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Denmark is situated in northern Europe and is the southernmost of the Nordic countries. It is a relatively small nation state compared with its closest neighbours, Germany, Sweden, and Norway. Denmark proper consists of the Jutland peninsula and an archipelago of circa 400 islands of which Zealand is the largest and most densely populated. The country is bordered by the Skagerrak and Kattegat straits to the north and east, which link the North and Baltic Seas. To the west, it is bordered by the North Sea along its whole shoreline and by Germany to the south, the country’s only land border. Denmark’s territory also includes the island of Bornholm located in the Baltic Sea to the southeast of Sweden. The autonomous territories of The Faroe Islands (located in the North Atlantic Ocean) and Greenland (the world’s largest island, located between the North Atlantic and the Arctic Oceans) are part of the Kingdom of Denmark.

Denmark has a population of 5.84 million inhabitants living in the country proper, across an area of 43,000 km2, of which 60% is covered by agriculture and farming, 14% by urban zones, transport infrastructure and other artificial surfaces, 13% by forests, and the remainder by open land and inland waters. The country has a population density of 136 inhabitants/km2 and a predominantly urban settlement structure. Approximately one-third of the total population lives in Greater Copenhagen with an additional one-fifth residing in the next three largest cities, Aarhus, Odense and Aalborg. Denmark’s official language is Danish. German is recognised as a minority language and is spoken in the region of South Denmark. Faroese, Greenlandic, Turkish, Arabic and other languages are also spoken by minority groups. The capital of Denmark is Copenhagen, a metropolitan port city renowned internationally for its quality of life, urban planning, green economy and climate-friendly policy. Copenhagen is Denmark’s economic and financial centre and is widely regarded as the gateway to and the cultural hub of Scandinavia. Since 2000, Copenhagen and Malmö, Sweden’s third largest city, have been connected by the Øresund bridge, which on a wider scale links the Peninsula of Scandinavia with Denmark and continental Europe.

Denmark has a strong economy and a relatively large public sector subsidised by one of the highest taxation levels in the world. The Danish welfare state secures citizens’ economic and social well-being on the basis of principles of equal opportunity and equitable wealth distribution, which ensure low inequality and poverty rates. The employment system in Denmark is characterised by its so-called flexicurity model, which combines flexibility of labour markets, work organisation and labour relations with employment and social security. The flexicurity model combines high mobility between jobs with income security for unemployed people (members of unemployment insurance funds are eligible to receive unemployment benefits for two years) while adopting and implementing an active labour market policy (with rights and obligations for the unemployed). The flexicurity model allows companies to hire and dismiss employees without any significant costs. On the other hand, employees are eligible for unemployment benefits and public advice services to help them rejoin the labour market as quickly as possible.

Denmark is a decentralised unitary state, a parliamentary representative democracy and a constitutional monarchy. The country has a three-tier government structure: central, regional, and municipal. The division of powers among these governance levels occurs at the national and local levels, with the municipalities being the only local authorities – there is no hierarchical relationship between the regional and municipal levels.  Denmark has been part of the European Union since 1973 and is subject to EU legislation like other EU member states. Amongst the EU sectoral fields of legislation, environmental directives (the Water Framework Directive, the Floods Directive, Habitat Directives, Natura 2000) influence spatial planning at national and local levels. Compared to other EU countries, Denmark receives very low levels of funding through the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the European Social Fund (ESF), the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development and the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) (European Structural and Investment Funds 2021).

General information

Name of country Denmark
Capital, population of the capital (2021)¹ Copenhagen, population 638,117
Surface area² 42,947 km²
Total population (2021)¹ 5.84 million
Population density (2021) 136 inhabitants/km²
Population growth rate (2012-2021)¹ 4.44% over 10 years
Degree of urbanisation (2011-2018)² 4.7% increase in built-up land over 7 years
Human development index (2020)³ 940
GDP (2020)⁴ EUR 312,458 million
GDP per capita (2020)⁴ EUR 53,687 per capita
GDP growth (2011–2020)⁴ 22% over 10 years
Unemployment rate (2021)¹ 4.5%
Land use (2018)² 13.1% forest 9.0% nature 2.7% inland waters (lakes and streams) 59.9% agricultural land 7.3% built-up areas 5.5% roads, railways and runways 1.0% other artificial surfaces 1.6% unclassified
Sectoral structure (2020)⁵ 70% services and administration 27.3% industry and construction 2.6% agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining

1 https://www.statbank.dk/10291

2 https://www.dst.dk/en/Statistik/emner/geografi-miljoe-og-energi/areal/areal

3 http://hdr.undp.org/en/countries/profiles/DNK

4 https://www.dst.dk/da/Statistik/emner/nationalregnskab-og-offentlige-finanser/aarligt-nationalregnskab/bnp

