Jesse Shapins
Head of Urban Strategy, Urban Partners

Thriving neighbourhoods are more than green

Our cities should be both green and thriving. And we should use the green transition as an opportunity to make our cities more liveable and equitable, improving health for both people & planet.   
Jesse Shapins
Head of Urban Strategy, Urban Partners
Thought Leadership piece
"An endless number of green buildings don't make a sustainable city” said Jan Gehl, world-renowned architect, urban designer and author of the ‘Cities for People’.  
While decarbonizing the built environment is essential, we cannot operate with carbon tunnel vision. Urban sustainability must be holistic, addressing both the environmental and the social. Simply put, for the people actually living in our cities it matters less that their neighborhood is green, and more that it allows them and their fellow residents to live a high quality of life. We should use the green transition as an opportunity to make our cities more liveable and equitable, improving health for both people & planet.      
The good news is that we know climate action also has significant co-benefits for well-being. For example, more walking and biking results in better air quality, less obesity and better mental health. More urban green space mitigates flood risks, reduces loneliness, and lowers anxiety. Local food systems have lower lifecycle emissions and can provide affordable, healthy nutrition along with economic opportunity.   
This is why we have been such champions of the 15-minute city model and joined forces with C40, UN Habitat, Novo Nordisk, and others to accelerate the global movement for green & thriving neighbourhoods. Rather than just focus on green buildings, this movement prioritizes the social and human side of cities – creating green and thriving places for people to prosper. Historically, this is significant -- the interests of people, capital and cities have often been misaligned, frequently leading to disastrous consequences – highways rammed through vibrant communities of colour; urban sprawl that amplifies emissions, segregation and social challenges; or redevelopment efforts that cater to global tourists at the expense of local residents.  
It's time to walk the walk, not just talk the talk
Building on the decades of action led by people like Jane Jacobs and Jan Gehl, these past failures are increasingly well understood and there is an almost mainstream appreciation of the value of walkable, mixed-use neighbourhoods with vibrant local retail and well-integrated social infrastructure such as schools, community centres, art spaces, libraries, etc. The challenge is no longer getting people to share the same urban planning vision, but rather to put this into practice, overcoming NIMBYism and mobilizing the types of partnerships necessary to deliver this type of urban regeneration and development that our planet and communities need. 
Urban Partners takes inspiration from this movement to inform our approach to urban regeneration. Our real estate vertical NREP was the first investor and developer to take a risk on building new housing in the new district of Nordhavn in Copenhagen, in 2015. And we didn’t think about housing in isolation from neighbourhood life. We saw that one of the biggest challenges facing new neighborhood developments is that ground floor spaces are often lifeless or generic, thus failing to support community experience. To avoid this, we partnered with the local public authority City & Port (By & Havn) to create a new company that bought out all of the ground floors in the area from landowners, allowing us to curate these spaces to maximise local vibrancy. We helped one of the first new bookstores in Copenhagen open. We helped a new movie theatre get built. We supported many small restaurants open their doors for the first time. And we’ve ensured residents can access quality, affordable groceries and meet their health needs in the area. While Nordhavn is still under construction, it is already one of the liveliest neighbourhoods in Copenhagen and a world-leading example of sustainable development that is not only built green, but also enables a vibrant urban life.  
While our work in Nordhavn has been focused on generating urban life in an old, empty port, we also have worked to strengthen existing neighbourhoods. Tingbjerg was built on the edge of Copenhagen in the 1950s as a model community of its time. Over the decades, however, Tingbjerg declined and became a place with a negative public perception and high socio-economic challenges related to unemployment, income and education.  
Diving in: Nordhavn, Tingbjerg and Jernbanebyen
The City of Copenhagen partnered with residents, the local social housing companies, and NREP to revitalize the area by building new social infrastructure & local retail, introducing new housing options, improving public space, and transforming the area’s perception by highlighting its longstanding strengths. These collective efforts have had significant material impact, with students in Tingbjerg’s schools now performing meaningfully better than the national average (50% better than 5 years ​ago) and the unemployment and income levels have both improved. Without significant change in the area’s demographics, Tingbjerg was removed this year from the country’s “parallel society” list.  
Building on our experiences in Nordhavn and Tingbjerg, i​n 2021 we formed a partnership with the Danish state real estate and railway companies to transform 50 hecatres of old railyards in Copenhagen’s center city into a new green & thriving neighborhood. Named Jernbanebyen (“The Railway District,”), this ambitious project will unfold over the next 10-15 years, becoming home to 9,000 residents and 4,000 jobs. And it will be a very mixed community, including 25% for social housing, new urban co-living models across generations and we’re also exploring new models that blend rental and ownership. 
The ambition at Jernbanebyen is to really demonstrate how an intentional approach to combining climate action with community well-being can both deliver the decarbonization and biodiversity we need along with equitably promoting mental, social and physical health. The streets will be largely car-free, making it much easier and safer to walk and cycle, and removing on-street parking will allow for more space or nature and social life. There will be 10 acres of green space, making it one of the greenest neighbourhoods in Copenhagen. 
Many historic buildings will be transformed into community centers and culture hubs, which has already begun with Banegaarden and we’re slowly opening up the doors of Spor10, an old customs house that now connects people through sports, food, learning, culture, and creativity. The area will also showcase advanced approaches to decarbonization, from taking advantage of the opportunity to design new district energy, heating and cooling systems, along with using lowest-carbon materials possible for new buildings. 
As seen in these three projects and the many more internationally, it’s clear that a sustainable city can be far more than just green buildings. It must be green & thriving.