implementation are now managed in a top-down manner, with the minister having the legal powers to object to local plans under the Planning Act. This means that the initiative changed from a bottom-up to a top-down governance style over time.
In 2000, the Capital’s Development Council was set up and was made responsible for overall development and regional planning, with a committee responsible for infrastructure in the Greater Copenhagen area. The Council was abolished as part of the 2007 municipal reforms.
Since 2007, the minister for the environment has been responsible for overall planning in the Greater Copenhagen area via the preparation of national planning directives. The minister is also responsible for “coordinating and ensuring central government interests in municipal planning” Within the ministry, Denmark’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for managing all the environmental protection aspects in Copenhagen and has approximately 450 employees.
Danish spatial planning has operated within a clear hierarchy since 2007:
- The minister for the environment establishes a comprehensive framework through national planning reports, and supervises national interests in municipal planning and national planning directives. The minister can veto any municipal plan which does not align with the national planning objectives.
- The regional councils prepare strategic plans capturing the “development of the region and is closely linked with the business development strategy prepared by the regional economic growth forums”
- The municipal councils summarise their objectives and strategy for development in a plan, which also encompasses a framework for more detailed local plans.
The Ministry of the Environment monitors the impact of the plan and has also created seven decentralised hubs to administer them, and especially to monitor the local areas, while a new comprehensive database was created in 2007 to assess its impact. Information on “business, settlement and transport, land use, land designated for development and the expected demand for land for various urban purposes” is being made available by the central government to municipalities to improve needs-based urban planning at a local level.
The alignment is strong, as specific responsibilities are assigned to the actors in relation to achievement of the objectives. Importantly, there is a political consensus on environmentalism, which means that a project spanning so many election cycles is at low risk of having its funding removed. “The City of Copenhagen is governed by a council with representation from seven, mostly left-leaning, political parties. The Social Democrat party has held the mayoral position for over 100 years. While municipal governments may have changed, concern for the environment, sustainable development and climate change mitigation remained constant across all party lines.”
The responsibilities pertaining to each planning actor are decentralised, and the risk of conflicts of interest is limited by granting the central government the power of veto over municipal plans (see also Management above):
- Funds are provided by the central government. The official committee of the Ministry of the Environment manages transport issues, and there are specific departments for handling waste, regional planning, economic development, etc.
- The EPA monitors chemicals and offshore platforms, and prepares the relevant legislation and guidelines, and also grants authorisations in several areas.
- The municipalities communicate with the general public and companies who wish to access information on the environment. They also grant permits, inspect enterprises, and carry out the majority of specific public sector duties.
- The Greater Copenhagen Authority oversees transport planning, regional planning, transit operations, economic development, tourism and culture.
The Ørestad Development Corporation has been responsible for the construction of the metro and the development of surrounding land since 1993.