Does tearing down public housing further inclusion?

Creating communities where everyone can meet, contribute and thrive, regardless of background, remains a key challenge when planning our towns and cities. The population growth in the Nordic countries is mainly driven by immigration, a fact that underlines the ever-growing importance of enabling people to adapt well to their new home and participate actively in society and the labour market. But which Nordic policies and planning strategies work best in this regard?

Growing minorities all across the Nordic Region

The second session of this year’s online Nordregio Forum discussed the many policy and planning actions that have been taken in the Nordic countries to ensure successful integration of refugees and immigrants. In the most recent State of the Nordic Region report, managing migration is described as one of the most complex challenges of our times for politicians and societies.

“Looking at the Nordic countries, the share of foreign-born people has increased to historic levels,” said Senior Research Fellow Timothy Heleniak of Nordregio in the event’s first keynote. Here, he outlined the major demographic trends and migration patterns in the region. Heleniak explained that whereas in the 1990’s, migration was mostly intra-Nordic, the last two decades have seen a large increase in migration from new EU member states and a growing number of refugees.

“Along with the increases on the national level, we also see a growing foreign-born population in almost every municipality across the Nordic countries,” Heleniak adds. “This indicates that people are no longer just going to the capitals. There’s clearly a growing diversity of receiving regions.”

Different paths to social inclusion

While refugees and immigrants have become an integrated part of the labour market in many Nordic municipalities, the growing influx of migrants also contributes to increased socio-economic and ethnic segregation. A new Nordregio report, Overcoming barriers to social inclusion in Nordic cities through policy and planning, introduces six thematic case examples of the ways in which Nordic municipalities have tackled the issue of social inclusion.

The measures can be divided into two main categories. Firstly, the report introduces examples of area-based regeneration, targeting specific neighbourhoods, and secondly, it describes a range of strategies to integrate different immigrant groups and their descendants.

“As an example, the case study from the Finnish city of Pori describes the decades-long efforts to revitalise the city’s post-war suburban housing estates,” says Mats Stjernberg, Senior Research Fellow at Nordregio. “In Finland, the strategies to overcome segregation are very much centred around these specific neighbourhoods, which were built in the 1960’s and 1970’s. They’ve long been prominent on the Finnish urban policy agenda, and, over the years, they’ve increasingly become perceived as areas of decline.”

“The most tangible success is that the refurbishment of the housing stock and outdoor spaces has contributed to greater housing satisfaction among the residents,” he adds. “However, while the approach seems effective in addressing local issues, it becomes more difficult when dealing with broader structural issues, such as unemployment, population ageing and access to the city.”

Critical reactions to refugee housing

Another aspect of overcoming barriers to social inclusion of immigrants is to ensure acceptance from the population in the recipient communities. The report also contains the key findings from a study of critical reactions to the establishment of housing for newly arrived refugees in Sweden.

“50 per cent of the municipalities had experienced some sort of protests against housing for newly arrived refugees,” said Sandra Oliveira e Costa, Research Fellow at Nordregio. “A quarter of them had experienced racist arguments and more heated reactions than to other planning and building processes. One key conclusion is that unconventional housing solutions cause more opposition.”

Demolition for inclusion

Claus Bech-Danielsen, Professor of Architecture and Spatial Planning at Aalborg University, talked about what he called three generations of refurbishments and transformation projects in social housing areas in Denmark. The first two generations had in common that they tried to conceal the post-war architecture, for instance by installing new facades of varying quality, whereas the third generation embraces it as part of the cultural heritage of the Danish welfare state. In contrast to previously, the improvements are now considered in a broader urban context, creating a more attractive mix of housing and tenure forms and a stronger connection to the surrounding city.

As in Finland, the past regeneration projects in Denmark never really succeeded in boosting the social and socio-economic status within the housing areas. As a consequence, the Danish Parliament passed probably the most controversial social housing policy in the Nordic countries, the Parallel Society Act. Also referred to as the ’ghetto plan’, the act states that all so-called ghettos in Denmark should be eliminated by 2030. According to Bech-Danielsen, the most challenged social housing areas are under special scrutiny.

“If an area has been defined as a ghetto for four years in a row, it’s classified as a tough ghetto,” Bech-Danielsen says. “By law, these areas are required to cut the share of social housing units to 40 per cent within the next ten years. This can basically be achieved in two ways, either by demolishing 60 per cent of the housing blocks or by adding private housing.”

The core objectives are to create a better social mix in the areas by stopping refugees from moving in and adjusting housing to the needs of students and elderly; to enhance employment and school results; cut crime; and reduce barriers between these areas and bordering neighbourhoods. The plan has been widely criticised for being too far-reaching, and many have expressed doubts that it will have the intended effect. According to Bech-Danielsen, the impact of the policy will be continuously evaluated during the next ten years.

“In principle, only 40 per cent of the inhabitants will stay in the areas, while 60 per cent will have to move. What’s interesting is to see which of these two groups will do best in the next ten years.”

Inclusion within and across borders

Also featured at the Nordregio Forum were initiatives to facilitate better integration, beyond the area-based approaches. The examples from around the Nordic countries include ‘Allir með’, a newly established programme focusing on children’s health and wellbeing in Reykjanesbær, an increasingly diverse community in south-western Iceland, and ‘Med hjerte for Arendal’, which promotes migrants as a welcome and valuable resource for future development. Arendal offers training programmes to enable youth and adults to match and enter the local labour market – and lead the way for others – but also effective informal meeting places for new and old residents.

In many cases, the work on social inclusion crosses the Nordic borders. In the border region of Haparanda-Tornio, for instance, the two towns, one in Sweden and the other in Finland, are working together to create an inclusive border area, where all services and activities are equally accessible to people on both sides of the border. Another example is the Nordic Safe Cities Network, through which 19 Nordic cities are working together to prevent polarisation and violent extremism.

Strong continued focus on social inclusion

The event was held in cooperation with the Nordic Welfare Centre and the Nordic Cooperation on Integration, a programme launched in 2016 by the Nordic Council of Ministers. Its purpose is to dive deeper into certain aspects of integration, such as gender differences in labour market integration and the integration and wellbeing of families, young refugees and unaccompanied minors – and facilitate knowledge exchange between Nordic policy makers and integration officials.

“This cooperation allows us to compare the integration programmes between the Nordic countries and examine how they affect different groups,” says Project Manager Kristin Marklund. “Together with Nordregio, we’re now directing our attention to the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on the refugee and immigrant population, focusing specifically on the groups that have been left behind. This pandemic has added a whole new dimension to the already complex issue of social inclusion.”

Did you miss Nordregio Forum 2020?

You can watch the recordings of the first three sessions here:

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