5 https://statistikbanken.dk/NABP10

Administrative structure and system of governance

Denmark is a parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy. The Danish Constitution (Grundloven), one of the oldest constitutions in the world, establishes the rules for the system of government as well as the fundamental rights of citizens. The monarch is the nominal head of state and is responsible for appointing the prime minister (statsminister), who forms the new government (regering) and presides over it after a general election. The Danish government operates as a cabinet government and is comprised of the prime minister and 20 ministers responsible for heading specific government ministries. The cabinet is responsible for executing the laws, proposing new bills and a budget, and steering international and domestic policies. Members of the cabinet are also appointed by the monarch, who formally consents to the appointment of the ministers. Danish governments are usually constituted by minority coalitions or one-party government administrations that rely on parliamentary support from other parties. The Danish political system has a multi-party structure, and politics take place through inter-party compromise.

The Danish Parliament (Folketinget) consists of a sole chamber, which is comprised of 179 members (including two members from the Faroe Islands and two from Greenland) elected by proportional representation. Parliamentary elections usually take place every four years (the prime minister can call an election before a four-year term has elapsed). Parliament exerts control over the government, passes laws and is responsible for adopting and approving the government’s budgets and accounts. Members of Parliament (MPs) debate political issues, and read and vote on bills (lovforslag) in the chamber. The Parliament has 25 standing committees (udvalgene) in charge of specific working areas that largely resemble those of the ministries. The committees exercise political control and deal with legislative proposals for parliamentary resolution. The European Affairs Committee is particularly influential in that it gives the individual ministers their mandates for negotiating and endorsing decisions in the EU.

The Courts of Denmark (Domstole) act as an independent power of the state. The Danish legal system has a three-tier structure comprised of the Supreme Court (Højesteret), two high courts (Vestre Landsret and Østre Landsret) and 24 district courts. The Danish Court Administration System also includes the following judicial institutions: the Maritime and Commercial High Court, the Land Registration Court, the Special Court of Indictment and Revision, the Judicial Appointments Council, the External Activity Reviews Board, and the Appeals Permission Board. Moreover, Denmark has a tradition of specialised bodies or tribunals dealing with appeals of administrative decisions. Since 2017, administrative decisions made under the Planning Act can be appealed to the Planning Appeals Board (Planklagenævnet). The Planning Appeals Board is also the secretariat of the House of Boards (Nævnenes Hus), which is an independent agency under the Ministry of Industry, Business and Financial Affairs (Erhvervsministeriet). The House of Boards is also the appellate body for decisions under several other ministerial areas related to environmental and social affairs.

The Danish system of democracy is based on the principle of power tripartition. The government has executive power, the parliament alongside the government has legislative power, and the Danish courts exercise judicial power. The administrative structure of Denmark is non-federal and decentralised. The country is divided into 98 municipalities (kommuner) and five administrative regions (regioner). A reform of the local government structure was implemented by a liberal-conservative coalition government in 2007, which significantly changed the territorial organisation and created a new administrative and political map of Denmark. Smaller municipalities were merged into larger ones and the five incumbent regions were established after the dissolution of 14 counties. At the same time, the reform created a new financing and equalisation system, and resulted in a major redistribution of tasks and responsibilities between the central government, the regions and the municipalities.

The central government delegates tasks and responsibilities to the municipalities and the regions through the Local Government Act (Kommunestyrelsesloven) and the Regional Government Act (Regionsloven), respectively. In accordance with the Local Government Act, the general form of government adopted by the municipalities is ‘government by committee’. Each municipality is mandated by law to appoint a finance committee (økonomiudvalg) and at least one permanent standing committee (stående udvalg) responsible for the immediate administration of local government tasks (a municipality normally has four to six standing committees responsible for different sectoral areas). Municipal councils are responsible for the management of local administrations and are entitled to make decisions on any municipal affair. The municipal/city council (kommunalbestyrelsen/byråd) elects a mayor (borgmesteren) who is ultimately responsible for ensuring the implementation of the council’s decisions. The Danish regions are constituted by two political bodies: the regional council (regionsrådet), which is the executive regional authority responsible for administering the region’s economy, and the business committee (forretningsudvalget), which is the counterpart of the municipal financial committee appointed by the regional council. The chairperson of the region (regionsrådsformanden) is the head of the regional council. Circa 2500 municipal councillors and a total of 205 regional councillors (41 per council) are elected in local and regional government elections for four-year terms.

