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Commuting by bike, train or even on ice skates. Using the free outdoor gym in the well-kept park next to your office at lunchtime. Spending the weekend at an interactive design exhibit you can walk to from your apartment. These might sound like dreamy Scandinavian stereotypes, but for many people living in the region they are part of an everyday reality, thanks to a unique approach to urban planning.

“In the Nordics, there has long been an emphasis on people in urban life, and putting them at the centre,” explains David Pinder, a professor of urban studies at Roskilde University in Denmark. Planners have prioritised liveability, sustainability, mobility and citizens’ empowerment – ideals manifest in green parks, well-lit public spaces, strong transport networks and accessible local facilities for children and the elderly.

In the Nordics, there has long been an emphasis on people in urban life, and putting them at the centre – David Pinder

There’s also been emphasis on building more equal societies, he says, an aim accompanied by “a strong discipline of participation” which encourages decision-makers to think about diverse groups when planning new urban areas and include them directly in discussions.

A brief glance at various global liveability indexes indicates that these methods appear to be working. Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo and Helsinki were all ranked among the top 25 cities in the world for quality of living in 2019, in major studies by global consulting firm Mercer and international lifestyle magazine Monocle. Stockholm recently came second for sustainability in the Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index, while Copenhagen, a city of just less than 800,000 people, came ninth in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Liveability Ranking. Although all these studies use slightly different criteria, they each highlight the perceived success of the Nordic urban planning model in prioritising quality of life and striving for a greener future.

Students with David Pinder

Nordic countries have a rich history of welfare planning that aims to create equal and liveable societies, says David Pinder (Credit: David Pinder)

‘Learning from Nordic experiences’

Fuelled by rising international interest in why the Nordic countries are doing so well, three of the region’s top universities recently joined forces to launch the world’s first international master’s programme specialising in Nordic urban planning.

Taught in English, it is a collaboration between Pinder’s team at Roskilde University, west of Copenhagen, researchers at Malmö University in southern Sweden and The Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø, 200 miles north of the Arctic circle. The first 32 students began the course in September and will each spend at least one semester in every location during the two-year programme.

“I have been travelling around the Nordics and I was very impressed by the green spaces, architecture which combines aesthetics and utility, and mobility in urban spaces,” says Leo Couturier Lopez, 32, an urban planner from Paris. He signed up to get a “fresh gaze” on his profession, but the multidisciplinary course has also attracted participants from Europe and North America with a diverse range of backgrounds, as well as graduates in urban planning or people who have spent time working in the sector.

In the Nordics, a strong rail infrastructure connects most major cities, long-distance trains and buses are typically equipped with WiFi, and commuters can usually avoid driving to work

“There are so many places that can learn from Nordic perspectives on planning,” argues Camilla Boye Mikkelsen, a 27-year-old Danish student taking the course. “I recently went to the US and travelled around the southern part. In Nashville, it was almost impossible getting around without a car and it was even difficult travelling between cities. Going on a bus [in the US], it was clear that it was mostly people from a specific socioeconomic background who took the bus.”

In the Nordics, a strong rail infrastructure connects most major cities, long-distance trains and buses are typically equipped with WiFi, and commuters can usually avoid driving to work. Of course, Nordic countries are much smaller than North America and have fewer large urban hubs, which means a direct comparison is difficult. Yet Mikkelsen says the experience made her keenly aware of the benefits of investing in public transport. “I realised it is very clear how quickly you accommodate yourself to living in a liveable city. I am so used to being able to walk or cycle everywhere,” she reflects.

Students in snow (Arctic University of Norway)

Students in the world’s first Nordic urban planning master’s programme travel across the region to learn about Nordic models of urban design (Credit: Arctic University of Norway)

Anniken Førde, a lecturer at The Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø, believes that international students get a far better feel for Nordic planning methods by living in the region as they study. In Tromsø for example, sustainability is keenly in focus thanks to the city’s northerly location. “It is a geopolitically ‘hot’ place in the world, with the new interest in Arctic questions – especially due to climate change – here in the north, where the ice is melting,” says Førde. The city also showcases the benefits of prioritising access to nature, another core element of Nordic urban planning. “Tromsø is located on a small island and so even when you are in the city centre you are by a fjørd where whales and herrings come in and you can see the mountains,” she adds.

Inclusivity issue?

But others working in the field are more sceptical about the idea of singling out Nordic methods as a global ideal worthy of their own postgraduate programme.

“There is a great paradox between how Sweden, Norway and Denmark sell themselves and what is actually the case,” argues James Taylor Foster, a British curator at ArkDes, the Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design in Stockholm. He says that the Nordic concept of Jantelagen, which discourages standing out from the crowd, can hinder frank conversations about challenges and the need to adapt for the future. “Urban planning should be about inclusivity and I am not sure how inclusive the region is in reality, in relation to how it can often describe itself,” says Taylor Foster, who is trained in architecture.

There is a great paradox between how Sweden, Norway and Denmark sell themselves and what is actually the case – James Taylor Foster

One issue he believes deserves particular attention is the region’s dwindling stock of affordable housing. Many major urban hubs including Copenhagen, Stockholm and even Tromsø are experiencing a squeeze amid rapid population growth, gentrification and increased tourism. This has led to increased segregation as lower earners are forced further out of city centres and exacerbated integration challenges following record immigration, especially in Sweden.

