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Nordic responses to urban challenges of the 21st century

Senior researcher, AFI, OsloMet
Doctoral student, Division of Urban and Regional Studies, KTH Royal Institute of Technology and NIBR, OsloMet
Associate Professor, Institute of Urbanism and Landscape, The Oslo School of Architecture and Design
Professor, Department of Geography, University of Bergen
Research Director, NORCE Climate and Environment
Senior researcher, NIBR, OsloMet and professor II, NMBU
Professor, Department of Sociology and Human Geography, University of Oslo
Senior Research Manager, Ipsos

Cities and urbanism have become increasingly central to social change because of their dominance in culture and politics and as a result of massive urbanization. In line with such developments, ‘urban studiesʼ has grown into a broad research field that embraces study across disciplines within social sciences and urban planning. The central idea behind this journal is that a strengthened Nordic community of urban scholars can advance the debates within this field of study. In this editorial article, we elaborate on the scholarly foundation that provides the starting point for the journal and critically reflect on how urban experiences in the Nordic countries may provide responses and solutions to challenges of the 21st century. In doing so, we trace some of the research traditions in Nordic societies that can underpin the scholarly advances this journal seeks to make. Finally, we outline an interdisciplinary urbanist approach that we aspire to develop through this journal and point towards research topics that may be well served by further exploration from a Nordic perspective.

Keywords: Nordics, Cities, Urbanism, urban studies, welfare state

1. Introduction

This inaugural issue of the Nordic Journal of Urban Studies opens a platform for scholarly research and debate on urbanism in a Nordic context. As editors of this new journal, we aspire to bring together a wide variety of research, perspectives and viewpoints to advance scholarly understandings of cities and urban change. This initiative is founded on the idea that strengthening a Nordic community of scholars working on urban studies can generate new insights for urbanism more generally. The journal is not solely limited to Nordic scholars or cases and does not necessarily seek to identify what is uniquely ‘Nordicʼ in contemporary urbanism. Instead, it seeks to provide an open arena for scholarship that contributes to urban studies.

So, why do we need a new journal on cities, and why is the Nordic context appropriate for new scholarship on the subject? In this editorial article, we elaborate on the scholarly foundation that provides the starting point for the journal. Urban studies in the Nordics is a broad and varied field that includes various disciplines of social science, planning, architecture and humanities. Short of providing a comprehensive overview, we point to important elements of what can be considered Nordic urban studies – emphasizing trajectories of the welfare state model and emerging social challenges related to globalization in particular. This discussion is used to critically reflect on how urban experiences in the Nordic countries may provide responses and solutions to the challenges of the 21st century. This, in turn, leads us to outline an interdisciplinary urbanist approach that we aim to develop through this journal and to point towards research topics that may be well served by further exploration from a Nordic perspective. Importantly, we stress that any Nordic debate has to maintain a close dialogue with international scholarship in urban studies.

Urbanism comprises studies of the physical, social and cultural city, its form and processes, and the practice of its planning, design, development, governance and transformation. Urbanism emerged as a professional discipline along with European city extensions and large-scale urban plans in the late 19th century. In his book Teoría General de la Urbanizacion, published in Barcelona, Ildefonso Cerdà (1867) introduced the subject and termed it ‘urbanizationʼ. The iconic text “Urbanism as a Way of Life” by Luis Wirth (1938) extended the social dimensions of urbanism by emphasizing the social constitution, dynamics and challenges of the city. Urbanism is a field of study that should be attentive to these longer historical trajectories, both the intellectual trajectories and the history of the urban environment itself. Cities are shaped over the course of millennia, and modern urban planners and practitioners struggle with the remnants of past city building.