Around two-thirds of the total government expenditure in Denmark is at the subnational level, with municipalities administering the most spending and enjoying a high degree of fiscal autonomy. Unlike the municipalities or the former counties, the regions are not authorised to levy taxes and their finances are mostly derived from central government block grants as well as municipal subsidies. Danish municipalities provide numerous public services and benefits in key areas, which makes Denmark a highly decentralised country. Municipal revenues are mostly derived from local taxes (mainly the income tax and to a lesser degree the land value tax) as well as earmarked and block grants. Municipalities are allowed to enter into cooperation agreements by creating inter-municipal enterprises (kommunale fællesskaber) with the aim to provide joint services. Examples of inter-municipal enterprises are found in areas such as waste management, public transport or natural gas distribution. Since the Local Government Act requires that municipal councils transfer their competences in these areas, the creation of inter-municipal enterprises must be approved by the local supervisory authority (Ankestyrelsen).

The table below summarises the division of tasks and responsibilities between the three levels of government in Denmark. In general terms, the public sector is highly decentralised and is organised in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity. However, each level has distinctive competences in some policy areas, and several tasks involve cooperation between levels. The current organisation of spatial planning in Denmark emerged from the local government reform in 2007, which generated a major redistribution of tasks and responsibilities between the central government, the administrative regions and the municipalities. Since then, spatial planning tasks and responsibilities have been shared between the national and municipal levels, with the regions being solely responsible for regional development. The central government sets overall guidelines for planning and regulates priority policy areas through national directives. The municipalities are responsible for transposing the government’s visions into actual spatial planning through municipal and local plans (see details in the ‘Spatial Planning System’ section and the ‘Fact Sheets for Planning Levels’). The Planning Act (Planloven) establishes the framework of legal provisions for local planning in Denmark. It came into force in 1992 as a result of the amalgamation of three separate planning laws pertaining to urban and rural zones, national and regional planning, and municipal planning. The Act integrated and simplified the planning and zoning provisions of the previous acts and divided the country into three different zones (urban, rural, and summer cottage areas) while assigning them specific conditions and rules (Figure 4). Since then, the rationale behind zoning has been to protect the countryside by avoiding urban sprawl and unplanned development. Through zoning, the Planning Act establishes clear boundaries between urban areas and the countryside, protects recreational landscapes, and prioritises agriculture and forestry in rural zones. The Planning Act has been significantly amended on several occasions. During the 1990s, special provisions were added to (i) secure coastal protection, (ii) concentrate retail development in city centres, and (iii) carry out environmental impact assessments in accordance with European directives. These inclusions were followed by a substantial revision stemming from the 2007 structural reform through which different regional planning provisions were allocated to the national and municipal planning sections of the Planning Act. A series of further adjustments that deregulated planning restrictions for rural development, coastal protection and retail development were later introduced by liberal and social democratic governments during the period 2010-2015 (Olesen, Carter 2018). The last decade also witnessed a heated public debate concerning the need to modernise (i.e. liberalise) the Planning Act, which culminated in the passing of a new Planning Act made effective in July 2017. The opening section of the new Act replaced the purpose of planning to promote ‘appropriate development in the whole country’ with that of ‘creating good frameworks for growth and development throughout the country’ (Planning Act §1). This reorientation has been accompanied by a decreased involvement of the state in spatial planning affairs and thereby a reduction of the state’s power to object to municipal plans (Danish Business Authority 2018). Another law relevant to land-use planning is the Building Act (Byggeloven), which determines the requirements for implementation by granting building permits. The Building Act provides a range of detailed regulations for construction such as minimum plot sizes, maximum building densities and heights, and minimum distances from a building to a neighbour’s boundary. In the absence of a local plan or precise regulations in the municipal plan concerning the specific area for development, the developers must comply with the general building provisions in the Building Act. These general building provisions safeguard suitable development but do not apply should a local plan state otherwise. Moreover, zoning regulations provide additional means of development control by preventing urban sprawl and uncontrolled development in the countryside. Development is normally allowed in urban and summer cottage areas provided there is compliance with the regulations. However, development in rural zones and any change of land use for purposes other than agriculture and forestry are either prohibited or subject to a dispensation from the municipal authority. Finally, other acts that may also affect the use of land through zoning provisions include the Nature Protection Act (Lov om Naturbeskyttelse), the Water Planning Act (Lov om Vandplanlægning), and the Raw Materials Act (Lov om Råstoffer). As of 2021, responsibility for the Planning Act and more generally for spatial planning was transferred from the Ministry of Industry, Business and Financial Affairs (Erhvervsministeriet) to the Ministry of the Interior and Housing (Indenrigs- og Boligministeriet), which is to prepare and submit proposals for planning legislation and national planning statements to parliament on behalf of the government. In addition, the ministry is responsible for preparing directives concerning specific themes of national interest. The Planning Act (§29) gives the minister the duty to object to municipal plan proposals whenever they contradict national planning interests. The Ministry of the Environment (Miljøministeriet) is responsible for preparing two types of sectoral plans relevant to spatial planning, namely water area plans (Vandområdeplaner), and Natura 2000 plans (Natura 2000-planer). The ministry prepares these sectoral plans in conformance with European directives (i.e. the EU Water Framework Directive, the EU Birds Directive and the EU Habitats Directive) as well as the Water Planning Act and the Nature Protection Act. The region (region) is responsible for preparing the regional development strategy (regional udviklingsstrategi) and the regional raw materials plan (regionale råstofplan). These plans are ratified by the regional council (regionsrådet). However, hospitals and health care provision comprise the main responsibility of the administrative regions. The municipality (kommune) is the principal agent of spatial planning in Denmark. It is responsible for preparing municipal spatial strategies (planstrategi), municipal land-use plans (kommuneplan) and detailed local land-use plans (lokalplan). Municipal and local plans are ratified by the municipal/city council (kommuneråd/byråd). The power and duty of municipal authorities ensure that larger development projects are subject to land-use regulations and the provisions for public participation before implementation.

