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This photo shows urban densification in Ensjø, Oslo.

Questioning social sustainability in Oslo

Prioritising environmental sustainability when implementing urban densification can result in social exclusion, concludes NMBU’s Rebecca Cavicchia.

According to the UN, 70 per cent of the global population will live in cities by 2050.

Planners face the conundrum of how cities can be best developed to accommodate fast-growing urban populations in an environmentally sustainable way.

Green and sustainable Oslo?

In Oslo, Norway, urban densification has been adopted as the main urban development strategy and has contributed to making it one of the greenest and most sustainable cities in Europe, according to various international rankings.

Densification is an urban development strategy whereby cities are developed with a compact design, building within already built-up areas. Urban densification has, particularly since the 1990s, been broadly considered the most sustainable way to develop contemporary cities.

Compared to low-density development, densification allows land consumption and car-related pollution to be more contained within city boundaries, whilst accommodating expanding urban populations. Densification is also deemed a good strategy to attract businesses and is thus viewed as beneficial for economic growth.

Advocates of urban densification claim that it can bring about benefits in terms of social diversity, urban vitality and more affordable housing solutions, by providing a varied and diverse housing market.

Densification has thus been considered a potential solution to multiple crises: environmental, demographic, economic, and social. As a result, densification policies have proliferated across the globe.

Rebecca Cavicchia is a PhD fellow at the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, NMBU.

Negative effects on housing accessibility

Nevertheless, Rebecca Cavicchia argues that, while prioritising environmental and economic goals, the implementation of urban densification in Oslo has not delivered in terms of housing accessibility - a fundamental pillar of social sustainability.

Incorporating studies in housing, gentrification, and urban governance, Cavicchia’s research shows that urban densification areas in Oslo are characterised by exclusionary housing markets, which make it particularly difficult for medium-income people, first-time buyers, and those lacking parental help to access these areas.

“The exclusionary housing markets that characterise densification areas are producing a spill-over effect that triggers gentrification dynamics in their neighboring areas,” explains Cavicchia.

In addition, Cavicchia found that a very complex set of mechanisms - including housing policies, political will, economic constraints, and legal limitations – combine to make environmental and social sustainability very hard to accomplish in Oslo through densification.

“During the 80s, a series of reforms led to the complete deregulation of the housing market. Today, Oslo lacks a social housing sector, has a residual and strongly segregated public housing stock and proposes a housing model that is based on homeownership,” says Cavicchia. “Additionally, there are basically no legal tools at the moment to provide affordable housing in Oslo. While there are national expectations for the provision of social housing and for a more active use of land for housing purposes, in fact the municipality is left with little policy capacity and little economic resources (in terms of public land ownership) to achieve such goals.”

Challenging assumptions

Cavicchia challenges the assumption that densification equals sustainability in urban contexts.

“Given the increasing adoption of densification strategies in several contexts, decision-makers should be aware of the possible impacts and potential trade-offs that an approach to urban densification that is blind to housing accessibility might generate,” she says. “Indeed, while on one hand densification aims to save natural land and contain development, it increasingly risks pushing people out of these areas, generating and exacerbating socio-spatial inequalities by creating exclusionary housing markets."

Cavicchia’s findings may assist the realisation of Sustainability Development Goal 11: Sustainable cities and communities, which focuses on making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

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