Why some cities are better than others

What makes one city better than another? Why do Copenhagen and other Scandinavian cities consistently top lists of the world’s most sustainable cities? According to Ramboll experts, a holistic approach to good urban life is what makes a city successful. Read on to find out what makes the difference.


Dominic Balmforth

Designated Director

New York, London and Paris, or Aalborg, Aarhus and Odense? Each of us has our personal favourites when it comes to cities. But what criteria and qualities make one city better than another? If you ask Ramboll experts, there is no single answer - because each city has its own special qualities and its own potentials.

“Looking at global competitiveness, cities were until recently assessed in relation to economic activity and people’s economic prosperity. Today, there is a clear understanding that cities themselves must be attractive to people. This requires global cities to think in a more holistic way when considering what kind of urban life they wish to offer,” says Dominic Balmforth, Designated Director of City Planning.

He elaborates, “When people and companies choose which city to locate in today, they look beyond the individual building and its view. They look at the full picture; social and cultural atmosphere, opportunities and activities for learning, clean and attractive streets, accessibility and inclusion. Cities must create and communicate exactly why and how their city offers the best conditions for human habitat."


Image: Copenhagen Harbour Bath by BIG + JDS architects. Image: City of Copenhagen

Does this mean that a good city is a global and competitive city?

“No, not necessarily. There is a huge difference between Scandinavia’s largest urban development project in Copenhagen's North Harbour, and the new master plan for the Municipality of Lolland in Denmark. The conditions, qualities and potentials of the two city areas differ greatly. There is also no guarantee that the cities scoring highly on the Global Cities Index (fig. 2) are also home to the happiest people. There is a clear indication that people expect more from their cities than commercial activity alone. The point is not competitiveness at all costs, but rather that cities with high levels of social, cultural and professional interaction, clean air, safe streets, and short travel times provide the best conditions for people and therefore the highest quality of life,” says Dominic Balmforth.

He provides an example: “At the moment, cities like Beijing (nr.14 on the Global Cities Index) and Shanghai (nr.21 on the Global Cities Index) score well on economic activity, but lower on human capital, cultural experience, and political engagement. They will encounter problems in the long term if they do not address this imbalance.”

Copenhagen as international role model

Copenhagen is at the very top of the international Green City Index, and the concept of “Copenhagenization” has become synonymous with a good quality of life. The excellent facilities provided for cyclists always receive particular attention. According to Ramboll experts, the success of Copenhagen goes deeper than the widely utilised cycle paths.

“The Scandinavian city model, as we know it from Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo and Helsinki, is at the top of all international rankings for sustainable cities. This is because it delivers urban living of a very high standard. When we offer our expertise to cities around the world, we present the different layers of infrastructure that has made Nordic cities the most sustainable. When we talk about infrastructure, we not only focus on roads, drains and cables, but also on the economic, social and cultural infrastructure – all the things we need in order to give people a happy and stimulating life,” says Dominic Balmforth.

Can you give an example?

“It is about measuring and acting upon the qualities we value most. To this end, we are currently developing new economic models which show the value of say, high-quality public space, revealing long-term improvements to people’s health and daily well-being. In this context, it is noteworthy that Copenhageners value their time and their physical environment equally to their own economic prosperity.”


Image: Masterplan for Gellerup, Aarhus, Denmark, with Architects Pluskontoret and Transform. Image: brabrand boligforening (bbbo.dk)

From megacities to West Denmark’s cold Hawaii

While big cities need to tackle huge increases in population, smaller towns and cities on the outskirts suffer depopulation. Dominic Balmforth highlights the need to deal with such changes in demographics:

 “As more and more people are moving to cities, we need to match the increased density with an equivalent increase in aesthetic quality, mobility, accessibility, social interaction, cultural diversity, economic opportunities and technical- and environmental integration. This is a huge challenge for cities with emerging economies in, for example India and China, which are experiencing higher growth rates than they can handle. They do not have the same image, the necessary economic attractiveness, or the basic infrastructure, that older traditional cities do,” says Dominic Balmforth.

He continues, “We need to also address the smaller towns which are adversely affected by urban migration. A successful strategy in this area is to strengthen local potential. By identifying and cultivating a unique environmental or cultural landscape, that no other neighbouring town can offer, we can create uniquely attractive towns. This has happened at “Cold Hawaii” - Northern Europe’s best surfing beach and the town of Klitmøller in western Denmark. Here the population has risen again and young, well-educated people have moved in.”

Climate Challenges force cities to think in new ways

Some of the greatest challenges to tackle when developing cities today are the sudden or prolonged events of storms, floods, droughts etc. Hurricane Sandy ravaged New York a few months ago, and in Denmark, the cloudburst season creates both huge disruptions and expense every year. This has led the government to allocate 2.5 billion Danish Kroner (442 million US dollars) to spend on the development of sustainable drainage systems.

Dominic Balmforth suggests that we strike new relationships between technology, engineering and nature. “The current challenges require that urban infrastructure becomes more elastic and better at handling the pressure when nature strikes. It is not realistic to assume that high walls and large underground pipes alone can handle the huge volumes of water that a flash flood brings in just a few days. We can be both more resilient and more accepting of natural events by designing places in cities which can actively benefit from more water. This approach treats water as a resource rather than a problem.”


Masterplan for Fredericia C, Denmark, with KCAP Architects & Planners. Image: KCAP

Export Copenhagen

When delegates from Singapore visit Copenhagen, they want to understand why the city as a whole is a good model for city-living. Here, we present four key attributes which together make Copenhagen attractive, smart, sustainable; Compact City, Networked City, Sensory City, Shared City.

The Compact City achieves high density; by putting more people, more closely together, and high intensity; by mixing residential, leisure and commercial functions, especially on street level. There are many, small streets rather that few, wide streets to achieve vibrancy and intimacy. All this increases the exchange of values, ideas, information and business.

Networked City makes sure that all the city’s common goods; streets, parks, transport, clean energy and water etc. are kept accessible and attractive to all.

The Sensory City encourages positive public behaviour by appealing to people’s senses. When we can swim in the city’s waters, run through its landscapes and eat its fruits then mind and body feel better.

The Shared City gives us the feeling that the city is ours. We share space and time on streets, trains and cycle paths. We share common values for how best to take care of our place and each other. Sharing resources helps build the shared service-economy and when coupled to open data then more effective governance too. In the Shared City, people choose (and sometimes pay for) access not property. 

Ramboll Group A/S

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