Spatial planning system


Denmark has a long tradition of spatial planning which has developed since the second half of the nineteenth century, a historical era marked by liberal ideology and typified by the advent of nationalism, the establishment of democratic institutions and the introduction of industrialisation (Madsen 2009). Amidst a liberal political climate, forms of state spatial intervention could only be justified in relation to large infrastructure projects such as the national railway system. This period also witnessed the rise of significant regional divergences rooted in an uneven socio-spatiality characterised by conflicts between the country’s east (Copenhagen and Zealand) and west (the Jutland peninsula). This geographical situation acquired increasing political relevance insofar as national planning discourses, policy and decision-making have remained influenced by the discourse of an ‘unbalanced Denmark’ (det skæve Danmark) to date.

The first half of the twentieth century witnessed the upsurge of urban and regional planning thought influenced by social-democratic activism, the gradual emergence of the Danish welfare state as well as the influx of international planning ideas and visions. Key milestones comprised an international planning competition held in Copenhagen in 1908-1909 (Vacher 2004), the founding of the Danish Town Planning Laboratory (Dansk Byplanlaboratorium) in 1921, the passing of the first Town Planning Act in 1925, and the publication of an internationally inspired town planning treatise by Raavad in 1929 titled ‘The Mayor’s book – A book about Danish city planning’ (Borgmesterbogen – En bog om dansk byplanlaegning), whose planning notions for the expansion of Copenhagen would later become influential (Vacher 2004).

The genesis of the modern institution of planning in Denmark embraces forms of regulatory state intervention in private property, which materialised in the 1938 Town Planning Act – a planning bye-law directed at the regulation of towns (Gaardmand 1993). The passing of this legislation would eventually make planning a permanent activity in municipal government. As a result, town plans were adopted by municipal councils since planning regulations no longer implied the risk of compensating landowners. However, the issue of limiting urban sprawl by demarcating urban from rural areas remained. This led to the adoption of the Town Regulation Act (byreguleringsloven) in 1949 and the creation of urban development committees (byudviklingsudvalg) responsible for preparing urban development plans (byudvikilngsplaner) to control urban sprawl while preserving open country areas (Gaardmand 1993).

An emblematic milestone of Danish planning at the time was the widely known Finger Plan for Greater Copenhagen, published in 1947 with the title ‘Outline Proposal for a Regional Plan for Greater Copenhagen’ (Skitseforslag til Egnsplan for Storkøbenhavn) (Regional Planning Office 1947). The Finger Plan was inspired by the regionalist ideas of Lewis Mumford as well as international planning principles from the New Town Movement, which had been advanced by Sir Patrick Abercrombie in preparing the Greater London Plan in 1944. The Finger Plan depicted the ordered expansion of Copenhagen based on a regional structure where urban development was concentrated along five corridors (the fingers) in the direction of five medieval market towns located at 35–40 km from the city (the palm). At the same time, the finger structure would be linked to the railway system and radial road networks, while the wedge-shaped spaces between the fingers were to be preserved for agricultural and recreational purposes. The Finger Plan should have been succeeded by a statutory regional plan but was not legally adopted. However, the plan’s impact on the future development of Greater Copenhagen has remained significant insofar as it influenced a number of plans implemented during the 1960s such ‘principle outlines for regional plans’ (principskitse til egnsplan), municipal master plans for urban development (dispositionsplaner) and, more recently, the Finger Plan directive (see Fact sheet 2).

The post-World War II decades witnessed the development of the modern institution of Danish planning conceived as ‘…the spatial expression of the welfare state’ (Jensen, Jørgensen, 2000: 31). The need for more comprehensive planning on the national scale arose during the mid-1950s as a result of several socio-spatial challenges arising from Denmark’s rapid economic growth but uneven geographical development, its changing industry structure and demands for additional land across the country, increased migration from Jutland to Zealand, and the general decline of the living conditions of the working class. Reminiscent of longstanding conflicts concerning uneven socio-spatial development, the ‘unbalanced Denmark’ discourse gained momentum in political and planning arenas during the late 1950s. The idea of national planning (landsplanlægning) emerged in accordance with the belief that socio-economic processes could be managed rationally alongside the fulfilment of socio-spatial objectives.