In more recent years, cities and urbanism have gained increased scholarly attention, particularly due to the perceived centrality of cities to social change and with growing recognition of cities being focal points for the manifestation of crises (Acuto et al., 2020). As a consequence of massive urbanization, rapid centralization and the development of the knowledge society, more and more people are being educated, working and living in cities. As such, urbanization is perhaps best understood as a historical and planetary phenomenon with a global impact on society, rather than a specific form of settlement type (Brenner & Schmid, 2014, 2015). The increased demographic agglomeration in urban areas, and its accompanied high levels of production and consumption, creates some distinct challenges. Contemporary cities are the source of the majority of global CO2 emissions as well as being key contributors to environmental challenges such as air pollution, resource scarcity and biodiversity loss. Cities are also highly exposed to the effects of climate change – both directly and indirectly.

While cities have certainly led to economic developments and improved living standards, contemporary urbanization has also been shown to increase inequalities, both in rate and in outcome (United Nations, 2017). Throughout history, cities have been hotbeds for social inequality and segregation (Massey, 1996; Nightingale, 2012), manifesting in, for instance, social exclusion, uneven access to affordable housing, economically marginalized groups, as well as issues related to livability and health. With urbanization accelerating, such inequalities are also intensifying. However, inequalities within cities are increasingly accompanied by disparities between urban and rural spaces. As the recent resurgence of populism has illustrated, the apparent growing polarization between urban and rural areas has disconcerting political effects (Rodriguez-Pose, 2018). At the same time, urbanization is also attributed to innovation and creativity, and urban authorities have been given greater power in contemporary decision making and policymaking, with cities now taking on leading roles in transformation and development projects (Barber, 2013; Glaeser et al, 2020). In short, cities are seen as major sites of contemporary challenges and are increasingly looked to in order to find solutions to such challenges.

The task of urban studies is to understand how these challenges are played out and potentially responded to in an urban context. Internationally, urban studies has developed into a broad research field, embracing studies within several disciplines of social sciences and the humanities – perhaps most notably human geography, planning and development studies, architecture, sociology, organizational studies, environmental sciences, and political sciences (Bowen, Dunn, & Kasdan, 2010). Both historians (e.g. Manevitz, 2021) and anthropologists (e.g. De Lauri & Telle, 2020) have their ‘ownʼ urban studies journals. Research within this broadly identified category of ‘urban studiesʼ can be seen as dealing with the urban environment in terms of form and process. The former centers on developing and exploring the material design, infrastructures and built environment of cities, whilst the latter is directed at urban processes of inclusion, exclusion, marginalization and emancipation, as well as economic and political processes and governance. These are often treated as two distinct branches of scholarship, which have separate conferences, journals and educational programs. Today, however, several international journals highlight the broad disciplinary perspectives dealing with cities and attempt to create arenas where scholars can meet across disciplinary fields to engage in dialogue on this topic.

Our point of departure is that the Nordic scholarly community has something unique to offer in understanding these challenges. While there are significant differences across and within the Nordic countries, and while international research communities are certainly also valuable arenas of dissemination and discussion for Nordic urban scholars, we argue that the Nordic region is an arena with untapped potential for advancing urban scholarship. This partly has to do with the uniqueness of the Nordic context itself (Bergh & Bjørnskov, 2011), as the Nordic region is well known for its welfare state model(s) in which post-war governments developed comprehensive welfare state systems with universal rights ensured by social welfare services. Even if these countries have, to varying degrees, experienced a downscaling of these welfare services since the 1980s and onwards, they are still characterized as having some of the most egalitarian systems for distributing social rights and services. This has created a unique situation for Nordic cities in the sense that they have developed in a context of political-administrative models aimed at fostering equality, social cohesion, and state-led planning.

At the same time, we should be careful with idealizing ‘the Nordic modelʼ, as news media both within and outside of the region have tended to do. Whatever ‘the Nordicʼ and ‘the Nordic modelʼ is taken to mean, it needs constant and critical interrogation by scholars drawing on comparative reflections (Andersson, 2019). While the Nordic model has some clear achievements, it is also a particular political construction. Idealizing it glosses over important problems, and the downscaling and disintegration of the Nordic model has had critical implications for cities in the region – as we elaborate on below.

