We find ourselves traveling all over the world, presenting ideas and examples founded on Scandinavian traditions and culture. A platform, which has provided a great starting point for cities to evolve towards considering the people who live in them. The standards are high in Scandinavia, and in many ways, we have succeeded in making our cities livable. But what does this mean in terms of the future of Scandinavian cities? Are we done developing our cities, evolving them even further? Are we happy to rest on what we have accomplished?
This week I had a chance to sit down with Partner Ewa Westermark and Project Manager Ola Gustafsson for a chat on the challenges and possibilities for urban development in Scandinavian contexts and the differences between working in Scandinavia and other parts of the world. Here are some of the essentials from this conversation…
Ewa: We export Scandinavian best practice knowledge all around the world, but are we consistent in importing the knowledge that we gain when we are out learning new things around the world? What can we learn, for instance, from a US context, where the public sector has traditionally not been as strong and therefore they have had to learn to collaborate with private organizations?
We share global challenges; we share the same health issues, etc., but the thing about Scandinavia is that the general quality of our cities is so high that the sense of urgency is not there. The big challenge in Scandinavian Cities is not always visible to the eye. It is about equity, inclusiveness and integration. It is about people and life. The challenge is to turn lifeless and unsafe city areas around and to integrate and connect all parts of the city together. We need to have much more focus on life and not solely on physical form.
The trust level in the official system is so elevated, that public engagement and collaboration between public and private entities is not very developed, with the result that different roles for key players in city development can lack a bit of variation. Here we have a chance to learn from both bigger and smaller cities around the world.
Ola: When you come to Sweden, it can sometimes be difficult to find that powerful story of change, because the basic needs are already catered for regarding accessibility, safety etc. In many other cities that we work in, you can go out, take a photo of a very poor, inaccessible or even dangerous pedestrian environment and try to change things quickly. Sometimes you lack that possibility in Swedish cities because, at least in the central locations of the city, all the basic needs are covered there. However what is often lacking or is less obvious at least, is the second layering, invitations to use and enjoy the city. It is in many cases a series of smaller changes that will uplift the situation, which is hard to present when talking about a sense of urgency. We don’t have a definitive point where there is a sense of crisis. How do we turn that around?
Collaboration between Public and Private
Ewa: To me the biggest challenge is to engage people and create collaborations between the private and public sector. What could make a difference is getting that engagement and collaborative process working. Currently, we don’t have a tradition for needing that, not like the US has always relied on these collaborations and engagement. Especially in smaller cities where you lack public life and people in the streets, then collaboration is the key for change.
Ola: I think this is a key issue; to get people to commit to doing things together and not just to be opposed or reactive to what other people are doing. People are already used to participating in workshops, but it rarely results in a commitment to do something concrete.
Ewa: I think that goes back to the Scandinavian tradition of relying on municipalities or the state to fix “it” for you. Now this is not enough, it does not work, not even for the municipalities, because they have realized that they will not be able to pay for all the investments needed in the public realm, infrastructure, etc. They need collaborators, also financially. We see more and more cities where there is almost a rule saying you need to pay for investments in the public realm by selling the plots of land, instead of being strategic about how to communicate the collective benefits of what you are doing, the investment is presented solely as a cost.
In cities where the public sector has been less dominant, the public sector has developed better methods for explaining what they do; otherwise, they could not do it. This demonstrates some cultural and organizational differences we have the possibility to learn from.
I think that the municipalities in Scandinavia could help the private sector to become more organized. We can see more and more that the commercial cores in the smaller cities are dying, shops are closing and shopping centers are growing, and one of the reasons is because shopping centers have an elaborate organization to take care of the common issues, but the private sector along the high streets does not.
Ola: Maybe that is the missing layer. Talking about collaborative processes, there are also other aspects lacking in Scandinavia and that is public engagement. It comes back to relying on the public sector to initiate change and then react to it. “Public Engagement” is a buzz word in cities, but I do not think cities have found the right tool for doing this.
It is difficult to engage people through online surveys and traditional consultation processes. I think we are lacking the right tools to engage the public, and I think we can learn and promote some of our experience from New York, for example.
Ewa: Engaging people in 1:1 scale pilots can be very effective, because people can evaluate what they experience and provide feedback on how to make the pilots better. They are not limited by the fear of change. It is not only about getting people to say what they do and do not like, but about being included.
The most interesting thing about the pilot projects in New York is the Plaza Program, where non-governmental organizations can apply to get one of these public space transformations in their neighborhood. The city says “we give this to you but only if you ask for it”. They turn the process around, to “yes in my backyard” instead of “not in my backyard”. The community needs to be engaged and this is a much better foundation for change.
Ola: Including China in this discussion is difficult because the situation and culture are so radically different, both in scale and speed of development. In addition, it is hard to talk about public and private since they are intertwined. It is a completely different world and hard to compare to Scandinavia.
Maybe one thing that is interesting and inspiring in this context, is how Chinese people have other traditions of using public spaces. Chinese people are good at “claiming” space. If the right conditions are present, public spaces can become great group meeting grounds for enjoying dancing, exercise, etc. They have these traditions, maybe especially the older generation, of spending time in the park, etc. where they use and benefit from the public space.
Ewa: In the Scandinavian context we need a much stronger citizen engagement as well as private (organizations and businesses, etc.) engagement, to be able to transform our city and create these lively cities we talk about. We cannot rely on municipalities to do it for us.
We need to take responsibilities of our cities and learn that we make it happen together.
As the conversation ended, I was left with ideas for development in a Scandinavian context but also a renewed view on sharing and learning from each other on a global scale. The different processes of attaining development in cities, highlights not only cultural differences, but also provides examples of collaborations between public and private sectors that Scandinavia could learn from. Also that there seems to be a common factor of engagement that is essential for a project to flourish.
So the final question when considering cities in Scandinavia remains – are we too content to improve?
The will to change seems to be present and with this in mind the potential of re-establishing our approach to development; with collaboration and engagement as essentials which provide possibilities in Scandinavian cities; where the advantages of small-scale are a benefit for cities to work as a laboratory for engaging both public and private interests in urban development. The small city has many possibilities in Scandinavia, because they might be better at creating synergy between different actors in their city due to their need to evolve.
Here are some examples of how Scandinavian cities have started the process of engaging citizens as a means to contribute to the development of their city.
Hamar, Norway – A city that with interesting citizen engagement projects and is one of four pilot cities for a Norwegian BID project as well as working with public life and public space quality.
Malmö, Sweden – A city that actively uses different dialogue tools to engage citizens and evolve