In Stockholm, for example, outer suburbs such as Tensta and Rinkeby are largely populated by low-income immigrant families. While these areas comprise well-maintained apartment blocks, parks, pedestrianised shopping areas and subway stops connecting them to the city centre, Taylor Foster argues that residents can still feel isolated and may find their interaction with city services limited.

James Taylor Foster

James Taylor Foster says the concept of Jantelagen, can hinder frank conversations about challenges and the need to adapt for the future (Credit: Erica Lindberg)

 “If you need to go to a specialist hospital, they are largely in the centre of the city. Tax offices, museums... they are largely in the centre,” says Taylor Foster. “But some low-income families simply can’t afford a monthly SL [Stockholm public transport] pass, which is set to get even more expensive in the new year.” He argues that mobility – physical, cultural and social – needs to be prioritised in future.  “We need to be able to think in a holistic way that allows engagement and experimentation. Practically speaking, public transport within a city could be completely free of charge,” he says.

We could learn a lot from other places that experiment and test ideas quickly – Jordan Valentin Lane

Jordan Valentin Lane, an Australian-born sustainability strategist and architect who works in Södertälje, a municipality south of the Swedish capital, describes urban planning practice as “quite homogenous”, with middle-class locals tending to dominate the field. This, he argues, can promote a limited perspective, while the region’s penchant for strict rules and consensus-based decisions can sometimes limit innovation. “Cities are works in progress, but sometimes things take too long, we could learn a lot from other places that experiment and test ideas quickly.”

However, Valentin Lane argues that courses like the Nordic urban planning master’s programme can play a positive role in promoting diversity in the field. “We can learn in the Nordics from hiring people with international backgrounds,” he says. “They have different ways of knowing the world and what’s possible. They take with them a whole history of place-making and city-making that may not have even been considered in the Nordics”.

He cites the example of outdoor pavement seating areas at city centre restaurants and cafes, a concept popular in other European cities which experienced “a real push-back” from city officials when planners suggested introducing it to Stockholm the 1970s. This kind of al fresco experience proved highly popular, despite Sweden’s cooler climate, with bars and restaurants now allowed to open their outdoor areas from April until October.

Valentin Lane also believes international students have much to gain from working in the region. “There is a good level of English, generous parental leave which you don’t get in other countries, and a lot more discussion and research being done from critical perspectives.”

Jordan Valentin Lane

According to Jordan Lane, courses like the Nordic urban planning programme help promote diversity in a field that has traditionally been homogenous (Credit: Johan Andersson)

Adapting the Nordic way

Back at Roskilde University, David Pinder says he is aware of the danger of “presenting a too celebratory perspective on Nordic urban planning”. He says the course also raises “critical questions” about past and present regional projects and hopes that it will help play a role in solving future issues.

“As cities grow and become prosperous, we really need to look at the downsides of that development, especially questions about affordability and growing inequality,” he argues. “What is meant by liveability, is this potentially an exclusive agenda and how can it address these problems of inequality and social justice? [This] will be a key area of debate in the coming years.”

Students take part in regular discussions with practitioners who are already starting to deal with these challenges, including local municipalities, urban consulting firms and non-profit organisations. Pinder hopes some of these practitioners will hire students after they graduate or inspire them to embark on their own planning projects. Meanwhile there are signs that the international students are already bringing a critical perspective to the table.

Leo Couturier Lopez argues that while he appreciates living near parks, having wide streets and the trend for low-rise buildings in Denmark, he believes that Copenhagen could become more attractive by densifying, rather than focusing on creating new areas such Lynetteholmen, a new island which is set to provide 35,000 new homes east of the city centre. 

He also misses Paris’ buzzing late-night restaurant and cafe culture; in Copenhagen he is “sometimes a bit disappointed” with the social life in some residential neighbourhoods. “Copenhagen could develop and revitalise its existing centralities with small restaurants, small shops and little cafes and affordable houses, rather than the risk of creating lifeless new neighbourhoods.”

person skiing

Students in the urban planning programme explore challenges of Nordic city development like adaptability, affordability and climate change (Credit: Arctic University of Norway)

The region is perhaps best used as a source of inspiration for other cities, rather than as a direct guide to ‘copy and paste’

It’s an observation that has recently started to enter mainstream social and political debate, following studies suggesting that Nordics countries are some of the most challenging for expats and immigrants to make friends in, while concerns about social isolation and loneliness among the local population have also come to the fore.

Student Camilla Boye Mikkelsen says she will likely remain biased towards Nordic planning methods in future, having grown up in Copenhagen. But for her, a key takeaway from the course so far is that the region is perhaps best used as a source of inspiration for other cities, rather than as a direct guide to “copy and paste”. 

“Saying ‘now we are going to make London into a bike-friendly city like Copenhagen’ might not be the right thing to do,” she argues. “London is way busier and a stressful city where there are always people around.”

“If you were to be inspired by the Nordic perspective on planning, the most important thing would not be to directly copy and put it on your city, but instead think: how can I adapt the Nordic model to our city and how our city works and our city’s unique rhythms?”

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