Activists say it’s a pristine piece of nature. A plot of land on the outskirts of Copenhagen that was a beach for 5,000 years and has never been farmed, so its soil remains rich with microorganisms.
Around 60 years ago, as the city began to reclaim land from the sea, the beach became a corner of a common known as Amager Fælled. You can’t tell just by looking at it, but compared to the rest of the landfilled common, it’s especially rich in wildlife, according to a report commissioned by the municipality in 2014.
But the city didn’t know this in 1992, when authorities decided that it would be the perfect location for a future housing development. The government passed a law setting aside the plot, which accounts for six percent of Amager Fælled, and protecting the remaining land.
The plans remained dormant until last year, when the city finally approved a proposal for the plot – a state-of-the-art housing complex with 2,500 homes that would blend seamlessly into the wild landscape.
Selling the plot would raise 1.8 billion kroner for landowner By & Havn, a company owned by the state and municipality. The company’s 20 billion kroner of debt was used to finance the Metro and will be recouped by selling empty plots of land to developers.
Lord Mayor climbs down
But at what cost to biodiversity? As the master plan for the land started to take shape last year, activists began to organise and launched a media offensive against Lord Mayor Frank Jensen. A petition to save the land has amassed almost 50,000 signatures.
Jensen, of the Social Democrats (Socialdemokratiet), stood firm against the initial campaign. The building would go ahead, he declared, but he promised it would be the last development to eat into the common.
Other politicians in City Hall, however, succumbed to the pressure, and one by one they withdrew their support for the development. When the right-wing Liberal Party (Venstre) and Conservative People’s Party (Konservativer) proposed moving the development to a different part of the common, Jensen conceded that there was no longer enough political support to proceed.
“When I realised that there was no longer a majority to build here, I had to do something. Someone – that was me – had to draw a line in the sand and say we are dropping plan A and are instead going to build on the plot that Venstre and Konservativer have identified,” Jensen told Politiken newspaper.
Speaking later to Berlingske, he indicated that the old beach was safe.
“I cannot imagine either in the current or post-election City Hall that there will be a majority in favour of returning to the area we know as the old beach. That chapter is closed because Venstre abandoned the majority.”
Move the site or protect it all?
The alternative site – currently a landfilled camping ground – lies slightly to the west, and was first proposed as an alternative in November 2016 by Jakob Næsager, mayoral candidate for Konservativer. Moving the site to a different location would mean that the municipality would still be honouring the 1992 law to build on six percent of the common.
“We don’t want to stand in the way of moving the construction over to the old landfill if it is determined to be a more optimal site,” Næsager told Berlingske.
Cecilie Lonning Skovgaard, mayoral candidate for Venstre, says her party supports an investigation into the feasibility of moving the building site.
“That does not mean we are abandoning the original agreement, or that we have even agreed to the alternative placement.”
If the camping site is not deemed to be a feasible alternative, both parties say they support leaving the development at its current location.
The left wing is in less agreement as to how to proceed. With the exception of Frank Jensen’s Socialdemokratiet, all parties on the left wing oppose the development at its current location and have agreed to support an investigation to find a suitable alternative site.
The Alternative (Alternativet), however, wants a total moratorium on building on the common.
“We want to save all of Amager Fælled,” says Niko Grünfeld, mayoral candidate for Alternativet, adding that there are other plots of land around the city that could be used instead.
“There is the risk that if we start building on the common, we will just continue to slice pieces off of it. And the suggestion that there is nowhere else in the city where we can build is simply not true.”
But while the Social Liberal Party (Radikale) agrees with Grünfeld in principle, it has stated that it is willing to compromise and move the building site to the camping ground if it means saving the old beach.
Development still possible
The problem is that parties on the right wing – concerned about having to foot the bill for a possible hole in the finances of either the municipality or By & Havn – are insisting that the city honour its commitment to build on Amager Fælled, if not at the current location. If the left-wing parties also block a development on the camping ground in an effort to completely protect the common, it is likely that Socialdemokratiet and the right-wing parties will simply proceed with building on the old beach.
“I think the parties risk shooting themselves in the foot by refusing to consider moving the building site to the old landfill,” Tommy Petersen, chairman for the Radikale in Copenhagen Municipality, told Berlingske.
“If they don’t accept a compromise, they may be responsible for building going ahead on the old beach.”
In an editorial, Berlingske newspaper laid out why it was important that the promised development proceeds on the common.
“It doesn’t matter if the development is located on the specific and highly-debated plot of land in Copenhagen. What is most important is finding a suitable alternative. Otherwise, two billion kroner will be lost along with the credibility of Copenhagen’s politicians, which would be enormously damaging for the city’s future development.” M