In this introductory article, we elaborate on the scholarly foundation for the Nordic Journal of Urban Studies and point the way forward for the journal. Firstly, we outline the common context of Nordic cities within the welfare state model and reflect on how urban experiences in the Nordics can provide responses and solutions to the challenges of the 21st century. Secondly, we trace some of the research traditions in Nordic countries that can underpin the scholarly advances this journal seeks to make. These reflections are grounded in a multidisciplinary social science approach to research on urban challenges and highlight urban research within social science disciplines, which is the starting point of the journal. Thirdly, we outline an interdisciplinary approach to Nordic urbanism that we aspire to develop through this journal – aiming to expand beyond this traditional scope to include the full interdisciplinarity of urban research and knowledge building in urbanism.

2. Emergent challenges for Nordic urbanism

There is a widespread assumption that ‘the Nordicsʼ have a unique character and a set of societal achievements that other countries would do well to adopt (Hilson, 2008; Kautto, et al., 2001). While there are certainly differences between the Nordic countries, there are some striking similarities. Perhaps the strongest similarities can be seen in relation to the provision of welfare services, meaning that it may be reasonable to speak of a single Nordic welfare state model. Welfare state models have strong bearings on Nordic cities and urban studies. Some of the principal features of such a Nordic welfare state model include a comprehensive state-led design with an emphasis on re-distribution to households and publicly provided social services financed through taxes, which are notably high for wage income and consumption; major public and/or private spending on investment in human capital and social infrastructures, including child care and education as well as research and development; and a set of labor market institutions that include strong labor unions and employer associations, significant elements of wage coordination, relatively generous unemployment benefits and a prominent role for active labor market policies (Esping-Andersen, 1998).

As well as having large public sectors, the Nordics are simultaneously embracing the market economy and actions to foster competition. Underpinning this challenging interaction between security and flexibility is the widespread feeling of trust (Andreasson, 2017; Bergh & Bjørnskov, 2011) – among citizens and towards the public and democratic institutions – and a sense of fairness related to the egalitarian ambitions of the welfare state found within education, social policy and tax regimes (see also Barnes, 1954). Cross-country comparisons support the view that the Nordics in general have historically been successful in reconciling economic efficiency with social equality, while fostering competition and social mobility (Lister, 2009; Ólafsson et al., 2019). Simultaneously, in the urban sphere, deregulation, privatization and fragmentation of a comprehensive public planning system and practices, as well as an entrepreneurial competitive turn in urban governance, have transformed both the urban landscape itself and the feasibility of policies for social inclusion.

The achievements of ‘the Nordic Modelʼ have underpinned the assumption that the Nordic countries have developed a model that should be exported beyond the region. This is an assumption not least promoted by many Nordic actors themselves. At the annual conference on smart cities ‘Nordic Edge Expoʼ in Stavanger, for example, this notion was prevalent. A session at the 2018 conference, titled ‘Exporting Nordic Citiesʼ, discussed how the Nordic model of urban development can help cities in other parts of the world. In relation to sustainable urbanism, the Nordic countries are also frequently branded as best-case examples to be followed by cities elsewhere (Hult, 2015; Metzger & Olsson, 2013). This is particularly visible in how the Nordic Council of Ministers explicitly encourages the rest of the world to embrace ‘the Nordicsʼ as a brand with a supposedly special openness and way of thinking (see www.thenordics.com, for example). Debates within these arenas often assume that there is something unique about the Nordic model that makes cities more sustainable and livable: that Nordic cities are more people-centric (or “smart with a heart” as the Nordic Edge Expo put it in their conference theme). There is a certain type of branding involved in this – the underlying assumption being that exporting this model provides diplomatic and business opportunities for Nordic actors.

However, the idea of a successful ‘Nordic Modelʼ is challenged on several fronts. Firstly, the welfare state model is undermined by growing social problems. As increasingly acknowledged, social inequalities, exclusion and segregation are significant problems in several Nordic cities (Kauppinen, et al. 2021; Ljunggren & Andersen, 2015; Nielsen & Andersen, 2019; Wessel et al., 2016; Oddson, 2016). In fact, violence in urban areas as well as urban unrest are also phenomena that are being analyzed in these societies (Andersen, 2019; Gerell, 2017; Malmberg et al., Östh, 2013; Sturup et al., 2019).

