“Copenhagen is selling out on its social and environmental values”

Copenhagen should go 'carbon negative', reduce the work week to 30 hours, and create housing that serves the needs of the city's residents instead of enriching developers. Niko Grünfeld, mayoral candidate for The Alternative, explains his vision for the city ahead of the party's first-ever municipal elections

Months before the municipal election this November, one issue was dominating the news: the future of a small plot of land on the southeast corner of the common known as Amager Fælled. For more than 25 years, it has been slated for development. But now, many of the city’s residents and politicians want to save it. They argue it is unique – because it has remained uncultivated for over 5,000 years, it hosts rare amphibians and plants that live nowhere else, not even elsewhere on the common.

Lord Mayor Frank Jensen of the ruling Social Democrats (Socialdemokratiet) was alone on the left wing in his support for the development. He argued that Copenhagen needed the 2,500-unit sustainable housing project – a quarter of which would be earmarked for low-income workers.

But in September, after several right-wing parties joined the chorus, he backed down and proposed moving the development to a different plot of land.

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Niko Grünfeld ought to be ecstatic. He’s the mayoral candidate for The Alternative (Alternativet), a green party first elected to Parliament in 2015 that champions sustainable development, support for entrepreneurs, and rethinking the prevailing political culture.

A week before Jensen climbed down, I visited Grünfeld at Christiansborg, the Danish Parliament building, for an interview about the party’s platform and vision for the city.

“We want to rescue Amager Fælled and build somewhere else,” he said at the time.

“So if we have a green majority after November 21, then that will be one of the first things we will change. For a city trying to be one of the greenest and most sustainable cities in the world, it would be suicide to destroy that land.”

I called him after Jensen’s announcement, expecting him to sound thrilled. But he’s cautious. For while Jensen has suggested moving the development to a spot on Amager Fælled where a camping ground is now located, that land is protected under current national legislation. If the government doesn’t agree to change the law, there is nothing to stop Jensen from proceeding with the original development plan after the election.

READ MORE: Pristine land on Amager Fælled might be saved

“We want to save all of Amager Fælled from development. There are plenty of other places around Copenhagen where we can build the new homes that the city needs. It’s not true that we have to build on Amager Fælled.”

Greenest of the green
While Jensen might have been trying to avert an immediate political crisis, the arrival of Alternativet could signal a major ‘green shift’ at Copenhagen City Hall. A poll by Gallup in June suggested that Alternativet would secure ten percent of the vote in Copenhagen municipality.

These voters are likely to be cannibalised from the other left-wing parties that dominate the municipal government – 39 of the 55 seats in City Hall belong to parties in the left-wing ‘red bloc’. But Grünfeld argues that there are some key differences between Alternativet and its political allies, not least with respect to how much more seriously they take issues such as climate change and sustainability.

“The Alternative will hopefully create an alliance for a faster renewable transition. The longer we wait, the more expensive climate change will be. The Metro, for example, is already looking into how to tackle the impact of sea level rise on metro stations, because it’s a serious problem if we want to expand the system. Every day that we push the transition into the future, it ends up costing us,” he explains.

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“Everyone needs to be part of the solution – companies, entrepreneurs, institutions, NGOs, the education sector and the public sector. We need everyone to move in the same direction. We need green companies, green education, and a green public sector. Parties on the left such as the Red-Green Alliance [Enhedslisten] don’t focus on businesses and the private sector because they perceive them as the bad guys – we see them as part of the solution.”

For a start, Copenhagen Municipality could make an enormous impact by being more critical about how it spends its 45 billion kroner annual budget, argues Grünfeld.

“We want to make it more attractive to be a green entrepreneur and create green and sustainable companies. So when it comes to catering, for example, organic and local food will be prioritised. And when we renovate schools, we can use sustainable entrepreneurs and craftsmen,” says Grünfeld, acknowledging that this approach may prove more costly.

Background on the Amager Fælled controversy: Putting a price on biodiversity

“We want the municipality to stimulate a market. It might be expensive in the short term, but it will help bring about greater sustainability. So instead of renovating ten schools next year, we might only afford eight. But we need that compromise in order to make that transition. We want to contribute so that entrepreneurs can see that there is a market. It’s very difficult to compete with conventional companies on price.”

