Diving into the details of sustainable cities

Urban centres are becoming home to a growing share of the Nordic population, and, according to all prognoses, this trend has just begun. The aim of the Nordic thematic group on sustainable cities and urban development is to provide detailed insights into this development and the effects of urban planning in guiding sustainable urban growth. Key themes include population change, integration, housing market composition, accessibility and other social aspects of sustainable urban development.

Socially balanced and sustainable cities

“Most cities and towns with a population of more than 15,000 people in the Nordic countries are growing,” says Kristian Elleby Sundquist, Senior Advisor at the Danish Business Authority and chair of the thematic group. “The rapid population increase puts the larger cities under pressure and calls for robust planning and solid urban development policies to ensure sustainable growth.”

The group’s overall purpose is to study, register and document demographic development and urban planning strategies in the Nordic Region, with the objective to inform policy development. The work is focused mainly on planning challenges in small and medium-sized cities, placing particular emphasis on social sustainability issues, such as integration, affordable housing, gender equality and the quality of life in the cities.

“Included among our objectives is to preserve the urban characteristics that the Nordic Region is known for – the many green areas and recreational spaces and the strong emphasis on good city life for the citizens. How do we plan our cities to ensure that the growing population continues to have access to open, green spaces and is able to get around quickly, preferably by foot, bike, public transport or electric vehicles? And how do we ensure that Nordic cities develop in a socially balanced and sustainable manner in the future?”

Grid-level population data provides valuable insights

One of Nordregio’s core competencies is to harmonize data across the Nordic Region and produce thematic maps to illustrate regional characteristics and development trends. This approach has been beneficial in the group’s effort to develop a grid-level population database to enable a more detailed look at the demographic development in Nordic cities.

“If you study population development on the municipal level only, a lot of the dynamics within the city will be hidden,” says Moa Tunström, Senior Research Fellow at Nordregio. “We wanted to take a closer look at the spatial population changes, e.g. where people move to and from in the urban-rural continuum. The grid-level data enables us to study the effects of urban planning in more detail, for example how the population changes if a new housing area or road is built in the city or region.”

Sustainable cities – a social issue

Segregation and integration in Nordic cities is the main focus of another of the group’s projects, Long-term planning for inclusive cities.

“There are lots of problems with segregation in Nordic cities,” Tunström says. “This indicates that there’s need for more aware strategies and housing policies to integrate new population groups.”

The traditional way of working with segregation in cities is to address the issues locally, i.e. in the neighbourhoods where segregation is considered a problem. However, says Tunström, research has questioned the effects of such neighbourhood-based integration policies.

“It’s worth discussing the effects of these local measures and maybe also to question their validity. They might make the neighbourhood more attractive, but they don’t necessarily help people find employment or being less discriminated against. There’s an opportunity to learn from history when it comes to working with segregation and integration from a planning perspective.”

Urban-rural flows of seasonal tourists

The group is also studying planning challenges related to seasonal population fluctuations in rural communities. This could be ski resorts, where the population grows exponentially during winter, or small villages or islands where urban residents have a second home in which they spend their summers and holidays.

“This seasonal population shift puts pressure on the community’s service delivery, such as the public transport system and health services,” Tunström explains. “This is, of course, a challenge for the municipalities. The demand increases significantly during peak times, while there might be an oversupply of services in the off-season. We’re studying the strategies with which the municipalities handle these fluctuations.”

Accessible and inclusive Nordic cities

Later this year, the group is starting a new project on smart and inclusive cities, which aims to identify smart city solutions and other methods to improve accessibility for people with disabilities. Another upcoming project is an analysis of affordable housing policies in the Nordic countries. This project will look into aspects such as the cost of building, the range of available housing tenures and the decision-making regarding the composition of housing supply.

“Many of the housing and urban development projects are being built for those who have plenty of resources,” says Kristian Elleby Sundquist. “However, urban planning must also address the need for affordable housing options for people who are in a vulnerable position on the housing market. It’s a highly important topic when it comes to creating sustainable and inclusive Nordic cities.”

Related articles