Changes and inherent tensions in the Nordic planning systems

Recent initiatives and reforms of the planning systems in the Nordic countries (e.g. 2007 in Denmark, 2009 in Norway and 2011 in Sweden) have emphasized the strategic element in urban and regional planning.

This is in accordance with international trends and a general shift away from planning by rules to planning by goals, from land use-oriented planning towards more strategic forms of planning (Albrechts, 2004). However, the increased emphasis on strategic spatial planning partly clashes with more traditional regulatory frameworks, thereby creating increased tensions between, on the one hand, transparent, inclusive and democratic planning processes, and on the other, efficiency and new forms of market-oriented management – in short, between “input legitimacy and output efficiency” (Mäntysalo, Saglie, & Cars, 2011).

An uneasy relationship is emerging between strategic and comprehensive planning in the Nordic planning systems. Although strategic (spatial) planning is not incompatible with comprehensive (land-use) planning, these two streams of planning have different logics and traditions. While comprehensive land-use planning has its roots in the public sector, regulations and intervention in the market with a focus on “the public good”, strategic planning has its roots in the business world and the management of organizations. The notion of strategic planning emerged in the 1980s as a response to the increasingly complex urban reality, environmental concerns and political shifts. However, strategic spatial planning is not a “single concept, procedure, or tool”, but a framework that involves a number of elements, as summarized by Louis Albrechts in dualistic terms and tensions:

content and process, statics and dynamics, constraints and aspiration, the cognitive and the collective, the planned and the learned, the socioeconomic and the political, the public and the private, the vision and the action, the local and the global, legitimacy and a revised democratic tradition, values and facts, selectivity and integrativity, equality and power, long term and short term (2004, p. 754).

Strategic planning means working for societal goals, and being selective with a focus on implementation and evaluation. It usually requires resources and acting beyond traditional comprehensive (regulatory) municipal or regional planning; hence, the emphasis on governance (over government). Working through networks and collaborations is therefore a main tool for strategic planning. This may mean multilayered governance interactions and/or cross-sector collaboration with the private sector and civil society.

More integrated approaches to planning with a focus on integration across sectors and policy fields of different levels of government, as well as of neighbouring municipalities and regions, are explored by both planners and researchers as a way of merging the two planning logics, that is, land use and strategic planning (Smas, Damsgaard, Fredriksson, & Perjo, 2012). For example, the integration of regional growth policies with urban planning is stressed as an important challenge for current and future spatial planning in Sweden. This issue is further developed by Daniel André and Kajetonas Čeginskas in their contribution to this issue of Nordregio News (Planning collaboration between sectors).

Shifts and changes in the Nordic planning systems

From an international perspective, the Nordic planning systems are described as being characterized by comprehensive planning; however, there are also traces of other types of planning traditions such as regional economic planning and land-use management, and increasingly by strategic forms of planning. One of the commonalities between the Nordic countries is that the planning systems have an urban development and municipal focus. There are nonetheless significant differences between the planning systems with regard to, for example, the relationships between national authorities and local municipalities, and concerning the role of the regional level in regional planning.

Furthermore, the Nordic administrative systems are often characterized as having a relatively strong and independent municipal level but a rather weak regional level. However, there are multiple subnational administrative regional levels in all of the Nordic countries, and there are significant differences between the Nordic planning systems with regard to interaction between different levels and the planning instruments (i.e. strategic, framework and regulatory instruments). The general structure of the Nordic planning system with its three levels of government – national (state) level, regional (subnational) and local (municipal) – is still intact but regional and municipal mergers are continuously being discussed as well as the function of the regional level within the national system.

In 2007, the number of Danish municipalities was reduced from 271 to 98, and the former counties were replaced by five new administrative regions with the aim of creating larger and more efficient administrative units. The reform also included significant legal and administrative changes to the planning system, for example, by reducing the importance of the regional level. In 2015, the Norwegian government initiated a reform process of the municipal and regional structure, encouraging municipalities to merge to create larger and more robust entities. A reform of the regional structure in Sweden has been discussed for decades, without any overall reform but with different experiments based on bottom-up initiatives.

