Nordic cities mobilise residents to improve urban planning

Together with a team of leading researchers from Aalto University, the City of Espoo has just completed an extensive mapping of people’s perceived experience of the city and their local environment. More than 6,500 of the city’s almost 300,000 inhabitants have provided their input. As part of NORDGREEN, a project funded by NordForsk through the Nordic programme for sustainable urban development and smart cities, Stavanger in Norway is launching a similar survey, tapping into the residents’ ideas and experiences for better and greener city planning.

Essential to involve citizens in planning

Planning manager Johanna Palomäki at the City of Espoo says that the interest in the mapping survey exceeded all expectations.

“Before the survey, the City of Espoo didn’t have any comprehensive data on people’s experiential knowledge about the city,” she says. “We had bits and pieces here and there, but no real overview of the way in which people experience their local environment. We were completely overwhelmed by the participation; we had more than 6,500 respondents and around 70,000 map markings, which is an incredible outcome.”

The survey is a so-called public participatory GIS survey (PPGIS), where people are asked to map out places in the city that are important to them. Then, for each location, the respondents are asked to fill out a small pop-up questionnaire, providing feedback about their use and perception of the place, whether positive or negative and their preferred mode of transport. In addition, the respondents can suggest upgrades and improvements to their local environment.

“This large-scale participatory planning perspective is essential if we want to find solutions that are good not only for people but also for the planet,” says Marketta Kyttä, Professor of land use planning at Aalto University. She leads the research team behind Maptionnaire, the online place-based research methodology used to conduct the surveys.

“It’s fundamental to understand the human aspect because even the best planning solutions won’t work if they don’t inspire people to change their habits and behavioural patterns. The aim of our research in NORDGREEN is to study and promote the use of this user knowledge in planning, especially the planning and design of urban green space.”

Neighbourhood upgrade in Stavanger

In Stavanger, the PPGIS survey will be integrated into an existing area upgrade initiative in Kvernevik, a coastal neighbourhood in the southwestern part of the municipality. Here, the survey will be combined with data from life quality surveys that are conducted regularly in the area.

“The link between the neighbourhood and the ocean is an important part of Kvernevik’s identity,” says Martina Andersson, landscape architect at Stavanger’s department for urban environment and development. “However, we have a heavily trafficked ring road that separates the neighbourhood from the water and the coast with its many qualities.”

While the NORDGREEN project mainly focuses on the significance of urban green space for people’s health and wellbeing, the surveys in Espoo and Stavanger take on a broader view of city planning. According to Andersson, the survey will create a better understanding of people’s experience of the neighbourhood and the area’s green links and mobility options.

“The survey data allows us to analyse where we should invest our time and resources to create better public spaces and links within the municipality,” Andersson says. She mentions as an example that, just like in many other towns and cities, parking lots take up valuable space in central Kvernevik. “These areas could be used much better if we succeed in promoting the agenda of quality urban green space and green links. We want to reduce the dependency on the private car and make it easier to move between different parts of the city in ways that promote better health and wellbeing.”

According to Marketta Kyttä, Andersson here touches upon one of the main benefits of having access to good data from public participatory planning processes.

“Prioritisation is an ever-present and often difficult question in urban planning,” she says. “Through our research, we’ve developed a prioritisation model based on the simple principle that the places that we visit frequently but are negatively perceived should be prioritised for development. One important reason is that constantly having to visit places that you find unpleasant is a risk to your wellbeing and even physical health.”

Significant involvement from local youth

Both in Stavanger and Espoo, collecting input from local children and youth has been strongly prioritised. In Espoo, for instance, teachers were offered material that enabled them to integrate the questionnaire into their curriculum. As a result, more than 2,000 of the respondents came from the city’s schools and institutions.

“We’re planning for the future of Espoo,” says Palomäki, explaining that the time frame in master planning covers many decades. “That’s why we’re particularly keen to get input from our youth; they’re the ones who will have to live with the solutions that we create. We also know that green spaces are important for children’s health and wellbeing – their physical health, immune system, motor skills and imaginative play. Good green spaces deliver on all these aspects.”

Long-term commitment produces excellent results

Marketta Kyttä emphasises the importance of long-term commitment to citizen involvement in planning. She mentions examples of Finnish municipalities that have exercised systematic public participatory planning for the last ten to fifteen years.

“There’s no doubt that this long-term effort produces good results,” she says. “We see a radically reduced number of complaints concerning the planning process, which would otherwise considerably prolong it. These examples show us that if you invest in serious participatory planning in the early phases of the process, it pays off later.”

Related articles