In Focus: Nordic Model

From Barcelona’s superblocks to Norway’s sustainable urbanism, the city is now understood as a driver in people’s wellness, not just a place of commerce and cultural activity. 


A profound shift is unfolding in urbanism. Planners are increasingly concerned with serving people and their aspirations instead of just making cities more efficient. From Barcelona’s efforts to crack down on traffic through superblocks to Norway’s ongoing commitment to sustainable urbanism, the city is now understood as a driver in people’s wellness, not just a place of commerce and cultural activity. 

While it is irresponsible to claim one single form of “Scandinavian urbanism”, taken as a whole, the approach to urban planning demonstrated by the five Nordic countries – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden – constitutes a unified approach to human-centric urbanism that can be emulated in other cities around the world. 

Scandinavia’s contribution to the human-centric urban pivot is straightforward: by investing in the needs of residents and devoting the necessary state resources to funding human-centric projects, cities can improve the lives of individuals and thereby make society more productive and happier. 

Let’s begin with Copenhagen to see this model in action. In the late 1960s, the city of Copenhagen was poor and grappling with two very different options for urban redevelopment. One was to destroy existing infrastructure and housing stock to create massive roads for an automobile-focused city centre.[1]The other option, which was dramatically cheaper, was to leave the existing infrastructure undisturbed while investing in bicycle infrastructure and other social projects. For a variety of reasons, not least the financial investment, Copenhagen took the second option. In doing so, the city laid the foundation for its current human-centric design.

For every 1km traveled by bike, the city benefits by 26 cents. The same distance traveled by car damages the city by 89 cents.

For every 1km traveled by bike, the city benefits by 26 cents. The same distance traveled by car damages the city by 89 cents.

Anyone who has visited Copenhagen understands the central role of the bicycle in the city. Complete with their own traffic lights and elevated ramps, bicycles dominate the landscape. Today more than 50% of Copenhagen residents travel the city by bike.[2]On weekends, many areas of the city centre are closed to automobile traffic. The result is more people on the streets as families stroll the city and residents seem to “own” their urban space. This didn’t happen by accident; it is the result of smart and thoughtful planning that places resident-focused design at its core. Instead of cities designed around cars, Scandinavian cities such as Copenhagen are human focused.

Danish urbanists serendipitously stumbled upon a revolutionary idea in the late 1960s. Jan Gehl, one of Denmark’s most famous urban planners, summed it up: “We had the notion that common space could pull people out of isolation.” It was the birth of “human city planning”, as Gehl likes 
to call it.[3]

Why was Scandinavia successful in redefining human-centric urbanism at a time when major urban development centred around the automobile? The key concept here is pragmatism, and its principles are critical to the new wave of human-centric urbanism taking shape today. The structure of Scandinavian governments, with their commitment to the welfare state, relatively small populations, and centralized planning, gives these countries a leg up in pursuing revolutionary urbanism. Their governments make nimble decisions about urban design and move quickly to implement changes.[4]

The harsh climate of Northern Europe also played a significant role in Scandinavian urbanism. Ian McHarg’s 1969 landmark book Design with Nature set out fundamentals on the physical framing of nature in urbanism that found a special resonance in the Scandinavian approach. The book argued that urban planning should be completed without degrading the natural environment and that construction should be built in sync with nature as opposed to working against it. This approach flew in the face of prevailing currents in urbanism that thought the city should dominate the natural environment.[5]

Following nature’s cues, investing in people over machines, and focusing on pragmatic urban plans are the core beliefs we can obtain from the Nordic approach to city planning.[6]While they might seem radical, this simple set of urban ethics is critical to the emerging field of human-centric design far from Scandinavia’s borders. 


[1] “From car centric to people friendly urban planning” Bicycle Dutch, 12/01/2011,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Cathcart-Keays, Athlyn. “How Copenhagen rejected 1960s modernist utopia” The Guardian, 5/5/2016,

[4] Wright, Gwendolyn. “Practicing pragmatism in urban metropolitan design” in Making the Metropolitan Landscape: Standing Firm on Middle Ground. Edited by Taton, Jacqueline and Stuber, Jennifer. Routledge, 2009

[5] Plastrik, Peter and Cleveland, John. “The City within a Garden” Next City, 7/1/2019,

[6] Carsten Jahn Hansen. The New DNS of Danish Spatial Planning Culture. London: Nordic Experiences of Sustainable Planning, 2018