Much has been said about the high quality of life enjoyed by folks in northern Europe and Scandinavian regions. As an aspiring urbanist, I had long wanted to visit – keen to learn how their built environments might contribute to their high livability scores. So last month, I took my work on the road and planned a trip through Hamburg, Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Oslo. Here are some of the patterns I observed that impressed me from a planning perspective.
Recognizing that transportation and land use policy go hand-in-hand, every city I travelled through seemed to already have stellar transit-oriented development (TOD) in place. Entering each city via train immediately put me in the middle of the central business district, surrounded by amenities – a bit chaotic at times but supremely convenient.
Sometimes the fastest way to get from point A to B is not just with a train, bus, or car. Sometimes it’s a train+bus, or bike+train, or scooter+bus+ferry. These are all possible combinations given the infrastructure provided by these cities – all clearly prepared for their inevitable multi-modal future.
Smart street design
Given the geometric limitations of space between buildings, how can cities best optimize for throughput, safety, and utility? The decisions made on street design define a city’s values, and some best practices have been outlined by NACTO and GDCI. Based on my observations, it seems they are either based on Scandinavian cities or Scandinavian governments chose to do near-textbook implementations.
Former Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa famously said, “an advanced city is not one where even the poor use cars, but rather one where even the rich use public transport.” This is only possible if public transit is elevated to first-class status, where it becomes far more pleasant and desirable to use than other forms of transportation. Based on my experiences riding the buses and trains in Scandinavian cities, they’ve nailed it.
Appealing public spaces
Ray Oldenburg introduced the concept of a “third place” (separate from your home and workplace) as an essential anchor for community life. Cities should aim to have a wide variety of these to appeal to different tastes and they should be accessible to as many people as possible. I encountered recurring categories of these in my travels and can definitively say they were the highlight of my days.
The livability of any city is obviously defined by far more than just the built environment, but good urban planning can go a long way to improving citizens’ comfort, convenience, and overall sense of well-being. I certainly felt it during this trip. Seeing the sheer number of best practices put into play in these regions has inspired me to demand more of the cities that I call home.
If you know of other factors that make these places a great place to live in, please share! Hopefully we can all take a bit of learning from Scandinavia to improve livability in cities everywhere.