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Urbanization and its Socioeconomic Challenges

By Evert Kroes

The Stockholm region has long stood out as a dynamic growth region in northern Europe, with a notable steady increase in population. The high urbanization rate, however, has put a lot of pressure on a region in which some areas have not benefited from the increasing welfare as much as other areas.

National interventions to combat segregation

During the last two decades, several intervention policies have been implemented to combat socio-economic residential segregation. The Swedish government has supported specific actions targeting deprived city districts and their residents. These actions were formulated as part of Metropolitan (1998–2006) and Urban Development (2006-2011) Policies. The general objective was positive development in deprived areas. Local development agreements were used to organize collaboration between the state and municipalities for area-based development that focused on the residents. These kinds of national intervention policies have also been common in other European countries, such as France, the UK and the Netherlands.

What about the regional level?

In 2005, a national inquiry into the Metropolitan Policy concluded that the national intervention policy was paradoxical. It was successful for the target groups but not in the target areas. What lies behind this paradox? Evidence demonstrates that the targeted areas suffered from the emigration of relatively resourceful households both before and after the interventions, whereas more marginal households moved into the areas (Roger Andersson, 2006).

From 1965 to 1975, one million dwellings were built in Sweden as a part of the Million Dwelling Programme. Some of the city districts dominated by residential dwellings built during this period are now often perceived as deprived areas. However, as illustrated in the map below, there is no overlap between the residential dwellings built in this period and deprived areas, despite public opinion (TMR, 2013). The County Council (TMR, 2013) concluded that it is not the areas that are segregated; it is the broader region that is segregated.

Area types

Map1: The colours in the map represent socio-economic area types based on three statistical variables: activity rate, percentage of contribution-depending and percentage of low education. The socio-economic area type is assessed in relation to the county average. The red areas represent the lowest 3rd percentile whereas the dark green areas are in the highest 99th percentile. Each dot in the map represents one residential dwelling from the 1965–1975 period. Click to view larger image.

The OECD warned that the socio-economic imbalance in the labour and housing markets in the Stockholm region presented a threat to sustainable regional growth (OECD, 2006). In a report on national urban development policy, the Swedish National Board of Housing, Building and Planning (Boverket) concluded that the regional level should have a more clear-cut mandate for more sustainable development (Boverket, 2013). Mechanisms that spur the development in deprived areas are often found at the regional level—the labour and housing markets are regional. The County Administration Board has since 2012 been assigned to co-ordinate the exchange of knowledge between municipalities currently covered by the national urban development policy.

Sustainable urban development

The Stockholm County Council (TMR), in collaboration with the County Administration Board, initiated a preliminary study on sustainable urban development (2012). The purpose of the study was to develop a concept for sustainable urban development that would more successfully address the negative consequences of socio-economic residential segregation. The National Board of Housing, Building and Planning concluded that there is a lack of knowledge about how to implement a social impact analysis of physical planning. Despite the lack of knowledge about implementing, it is clear that empirical experience is used to make the planning of new residential areas more effective and sustainable. However, empirical experience was not used to develop the existing deprived residential areas (Boverket, 2010). This was the starting point for the preliminary study.

What is the problem?

The main motto of the preliminary study was inspired by one of Einstein's famous quotes: "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them". The preliminary study was conducted by Sweco Strategy AB, and it was innovative for not defining the end product of the study. The study was based on existing knowledge from national inquiries and evaluation reports from two decades of national intervention policies. The thesis was: "we have the knowledge, but we have to find out why the knowledge isn't used".

The Urban Game: a tool for solutions

An interdisciplinary group of experts contributed to the preliminary study to ensure the sustainability perspective. At the first meeting, it appeared as if the experts were talking to each other rather than with each other when discussing the mapped knowledge, tending to retreat into their individual comfort zones of expertise. Thus, there was a need to create a more permissive environment in which criticism is allowed, even with persons coming from different fields of expertise. This need for interdisciplinary discussion prompted the Urban Game concept.