Almost an MP
Grünfeld is an archetypical big-city Dane, wearing sneakers and jeans, and a dark blazer over a t-shirt that advocates public transport and cycling over car use. On his lapel is a colourful circular pin representing the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 on which his party has based its election manifesto. For example, the global goal of abolishing poverty is reflected in five concrete goals to tackle homelessness in Copenhagen.

It’s not surprising that the party chose to present its ambitions for the city in this way. Alternativet was created out of a sense of frustration that modern politics wasn’t capable of addressing the most important challenges facing the world, notably climate change.

Its leader, Uffe Elbæk, launched the party in 2013 after resigning as Culture Minister and leaving the Social Liberal Party following accusations of nepotism. While the state auditor cleared him, he resented the media and political pressure surrounding the case. In his opinion, it epitomised a political culture that put personal scandal above policy.

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Grünfeld was invited to join a small team in developing the party, having taught leadership and coaching at Elbæk’s school for entrepreneurs, the Kaos Pilots, in Aarhus. The party’s globalist vision, focus on sustainability, and grassroots organisation were ridiculed from the start – political ‘laboratories’ and creative workshops were no way to create a stable political party, its detractors suggested.

Voters clearly disagreed, and Alternativet easily secured the 21,000 signatures needed to stand in the 2015 election, in which it won nine of Parliament’s 179 seats.

But it was a bittersweet night for Grünfeld. Despite being the party’s third-most popular candidate, he missed out on a seat in parliament. The problem was that he was running in the same electoral district as fellow party member Josefine Fock. Alternativet was only granted one seat in the district, and because Fock secured more personal votes than Grünfeld, the seat went to her.

“For 24 hours I felt hugely disappointed,” he said. “If I had been the primary candidate in some of the other areas, I would have been elected. It was a political mistake that we were both sent out there.”

Beyond profit
And yet, despite the political setback, Grünfeld may be the party’s first representative to wield real power. In Parliament, Alternativet is in opposition, but in Copenhagen City Hall, the party is within reach of securing enough support to earn control of one of the city’s seven administrations. Each has its own mayor, with the leader of the Economy Administration carrying the title of Lord Mayor.

As the party’s leading candidate, Grünfeld could become one of these mayors. But he downplays the suggestion, arguing that his party will focus its attention on making the city as green and sustainable as possible.

And he admits that under Frank Jensen’s leadership since 2010, the city has demonstrated global leadership. In 2012, Copenhagen set a target of becoming the world’s first climate-neutral city by 2025. The same year, the city presented plans to tackle heavy rainfall and prevent flooding – an issue that is likely to grow with a changing climate. Public transport and cycling have also been prioritised to reduce car use in the city centre.

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Still, Grünfeld argues, the Amager Fælled development demonstrates that when it comes to developing the city, the administration has prioritised profitability over sustainability. This is especially the case for By & Havn, the company that is tasked with redeveloping Copenhagen, and which was established with around 20 billion kroner of debt to finance the construction of the city’s Metro.

This debt is to be recouped by selling undeveloped land in Copenhagen to developers, such as the plot on Amager Fælled, which is expected to raise around 1.8 billion kroner. It would be a major blow to By & Havn’s finances if the development doesn’t proceed, but Grünfeld argues that the situation is not as dire as it is being made to seem.

“It’s a contradiction that we say we are a green city, but on the other hand we prioritise building more houses over protecting wild land such as Amager Fælled,” Grünfeld argues.

“We are selling out our social and environmental values in order to ensure that developers profit. We need to slow down and find a new way to develop the city. Sure, we need to take responsibility for the agreements that have been made, but when we are in power, we are going to take a close look at the coming projects in the city and ask what their long-term impact on sustainability will be. Do we risk creating even more anti-social areas of the city that are dead?”

Developments like the one on Amager Fælled are designed to do more than raise money for By & Havn – they are also supposed to provide housing for the city’s growing population. Copenhagen receives 10,000 new residents a year.

