Cities as transition arenas

Jens Stissing Jensen

Traditionally, energy, transport and water systems have primarily been analysed as nationally delimited systems, whereas, for example, cities or regions have been understood as local hubs that are subordinate to these national systems.

In recent years, however, an increasing number of studies have begun to regard societal systems as being more independent regional and urban phenomena. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, both Denmark and the rest of the world are characterised by increasing urbanisation. More and more people live in cities and, thus, use the city’s societal systems. Cities are, therefore, becoming increasingly central in the development of societal systems, and urban investments in system development and system transition are often significant.

Secondly, cities are often marked by problems and developmental processes that operate across individual societal systems. For example, developing urban areas requires coordinated planning of the connection between the urban practices and societal systems related to, for example, heat, energy, waste and mobility. Site-specific urban development processes often provide the opportunity to experiment with how different societal systems may be organised and integrated in new ways.

The development of Copenhagen’s harbour in recent decades is an example of how site-specific urban development can create transition processes by establishing new connections between urban systems and the way the city is used. This development began in the early 1980s, when the harbour was still organised around industrial production. The harbour, thus, housed a large number of industrial production companies, which used harbour waters both as a transport route and as a reservoir for toxic wastewater from production. In addition, the harbour was an integral part of the sewage system. During episodes of heavy rain, sewage was thus discharged into the harbour via a large number of drainage works to avoid flooding in the city when the capacity of the sewage network was exceeded.

However, from the early 1980s, industrial production began to move out of the harbour, and the harbour was left as an abandoned industrial area. The relocation of industrial production initiated a number of development activities in order to redefine the societal systems and urban activities in the harbour. From the beginning of the 1980s, the water in the harbour began to be defined as ‘biological water’ rather than ‘industrial water’ and the municipality began to measure its biological water quality. From the early 1990s, these biological measurements were translated into strategic aims for the biological quality of the harbour water. This put pressure on the wastewater system to reduce the overflow of sewage into the harbour.

Therefore, the municipality invested a significant amount to increase the capacity of the wastewater system. These investments led to new ideas about how the harbour could be used by the city’s citizens. These ideas involved the harbour as a natural area, which would offer the city’s residents an alternative to the absence of nature in the city. For example, one plan was to establish a so-called ‘harbour aquarium’ in the form of a glass tunnel at the bottom of the harbour, which would offer the townspeople the opportunity to experience the biological life of the harbour.

However, in the first years after the turn of the millennium, the vision of the natural harbour was replaced by the visions of ‘the city life harbour’ and the plan for a harbour aquarium was therefore never realised. However, the vision of the city life harbour already began in the early 1990s, when a long-term area development plan for the harbour was adopted by the municipality. One of the elements of the plan was to develop the recreational potential of the harbour. In the municipality, this led to a focus on ‘hygienic water quality’ rather than ‘biological water quality’, which became increasingly central during the 1990s and led to a further expansion of the wastewater infrastructure in order to reduce the overflow from the sewage system into the harbour. By 2002, the water quality had reached such a high level that direct contact with the water was rarely dangerous to people. Against this background, in 2002, a permanent harbour bathing area was successfully established at Islands Brygge and since then, several harbour baths have been opened and the wastewater system has been further developed in such a way that most of the harbour today is of hygienic bathing water quality.

The development of the ‘city life harbour’ thus links investments in the wastewater system with recreational urban activities, such as harbour bathing and diving and swimming competitions. This has received international attention and was highlighted, for example, when Copenhagen was named the European Environment Capital in 2014. The example shows that systems at the urban level are sometimes less path dependent than systems that are mainly organised and controlled by, for example, national actors. This is because urban systems, such as the sewage system, rarely have clearly defined borders or functions. In connection with the development of the harbour, the sewage system was thus assigned to new functions: Firstly as a supplier of biological water quality and since as a supplier of hygienic bathing water. Urban systems are, thus, typically more flexible than national systems because they are continuously adapted to diverse site-specific development processes.