With its mix of skyscrapers and luxury flats, how likely is it that Birmingham could become the United Kingdom’s only eco-metropolis? Environment Correspondent Patrice John spoke to the Mayor of Copenhagen, who will be in the city tonight, explaining just how it could be done.
Klaus Bondam is not shy about telling me, or anyone else, to get on their bike.
That’s not surprising, considering that he is mayor of one of Europe’s greenest cities and is best known for pedalling his way to council meetings.
This measure - as well as a few others - has meant that Mr Bondam has been called upon to pass on the secrets of his success to the rest of the world.
So far, 45-year-old Klaus has visited London and the transformation of Copenhagen has been celebrated in both New York (where, I’m told, the bike lanes are named after his fair city) and Melbourne (where they’ve done the same).
But what does Mr Bondam believe he can teach a city that was founded on the chimney stacks of the industrial revolution?
“Cities are crucial in the fight against climate change,” he says. “Both cities and citizens must be engaged in this. The United Nations Climate Change conference will be held in Copenhagen in December and it is the first time they will be acknowledging the role cities have.
“As a citizen in a city, it is vital that you ask yourself ‘what can I contribute to the city that I live in so it is a nicer and more sustainable place to live?’.
“There are simple things that can be done and one of them is choosing to ride a bicycle. It’s a good form of exercise, good for the environment and a good way to get around.”
Klaus’s love of the wheeled machine is not just born out of a need to be sustainable. He tells me cycling is the norm for those living in Denmark, and he is no exception.
He says: “There is a strong tradition of cycling in Denmark as we have high car taxation so, historically, you didn’t get your first car until you were in your 40s. If you grew up in a city, you just didn’t get a car and that was how it was.
“But we began to notice real change in the city over the last 15-20 years. We were a very poor city that was full of either very old or very young people; no-one would stay on to build a life here.
“It was dirty, worn-out and poor but we are now becoming a very attractive, conscious city and that’s a good thing.
“If you want to get a city to change, you must engage your citizens in the kind of debate where they think about the kind of city they want. This is more than just talking about local plans. You must begin to think about the kinds of cities you want in the future.”
Klaus’s vision is summed up in the term ‘eco-metropolis’ which is a way of integrating green spaces with existing buildings. He’ll be sharing his views on all things green when he speaks tonight at Birmingham Town Hall.
“An eco-metropolis is a city where the inhabitants make a clear decision on how future developments will go,” he says. “If you want to create one, or indeed live in one, you must ask yourself whether you want to live closely, with other people, in a place that is noisy, polluted and congested or do you want to live somewhere where there is room for your children to play on the street and space for you to relax?
“The eco-metropolis is a city created for people to move around easily, without needing a car, but the creation of this kind of place is something that requires the integration of views from a political level and an everyday level.
“This is the key choice that people must make if they choose to create a green city and it’s a question that must be asked.
“But you must also remember that becoming a greener city does not mean that development has to stop, as you must find ways for the business life of the community to continue.
“This is a real move away from the urban sprawls that were built after World War Two. Those were probably very nice for those who lived in the suburbs but I think it was also quite boring, so we need to reinvent city life.
“We are part of a generation that has used cities immensely, but things need to adapt and change as they always have. Twenty years ago, we began to realise that we had to stop polluting the Earth and now we need to think about cities in a different way, as well. Cities are organic and ever-changing, so it works to change the ways we live in cities.
“Car use has already changed in Copenhagen so it is possible to make cities greener, but you must have full political ownership to make these kinds of changes.”
Klaus says finding the political will is key to making changes, especially when it comes to taking unpopular decisions. He plans to introduce congestion charging in Copenhagen, which he knows could make him a few enemies.
He says: “Politicians in Birmingham must have the courage to invest in projects that link in with these aims and they must have the courage to confront, as when you try to change people’s habits, you will always get a reaction.
“But it’s important to keep going and to move from talking to action, so that people can see the visible evidence for what you’re doing.
“So you can’t just take people’s cars away and leave them with nothing. You must spend money reinvesting in the city and creating green spaces and other areas that use quality materials is a way to do this.
“Having visible evidence is a great way to battle opposition when it comes.
“Another way to handle opposition is when you lead by example. I am known as the ‘bicycle mayor’ as I’m always seen riding around.
“Another way that politicians in Birmingham could deal with opposition is by winning people over so they begin to understand that the changes they are making to create an eco-metropolis are for the good.
“Simple things like having a policy of serving organic food in Birmingham Town Hall would be good. We’ve done it in Copenhagen because we believe that the food we eat should not contribute to the pollution of the earth and the city and that is our way of leading by example.”
Klaus believes Birmingham is well placed to be transformed into an eco-metropolis and he believes it’s important that all cities start moving in that direction.
“We have found that more than 70 per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions come from urban areas and this means that, as a citizen in a city, you have to think about what you are doing to contribute to this,” he said.
“One of the key things that could be implemented in Birmingham immediately is to make the city more accessible to cyclists. The wide-scale use of bicycles in Copenhagen is one of the reasons why I’ve been invited to talk about it in so many cities.
“Both New York and Melbourne are following our example over this and Birmingham is well placed to do the same.
“It is deadly important for the future of the cities of the world for people to understand that we are fighting and trying to defend ourselves against a climate challenge.
“We must start doing things now that will benefit the future, we cannot accept that we are fighting with problems that our ancestors made, so we must change this for coming generations.”