The Courtyards of Copenhagen

How the Danes make urban living family friendly.

Note from Alan: One of the toughest challenges for families with young children living in cities is the lack of safe, accessible outdoor play space for kids—a narrow urban balcony is no substitute for a fenced backyard. But Seattle-area planner (and mother) Alyse Nelson, who spent six months in Copenhagen documenting how to make a city bicycle friendly, discovered the Danish solution to this problem. She discovered it by looking out her kitchen window. Here’s her report.


Our Copenhagen apartment was in an old neighborhood. It was on a commercial street full of shops, with buses passing every two minutes. Our street was lined with marvelous Danish bikeways that made the entire city our two-wheeled home. I had lived in a compact neighborhood in Seattle, so I was already sold on urban life.

But I discovered that Copenhagen, though far denser than Seattle, is also dramatically more friendly to children. Like much urban housing in the City of Cyclists, our apartment overlooked a green and spacious courtyard. Gated where it met the sidewalk and shared only with others in our building and adjacent buildings on our block, it had play equipment, benches, chairs, and barbeques set amid gardens, lawns, and full-grown trees. It filled the interior of our block; it was like having a park inside your house. (The photo above is the wintertime view of the courtyard from my kitchen window.

Our courtyard made all the difference for me as a mom. I could walk downstairs and spend a quarter hour with my son on the courtyard’s play equipment, then pop back inside to avoid a rain shower or get a snack. I could look out my kitchen window in the very heart of the city and watch scenes of family life unfolding: a father hanging a hammock, a boy learning to ride a bicycle, a woman tending her garden, a clump of neighbors chatting while their children dug in the sandbox. I could picture my son growing older there, playing by himself in the courtyard as a toddler, throwing a ball with a friend as a school-ager, and as a teen, returning from the city beyond to this safe haven of green.

Google Earth aerial image of my Copenhagen neighborhood.

When I came back to Seattle, I felt deprived. I wanted a courtyard, but they’re rare in North America. Perhaps as a result, families with children almost all strive to live in single-family houses with yards. Urban lots (and therefore lawns) are expensive, so families often head far into the suburbs to find affordable, private outdoor space for their children. Perhaps that’s why urban areas have fewer children than suburban areas. In the city of Seattle, for example, families with children account for only 20 percent of households, while in the rest of surrounding King County, families with children make up 37 percent of households. This outward spread of families with children contributes to sprawl and long commutes; it also undermines community stability as adults move outward to have children and inward again as empty-nesters.

Still, I’m hopeful for the future of courtyards in our region. A few buildings here and there have them, and a national organization is promoting them under the name community greens. Community greens convert existing city blocks, turning underutilized places into community spaces. Private backyards become shared residential greens by taking down fences and designing the space to fit the residents’ needs. Community greens offer safe, accessible places for children’s play; increase community bonds, which improves safety and security as neighbors get to know each other; raise property values by turning often-neglected spaces into amenities; and make urban living more inviting and attractive to families with children.

Copenhagen_play_courtyard_500      copenhagen_courtyard_500
Old and New: A passive open space area in Charlotthaven (right), and the play area outside my apartment buildingin Amager (left).

In Copenhagen, many new developments continue to feature courtyard-style housing. Charlottehaven, for example, (pictured above) provides a variety of courtyard spaces including a basketball court, passive landscape areas with seating, and children’s play structures. In existing neighborhoods, Copenhageners are redesigning the courtyards of some older apartment buildings. In such areas, different apartment buildings are grouped around the block, but the courtyard of each building is fenced from the courtyard of the next building. Now, the renewal efforts are combining these piecemeal courtyards into larger, block-wide ones—the same strategy as community greens.

When parents I know talk about the limits of compact communities for young children, I nod with understanding. And I wish they could experience Danish-style courtyards as I have. Once you’ve lived in a building wrapped around a park, a fenced yard just seems second best.

Thanks to Dara P. O’Byrne for the use of her 2006 University of Washington Master’s thesis Reversing the Trend: Strategies to Make Center City Seattle Livable and Attractive to Families with Children.

