Not too long ago, I took a walk through the wastelands of Copenhagen. It sounds strange to call them that, because the Danish capital, with all its modern design and hygge, is hardly known for grittiness. But this dusty expanse of mostly empty warehouses and overgrown weeds, languishing to the southwest of the lively Meatpacking District, seemed to qualify. After 20 minutes of wandering, I entered a gate and found myself in an Alice in Wonderland alternate reality. A leafy glade contained dark, rustic wooden barns. Fat heads of garlic and fire-engine-red tomatoes spilled from the door of one, the jangle of a band from another. At an outdoor table set beneath fairy lights, a young mother fed her child pieces of a sandwich.
BaneGaarden, as I learned this enchanted place is called, once housed supplies for railway construction. It was abandoned in the 1950s but has recently been transformed into a cultural center. A farm shop, a bakery, a couple of restaurants, and spaces for pop-ups and other events fill the carefully renovated barns, all of this encircled by deciduous trees. Both geographically and metaphorically, the complex seemed far from Copenhagen’s center. But I realized it wouldn’t be long before BaneGaarden was just another delightful corner of my growing city.
Copenhagen does expansion well, which is a good thing, since it is doing so much of it. Its 2019 municipal plan outlines an ambitious housing strategy for the 100,000 new residents expected to arrive in the city by 2031. As is the Nordic way, the ambition addresses not only the city’s size but also its attention to environmental sustainability (car traffic restrictions, green building materials) and its citizens’ well-being (spaces for public enjoyment). In the Sydhavn neighborhood, blocks of new housing have been punctuated with canals, the better for kayaking and swimming. In Nordhavn, along the harbor north of the city center, an outcrop of architecturally striking housing is accompanied by a whimsical—and public—rooftop gym. There are also restaurants, such as the exquisite Sushi Anaba and the convivial Hija de Sanchez Cantina, and what is surely the city’s most unlikely hotel: a one-room suite situated in what was once a coal-loading crane.
These areas are still peripheral, and therein lies much of the charm. In the mental geography of Copenhageners, neighborhoods such as Sydhavn and Nordhavn sit alluringly outside the city—terra incognita—rather than in the center’s familiar embrace. But not for long. The first time I went to René Redzepi’s famed Noma, in 2009, I walked from the city center across the Knippels Bridge and down a street so barren I was convinced I was lost. Today that same stretch is chockablock with new apartment buildings, restaurants, and quays full of Copenhageners drinking wine and sunning themselves.
Meanwhile, Noma has moved about a mile north and is now close to busy, industrial Refshaleøen, the island where Copenhagen’s shipyards once thrived. The neighborhood has since become a veritable playground for locals and travelers, with a monthly farmers’ market, the world’s tallest climbing wall, floating hot tubs, a contemporary art museum, and all manner of places to eat and drink.
Other enterprises are beginning to follow Noma’s path north. The Opera House, which once seemed like a remote lighthouse on the empty shore of the harbor, is getting a new park in the coming years, and in its shadow, cafés and a bakery have appeared. More striking is the housing development going up on Paper Island. It’s a spit of land where the city’s newspapers once stored their paper; later it was home to a popular seasonal street food market, which has since relocated to Refshaleøen. When Paper Island is finished, the development, planned as a clutch of pyramidal buildings with a dramatic appearance not unlike a Nordic Angkor Wat, will be devoted mostly to apartments. Still, in accordance with the Danish sensibility that most private developments should serve the public, it will also contain entertainment and cultural spaces, including an Aquaculture House designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma with indoor and outdoor swimming pools.
“We didn’t think we should just come in like a UFO landing in the middle of Copenhagen,” said Klaus Kastbjerg, one of three Paper Island developers. “That’s not the Danish way. We wanted to develop in a way that everybody could use and like.”
When I asked Kastbjerg if something won’t be lost when Paper Island—and with it, that long stretch of harbor—is developed, he knew immediately what I meant. “It’s true. All the pop-ups [such as the street food market] that were here—they gave a special atmosphere. What we’re building will bring something else, but it will take that spontaneous feeling away, and that’s a pity.”
Right now, Paper Island is a construction site; residents aren’t expected until 2023. In some ways, the interregnum makes it the perfect time to visit. Fluid, ripe, open to discovery: Refshaleøen, like BaneGaarden and Nordhavn, holds the excitement of exploration, while offering a glimpse of Copenhagen’s future.