During the early 1970s, a municipal reform reconfigured the administrative division of counties and municipalities. The logic behind this reform was that every individual municipality should contain a single town surrounded by its hinterland. At the same time, the reform led to the institutionalisation of Danish planning based on an egalitarian liberal ideology led by the Social Democrats. The welfare orientation of the 1970s was officially ‘spatialised’ in national planning policy with the promotion of a hierarchical settlement structure of national, regional, and local centres. A conservative-liberal government (1982–1993), influenced by Thatcherite neoliberalism, began reshaping the idea of equality by legitimising regional diversity while also promoting an internationalisation agenda that would influence the framing of national planning policy in support of geographical differentiation. The influence of neoliberal ideology in Danish planning was marked by a shift away from equality towards diversity, and by the promotion of deregulation to stimulate private and local solutions facilitated by ‘flexible urban governance’ arrangements to enable more entrepreneurial planning practices (Desfor, Jørgensen 2004). Here, the promotion of Copenhagen as an international metropolis and gateway of Scandinavia can be similarly portrayed as a sign of neoliberal ideology illustrated by neo-elitist, market-driven city entrepreneurialism (Andersen, Pløger 2007).

The history and evolution of Danish spatial planning suggest that this policy field has an intrinsic capacity to reinvent itself by embedding shifting political ideologies in its institutions, policies, and practices (see Davoudi et al. 2020; Olesen, Carter 2018).

Planning rights

The Danish Constitutional Act (§73) states that the right of property is inviolable and that nobody can be ordered to surrender private property except when required in the public interest (Danish Parliament 2014). §73 enunciates that the expropriation of property is only meant to take place through statutory provisions. The Planning Act (§47) states that the municipal council may expropriate private property when the expropriation will be significant for the implementation of a local plan or an urban plan statute, and for the protection of the public interest (almene samfundsinteresser). This entails that a municipal council may exercise the power of eminent domain when private property has been reserved for public use in a local plan. In such cases, the landowner is entitled to full compensation. The purposes and procedures for expropriation are specified in the Public Roads Act (Vejloven). Other rules pertaining to expropriation are specified in the Expropriation Act (Lov om Ekspropriation). Any legal matter concerning expropriation may be brought before the courts of justice.

Planning principles

The Danish planning system is rooted in three core principles: framework control, decentralisation, and public participation. The principle of framework control ensures that planning decisions made at higher levels are not contradicted by plans and decisions made at lower levels. This principle is applied through dialogue between authorities and the possibility to object to planning proposals. The minister responsible for spatial planning is mandated to object to municipal plan proposals that do not comply with national planning interests. A municipal council may object to another municipal plan proposal (e.g. from a neighbouring municipality) should it interfere with its development objectives. The principle of decentralisation is based on the rationale of delegating planning tasks, responsibilities, and decision-making to local governments. It aims at ensuring broad political and social consensus via a fine-tuned relationship between national authorities and municipal councils. Finally, public participation represents the democratic means by which local plans are subject to public scrutiny before their adoption. Citizens legitimise the adoption of local planning decisions through public participation processes aimed at scrutinising local plans through public debate and inspection.

Spatial planning instruments

Danish spatial planning is rooted in the comprehensive integrated tradition of spatial planning systems and policies, which entails a systematic and formal hierarchy of plans aimed at the horizontal coordination and vertical integration of policies across sectors and jurisdictions (Commission of the European Communities 1997). The rationale behind this tradition is based on the logic of the principle of framework control, whereby plans at lower levels in the hierarchy must not contradict the objectives and decisions of plans at higher levels.

National level

The national planning report (NPR) (landsplanredegørelse) is the government’s political statement setting out the overall objectives, intentions and guidelines for spatial planning and development in Denmark. The NPR is an advisory, non-binding policy document which also aims at providing policy guidance on spatial matters to the municipalities. The history of national spatial planning in Denmark shows how the contents and development orientations of NPRs typically reflect different political ideologies (Davoudi et al. 2020; Galland 2012a).(see Fact Sheet 1: National).

The Overview of National Interests in Municipal Planning (Oversigt over nationale interesser i kommuneplanlægning) sets out the requirements that municipal plans must meet on behalf of national interests. The Overview sets out the specific requirements warranted by the Planning Act, parliamentary decisions, other relevant legislation or political agreements made between the government and the national association of municipalities (KL, Kommunernes Landsforening). The report has been published every four years since 2007 and normally reflects the contemporary planning climate. For instance, the latest Overview is aligned with the modernised Planning Act from June 2017, where the national interests focus on four areas: (i) growth and business development; (ii) nature and environmental protection; (iii) cultural heritage and landscape conservation, and (iv) consideration for national and regional facilities (Danish Business Authority 2018). This means that the minister responsible for spatial planning can only object to municipal plans when they conflict with these four national interests.