Grünfeld argues that since many of these new residents are actually children rather than immigrants from abroad or other parts of Denmark, there isn’t actually a need to build new large and expensive apartments. On August 1, when Bohr’s Tower opened in the new Carlsberg district, 53 of the 88 apartments remained unsold, according to TV2 Lorry, with the most expensive priced at 16 million kroner.

But the task of getting developers to focus on creating housing that improves the social and environmental fabric of the city is hampered by local and national building regulations, he contends. For example, new housing must be accompanied by a minimum amount of parking for cars. This needlessly occupies space that could be set aside for nature or recreation in a future city where residents increasingly share cars and use bicycles and public transport to get around.

Other regulations that could be revisited are those that dictate the minimum size of new homes. Currently, the average size of an apartment in a new building must be 95 square metres. But Grünfeld argues that this regulation results in apartments that are often far too large for new buyers and young people, who would be happy with a 20-square-metre room if they could also share facilities such as a kitchen, for example.

“We should experiment and prototype new types of housing that have smaller private spaces and larger common spaces. And we shouldn’t leave it up to developers to decide what type of housing is available on the market. We could perhaps create a publicly-owned housing developer that builds according to the needs of the city.”

Raising the ambition
This is just one example of the type of experimentation the party advocates. Another is their support for a basic income – a salary that all residents receive, regardless of whether they are in work or not – and a 14-year transition to a 30-hour work week.

“We want to create a better balance between life and work, and improve our standard of living, so people are less stressed and can spend more time with their families and share the jobs that are available in the future. There are many studies showing that jobs are going to disappear with the growth of technology,” says Grünfeld.

There is also a lot of work to be done in making Copenhagen green and climate-friendly. The current ambition is to become carbon-neutral by 2025, though Alternativet wants an even more ambitious target of going carbon-negative – emitting less carbon than the city absorbs. Both targets hang in the balance after a miscalculation was discovered in the city’s carbon budget this August, which means the city will have to cut emissions from traffic by a further 70 percent.

“If the city really wants to go carbon-neutral by 2025, we need to make some dramatic changes in transport, food and energy. For example, Copenhagen’s busses will be running on electricity in 2031. But that’s not ambitious from my point of view. People are dying from air pollution, and there are traffic jams every day in the city, but [Frank Jensen] refuses to consider road pricing,” says Grünfeld.

“We are also not addressing the impact that the 75,000 meals the municipality serves every day in kindergartens, schools and institutions have on the environment. Yes, there’s a lot of places where the city is going in the right direction. But to be honest, we could be more progressive and ambitious, and turn up the heat to make the transition faster.”

Lord Mayor up for grabs
Many of Alternativet’s views on climate and the environment are shared on the left wing. But on the right wing, another narrative can be found, one where families who rely on cars are forced out of the city by traffic and parking regulations, and businesses struggle with high taxes and bureaucracy.

Grünfeld doesn’t take this view seriously.

“The right wing are living in the past in their view on how to develop the city. They think private transportation will remain important in the future, and they want to build tunnels and more roads, and I don’t believe that. I believe the future has more public transport and cycling, more metro and busses. It’s easier and faster. Last year was the first year that more people cycled to work than drove. Their priorities are individualistic, that we should have cars and parking. We believe in collective values and in making the city environmentally sustainable, with clean air and mobility. These aren’t values that should be limited to green parties. They should be universal, because climate change is universal,” says Grünfeld.

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While it is almost certain that Copenhagen’s next Lord Mayor will not be drawn from a right-wing party, it’s also not certain that Frank Jensen will remain in the job. Socialdemokratiet used to be the largest party on the left wing, but are now polling only slightly above the far-left Enhedslisten. Together with Alternativet, the Social Liberal Party (Radikale) and the Socialist People’s Party (SF), they could choose to form a green left-wing majority without the Socialdemokratiet bringing that party’s century of rule to a close.

“Socialdemokratiet have been in power for a hundred years, and that’s good in a way, because it brings professionalism and continuity,” says Grünfeld, who has not ruled out supporting Enhedslisten for the Lord Mayor position.

“But there are challenges, and you can question how progressive they are. Is it a good thing for democracy that one party has sat so heavily in power for so long?” M


By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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