With over 50% of the world’s current population living in urban landscapes, cities play a major role in shaping our lives and the path towards a sustainable future (World Bank, 2023). Building cities that serve not only our needs as humans but also protect and support a sustainable and resilient environment is increasingly crucial. This requires a collaborative and coordinates effort that ties local policy to inclusive development of public space, diverse opportunities for all, and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
A city that has pursued these aspects particularly well is Aarhus, Denmark. I had the opportunity to do a study abroad term at Aarhus University during 2022 and was inspired deeply by how it’s framework of city policies have created a transformative sustainable and welcoming city. Thoughtfully designed public spaces that focus on community well-being and vibrant culture appear to seamlessly intertwine aspects of the SDGs and circular economies, showcasing a bright future for how cities may thrive to be green, resilient, and inclusive. While it’s impossible to discuss all the aspects of sustainability progress in Aarhus, I will outline some of the key highlights from their policies that offer a glimpse of the city’s efforts.
Implementing SDGs: A Blueprint for Sustainability
Aarhus has taken various actions that align their urban development processes within the principles and concepts of the SDGs. A primary focus has been SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities by combining growth policy and climate concerns to tackle what it truly means to a sustainable city. Drawing from traditional Scandinavian methods of collaboration, the Danish smart city offers a proposed “Scandinavian third way” of urban development that offers a unique city governance model that offers alternative insights from the commercialized North American pathways for sustainability (Baraniewicz-Kotasińska, 2022). Much of this governance structure links back to the principles within SDG 17: Partnership for the Goals and SDG 16: Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions, presenting insights for how urban centres can pursue collaboration for the future.
Within SDG 13: Climate Action and SDG 7: Affordable and Clean Energy, Aarhus aims to be a Carbon-neutral society by 2030 and commits to being entirely independent of fossil fuels for energy production (City of Aarhus, 2020). The city transformed its energy sources in 2016, burning biomass instead of coal for heating and electricity generation and ensuring the new light railways reduce the use of fossil fuels within public transportation alongside many other initiatives that aim for collaboration to reduce energy consumption (City of Aarhus, 2020). Aarhus prioritizes an efficient public transit system, bike routes, and walkability within public space mobility. Initiatives focusing on ensuring alternatives to motorised transport are built into urban planning to allow residents the option to pursue a fossil-free life (City of Aarhus, 2021). Beyond energy and transport within urban development, the cities strategy and action plan present an intertwined approach that focuses in on a collaborative transition that remains focused on community well-being and a pursual of a healthy city.
Aarhus’s comprehensive approach to sustainable development serves as an inspiration for cities worldwide, showcasing the potential of local actions in contributing to global impact. Briefly highlighting Aarhus’ Cultural Strategy, it focuses on eight SDG goals in particular: SDG 3-5, 10-13, 16, and 17 (Aarhus Kommune, 2020). This is done through six central themes that act as a guiding force on areas of further policy prioritization. The overarching themes are as follows (Aarhus Kommune, 2020):
- A Strong Foundation
- Culture is Welfare
- Formation and Education
- Open Arms – Open Mind
- Global Perspective and Action
Innovative Initiatives: Creativity and Connection
Harkening back to the “Scandinavian third way” governance model, the city’s policies center proactive cooperation, ensuring that sectors are communicative and have the necessary infrastructure and resources to cohesively achieve their goals (Aarhus Kommune, 2021b). A range of Smart City initiatives, collectively referred to as “Smart Aarhus” encourages new alternatives to classic urban problems and brings “citizens, companies, knowledge institutions and authorities … together to develop the city” (Aarhus Kommune, 2021b; Smart Aarhus 2022). This has included the Digital Neighbourhood project and a particularly intriguing project titled “RADICAL” in which bicycles were integrated with a digital chip to make traffic patterns change to favour the needs of bikers in the city (Aarhus University, 2021).
Aarhus is also a partner city in the REGREEN Urban Living Lab, with key initiatives centering water management, reforestation and biodiversity, and open urban green spaces for recreation (Oppla, n.d.). City policies align and integrate actions, findings, and proposed guidelines from the REGREEN Urban Living Lab into strategies and governance (Regreen Project, n.d.).