National planning directives set out legal provisions on specific matters of national interest, with which municipal plans should comply. For instance, national directives may determine land-use related to state infrastructure (e.g. energy transmission lines, railways, motorways), the reservation of new onshore gas transmission pipelines (e.g. the Baltic Pipe), and the siting of onshore wind farms or high-voltage stations. The directives may also be issued to regulate more specific projects while determining changes in zoning designation, e.g. transferring summer cottage areas into urban areas or when designating new development areas in coastal zones. Another key national directive is the Finger Plan 2019 for Planning in Greater Copenhagen (Fingerplan 2019 Landsplandirektiv for hovedstadsområdets planlægning), which sets out the framework for spatial planning in the Greater Copenhagen area (see Fact Sheet 2: Regional/Metropolitan).

Regional level

The regional development strategy (RDS) is assembled by each administrative region in close collaboration with regional actors based on a common vision for regional development. The origins of these strategies date back to the creation of the administrative regions as part of the 2007 structural reform, whereby the regions became responsible for preparing regional spatial development plans (RSDPs). The latter differed substantially from either regional land use plans or regional spatial strategies in the sense that they were mostly restricted to determining growth scenarios based on regional strengths within diverse sectoral areas, i.e. business development, education, tourism and recreation, culture, nature and the environment (see Galland 2012b). The RSDPs emerged from bottom-up processes in dialogue with municipalities. However, they lacked spatial content, were phased out in 2014 and replaced by regional growth and development strategies (REVUS) aimed at fostering economic growth, development, and employment by aligning stakeholders’ visions and interests in the same sectoral areas. The REVUS gave way to the current RDSs in 2018, which build on similar collaborative efforts. Certain aspects concerning business and tourism development became centralised and thereby removed from the RDSs. The legal basis of these strategies is the Business Promotion Act, which states that the RDSs may also cover aspects related to the green transition and climate change adaptation.

Local level

The municipal plan is the council’s main political instrument for development control. It has a comprehensive character in the sense that it integrates political objectives and land-use guidelines, policies and regulations. From a wider perspective, the municipal plan provides the link between national planning interests and detailed local plans. Municipal plans must be revised every four years and procedures for public participation need to be ensured both before and after the submission of plan proposals. Appeals can be lodged only in regard to legal and procedural issues, but not in regard to the content of the plans. The municipal plan is not binding on landowners, but municipal councils must always strive to implement it. Proposals for local plans, and more generally land-use decisions, must be consistent with the adopted land-use planning regulations, which altogether comprise the framework for development control and implementation. The municipal plan can also serve strategic goals by linking different sectors and coordinating municipal activities, e.g. urban regeneration, environmental resilience, housing conditions, and so forth. Municipal plans consist of: (i) a general structure (hovedstruktur) that sets out the overall objectives for development and land-use within the municipality; (ii) guidelines for land-use (retningslinjer for arealanvendelsen), which cover a range of aspects set forth in the Planning Act (e.g. zoning designations; structure of retail trade; location of transport facilities and technical

installations; location of hazardous waste facilities, etc.); and (iii) a framework for the content of local plans (rammer for lokalplanernes indhold) for individual areas of the municipality, which provides the basis for implementation after the adoption of municipal plans (see Fact Sheet 3: Municipal).

The local plan is the instrument through which the municipal authority issues detailed planning regulations. Local plans are legally binding on landowners, determine development possibilities and influence property values. The main use of a local plan is to provide detailed planning regulations for a specific area, which every major development project requires before it can be implemented. Local planning provisions comprise a wide range of detailed regulations specified in the Planning Act, such as zoning status; use of land and buildings; size and extent of properties; roads, tracks, and transmission lines; building density and design; and landscape features. However, the local plan is also a flexible planning tool in the sense that its contents and uses may vary. While most local plans regulate land-use or parcelling in new urban districts, there are also cases where local plans may only regulate a single construction aspect (see Fact Sheet 4: Local).

Following the global financial crisis of 2008 a total of 600-700 local plans were adopted in Denmark every year until 2016 (Local Government Denmark 2017).

The most recent milestone in Danish spatial planning is the new Planning Act passed by the Parliament in June 2017, which partly reflects some of the key active discourses in public and political debates concerning the need to ‘modernise’ planning. To understand the character of these discourses, it should be stressed that the new Planning Act was preceded by a political agreement titled ‘Denmark in better balance – Better frameworks for municipalities, citizens and companies across the whole country’ signed by the former liberal government and political parties across the spectrum including the leading opposition Social Democratic Party (Danish Government 2015). The gist of this agreement is nowadays reflected in: (i) the enlarged purpose of the Planning Act ‘to create a good framework for growth and development throughout the country’; (ii) the reduction of the state’s power to object to municipal plan proposals; (iii) greater freedom for municipalities to plan in support of local growth and development initiatives; and (iv) a more flexible framework for urban development processes.

