The roads into the climate abyss are lined with ornamental bushes and small trampolines. The new development area Kildebjerg near the Danish city of Aarhus is a sprawling collection of modern single-family homes, planned around a golf course. As well-kept as the front gardens are, it is empty here. Two robotic lawnmowers whir across the lawn, and electric cars are parked in the carports in front of many of the mostly gray and brown brick houses. People are not to be seen, only at hole 18 two gardeners weed weeds.
It's a tidy idyll, almost eerily perfect. And with a high consumption of resources. Even the 500 street lamps were specially designed for this settlement and have their own website. Claus Leick sighs. "Because of this crap, I became politically active. We can't go on like this."
Leick has been a city councillor for the left-green faction of the Socialistisk Folkeparti since 2017. The settlement in which it stands is probably the last for the time being in the district of Ry in the Verbandsgemeinde of Skanderborg in Jutland. "We simply don't have the space for more houses," says the 61-year-old, pointing in the direction of the golf course. Ry and the other districts are picturesquely situated, surrounded by lakes and small forests. If you work in Aarhus, you commute for barely 30 minutes. In order to be able to build here, young, high-earning Danish families are now also buying old houses and having them demolished.
If it were up to Leick and other city officials, however, such houses would soon have to look different, less ostentatious, less free-standing, without sprawling access roads, but compact and economical. Because every new house, says Leick, is a problem for climate protection.
Since governments are often reluctant to take climate action, metropolises such as Paris, Copenhagen or Seoul have become pioneers. But nowhere else have so many small towns and cities joined suit as in Denmark: 96 out of 98 municipalities in the country have promised to present their own climate strategy before the end of this year in order to become climate-neutral by 2050 at the latest. This is based on the standards of the C40 network of large cities that have voluntarily committed themselves to more ambitious climate protection, and the think tank Concito monitors implementation.
Karen Margrethe Høj Madsen has been Skanderborg's head of the building department for almost two years. Her office is located on the second floor of the town hall, a large white new building with a sports hall and a canteen full of designer furniture, which is open to all citizens. Høj Madsen is responsible for planning, technology and the environment, but it is not difficult to see where she sees her focus. There is a construction site sign in her office, and not far away hangs a poster that reads: "Change the politics, not the climate."
Sometimes it is difficult for her to understand the meaning of the word "patience" better, says Høj Madsen of herself. Together with the Social Democratic mayor and city councillors such as Claus Leick, she would have liked to make history in Skanderborg. They were the first municipality in Denmark to limit the size of new residential buildings – to 120 square meters. That was the recommendation of experts, a compromise between the needs of a family of four and the need to reduce emissions. The construction industry alone is responsible for a third of this worldwide.
The idea caused an outcry. For weeks, it was discussed in the city council, first it was about the 120 square meters, then about 150. In the end, the proposal had to be watered down in order to make the climate strategy as a whole capable of winning a majority. Now it is said that smaller buildings are "desirable" and that the building authority should critically review plans for new buildings in order to reduce the CO02 footprint for new buildings.
But even with compromise, the small town of Skanderborg is far ahead: The administration wants to become CO2025-neutral by 2, 73 charging stations for e-cars will soon be built, and 2030 hectares of forest are to be reforested by 300.
Hardly anything causes as many emissions as construction
For many of her employees, all this is still a revolution, says Høj Madsen. For a long time, the administration saw itself as a service provider for the settlement of new citizens and companies, not necessarily as active climate protectors.
Jens Szabo shares responsibility for the fact that things didn't get quite as far in Skanderborg as Høj Madsen would have liked. He is the local leader of the liberal-conservative Venstre group and also voted against the climate plan in the compromise form. The fact that smaller houses are better, he perceives as paternalism. Szabo himself lives alone on 95 square meters in a semi-detached house, his three children have moved away to study, he is divorced.
The 61-year-old pours Baileys into his coffee and lists what he thinks makes Danish togetherness so special: an awareness of the farming past; love of nature; good design; Sense of neighbourliness and cohesion. And then: "Freedom, freedom, freedom. That's what it's all about."
Szabo says on his own initiative that he of course recognizes climate change and also wants to do something about it. "But not like this! The building areas are being built because young families need space. Do we want to ban that and stipulate that it doesn't matter?"
He refers to the tax revenues that a municipality needs. Of course, young families are attractive, after all, they are in competition with neighboring towns. Szabo doesn't want to hear about a ban. "Why don't you ask Claus Leick," he says, "he has more space than I do."
Professor Kirsten Gram-Hanssen at Aalborg University has been working for years on the importance of living space and consumption for Danish society. She is not surprised that the debate is so emotional. "Our own house is very important for us in Denmark," she says. Where the cost of living is so high and the winters are often long, people are looking for a space that promises space and peace.
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"Most people don't go to restaurants very often. Even with the salary of a professor, it can be very expensive," says Gram-Hanssen. It is also a myth that the increasing consumption of space can only be explained by higher demands. "New single-family homes are being built all the time, yes. But the biggest change is that young people move away and the older ones stay in the houses, even if the children are gone or the partner dies. We are a society in which 40 percent of people live alone today. That's the problem when it comes to living space consumption."
Denmark is a leader in architecture – and in resource consumption
At the same time, the professor is convinced that the living space she is looking for is actually already there. She finds it almost obscene that houses are demolished and rebuilt. "Hardly any other country in the world requires so many resources – actually, we need a construction freeze."
This is unlikely to happen for the time being, partly because affordable housing is still lacking.
Liberal city councillor Jens Szabo believes that something can be done here. After all, it is also a form of freedom to be able to afford decent housing. It leads to a retirement estate in his neighborhood, where there are smaller houses. The red brick buildings are single-storey and have a garden, but not quite as large. They belong to a local housing cooperative, like almost a third of the rental apartments in the country.
Szabo is not talking about the climate and bans, but about innovations and a new attitude in old age. He wants more old people to move in the future to create living space for the young. The approaching retirement of his generation is also an opportunity for voluntary downsizing, he believes.
Small cooperative houses as an option for an affordable, more climate-friendly life
Then it leads to a left-wing alternativehousing cooperative in which families are preferentially admitted. It was hippies when they built the first houses in 1985, says the city councilor. In the settlement there is a communal kitchen, a large ballroom and a wood workshop.
However, there are no hippies left, only an engineer who built gas stations until retirement and a 26-year-old history student with two children. Why do they live here? "Because it's a really great idea," says the engineer. "Because we would never be able to afford our own house anyway," says the student.
Socialist Claus Leick says that he and his wife would of course like this model. They were just thinking about moving again.
Høj Madsen, head of the building authority, also likes such communities. They need less space and fewer new roads, provide children with a protected environment and do something about the increasing loneliness. The city has its own overview page where it presents the cooperatives. In the future, such projects could be approved as a matter of priority. New houses would still be built in Skanderborg. But there would be others.
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