We started off our first full day in Denmark with a train ride to Vejle, which was about an hour train ride from Aarhus, the city we are staying in. It was difficult to adjust to starting our day in darkness (sunrise 9AM and sunset 4PM). Maybe it just seemed that way because we also are a tiny bit jetlagged. On our train ride, we all fell in love with the architecture of the houses and scenery.
After about an hour train ride, we arrived in Vejle. Vejle means “for crossing river” in Viking. It was named after its unique position between valleys and the fjord. We walked to Spinderihallerne, which is the location of their old spinning mill. This building now houses the highest concentration of small creative businesses, including the community resilience projects we were learning about.
What is resilience?
Resilience is the capacity of individuals, communities and systems to survive, adapt, and grow in the face of stress and shocks, and even transform when conditions require it. (Much like our very tired group trying to adjust to the time zone and stay awake during the lectures today).
To begin, our first speaker, Jonas Kroustrup, Chief Resilience Officer working on behalf of the 100 Resilient Cities project, taught us the history of Denmark and the city of Vejle and also the basics of their society. Denmark believes in universalism, all citizens are taxed and pay for their public services. These taxes allow Denmark to have free education, free health care, and sustainability and resilience initiatives.
Liberals put Scandinavian countries on a pedestal because of these models, but we also learned today that there are challenges to these models. For example, their elderly population is rising, which means less people in the workforce and contributing to the welfare state. There also are large proportions of immigrants who are unemployed and there is lack of skilled labor force in certain sectors. Also, the labor markets are not very inclusive for the mentally and physically disabled.
Walking around Vejle and Aarhus, many of us started to notice how small their cars are and how many people were walking around even with small children and the cold temperatures. Also, there were tons of bikes lined up on the streets. Our second speaker, Morten Eriksen, who worked for the welfare department, talked about their welfare state and how they maintain their social programs. The Danish welfare state is based on the principle that if one is able to work, one has to work. They also maintain their society by making sure they take care of themselves and others. Denmark has very high results from their social programs, but they also pay very high taxes to achieve these results. Their citizens have to work in order to pay their taxes.
Today, we found out the citizens of Vejle have an 180% tax on the purchase of cars. Many of us found this idea both ridiculous and amazing at the same time. There are high taxes in Denmark, and citizens of Denmark have mixed feelings about these taxes but they do see that they get a lot in return. We have seen the benefits of high taxes in the United States, too. In the United States, we have high taxes on tobacco products because its consumption is unhealthy for humans. Consequently, this has lowered the rate of tobacco use. It is interesting to see that high taxes in Denmark are contributing to reducing their carbon footprint by making their citizens rely less on cars.
Our last speaker Ulla Varneskov worked with the West-End community resilience project. This area is a working class neighborhood and has the highest crime rate in Vejle. They also have few local businesses, increasing unemployment, and extremely vulnerable to flooding caused by rising sea levels. Ulla is working with an initiative called Resilient Europe that is co-creating communities of the future. The question they are asking the people in the West-End is this: “What world do you want to live in?” Concerns commonly stated in the West-End are about the increased risk of flooding and also protecting their vulnerable populations. From these answers, they are trying to create social sustainable change by empowering the citizens to come up with solutions.
One theme that was underlying in all of the lectures by the speakers was equity, or fairness, for all. This picture used in one of our lectures also sums up perfectly what Denmark is trying to achieve with their welfare state and their resilience strategies.