Putting a price on biodiversity

An unassuming corner of land is home to the greatest concentration of animal and plant life in all of Copenhagen, but it risks being destroyed by a housing development that has been in the works for 20 years. As activists organise protests to protect the land, the choice between collecting a billion kroner in potential revenue and protecting a unique ecosystem is shaping up to be a central issue in the upcoming municipal elections

Out on Amager Fælled it doesn’t feel much like spring. The long grass and tall shrubs are interspersed with low trees and ponds, and on this overcast mid-March day, there are few colours beyond a muted mix of greens, yellows and browns. But despite its drab appearance, the common is one of Copenhagen’s last remaining wilderness areas.

I’m here on the western flank of Amager to meet Steffen Rasmussen, who is showing me a pocket of land in the southeast corner of the common. As we push through the undergrowth, he explains that we are walking on an ancient salt marsh that used to be adjacent to the sea – the rest of the common is landfill and reclaimed from the sea over the past 150 years.

This area on the fringes of the old city was used as a military training ground, which prevented it from being farmed and having the soil turned over.

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“There have been no pesticides or ways of enriching the earth so a special habitat has been allowed to thrive here, with a great diversity of plants and insects that we don’t see anywhere else – not even in the rest of Amager Fælled.”

Rasmussen, a systems administrator, is a leading activist in the organisation Amager Fælleds Venner (Friends of Amager Common) that is campaigning to stop the planned construction of around 2,500 new apartments in this corner of the common.

“The paradox is that this is the only part of Amager Fælled that biologists say is a significant area. We could build anywhere else, but they would not want to hurt this area.”

The image on the left shows the western edge of Amager in 1934. Landfill and reclamation from the sea has increased the volume of the island considerably, as you can see compared to the aerial photo on the right. On both images, the area designated for redevelopment is highlighted (in red on the left and in white on the right). Opponents of the redevelopment argue that it lies on the old salt marsh that has retained a unique soil composition that has been unchanged in 5000 years. Developers By & Havn contend, on the other hand, that the land has been ravaged by more than 300 years of military exercises.

Building on the common
Amager Fælled covers around 320 hectares square metres, of which around 18.7 hectares will be used in the new development, called Ørestad Fælled Kvarter. In October, the landowner By & Havn presented the winning design for a development that seamlessly merges the urban environment with the wild area and houses up to 5,500 new residents.

“With this ambitious winning project, we will see a modern, sustainable residential district that relates humbly to Ørestad’s green context and integrates the common into the urban structure,” stated Jens Kramer Mikkelsen, administrative director of By & Havn.

The design was approved by the Copenhagen City Council in February, and is now being turned into an official district plan. But the proposed development was only narrowly approved, with three out of eight political parties voting against it.

“There are few places in Denmark where we have such ancient nature and rich biodiversity,” said MP Maria Reumert Gjerding, environment spokesperson for the Red-Green Alliance (Enhedslisten), to Politiken newspaper.

“If we had come up with the plan to build there today, people would think we were completely crazy.”

Vulnerable wildlife
The plan to build on this land is indeed rather old. While most of Amager Fælled was given protected status in 1994, a sliver on the eastern edge was set aside for developing the Ørestad district. The Ørestad Fælled Kvarter is the only development from the original master plan that has yet to be built.

A view looking east of the winning design for the new development, Ørestad Fælled Kvarter, that was submitted by Vandkunsten, Marianne Levinsen Landskab, Dansk Energi Management & Esbensen and Norconsult-Wessberg. Housing 5,500 residents, the buildings are designed to seamlessly integrate with the wild area. The designers were commended by the judges for choosing not to develop the western edge of the site to preserve a water habitat.

But, Rasmussen argues, given the time that has elapsed since the original plan was conceived, it’s worth reconsidering whether it is still the right move.

“Over the past 20 years, our perspective has changed, and we are much more concerned with preserving biodiversity,” Rasmussen says, referring to the measure of the richness of plant and animal life found in different habitats.

“We are the country in Europe with the least biodiversity, because we have quite a lot of agriculture. We have used 95 percent of the available land, and that’s what’s made us rich, but we should spare this last five percent.”

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By & Havn admits that a number of rare and protected animal species have been found in and around the land that is slated to be developed. These include a number of amphibians such as the moor frog, edible frog, northern crested newt, and the smooth newt.

In January, the firm initiated a project to improve the quality of the existing ponds on the common and to establish new ponds, expanding the habitat for amphibians. It also pointed out that the developers have chosen not to build on the western section of the common, where most of the wetland habitat is.

Rasmussen argues, however, that despite its apparent commitment to protecting animal life, By & Havn is actively trying to downplay the unique biodiversity found on the common.

For example, on its website concerning the development, the firm uses a photo from 2001 showing the land cleared of plant life. Beneath is a link that states, “Read about how the area was used as a dump and for artillery”. It also released a video on Facebook that focussed on the vegetation clearances over the past 20 years.

