27th Oct 2016


Copenhagen harbour swimming

  • Copenhagen has big plans to become the Green city with the Blue harbour. (Photo: Thomas Rousing)

Copenhagen is one of the only cities in Europe where the harbour water is again clean enough to swim in.

The city has built three popular harbour baths - a new type of city-beach for people to swim, sunbathe, and cool off on hot summer days.

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  • A 2-kilometre race in the canals around the Danish parliament in August saw a record 3,600 participants this year. (Photo: Lisbeth Kirk)

During the last decade, the harbour baths have also become popular with tourists. They are the most visible result of a deliberate decision in the municipality to move polluting industry out of the harbour, and to clean all waste water before it reaches the sea.

The harbour baths are open 24/7 and many people living in the city centre have taken up the habit of a morning swim before heading to work.

There is no entry fee. Anyone is free to jump in and to enjoy the feeling of pumping blood, tickling skin and the salty taste of sea water.

Swimming around parliament

A 2-kilometre race in the canals around the Danish parliament in August saw a record 3,600 participants this year. Some 230 came from abroad to take part.

For swimmers, the race offers a very different perspective of the city and its old parliament building, Christiansborg. For tourists, who gathered on the city's bridges and wharfs, clapping and photographing, it offers the unusual sight of swimmers splashing in city canals.

"The water is really clean, I saw streams of small fish and jellyfish when passing Knippelsbridge," Julia Winklewski told EUobserver.

A teacher in Werder near Potsdam in Germany, Winklewski saw TV clips from last year's event and decided that she wanted to participate in the swim around the Danish parliament.

"I started the training in April and here I am," she smiles, with the sun flashing off her newly won bronze medal, confirming she has completed the race.

The swim took her a good hour. It was something she did for herself, as the event is not competitive.

The bronze, silver and gold medals are hung around the neck of all swimmers according to how many years they have participated in the race, not the time it took them to finish.

Green city with the Blue harbour

From 10am, groups of 65 swimmers in wetsuits and identical swim caps step forward every five minutes and jump into the harbour water.

Lifeguards are posted along the route in small inflatables or balancing on paddle boards.

When the race ends at 4pm, the lifeguards gather as a small flotilla behind the last swimmer, who is given a special treat and escorted to the finish line.

The water temperature is 20C in August, but in winter the harbour can be covered by ice.

Despite freezing temperatures, winter swimming is a popular activity among Danes. Some 11,000 people are registered members of winter swimming clubs around the country, with many more on waiting lists. Swimming is believed to improve people’s health and their quality of life.

"The water is clean, but maybe not at the bottom if you go deep," warns Lars Vallentin Christensen, head of sport events in VisitCopenhagen.

But it is getting better and now forms an important part of a bigger plan to make Copenhagen into the Green city with the Blue harbour.

"When I arrived in Copenhagen to study some 20 years ago, I joined a kayak club and we had garbage floating around that we tried to avoid with the kayak," Vallentin Christensen recalls.

"It was really a nasty, smelly harbour back then. You had big ships coming in, spilling oil and there were polluting industries in the harbour. Trash was simply thrown overboard."

Public investment in cleaning the waste water in the harbour and the canals has brought new value to the city.

"The number of people with their own kayak is growing, you have people standing on paddle boards, all kinds of rowing, motor boats and even electric boats. You see a lot of people with no experience of sailing or water sports at all, now they take the family on a picnic in a boat. It holds a lot of opportunity and is a big change for a lot of people living in the city," says Christensen.

As head of sport events, he has just announced the good news that Copenhagen will be hosting stand-up paddle and paddleboard world championships in the future.

"This year it is hosted in Fiji, it has been in California several times and Hawaii, but it is the first time it is going to be in Europe. They chose us in Copenhagen, because of the clean water and the things we do for the environment," he says.

Why don't we just do it?

"Copenhagen swim started by coincidence," admits Mads Kamp Hansen, head of the leisure department in Copenhagen municipality.

"It was back in 1999, when we were in the process of renewing our sewers and cleaning all our waste water before letting it out in the sea."

One day at a meeting in the municipality it was noted that now the harbour water was so clean that you could actually swim in it.

Hansen explains: "We sat and looked at each other and someone asked: 'So why don’t we do it?’.”

"Two young architects called Bjarke Ingels and Julien de Smedt, who almost nobody knew at the time, were tasked to construct the first harbour bath. It is the one that we have on Islands Brygge."

One of the two unknown architects, Bjarke Ingels, was earlier this year named one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people. He is now working on super-ambitious projects such as Google's HQ and Manhattan's waterfront.

The Copenhagen harbour baths have improved quality of life for the city's inhabitants and are a popular attraction for tourists. It's like having a beach in the city centre. But more is coming.

New areas in the harbour will soon be marked with wires and swimming allowed in these dedicated areas to offload the pressure on the three permanent sites.

Also facilities for kayaking, paddling and rowing in the harbour will be upgraded.

"Now we are aiming to make the access to the water easier for kayaks," Kamp Hansen says.

As most cities in the world, Copenhagen is also expected to grow.

"Within the next 15 years we expect to be like 120,000 more people in the city, which is some 20 percent more than today. But it has also to be growth with life quality," Hansen says. And with possibilities for physical activity.

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2016 Regions and Cities Magazine. You can download a free PDF version of the magazine here.

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