Secondly, the idea of the ‘Nordic modelʼ is in itself fluid. There are important differences between the economies and policies of the Nordic countries. While the similarities are conspicuous, they are not in themselves the essence of the Nordic model; its crucial characteristics are more difficult to capture, and they relate to intangible and systemic features. Planners and architects in the Nordic countries have studied and visited best practice cases in neighboring countries, sharing knowledge and lessons across the Nordic region. Nevertheless, present research on architecture and welfare is primarily grounded in research on the national contexts (Lotz et al. 2017; Mattson & Wallenstein 2010). The layout and design of Nordic cities arguably have unique elements, but Nordic architecture and spatial planning have also been heavily influenced by international ideologies and governance models (Ellefsen 1999; Aspen 2003; Lorange & Myhre 1991). As such, it is tempting to question whether the Nordic model is, indeed, a model, or whether it is rather an idea assembled from real and imagined influences from within and outside the region.

Thirdly, the welfare state model has undergone significant structural change. The frequently debated post-industrial shift in urban policies towards entrepreneurial governance, where cities and city governments adopted a competitive approach in creating income and wealth increasingly based on private capital, was first signaled by Harvey (1989). This shift towards entrepreneurial policies and governance has been criticized for a downscaling or dismantling of welfare state instruments that support disadvantaged groups, for outsourcing and transferring former public responsibilities to private firms (Hall & Hubbard 1996), and for increasing social inequality, socio-spatial segregation and social exclusion – including the gentrification and financialization of inner-city districts (Sassen 2001).

And finally, the Nordic model is facing increasingly serious challenges to its future viability. Globalization and demographic transformation have major consequences for labor markets and the public sector alike. The viability of the Nordic welfare state as it exists today is brought into question. It has been claimed that the emphasis placed on welfare tasks has made Nordic local governments overloaded and vulnerable to central government intervention and reforms – resulting in a cumulative process towards an ever narrowing conception of local government (Haveri, 2015).

For Nordic cities, these challenges to the welfare state model have played out differently in time and space. The welfare and distributional policies between the different Nordic countries vary significantly (Granath Hansson 2018, 2019; Granath Hansson and Lundgren 2018) and there are differences between cities within the Nordic countries. The challenges to the welfare state model have consequences for access to the housing market and segregation (Wessel et al, 2018). It seems that cities where downscaling of the welfare state has progressed slowly have been less affected by its negative social implications (Turner & Wessel 2019; Wessel & Søholt 2010). The changes in the role of the state also vary according to sector. While a large part of the social security instruments (for example, unemployment benefits) may have been maintained in the Nordic countries, the downscaling of housing policies may be seen as severe.

Arguably, urban planning and urban development have experienced a large-scale shift towards entrepreneurialism, deregulation, and privatization compared to other sectors (see for example Andersen & Røe 2017; Zakhour & Metzger, 2018). Neoliberalization, typically used as an umbrella term for these governance strategies, has to some extent been buffered by the welfare state, but not completely. In practice, this shift has had major consequences for urban design, planning processes, and possibilities for financial gains, as well as opportunities for change and sustainable development. Tools and strategies, such as strategic planning tools and urban regeneration programs, have been developed to overcome many of the new challenges posed by this shift – with varying success within different sectors (Fainstein 2010; Albrechts & Balducci 2013). While the maintenance of social equality may be the case in some sectors in Nordic cities, increased inequality may be observed in areas such as housing and housing wealth (Galster & Wessel 2019). Strong welfare benefits could be seen as partly counteracting some of the driving forces behind increasing residential segregation (Ljunggren & Andersen, 2015).

