Refshaleøen -Copenhagen’s Post-Industrial Oasis

“They were fighting about whether to build a bridge or a tunnel.” Our taxi driver was explaining the Øresund Bridge, an enormous suspension bridge which connects Sweden and Denmark and, bizarrely, disappears into a tunnel partway across. “They couldn’t decide, so they built both.” While Danish design’s most popular flagbearers may be chairs and coffee carafes, it was the way its capital Copenhagen boldly designs itself into its natural environment that most impressed during our visit.

We grabbed our bags, said goodbye to Taximan and walked across the gravel and cracking concrete towards the converted river barge that would be our home for the next two days. Water is all around in Copenhagen, and we loved the idea of tucking in on an old boat, as close to saltwater as we could get.

Crisscrossed by canals, manmade lakes and its gleaming harbor, Copenhagen is built like a delta on the shores of the Baltic. Neighborhoods are linked by bridges and boats. Snow white swans glide in pace with the bicycles. The Harbour Buses, nimble little craft with space for a few passengers and their bicycles, zigzag across the water from stop to stop, charming for sure, but highly functional. The crusty old mariner who scanned our tickets smelled a bit boozy in the early afternoon, but his skipper landed the bright orange boat on the dock like a butterfly, loaded and unloaded and was gone again before we could shout “Tak”!

Looking across the canal we could see Copenhagen’s dazzling Opera House, its sharp lines of glass and steel catching light off the water and reflecting the dull gray hues of where we stood, the post-industrial site of Refshaleøen. Until the mid 90’s this was Denmark’s shipyard where 10,000 workers built some of Europe’s largest vessels. Massive warehouses and dry docks the size of football fields, cold concrete and steel. After two decades of un-use the edges of the great, grey piers are starting to soften, the pavement is crumbling and the stark, straight lines of the shipyard’s emptied outbuildings are beginning to fade. Flowers and wild grass eat away at the cracked pavings. Nature reclaiming territory.

You can still smell the dark iron and imagine the shouts of workers and grinding of huge machines. But right now Refshaleøen feels like a strange oasis in the middle of town. The city all around is tightly built. Not noisy, but busy and moving all the time. Standing on the pier we could hear the wind whispering in the grasses, smell the salt water and the old steel. This is Copenhagen’s vacant lot.

But for a city hemmed in by the sea and always cramped for space, this abandoned industrial zone could not go long without breathing new life. Warehouses are being repurposed as chic offices, venues for parties and maker spaces. Entrepreneurs and artists are moving in. There’s a theater, a climbing gym and a company making spaceships. Nearby Noma was one of the first of the new neighbours, transforming an old warehouse into the brightest star in the New Nordic food movement. Restaurant Amass, from former Noma chef Matthew Orlando, built a garden and bonfire pit on an empty pier where you can sit and look over the harbor to the colored rowhouses and ice cream shops of Nyhavn.

And for some, Refshaleøen is home. Tied along the great piers are houseboats, old tugs and rebuilt barges. Jette and Jesper have had their converted river barge here for the last five years. Their daughter Sol has lived her whole life here, and when we visited they had just welcomed their as-yet-unnamed son.

Peering down from the bow of the boat the water looked dark and cold, but remarkably clear. I asked Jesper about living in a former industrial zone, whether he had concerns about leftover pollutants or the enormous Amager Bakke waste-to-energy plant being built on Refshaleøen’s edge. He talked about the thorough cleanup that had been part of shutting down the shipyard. “This water is clean enough to drink, if it wasn’t saltwater of course,” he said. He pointed to the giant smokestacks, already under construction. “Those will release steam, not smoke. In giant rings. They’re putting a ski hill on the roof. It’s going to be a lot of fun having a ski hill in our neighborhood!”

In a lot of cities this might come off as terrifyingly naïve, blind faith in a faulty system. But Copenhagen’s long tradition of responsible design and smart urban planning has produced a city with an amazing collection of claims: half of commutes take place by bicycle, Europe’s Green Capital, on track to become the first CO2 neutral city by 2025. In Copenhagen that trust has been earned.

Refshaleøen still feels like a crumbling industrial park, a forgotten wilderness in a city where thoughtful design has touched every other corner. But each day brings a new reason to visit. If you’re there to eat, work, attend a party, or to live on your boat, it’s a fascinating place to be.