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Something Wonderful in Denmark

by Jay Walljasper - July 23, 2008

There is no Shangri-la on Earth, but recent news stories say that Denmark comes the closest.

Both CBS and BBC point to a study conducted by Leicester University in England as a measure of people's own estimation of their happiness. Denmark tops the list, followed by Switzerland and Austria. The U.S. ranks a less-than-exuberant 23rd. Zimbabwe, then Burundi come in last.

This might come as a surprise to anyone exposed the stereotype of gloomy Scandinavians, but not those who have had the pleasure of visiting a Danish city.

Copenhagen rightly deserves its reputation as "wonderful, wonderful" with lively streets full of sidewalk cafes and picturesque apartment buildings. Walking through the charming pedestrian zone, filled with smiling relaxed people even on a chilly winter evening, I can easily understand why people there feel happy.

What is hard to believe is that many people felt the center city was decrepit and outdated--before the pedestrian zone was established. It's now the undisputed heart of town, according to architect and professor Jan Gehl, who has studied the area since the 1960s.

The city's revitalization has also brought ample environmental benefits. It's one of the only cities in the world where car traffic has not risen in recent decades, according to Gehl. This is due to the construction of many bike lines, improvements to the public transit system and, of course, plentiful pedestrian-friendly amenities.

And when the tenements of Vesterbro, a neighborhood near the train station on the wrong side of the tracks, were refurbished by the city in the late 1990s, low-income residents themselves insisted that solar energy panels and water conservation measures be installed.

The cities of Aarhus (Denmark's second largest) and Aalborg (fourth largest) both have revitalized their historic downtowns with pedestrian zones and well-traveled bike lanes, making them popular gathering spots for the whole city. Aarhus reclaimed a river that had flowed hidden underground for many years.

Denmark is also a world leader in wind power, which has offered many new jobs for workers laid off in other declining industries. The nation's labor unions have endorsed a set of ambitious environmental initiatives as a way to employ workers as well as save the planet.

In a time when many Americans are dreading--and resisting--the changes necessary to combat global warming and promote energy conservation, Denmark provides a good reminder that a green future is also a happy future.