A response to these challenges, and to the larger scale processes of globalization and neoliberalization, has been to examine how they shape politics in a range of connected sectors and areas of urbanism, such as gentrification and displacement (Hedin et al., 2012; Baeten et al, 2017; Andersen, Ander, & Skrede, 2021; Larsen & Hansen, 2008), privatization and financialization of urban planning and housing (Christophers, 2015; Listerborn et al, 2020), post-industrialisation and class structure (Baeten et al, 2015; Holgersen, 2015), ethnic segregation (Malmberg, et al, 2013; Nielsen & Andersen, 2019; Brattbakk & Wessel, 2013; Wessel et al, 2016), and citizenship and belonging (Koefoed & Simonsen, 2013; Lister, 2009; Mathisen & Cele, 2020; Simonsen 2008).

Increasingly, researchers also focus on the social implications of urban sustainability strategies and climate change mitigation and adaption. The right-wing populist movement is growing across the Nordic countries – as it is in many parts of Europe and the rest of the world (Jungar, 2017; Wanvik & Haarstad, 2021). We also find growing populist movements triggered by the political climate cleavage and the traditional center-periphery cleavage, protesting on toll roads and other climate measures. Is this a Nordic version of the French ‘Yellow Vestsʼ, or do they have roots elsewhere, and are they spurred on by other political tensions? A critical area of future research will be on how the policies, strategies and plans of the Nordic welfare state are socially inclusive, and how such policies can avoid creating or reproducing social inequalities in cities and city regions.

Urban sustainability is a new area in which Nordic countries and cities have asserted themselves internationally. Across the world, cities in the Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden are often viewed as being at the forefront of climate action (Landström, et al., 2019). In the 2018 Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index of 100 major cities around the world, Stockholm, Oslo, and Copenhagen were ranked second, eighth, and eleventh, respectively. All Nordic capitals have set carbon-neutrality targets, and Copenhagen even seeks to be the first to pass the post in 2025 (Johnson, 2020). In part through the work of Jan Gehl (2010), Nordic urbanism has come to mean human-centric urban design and walkability, bicycle friendly streets, and concrete measures to reduce automobility.

One major effort to take stock of the progress of Nordic cities in reducing emissions has been the Nordic Green to Scale Cities and Communities report – launched in November 2019 (Landström, Tynkkynen, Leinonen, & Peljo, 2019). One of the reportʼs key findings is that the success of low-carbon solutions is dependent on much more than technological innovation. They require considerable financial support and often considerable behavioral change on the part of residents.

Nordic cities appear to be, in some respects, leaders in urban sustainability because national policy, municipal commitment, public opinion, and private-sector interest are aligned to create the conditions for implementing actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Political science and planning studies find the Nordic cities to be driving forces in climate governance innovations, such as climate budgeting and the inclusion of green requirements in their tenders (Hofstad & Torfing 2017; Tønnesen et al 2019). The service-driven economies and relatively decarbonized electricity supply in some of the Nordic countries mean that they have fairly low direct emissions. Given their high relative wealth, they have been able to establish well-run municipal services and invest in upgrading them.

In turn, the Nordic sustainable city has – like the Nordic welfare state model – become a hot brand in international policy discourses. But are Nordic cities really ideals to be emulated? And is it useful – or even possible – for cities with vastly different histories, geographies, cultures, institutions, and problems to learn from the experience of their Nordic counterparts? Nordic sustainability is arguably largely based on the relocation of industrial production to other parts of the world: a distribution of the burden of CO2 emissions to other places resulting in an increase in total extent (Holgersen & Malm, 2015). And part of the relative success may be due to the fact that the cities in question are small – land-use and transport research has found that the existing planning tools are not suitable for handling the metropolitan complexity as the green transition needs stronger instruments (Tønnesen et al. 2019; Tiitu, Næss, & Ristimäki, 2020; Zimmermann et al. 2020; Granqvist et al. 2020). In response, contractual management arrangements have been developed to curb car use and urban sprawl, which increase some of the multi-level coordination capacity but still fall short of achieving a mobility shift (Smas 2017; Smas & Lindmo, 2018; Galland 2020; Tønnesen et al 2019). These are quite specific governance tools that are not easy to export.

