During my stay in Copenhagen, Denmark as a Marshall Memorial Fellow, I witnessed a city with noticeably clean air, fresh water and active people married to a culture of bicycling. At first, it seemed distinctly European— complete with wind turbines, modern and historic architecture, art and cafés everywhere. I just knew that this place was completely different from my hometown of Detroit. However, the more I met with Danish people and heard about their challenges, I began to notice some similarities. Of course, there are some things that we will never share like the “Smørrebrød” open face sandwich or the deep Danish tradition of cultivating a life filled with “hygge”, or coziness. Immersion in this different environment made me even more sensitive to a surprising insight: Copenhagen, Denmark and Detroit, Michigan should be sister cities.
Ten years ago, Copenhagen experienced an exodus of young people, businesses and taxpaying citizens. So much so that they were on the brink of a municipal bankruptcy, and they had a reputation for being one of the last places in Europe that people would want to invest in, visit or relocate to. So the local leadership began a bold planning process that involved over one thousand residents, local leaders and different sectors of the government to create a plan that would ultimately take forty years to complete.
Since then there have been major investments in the infrastructure of Copenhagen to set the proper foundation for their vision for the future. These investments include the construction of a bridge to Sweden to improve the mobility of those on both sides of and their ability to experience the social and economic assets of both cultures. At the same time there was a major focus on and investment in bringing life to the waterways that run around and through the city. Not only is the harbor clean enough that people regularly swim in the waters, there are also miles of bridges and walkways that use the waterway as an asset and allow people to commute faster on bike and by foot in a beautiful environment.
Copenhagen also built and is currently expanding the city’s metro line, and this advanced public transit system will eventually reduce travel times anywhere in the city to under twenty minutes. These basic investments also persuaded local investors to reconsider this location as a place to build a new symphony hall, among other things, consequently making the quality of life in Copenhagen arguably second to none in Europe. As a result, Copenhagen is growing at a rate of one thousand new residents per month.
This is not magic. This is the result of a bold vision and the courage to take a risk and step out with the confidence that if the right thing is done for the right reasons, positive results come to fruition. The example of Copenhagen helps me to see a bright future for my native Detroit. For every step and investment that has been made in Copenhagen, there is a similar investment underway in Detroit. For this reason, I’m confident that our destiny is not too far from what I’ve seen in Denmark. With the right bold leadership, one which is courageous and sensitive to the needs of the people of our city, Detroit will be great again. I have seen its potential with my own eyes.
Kirk Mayes, Executive Director of Brightmoor Alliance, is a Fall 2013 American Marshall Memorial Fellow.