Circularity in the Making
Circularity is built into nearly every aspect of Aarhus’ sustainability policies. Development of new urban areas and buildings consistently works to reuse building materials from demolitions. A “Material Bank” exchanged used building materials to reduce the need for new resources and reduce carbon emissions through repurposing (City of Aarhus, 2020). The city also features high recycling rates for household waste, largely attributed to involving community members within the creation of waste management plans to ensure that systems meet their needs to ensure proper usage (Aarhus Kommune, 2021a).
A Maker Society
Aarhus boasts an intertwined artistic ecosystem that is strengthened through active policy support. The studio community Corporum at Godsbanen aims to “strengthen, develop, and create favorable production conditions for young artists and the Aarhus art community” through studio spaces, shared exhibition areas, editing rooms, and lending equipment and tools (Corporum, n.d.). Founded in 2009, Institute for (X) is a “creative powerhouse” (Aarhus Kommune, 2020) that aims to be an inclusive and diverse neighbourhood for all. It combines artistic creativity wth business and is a dynamic space that acts as a platform for everyone to co-produce in the art of space-making.
The Spark of Urban Public Spaces
Aarhus’s public spaces, such as the Aarhus Ø waterfront district and the beautiful Botanical Garden, exemplify the city’s commitment to SDG 3 and 11. These spaces not only offer residents and visitors places to relax and connect but also facilitate events that celebrate diversity, foster dialogue, and promote a sense of belonging for all residents. The core public spaces are easily accessible from public transit and interconnected biking networks facilitate easy access for different modes of transportation. Cars are rarely the predominant transportation within the downtown core in my experiences within the city, rather community thrives in easy public gathering and welcoming environments that favours pedestrians.
Aarhus demonstrates that progress does not need to compromise heritage, culture, or the environment. As the city continues to innovate and evolve, its journey provides crucial insights for other urban areas, highlighting the potential for meaningful change when sustainability, community engagement, and urban planning converge
Aarhus Kommune. (2020). City of Aarhus cultural strategy 2021-2024. https://www.aarhus.dk/media/67709/kulturpolitikken_uk_version_tilgaengelig.pdf
Aarhus Kommune. (May 31, 2021a). Climate and the environment.https://www.aarhus.dk/english/collaborate-with-the-city/urban-development/the-environment/#1
Aarhus Kommune. (May 31, 2021b). Smart Aarhus. https://www.aarhus.dk/english/collaborate-with-the-city/urban-development/the-environment/#1
Aarhus University. (2021). RADICAL. https://smartcities.au.dk/research/radical
Baraniewicz-Kotasińska, S. (2022). The Scandinavian Third Way as a Proposal for Sustainable Smart City Development—A Case Study of Aarhus City. Sustainability (Basel, Switzerland), 14(6), 3495. https://doi.org/10.3390/su14063495
City of Aarhus (2020). The road to fossil freedom: Climate strategy 2020-2030.https://backoffice.aarhus.dk/media/69807/pixi-strategi_uk_web.pdf
City of Aarhus. (2021). Green transition in Aarhus: Climate action plan 2021-2024.https://backoffice.aarhus.dk/media/69806/klimahandlingsplan-2021-2024_gb_web.pdf
Corporum. (n.d.). About Corporum. https://corporum.dk/en/about-corporum/
Oppla. (n.d.). Aarhus – A city perspective (REGREEN Urban Living Lab) – Denmark.https://oppla.eu/casestudy/22599
Regreen Project. (n.d.). Aarhus: Urban development and natural resources. https://www.regreen-project.eu/urban-living-lab/aarhus/
Smart Aarhus. (2022). What is Smart Aarhus?https://smartaarhuseu.aarhus.dk/about-smart-aarhus/
World Bank (April 3, 2023). Urban development. https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/urbandevelopment/overview#:~:text=Today%2C%20some%2056%25%20of%20the,people%20will%20live%20in%20cities.