We may also question whether emulation is even desirable. Behind the almost utopian image of Nordic cities lie a number of growing tensions. Much of the urban planning that has taken place in the, until recently, culturally homogenous Nordic cities has been rather inclusive in terms of gender and disability but perhaps less so in terms of ethnicity and culture (Dymén et al., 2014). The increasingly market-based urban governance and privatization of urban development has changed the political context for urban planning that deals with increased diversity and inequality (Olsson, 2018). Gentrification and rapid population growth in many Nordic cities are leading to increased segregation as lower-income residents are forced further away from city centers (Hedin et al., 2012). Growing tourism also plays a part in transforming city centers, particularly in Reykjavik, but also in other cities. And, as pointed out earlier, the achievements in urban sustainability are predicated on the displacement of high-emission production to other regions, and, in the case of Norway in particular, on the export of high-carbon energy products showing up on the carbon budgets of other countries and cities.

Our perspective is that, rather than seeing Nordic cities as models to be emulated, Nordic urbanism should be seen as an experiment in city building that is specific to a particular time and spatial context. Even though we recognize its achievements in innovation, sustainability, relative social inclusion and equality, we have also highlighted the many exceptions and processes that counteract these achievements. It is not necessarily useful to attempt to isolate single factors of success, to idolize one ‘modelʼ of Nordic urbanism, or to even attempt to characterize what it is about. Instead, we would argue that Nordic urbanism, however it is defined, needs continued improvement, critique, and knowledge-based input.

There are well established research traditions in the Nordic countries that can provide a foundation for this work that have a particularly strong emphasis on the institutions and instruments of the welfare state, and effects of global and national processes on Nordic cites through sites of gentrification, physical planning, sustainability, diversity and more. Building on that foundation, the Nordic Journal of Urban Studies aims to chart a pathway for interdisciplinary approaches that tackle emerging challenges for cities in the Nordic countries and beyond.

3. Towards an interdisciplinary approach to future urban challenges

The emerging agenda for urban studies in the 21st century will likely reflect the challenges identified by the research discussed above: pressures on public sector solutions and social cohesion, exacerbated climatic and sustainability risk, as well as socio-economic problems in light of the long-term effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Nordic cities and countries may also be less able to see themselves as part of a global community and may operate as if sheltered from how these problems develop at a global level. It is likely to be more evident to residents of Nordic cities how their lives and livelihoods are interconnected with those of residents of cities elsewhere, from Melbourne to Maputo.

As a journal, we aim to foster an interdisciplinary arena, building on strong disciplinary research, that facilitates academic dialogue oriented towards how global challenges play out in urban contexts. The section above illustrates that this dialogue can build on strong research traditions on welfare state societies, urban planning, gentrification, diversity and more. We also have strong ambitions to broaden the scope of our disciplinary lenses and to eradicate blind spots in terms of the types of academic contributions that are included in the discussions of the journal. We believe urban research would benefit from greater collaboration between the disciplines studying the urban environment and its futures, such as planning, architecture, human geography, political science, sociology, philosophy, history, engineering, environmental science and more.

Our ambition includes overcoming what is often a deep divide between studies of urban form on the one hand, characterized by practice-oriented fields of architecture and planning, and studies of urban process, with traditional theory-oriented academic social science disciplines, on the other. We have ambitions to draw different academic disciplines and disciplinary practices, such as the social sciences and architecture, closer together in order to realize synergies. While the field of architectural research has traditionally focused on meeting the knowledge needs of the practice of architecture and urbanism, the editors of the Nordic Journal of Architectural Research, for example, emphasize how it also raises broader theoretical debates, such as the cultural construction of societyʼs vision of the future, the role of architects and planners in shaping this vision, as well as the role of architecture in sustainability, resilience and degrowth (Rönn 2017; Toft et al 2019).