All Nordic states have comprehensive municipal plans but their legal status, form and content vary, as does the involvement of regional and state levels in municipal planning. The comprehensive municipal plans and local plans that regulate land use are the key planning instruments in the Nordic countries, but their legal mandates differ. For example, in Sweden the comprehensive plan is not legally binding while Finland has a legally binding regional land-use plan (as well as a comprehensive municipal land-use plan that is legally binding). It is, however, important to recognize that the mandate of a plan is not only determined by its legal status, but is rather dependent on its political and institutional support.

In both Denmark and Norway, the legally binding comprehensive plan is complemented by more flexible planning strategies. However, whereas there is steering of regional land-use planning in Norway, the regional level has been detached in the Danish land-use planning system and is thus more similar to Sweden, even though the regional structure within Sweden is fragmented with different responsible authorities and mandates for different regions. The institutional and structural reforms of recent years have also further diversified the Nordic spatial planning systems, even if there is common concern regarding how to be efficient and democratic, and cater to both the demands of private developers and businesses, as well as to meet the needs and expectations of civil society.

Inherent tensions and constrained partnerships

The relationships between the public, the private and the people in the detailed regulation process are another differentiating issue in the Nordic countries. There appear to be increased tensions between, on the one hand, the Nordic ideal of a transparent, inclusive and democratic planning process, and on the other, efficiency and new forms of market-oriented urban governance emerging in the Nordic municipalities. As illustrated by the citation from Albrechts (2004), this tension can be understood through the academic terms of legitimacy and effectiveness, or governance and empowerment, but also in the more everyday language of efficiency and effectiveness, business management and public participation. In planning practice, this tension has taken the form of an increased pressure on public authorities to speed up municipal planning processes, in addition to municipalities experimenting with dialogue-based models for improving public engagement (Fredricsson & Smas, 2013).

There is also a new stream of public–private–people partnerships that aim for co-creative planning approaches with the promotion of integrated urban planning activities and the joint development of new solutions. These models reflect increasingly complex processes, which often require high internal competence of the municipality with regard to both legal procedures of public–private co-operation and the involvement of citizens in a positive way. Furthermore, an increased scalar tension between local and global is emerging in the new forms of market-oriented urban governance in the Nordic municipalities. There are limitations to local interventions in, for example, property development and the housing market, which are not only dependent on local regulations but also on more complex sets of relationships, including global financial relationships far beyond the influence of local authorities.

The tension in the planning paradox between legitimacy and efficiency, public and private, and government and governance is further exemplified in this issue of Nordregio News by Raine Mäntysalo who provides deeper insight into the specific contradictions in Finnish planning practice (Revising Finnish planning legislation: more agonism?). We can also see similar neoliberal tendencies in other Nordic countries but where the Norwegian planning tradition with a high degree of private involvement stands out. In Norway, almost 90% of detailed plans are developed by private actors, which means that planning responsibility is to a large extent delegated to private actors (Hanssen & Falleth, 2014). In Sweden and Denmark, the municipal planning monopoly remains strong but is at the same time challenged by market-oriented influences. This raises important political challenges and questions in not only the planning practice of municipalities, but also on a more general political level in relation to how planning systems are designed and developed.


Albrechts, L. (2004). Strategic (spatial) planning reexamined. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, 31(5), 743–758.

Fredricsson, C., & Smas, L. (2013). En granskning av Norges planeringssystem: Skandinavisk detaljplanering i ett internationellt perspektiv. Stockholm: Nordregio.

Hanssen, G. S., & Falleth, E. I. (2014). Market-oriented urban planning – constraining citizen participation. Local Government Studies, 40(3), 403–428.

Mäntysalo, R., Saglie, I., & Cars, G. (2011). Between input legitimacy and output efficiency: defensive routines and agonistic reflectivity in Nordic land-use planning. European Planning Studies, 19(12), 2109–2126.

Smas, L., Damsgaard, O., Fredricsson, C., & Perjo, L. (2012). Integrering av översiktsplanering och regionalt tillväxtarbete: Nordiska och europeiska utblickar. Stockholm, Nordregio.

This article is part of Nordregio News #2. 2015, read the entire issue here.

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