National initiatives are critical catalysts for sustainable urban development

Central governments in the Nordics often find their hands tied in influencing local-level priorities, especially concerning land use. This has sparked a series of innovative planning approaches and support mechanisms to encourage sustainable urban development across the region. But striking a balance with respect to state-municipal governance is essential, explains Johannes Lidmo, a researcher at Nordregio.

“It is necessary to avoid overly strict control. You need to consider how national support initiatives can strengthen already existing local efforts aimed at sustainable urban development”, says Johannes Lidmo. “It is clear, though, that they can be useful complementary tools to spatial planning.”

Lidmo is one of the co-authors of a new report titled “National Support Initiatives in Nordic Spatial Planning,” which analyses programs across Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland. It showcases a variety of approaches to sustainable urban development, from Norway’s FutureBuilt initiative, focusing on reducing carbon emissions in construction, to Denmark’s Partnership for Vibrant City Centres and its concerted effort to keep city centers alive and thriving.

It was important for the authors to study various types of national support initiatives rather than comparing similar ones. “The purpose of this was to shed light on the different approaches that can be found in the Nordic countries; so they can be an inspiration or be adopted at either the national or local level in other contexts,” explained Johannes Lidmo.

The other case studies the report dives into is Sweden’s Visions: in the North, which aims to integrate beauty, inclusivity, and sustainability into urban development. It looks at Finland’s Sustainable City Programme that pushes for smart, sustainable urban living solutions. Finally, Iceland’s Borgarlína project which a testament to bottom-up climate action and sustainable transport planning.

Against the backdrop of these municipal case studies and comparative analysis, the report highlights the different ways in which these countries are leveraging policy tools and collaborative efforts to achieve urban sustainability. It also presents some commonalities.

“It is fascinating that although the role of the national level differs between the Nordic countries, we saw common challenges at the local level, which I didn’t expect,” explained Maja Brynteson, researcher at Nordregio and co-author.

She notes that what stuck out the most is the importance of long-term funding commitments and policy coherence in the field of sustainable urban development at both national and municipal levels. “This is something that often changes when new governments are elected and priorities change, as we have seen with the recent election in Finland,” noted Brynteson.

Another key finding is that a more formal way of obtaining government funding for sustainable urban development projects at the local level should be developed in some countries. That could level the playing field for municipalities with varying resources, knowledge and lobbying capabilities.

In other countries, capacity building – including training and resources –would be crucial to help municipalities navigate support options and apply for them. On a practical level, that could include creating platforms that provide information about support for sustainable urban development and making municipalities aware of upcoming calls well in advance.

As the Nordic countries continue to explore their approaches to sustainable urban development, the insights garnered from these initiatives offer valuable lessons for policymakers, municipal planners, and academics alike. Find out more about the initiatives in the publication itself and the box below.