An aerial view looking south east over Amager Fælled in the foreground and the much larger Kalvebod Fælled further in the distance – they are separated by Vejlands Allé. The development site is outlined in white. Photo: By & Havn.

While the military has cleared the land of vegetation to search for unexploded ordnance, Rasmussen argues that the soil remained largely unaffected. Its unique biodiversity was confirmed in a 2014 report commissioned by Copenhagen municipality, which found that the redevelopment site was especially rich in wildlife that was either rare or in need of protection.

According to Rasmussen, the biodiversity persisted despite the clearances because the military used methods that didn’t kill the microorganisms in the soil that are the foundation of the food chain for all the plants and animals in the habitat. This allowed the land to return to its original state.

“All in all, the military’s clearance of the area is far more gentle on nature than agriculture, road building and construction. This is why the biodiversity survived.”

No other option
There is widespread public opposition to the development, with almost 3,000 people stating their intention to attend a protest on May 7. Celebrity chef Nikolaj Kirk has thrown his weight behind the campaign too, publishing videos on his Facebook profile about the need to protect the common, which get hundreds of likes and shares. More than 40,000 people have signed a petition against the development.

But the landowner By & Havn doesn’t appear to be backing down in the face of public pressure. The company is co-owned by Copenhagen Municipality and the national government – holding 95 percent and 5 percent, respectively – and was established to develop the port and the Ørestad district.

The primary obstacle is that by not developing Ørestad Fælled Kvarter, the finances of By & Havn would sustain a massive blow. The company is currently 15 billion kroner in debt due to loans it took to finance the development of the city’s infrastructure, especially the expansion of the Metro.

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The idea is that these debts would be repaid as the company developed land throughout the city, such as in the former industrial district of Nordhavn, which is in the process of being transformed into a cutting-edge and sustainable commercial and residential district.

Ørestad Fælled Kvarter is By & Havn’s last plot of land in the Ørestad project to be developed, and is expected to raise around 1.5 billion kroner for the company.

The smooth newt is one of the animal species lives in the wetlands adjacent to the development. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Opponents of the project counter that By & Havn could still earn money if politicians chose to develop a different plot of land in or near Amager Fælled. The architecture firm BCVA argues that there are a number of areas in the Ørestad district that could be more densely built, including the space beneath the elevated Metro line or above the E20 motorway that cuts through the district.

But By & Havn dismisses these proposals, arguing that the residents of Ørestad bought their homes with certain expectations, so moving the development’s location could negatively affect house prices and residents’ ability to sell property in the future. The firm adds that it would also take a long time to get the protection order on other sections of the common lifted, which would delay the construction of the new housing upon which its budget depends.

Electoral issue
Not everyone is convinced by By & Havn’s arguments, least of all Morten Kabell, Copenhagen’s mayor for technical and environmental affairs. His party, Enhedslisten, is among the three that voted against the development and in favour of finding a new location for By & Havn to build housing.

“It’s a bad idea to eliminate some of the city’s remaining natural areas by building out there. We think there should be other ways to finance the Metro construction, for example by looking to Nordhavn,” Kabell said.

He points out that By & Havn is ultimately owned by the state and city, so it’s simply a matter of summoning the political will to make changes to which land is developed and when.

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“There are alternatives, such as the land in the northern section of Amager Fælled, which used to be landfill and would be much more suitable. Or we could change the sequence and speed of the development in Nordhavn to include some areas that were not supposed to be built up for another 20 years,” he says.

While Enhedslisten, the Social Liberal Party (Radikale) and the Socialist People’s Party (SF) are in the minority in opposing the development, Kabell hopes that this might change if municipal elections go their way this autumn.

Ørestad Fælled Kvarter is designed to merge with the natural area. But activists are worried that the development will be devastating for rare and threatened plants and animals.

“I think there is no doubt that Enhedslisten will make this a big part of the municipal election. So will the local forces in Amager and the green movements – they will make it an election topic.”

Out on Amager Fælled, Rasmussen points out that the Ørestad Fælled Kvarter is just one of a number of developments that will eat into the common, including a planned 88,000 square meter expansion of the camping ground on the southern edge of the common. There is also the possibility that the common will be the site of an exit junction from a harbour tunnel that has been proposed to connect the city’s major road systems in the north and south of the city.

“I am privileged to be able to walk one of my daughters to school through the common. She got an assignment for school about climate change and started asking a lot of questions about the common: about building the harbour tunnel and the camping ground. And she wanted to know why we are doing it. So when I started hearing politicians say that we needed to do something about this, I said, ‘why not?’ Now I’m one of the head figures,” he says.

Amager Fælleds Venner will hold a demonstration on May 7, at which they hope to form a human chain around the entire common. They will need 8,000 people to do so, more than double the number who have said they plan to attend. But Rasmussen is optimistic.

“I have a little hope – it’s why I continue fighting.” M

Features, News, Urban

By Peter Stanners

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

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