The underlying discourse behind the above shifts in favour of deregulation is that planning should serve to facilitate growth. This discourse has been institutionalised in the new Planning Act through the adjustment of zoning provisions in order to stimulate inter alia: (i) new development opportunities in coastal and rural areas to promote business, tourism and settlement; (ii) new retail development opportunities; and (iii) an increased use of summer cottage areas. At the same time, a discourse on efficiency has led to the introduction of more simplified municipal planning processes that include options for: (i) reducing hearing periods for local plans and supplements to municipal plans from eight weeks to at least four weeks, and (ii) reducing hearing periods for local plans of lesser importance down to two weeks. To a certain extent, the efficiency discourse has also been reflected in other administrative simplifications, such as the reduction of case processing times pertaining to appeals on municipal decisions (e.g. rural zone permits, expropriations, dispensations) or the reduction of objections to municipal and local plans since the new provisions came into force in 2017 (Housing and Planning Authority 2021). These discourses on ‘growth’ and ‘efficiency’ are intertwined with discourses concerning ‘balance’ and ‘sustainability’ which find their origins in distinctive national planning reports published in the 1990s and early 2000s, which were then framed along the lines of socio-spatial and environmental policy agendas. However, these discourses became distinctively re-institutionalised by liberal and social democratic governments in policy documents aligned much more closely with the pursuit of growth agendas, which eventually led to the political agreement that would pave the way towards planning deregulation (Danish Government 2015).

The four intertwined discourses on growth, efficiency, balance and sustainability have together contributed to frame and shape spatial planning ‘growth agendas’ in Denmark since the passing of the new Planning Act. A clear example is the report titled ‘Quality and effectiveness in local planning’ published by Local Government Denmark (Kommunernes Landsforening, the association and interest organisation of Danish municipalities), where municipal planning is defined as an enabler of ‘local growth and investment’, and ‘good planning’ as the means to ‘ensure that growth takes place in balance with the environment [and] climate considerations’ (Local Government Denmark 2015). Here, best local planning practices are showcased whilst municipalities are advised on how to advantageously make use of the ‘modernised’ planning provisions.

In contrast with other EU members, the influence of EU policy on Danish spatial planning has been somewhat more limited (cf. Evers, Tennekes 2016). The state is responsible for the adoption and implementation of EU policies. While European spatial concepts played an important role in the framing and making of national planning policy back in the 1990s and 2000s (Galland 2012a), environmental directives (the Water Framework Directive, the Floods Directive, Habitat Directive, Natura 2000) are much more influential at national and local levels nowadays (see DK_Planning system). EU cohesion policy does play a role in shaping and implementing regional development policy but not in spatial planning.

The past few years have witnessed an increasing tendency to digitise spatial planning processes across Europe, with Denmark being one of the forerunner countries (Fertner et al. 2019). Spatial plans made within the framework of the Danish Planning Act, such as municipal and local plans as well as national planning directives, must be registered and made publicly accessible on Plandata.dk – the digital register for spatial planning in Denmark. Until early 2021, the Danish Business Authority under the Ministry of Industry, Business and Financial Affairs coordinated the expansion of the national digital register, with the municipalities being responsible for the provision of plan data (see ESPON DIGIPLAN 2021). This digitalisation process was steered by a ‘direct demand’ of the Danish Tax Agency driven by an interest in using plan data as input for property valuation (ibid.). National spatial planning tasks and responsibilities including the national digital register have been transferred to the Housing and Planning Authority (Bolig- og Planstyrelsen) under the Ministry of the Interior and Housing, which is now responsible for the prospective development and use of digital plan data in the country.

Important stakeholders

Institution/stakeholder/authority Special interest/competences/administrative area
Ministry of the Interior and Housing
(Indenrigs- og
Responsible for drafting planning legislation (planloven), national planning reports (landsplanredegørelse), national directives (landsplandirektiver), and other national planning policies
Ministry of the Environment (Miljøministeriet) Responsible for water area plans (Vandområdeplaner), and Natura 2000 plans (Natura 2000-planer)
Region (region) Prepares (non-spatial) regional development plans (regional udviklingsstrategi) and regional raw
materials plans (regionale råstofplan)
Municipality (kommune) Prepares municipal spatial plans (kommuneplan), planning strategies (planstrategi), and local land-use plans (lokalplan)

Fact sheets


  • Municipalities in Denmark

  • Administrative regions in Denmark.