Richard Sennett (2018) has recently problematized these divisions and urged the different academic disciplinary discussions around the city to merge. In other words, there is a need to connect knowledge of the city as an amalgamation of urbs (the built environment), civitas (the urban society, local communities) and polis (the city as a democratic system) – see figure below. This journalʼs ambition is to be an arena where these perspectives meet and where researchers from respective disciplines speak to each other and integrate their perspectives in order to better understand urbanism, urbanity and urban processes. In addition, perspectives based upon a ‘polisʼ-approach, related to governance, participation and democratic rights-based discussions, must also inform the other perspectives in studies of the urban environment.

Figure 1

An integrated focus for urban studies (Hanssen 2019, Distriktssenteret 2020)

Therefore, the aim of the journal is to establish an interdisciplinary arena which brings together these different strands of academic research, discussions and literature, and to do it in a Nordic context. Our ambition is that the journal will be a platform where scholars engage in theoretical debates. This includes critically discussing the relevance of ‘popularʼ concepts in the international urban studies community to the Nordic context (e.g. Andersson, 2019; Maloutas, 2018), but also teasing out lessons from the Nordic context that can advance original theoretical contributions to international urban studies debates.

Furthermore, the journal will also contribute to the strengthening of the Nordic academic community. At the first full meeting of the Editorial Board, held in January 2021, we identified a range of relevant and timely themes of interest to the journal (see Table 1). Split up into smaller groups, scholars from several research environments within the Nordic countries were asked to identify emerging challenges within research on cities and urbanization that would be particularly important to focus on going forward, and where Nordic engagement would be valuable. This list is intended to be illustrative rather than exhaustive. In other words, it contains ambitions, not limitations.

Table 1 List of key topics considered relevant and timely for the journal, derived from Editorial Board workshop, in no particular order.

architecture and urban design
urban adaptation to climate change
urban responses to shocks such as pandemics and economic crisis
segregation, gentrification and housing welfare services
urban planning and management
public-private sector cooperation development and planning problems
urban regeneration
neighborhood conservation and design urban greening
rural-urban dynamics
Urban mobility and transport
city branding, narratives and urban myths
immigration, international labor migration
urban politics
urban theory
urban governance
smart cities and regions
livability and quality of life
crime and unrest
everyday life
public space
urban art

Beyond this illustrative list, a number of pathways were identified which seemed to be emerging as central debates within urban studies and that would benefit from having a Nordic perspective. We will highlight here four of the pathways identified by the Editorial Board.

First, one important pathway for scholarship will be Nordic urban responses to the climate crisis, and how to situate these in international contexts. Governance actors in cities widely recognize the need for climate action as well as resilience to extreme weather associated with climate change. While there are still debates on how such transformations are to occur, who should be driving climate transformations, and to what extent climate transformations can be achieved within existing governance frameworks, another debate is becoming increasingly central – namely, how the securing of environmental sustainability plays into discussions on social sustainability (often also referred to as just transitions). Attempts to reduce CO2 emissions and enhance climate mitigation are seen to affect social sustainability in a myriad of ways – for example, in the uneven distribution of the burdens and in working class and rural groups responding with what are often seen as regressive actions. How can Nordic cities achieve transformative climate action without exacerbating these tensions? The Yellow Vest movement became an international symbol of such tensions, but the Nordics have also seen their own local responses: from new political parties arguing against the increased restrictions on car use in urban centers to debates on how new densities in Nordic cities create new patterns of gentrification and segregation.

With the strong emphasis on social sustainability in the Nordics, as highlighted above, we argue that there is a need for Nordic perspectives on the kinds of conditions under which social justice and the demand for sustainability can be reconciled. We welcome contributions that address this challenge. Moreover, the journal will also welcome contributions that critically engage with the very concept of sustainability – as well as analyses of how the idea of sustainability has not only been adopted by governments, urban policymakers, planners, and developers, but by the research community as well.

