Copenhagen Opera House, Copenhagen, Denmark.

Copenhagen’s investment in its revitalized waterfront area is paying off, said land-use experts speaking at the ULI Real Estate Forum, while the affordability of housing is an ongoing concern. Attendees saw firsthand what it means to be a people-centric city aspiring to become the first carbon-neutral world capital by 2025.

Some 25 years ago, the city was largely an ailing manufacturing city with a declining population. What today is a paradise for cyclists was overrun with cars; the now-vibrant waterfront was underused and undervalued.

At the Real Estate Forum’s opening dinner, Bruce Katz, formerly of the Brookings Institution but now working as the founding director of the Nowak Metro Finance Lab at Drexel University, shared lessons from his research on the Copenhagen City & Port Development Corporation, a publicly owned, privately run organization. It has transformed Copenhagen’s industrial harbor into a multipurpose waterfront while using the proceeds of increased tax revenue to finance public transit expansion. The organization has been focusing on long-term goals and reducing friction among public agencies.

Speaking in a separate panel discussion, Kasper Jensen, 3XN Architects Copenhagen’s circular economy director, made a case for revisiting projects after they are completed to see the buildings in use. Ørestad High School, just south of the center of Copenhagen, was designed for 800 students and completed in 2007. But the building—thanks to its flexible design, which minimizes traditional hallways, plus additional design work in 2017—now accommodates 1,200 students.

The Ørestad neighborhood of Copenhagen is also home to the DR Koncerthuset (Copenhagen Concert Hall), designed by Jean Nouvel. An ongoing development is the UN17 Village in Ørestad South, which is designed based on the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Claus Mathisen, CEO and partner of Nordic real estate firm NREP, says that his company is increasingly focusing on how developments can generate experiences and engagement.

Designed by the Lendager Group and Årstiderne Arkitekter for NREP, the UN17 Village will have 400 living units based on needs of 37 specific segments of users; three-quarters of the units will be rented and one-quarter will be sold upon completion in 2023. The development’s five housing blocks will be built from recycled concrete, wood, and glass and will rely solely on sustainable energy. Communal spaces are meant to strengthen connections between residents and nonresidents.

The site of the ULI Europe forum also embraces sustainable development goals. U.N. City Copenhagen is the most sustainable building in Scandinavia, according to Camilla Brückner, director of the U.N. Development Programme’s Nordic Representation Office. Designed by 3XN and completed in 2013, the U.N. City complex is cooled by seawater, uses collected rainwater for toilets, and has solar panels on the roof for power. The hub houses 1,800 U.N. staff from 108 countries.

Real estate as a service is on the rise in Copenhagen. The We Company is opening its first WeWork facility in the Meatpacking District at the end of the first quarter of 2020. And real estate management project LifeX has more than two dozen co-living apartments in Copenhagen.

Curt Liliegreen, project director for Denmark’s Knowledge Centre for Housing Economics (Boligøkonomisk Videncenter), said that Copenhagen’s share of population of Denmark has grown from 9.2 percent to 10.6 percent in the past decade. And the percentage of single-person households has increased as the population has grown by 100,000 during that same time period. But small, affordable apartments are not being built in Copenhagen in large volumes.

The municipality demands that up to 25 percent of new housing be subsidized. Rent for new social housing in Copenhagen is about 1,200 krone (US$183) per square meter annually, whereas for old private housing stock, it is 850 krone (US$129) per square meter.

The pressure on the local housing market has especially affected students. To mitigate that issue, the city has allowed container housing projects along the harbors, such as Urban Rigger and CPH Village. But even those cost 2,000 krone (US$305) per square meter annually as a rental.

While Copenhagen expects another 110,000 residents by 2025, the city has already been successful in reducing carbon emissions by more than 40 percent since 1990 while experiencing steady population growth during that time. To meet its goal of becoming carbon neutral, the city demands significant energy reductions from both residential and commercial properties. The city estimates the total investment in new construction and retrofitting of existing buildings could cost up to DKK 180 billion ($27.5 billion). But if the current projects are anything to go by, Copenhagen is up to the challenge.