  • NUTS2 regions and LAU1 municipalities in Denmark

  • Organisation of spatial planning in Denmark

  • Zoning in Denmark (urban areas, rural areas, summer cottage areas)

  • Administrative structure Denmark

  • Planning system Denmark

  • System of powers Denmark

List of references

Andersen, J.; Pløger, J. (2007): The dualism of urban governance in Denmark. European Planning Studies, 15(10), 1349–1367.

Commission of the European Communities (1997): The EU Compendium of Spatial Planning Systems and Policies. Comparative Review. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.

Danish Business Authority (Erhvervsstyrelsen) (2018): Overview of National Interests in Municipal Planning (Oversigt over nationale interesser i kommuneplanlægning). Copenhagen: Erhvervsstyrelsen.

Danish Government (Regeringen) (2015): Growth and Development in the Whole of Denmark (Vækst og Udvikling I Hele Danmark). Copenhagen: Erhvervs- og Vækstminsteriet.

Danish Parliament (Folketinget) (2014): My Constitutional Act. Copenhagen: Folketinget.

Davoudi, S., Galland, D.; Stead, D. (2020): Reinventing planning and planners: Ideological decontestations and rhetorical appeals. Planning Theory, 19(1), 17-37. https://doi.org/10.1177/1473095219869386

Desfor, G.; Jørgensen, J. (2004): Flexible urban governance. The case of Copenhagen’s recent waterfront development. European Planning Studies, 12(4), 479–496.

ESPON DIGIPLAN (2021) DIGIPLAN – Digital plans and plan data in Denmark. Annex 4 of final delivery. https://www.espon.eu/digiplan (Accessed 8 January 2022)

European Structural and Investment Funds (2021): Country data for Denmark. https://cohesiondata.ec.europa.eu/countries/DK (Accessed 6 January 2021)

Fertner, C., Aagaard Christensen, A., Andersen, P.S., Olafsson, A.S., Præstholm, S., Caspersen, O.H. and Grunfelder, J. (2019). Emerging digital plan data – new research perspectives on planning practice and evaluation. Geografisk Tidsskrift-Danish Journal of Geography, 119(1), 6–16.

Gaardmand, A. (1993): Danish Urban Planning 1938-1992 (Dansk byplanlægning 1938-1992). Copenhagen: Arkitektens Forlag.

Galland, D. (2012a): Understanding the reorientations and roles of spatial planning: The case of national planning policy in Denmark. European Planning Studies, 20(8), 1359-1392.

Galland, D. (2012b): Is regional planning dead or just coping? The transformation of a state sociospatial project into growth-oriented strategies. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 30(3), 536-552.

Galland, D.; Enemark, S. (2013): Impact of structural reforms on planning systems and policies: Loss of spatial consciousness? European Journal of Spatial Development, 52, 1-23. https://journals.polito.it/index.php/EJSD/article/view/208 (Accessed 8 January 2022)

Housing and Planning Authority (Bolig og Planstyrelsen) (2021): Evaluation of the Planning Act 2021 (Evaluering af planloven m.v. 2021). Copenhagen: Bolig og Planstyrelsen.

Jensen, O. B.; Jørgensen, I. (2000): Danish planning: The long shadow of Europe. Built Environment, 26(1), 31–40.

Local Government Denmark (Kommunernes Landsforening) (2015): Denmark in Growth and Balance – 32 Concrete Solution Proposals for Spatial Planning (Danmark i Vækst og Balance – 32 Konkrete Løsningsforslag for den Fysiske Planlægning). Copenhagen: Kommunernes Landsforening.

Local Government Denmark (Kommunernes Landsforening) (2017): Kvalitet og effektivitet i lokalplanlægningen. Copenhagen: Kommunernes Landsforening.

Madsen, H. H. (2009): Unbalanced and National: Danish Urban Planning 1830-1938 (Skæv og National: Dansk Byplanlægning 1830-1938). Nykøbing: Bogværket.

OECD (2017): Land-use Planning Systems in the OECD: Country Fact Sheets. OECD, Paris. https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264268579-en (Accessed 15 May 2021).

Olesen, K.; Carter, H. (2018): Planning as a barrier for growth: Analysing storylines on the reform of the Danish Planning Act. Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space, 36(4), 689-707.

Statistics Denmark (DST) (2021): Area. https://www.dst.dk/en/Statistik/emner/geografi-miljoe-og-energi/areal/areal (Accessed 20 February 2021).

Vacher, H. (2004): Extension planning and the historic city: civic design strategies in the 1908–9 Copenhagen international competition. Planning Perspectives, 19(3), 255–281.


Camille Klussmeyer
Camille KlussmeyerStudent

Dear @Dr. Daniel Galland

I wonder what kind of advantages are in the digitised spatial planning process with Denmark being on of the forerunner countries? Regards, Camille