As a second pathway, there is an important agenda in critically examining the emerging role and functions of the public sector in relation to private actors and market rationalities. Public planning has become increasingly privatized, and private actors are increasingly shouldering the economic burden associated with quality elements in such transformation areas (like public squares, meeting places, parks and infrastructure). This is strongly linked to the disaggregation of the welfare state in contemporary societies, discussed above, which has transformed the role of the public sector and initiated a process of spatial restructuring that largely impacts everyday life in urban spaces. What are the implications that such a shift holds for democracy, and for the influence of the citizens over urban development? How can urban planning, governance and citizen action counteract growing inequalities, segregated housing markets, and threats to public space?

As a third pathway, we hope to mobilize work on housing and neighborhood inclusion in the context of privatization, diversification of society and rising inequality. A rapidly growing body of research on housing and real estate could benefit from scholarly engagements from, with and on the Nordic region. We argue that Nordic perspectives could inform international debates on the right to housing, segregation and gentrification, housing and problem areas, ownership models and real estate developments, and we hope this journal can be a platform for that. It would be relevant here to elaborate upon the concept of ‘Swedish conditionsʼ (svenske tilstander) – a term used in public discourse in Norway and elsewhere to describe a state of unrest and crime in major Swedish cities such as Malmö, Gothenburg and Stockholm, often with connotations to rapid immigration. Do these conditions differ from other Nordic countries, and, if so, how can that be explained?

A fourth emerging pathway for research that we aim to incorporate into the journalʼs agenda is the transition to green mobilities, in and through Nordic cities. As with many other urban spaces, Nordic cities are largely designed for car use. At the same time, Nordic cities have been at the forefront of the innovation and implementation of technologies that open up for mobility beyond the private fossil-based car. In terms of physical planning as well, cities are increasingly moving away from this paradigm to one of green mobility. Here, solutions such as the 10-minute city, walkable cities and car-free zones position Nordic cities at the forefront of debates on urban sustainability. At the same time, these ideas have been inspired by frontrunners elsewhere.

There is also strong policy discourse around smart mobility, autonomous vehicles and digitization, and there are open questions as to how much these developments will start to substantially impact cities and when this will happen – not to mention the question of what urban mobility will look like in the wake of the pandemic. There is a need to extend knowledge on relations between new mobilities, urban development and transformation, and to discuss such new green mobilities across the Nordic countries – many of which are sharing similar experiences relating to rural/urban conflicts around car use and public transport and aspects relating to weather conditions, to mention a few. This needs to involve critical perspectives that interrogate the justice and equity aspects of new mobility solutions by, for example, examining who has access to the possibilities they offer.

Across all the pathways for research in the journal, it will be critical to explore the connection between the Nordic region and broader international trends. In broad fields such as planning, mobility, housing and responses to climate change, we can see the introduction of international theories and concepts into Nordic contexts and their subsequent materialization in the Nordic region. How are concepts translated into the Nordic setting and how are they made relevant to these spaces? And similarly, how are the models and concepts developed in Nordic countries exported to other parts of the world?

The debates highlighted above are clearly only an excerpt of the key topics emerging within urban studies, and the journal will not be limited to these. What we have aimed to demonstrate, however, are some of the broad trends emerging in the horizon of urban studies and how these trends would benefit from research and experiences from the Nordic region. The broad debate outlines are also interconnected and have both embedded contradictions and potential synergetic effects. The aim of this journal is to create an arena where such connections are illuminated and debated. The only way these efforts will pay off is if we as editors, along with the editorial board, manage to mobilize the community of scholars to contribute, to share their research and ideas by submitting work, proposing special issues, and reviewing the work of others. We sincerely hope that this inaugural issue, and the research agenda laid out in this introductory article, will be the starting point for lively scholarly activity in the Nordic Journal of Urban Studies.


The authors would like to thank Jonathan Metzger, Raine Mäntysalo, Cecilie Sachs Olssen, Halvor Weider Ellefsen and Even Smith Wergeland for their input on an earlier version of this article, as well as the peer reviewers.


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