There is a growing need to plan housing and health care facilities to meet the demands of an ageing population, and more generally, people of all generations require affordable and accessible housing. Taking advantage of high-speed information networks, new transport service solutions and telecommunication opportunities must be prioritised to bridge the gap in service levels between rural and urban regions.
In urban areas, a mixed-use compact approach to planning is key to effective use of land and resources as well as ensuring vibrant cities. In addition, we are already seeing more and more projects that are rethinking housing for the elderly, such as shared co-living and replacing institutional establishments with new types of adapted homes, located near city centres, with greater accessibility and more meeting places. This benefits the whole community by encouraging a greater mix of generations. Norway is a good example of having a variety of these kinds of projects in the pipeline.
The demand for net zero and halting biodiversity loss has resulted in new legislation and new obligations for all sectors. It is making us think about buildings in a new way. More and more of our clients are setting themselves science- based targets (SBTi). In response we must be able to advise on all aspects of net zero and circular economy principles at every level, from strategic and planning to implementation and management.
There is increasing awareness of the challenges to our physical and mental health. However, the onus for resolving these still lies primarily in the health sector and in community and children’s services. They are not being taken into account by the building, urban development, transportation and environmental sectors. A holistic solution is required and short-sighted thinking in sectoral silos is a clear risk.
Statistics have shown a decade of falling birth rates in the Nordics. In 2022 new figures showed that Sweden had the lowest rate in 17 years. This will lead to lower tax revenues for municipalities and labour shortages, which will be particularly damaging to healthcare professions, where demand will inevitably increase. Finland has already faced a serious shortage of labour in sectors critical to society. Immigration, including a temporary influx of people from Ukraine, is partly balancing this, but stricter immigration policies could remove this resource in the future. There should be greater focus on immigration policy with the emphasis on transparency and knowledge-based decisions.
In addition, the housing market in many regions is depressed, with prices falling significantly due to rising interest rates and the energy crisis. This means that the profitability of building new homes is less than it has been for a decade.
Taking all these factors into account, it is likely that investment strategies for the property sector will focus on public real estate for the coming years. Alongside this, to reduce the cost of new construction and to cater for changing demographics, we should put more effort into exploring the potential for making use of what is already built and converting properties from one use to another. Obviously, this also makes sense from a climate perspective.
In the Nordic countries, industries have drawn up fossil-free roadmaps. In Sweden, the construction sector has set a goal to halve its climate impact by 2030, and in 2022, a requirement for a climate declaration of new constructions was introduced, which means the climate impact of projects must be calculated and reported. The three other countries are following this path.
2023 observation of Nordic risks and strengths
Progress in terms of climate mitigation and adaptation in the Nordic countries is happening, but not fast enough. We also have some of the highest consumption in the world and low uptake of circular economy principles. We do, however, have the means to address these issues. The Nordic context is characterized by a high level of social trust, low corruption and economic security, despite the fact that income inequality has increased throughout the region. We have an active well-educated population and our societies are non-hierarchical, facilitating holistic solutions. These are aspects that provide solid building blocks for inclusive and climate responsive urban development.
Our greatest risk could be complacency and a false sense of security. In Sweden, it is estimated that ageing infrastructure, population growth and climate change will lead to water shortages and the electricity supply will face major challenges in the coming years with greatly increased electricity demand, ageing electricity production and an old and undersized electricity grid.
Another big risk is no action being taken due to economic consequences for the individual. For example, placing surcharges on non-sustainable supplies might force people to make sustainable choices eventually, but only after they have born the costs of transitioning to environmentally-friendly measures, which can be expensive. Politicians don’t want to lose public support by cutting people’s living standards. Without supporting legislation by governments, it’s up to the individual to commit to, and invest in, a sustainable lifestyle.
The risks of avoiding action on biodiversity include decreasing natural resources, leading to higher raw material costs, food shortages and economic decline.
Through tough environmental legislation to deliver high impact sustainable measures while controlling the costs, countries can become frontrunners. For businesses, there are benefits to be derived from choosing sustainability. During the oil crisis in the 70’s Denmark decided to aim for wind-driven energy production. This was very costly on several levels back then, but now they are technical leaders in a continuously growing global market.
How to secure a balanced future
In the Nordics, our future will be influenced and defined by how society reacts and adapts to the commitments necessary to achieve, for example, net zero or greater biodiversity. It is our belief, as consultants in the natural and built environment, that our greatest priority must be to conserve our natural resources. We must live within our planetary means, and the key to achieving this is circularity. With a circular economy, we can reduce resource consumption without sacrificing function, which can be particularly important when we do not have time to expand and rebuild quickly enough. We should use smart system solutions and, in the built environment, focus on what we already have. We must secure access to resources such as electricity and water because lack of these leads to social unrest and reduces economic sustainability. In the case of energy, a balanced future relies on renewable sources, efficient infrastructure and a well-functioning energy market.
Cities and towns must be designed in ways which can continue to provide opportunities for employment whilst providing good living conditions for inhabitants. Planning processes must prioritise sustainable development and focus on the needs of the people, whilst also making space for healthy ecosystems. Communities must be included and engaged in the transition to net zero and biodiversity goals. Building the capacity and knowledge of people, who are at the centre of these processes, will contribute to a more balanced, just development and ensure long-term ownership. This is especially true for Sweden, where there is a decline in performance on UN global goal No. 10 - “reduced inequalities”. In this country there is increasing need for improving urban planning to deliver a socially sustainable community.
Urban–rural inequalities require planning across different geographies and contexts, especially in terms of infrastructure and transport, but also to ensure the attractiveness and vitality of places and communities across the country. The growing ageing population must be factored into long-term planning, the young must have opportunities for work and solutions are needed to ensure inclusivity and redress imbalances in the labour market. This task is particularly urgent for Finland. Nordregio has prepared a map of the Nordic countries, which shows the distribution of urban and rural areas.