Scenes in Scandinavia

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.

Transit-oriented development

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.

Hamburg’s Hauptbahnhof serves more than a half million passengers per day, while also being a crazy delightful food court and open-air mall
Copenhagen Central Station is still quite active late into the night
The transit center around Stockholm’s Kulturhuset is flanked by offices, malls, and restaurants
Oslo’s hot new Barcode District was built directly adjacent to their Sentralstasjon

Multi-modal options

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.

The St. Pauli-Elb Tunnel in Hamburg is designed for bicyclists first and connects to ferry terminals on either end
The ferries in Copenhagen come as frequently as the average bus in the U.S.
The ferries in Hamburg are decked out – literally
Ferries are always integrated into the regional transit system, meaning your day passes include them!
Bikes and scooters abound in Copenhagen, especially near rail stations
The S-Bahn, U-Bahn, ferries and buses all cross at Landungsbrücken in Hamburg

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.

This bus-only street running through Hamburg’s central business district makes for fast, reliable service any hour of the day
Copenhagen’s priorities are clear with more than 50% width dedicated to pedestrians and cars relegated to a single lane
The main street running through Oslo’s Barcode District features a pair of light rail tracks and bus islands on both sides

Luxurious transit

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.

Station experience

Headways between trains in Copenhagen are almost inconceivably low
This station in Hamburg plays a light show every few minutes for passengers and spectators alike
Stockholm thematically designed stations along their newest line
The platforms are still so spacious even with all the added art

On-board experience

Bus rides in Hamburg are never boring with a lending library aboard! 😄
Train carriages in Stockholm are roomy enough for bikes, strollers, and two couch-sized seats per row

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.


Food halls quickly became my favourite kind of market, and Copenhagen had one of the best
Given humans’ affinity for water, it’s no wonder activated waterfronts are such great destinations
Hamburg’s famous Fischmarkt is anchored by this indoor hall where live music plays every weekend


The Danish Royal Library has stunning views and tons of study space
The rotunda of the Stockholm Public Library draws locals and tourists alike


Stockholm’s Kungsträdgården transformed into a winter wonderland complete with lights and a skating rink
Oslo’s Opera House is more than an architectural marvel – it’s also a public space you can walk on top of for killer sunset views!


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.

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