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  1. Nic S says:

    The courtyard idea is great and reminds me of Latin America and how all the streets in Mexico and Guatamala always had buildings (in the older areas) built up to the edge of the sidewalks and when you entered the front door/gate, you entered a courtyard. Why do we put gardens bordering on the streets? It is almost as if we are trying to make the driving experience a better one with all those front gardens.

  2. Dan Staley says:

    Good to see a classmate doing good work. DS

  3. LisaB says:

    As an interesting anecdote – I lived in a similar arrangement in Madison, WI (less urban obviously but still – apartments wrapped around a semi-private park space with play equipment and bbq areas, etc)…. except I was the only one who ever used the space. Never did figure out why. It was very lovely and there were kids in the apartments but the park/courtyard was always completely empty. Perhaps there was no sense of ownership so it just became ambiguous space – no one was sure who was allowed to be where. Even in my current apartment in downtown Vancouver with a lovely locked (private) courtyard, there is nary a soul to be seen.I’d be curious to know the ownership scheme in Copenhagen – does everyone have a hand in maintaining the space? How do we get our Cdn/American selves to use communal spaces?

  4. Alyse Nelson says:

    LisaB,The City of Copenhagen offers urban renewal funding to revitalize courtyards in residential neighborhoods, which residents can apply for and use to redesign their shared space. Being involved in the design gives people a chance make sure the courtyard features components they desire and encourages ownership of the final product. The courtyards are owned commonly among the apartments on the block and the owners usually hire a maintenance person, preferring to employ someone who lives in one of the buildings. There are also spaces in the courtyard where residents can tend gardens, which gives them a place to be directly involved in the upkeep efforts. This Danish website features a pdf document titled 44faeles gardanaeg, highlighting 44 redesigned courtyards. Starting on page 51, you can see photos and plans of the redesigned spaces. Under the images, information is provided on the size of the courtyard, the number of inhabitants, the project’s timeframe, and cost. I think successful courtyards are possible in the American/Canadian context. You are onto something regarding the sense of ownership and courtyard designs that can feel ambiguous. Providing a variety of uses in the courtyard is important, because you need a reason to be there to avoid feeling awkward. A clear delineation between private and shared open space is essential. The courtyard must create a human-scaled space that does not feel public. The buildings that will use the courtyard should enclose it, helping residents feel it is “their” space. The details of design, management, and ownership can significantly influence the success of a courtyard, Community Greens is a great place to get more information.

  5. Zecca says:

    Having lived in Copenhagen for 3 years, as well owning an apartment in one of the afformented building types, I can answer a few things. In my building, we paid dues to the association, but also had exclusive rights to the inner-yard by way of locking doors. Because of height restrictions in the city of Copenhagen on these buildings, the developers were able to construct these buildings without elevators, and thus maximize space from the height restriction of 5-6 stories, while allowing for more sun into the courtyard. Less elevators cheaper energy bills = fewer maintenence costs for the owner = healthier populous (from hauling person/things up multiple flights) = more natual light in buildings (from courtyard side, which would otherwise be inside the middle of a building = private park for barbequing, playgrounds, maintanance sheds, bird watching = community gardens = more jobs for landscapers = places to park a motorcycle/scooter/bike for free = a place to direct greywater perhaps….

  6. joshuadf says:

    By the way, Dara’s thesis “Reversing the Trend: Strategies to Make Center City Seattle Livable and Attractive to Families with Children” is available online at the Seattle Center City for Families website. Also Portland Courtyard Housing Design Resources has other good references.

  7. Bill Bradburd says:

    Instead of informed and serious neighborhood planning for Seattle’s multifamily zones – where these sorts of block patterns and successful density AND quality of life should be achieved – we have instead just instituted a code where a whole variety of building types and setbacks can be built in adjoining sites. All in the name of “flexibility” for development interests.This will yield unpredictable streetscape and backyard patterns, and more importantly the unlikely possibility of connected open spaces sufficient to create shared open spaces necessary to trees and children. Copenhagen continues to be aspirational at best for us…

  8. Greg Thomas says:

    A touch of Copenhagen to be created in NYC. A stunning concept, unique for Manhattan. Looking forward to seeing this very exciting project up and running.

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