The challenges addressed in the game

The Urban Game is a tool as well as a method to enable and encourage discussion of sustainable urban development. More specifically, the Urban Game aims high to visualize how actions implemented at different governance levels and sectors relate to each other. The outline of the Urban Game plan is a simplified reproduction of how (Swedish) society is governed. The 99 cards used in the game are based on knowledge from two decades of national intervention. Every game card represents an action that can contribute to sustainable urban development. The players face three main challenges.

  1. Place the game card in the sector and at the governance level that has a mandate to implement the action on the card.
  2. Each card will be assessed by the other players to see whether the action must be co-ordinated with other actions on the game plan to be successful.
  3. Replace the card if the players determine that the mandate for the action should be elsewhere.

Game plan

The impact of the Urban Game

From November 2012 to May 2014, the game was played on approximately 30 occasions and generated empirical experiences based on the participants' reflections and discussions. Here are some of the main conclusions.

  • Few actions were placed at individual or city district levels. This indicates that the problems that need to be addressed are not to be found at these levels.
  • Many of the actions were placed at a regional level, even though the game cards were based on knowledge from national interventions at the city district level, which indicates that the regional level matters.
  • Whichever actions were placed on the game plan, they triggered discussions about collaboration across sectors and governance levels.
  • The participants in the game lost their "expert prestige", and as a consequence, the game creates a permissive environment for interdisciplinary discussions.
  • The game proved to be an eye-opener for the participants about the complexity of horizontal and vertical co-ordination levels.

Although it is still in its initial phase, some effects of the Urban Game have already become apparent.

  • The game contributed to the main structure of the Regional Structural Funds Programme 2014–2020 for the Stockholm region, with sustainable urban development becoming the overall theme of the programme.
  • The game was used in a conjunction analysis for a package of interventions as part of a new programme for suburban development in the city of Stockholm.
  • The game is one of the four case studies funded by DG-Region, which aims to generate knowledge on how multilevel governance effects the implementation of EU2020.
  • The game is used as a tool in the Executive Programme in Sustainable Urban Systems, organized by KTH Executive School AB.
  • METREX has launched an initiative for a joint venture to use the game as a part of the METREX exhibition during the Expo Milano 2015.

The future of the Urban Game

The main lesson learned is that the Urban Game is an innovative tool that provides an efficient approach to discussions that elicit new perspectives on urban planning and sustainable urban development. Another lesson learned is that every time the game is played, it generates some new perspectives and insights, depending upon the type of stakeholders who participate. The more diverse the group, the more that insights are generated because of the different perspectives contributing to the game plan. Observations from the different occasions when the game was played show that it is possible to distinguish different types of reasoning linked to specific groups of stakeholders. To draw conclusions, however, we would need to conduct interactive research with the Urban Game process. What can be concluded at this point is that each group discussion ends in a common awareness and understanding of the complexity of the vertical and horizontal co-ordination that is required for sustainable urban development.

The Urban Game has been played twice by stakeholders from other European cities and regions, once in an URBACT network and once during the multilateral meeting of the European Case Study mentioned earlier. In an international context, the Urban Game provides an opportunity to discuss differences in governance structures between the countries, regions and cities of the participants, which adds an extra dimension to the discussions. The different types of governance represented in the group make it easier for stakeholders to discuss the differences and similarities, and the pros and cons of each governance structure, but it also allows them to question their own types of governance. Overall, the game exemplifies an approach that can be widely adopted by other city-districts, municipalities and regions in Europe. The game is not limited to a specific field of interest; it can be used by different actors or as a dialogue tool for educational purposes.

The Urban Game will now be reviewed based on the experiences of those who have played the game and also on ideas from Swedish and European stakeholders who have shown an interest in being involved in its revision and development as a tool for sustainable urban development. The Urban Game is up and running!

Urban Game in action

The Urban Game in action.

Back to Nordregio News Issue 3, 2014