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Suburban Densification in Oslo through the Lens of Social and Cultural Sustainability

Rikke Stenbro, Aga Skorupka, Kirsten Østensjø Kørte, Erik Bjørnson Lunke and Hege Hellvik


Contemporary Oslo has an annual population growth of circa 2% and viewed in a Norwegian perspective, it is growing faster than any other city. In this article we investigate whether social and cultural sustainability are taken in to account in the densification policy and practices taking place here. We start with an overview of research on socio-cultural sustainability and in particular how it has been addressed in the Norwegian context. After setting a theoretical and conceptual framework we investigate densification and social and cultural sustainability at different scales. Our analysis focuses on the policy level. We conduct a text analysis of the new municipal plan. Then, to provide a bottom-up perspective, we zoom in on one of the suburban areas, pointed out in the plan as a densification site. We combine survey with a mapping of the area and a description of its historical development to get an understanding of what the densification that has already taken place there, means for the residents. Our findings indicate that social and cultural resources are place specific. Additionally, what residents consider as resources valuable of being handed over for future generations is not always the same as what experts identify as worth preserving.

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1Contemporary Oslo has an annual population growth of circa 2% and an expected growth of nearly 30% by 2030. Viewed in a Norwegian perspective, it is growing faster than any other city (Butenschøn 2015, Juven and Mikalsen 2015). Oslo authorities have been actively seeking measures to manage and assure this growth. One of these measures is the new municipal plan, produced by the Planning and Building Agency released for public hearing in 2014 and further approved in 2015. As densification is an important topic in Oslo we set off with a twofold research interest in this paper. First we investigate whether the proposed policies of densification address socio-cultural sustainability. Secondly, we investigate whether the densification that has already been taken place in Oslo has taken into account the social and cultural resources as experienced by the local community. This double perspective allows us to arrive at conclusions that can be applicable in future policy and planning practice.

2Traditionally, and based on the 1987 published Brundtland report, sustainability has been defined as “meet[ing] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (United Nations 2010: 2). As such, sustainability is about maintaining resources in a broad sense. Although economy, social inclusion, and environmental balance from the very outset all were recognized as fundamental components of sustainable development, sustainability policies tend to focus on the management of environmental and economic resources (e.g. Leitmann 1999, Tweed and Sutherland 2007). If social and cultural aspects of sustainability are addressed at all they are often conceptualized as contingent to, or eclipsed by, environmental and economic issues (Hamiduddin 2015: 31). Heritage, understood both as a social and cultural resource, is thus often left out of discussions on sustainable development.

3One example of how socio-cultural aspects of sustainability are (not) addressed is in relation to the issue of compact urbanism dominating the discourse on sustainability. Densification has been argued to be one of the most important solutions to limit environmental impacts of development (Gunder 2006, Harrison 2013, Jenks et al. 2003). The dominant way of addressing the social in the context of densification is by looking at the effects it might have on the environment as a habitat for people. Specifically issues like water and air quality, thermal comfort, ventilation, sound and daylight that might affect life quality get addressed (Ng 2009, Satterthwaite 1999). In that sense, while social dimension is acknowledged, its understanding is limited to healthy and comfortable living conditions (Harrison 2013, Jenks et al. 2003).

4The other way that the socio-cultural gets addressed is by looking at pro-environmental measures that are associated with human behavior, and in particular mobility. Specifically measures like sustainable transportation (Jenks et al. 2003, Jenks and Colin 2010) and walkability and bikeability get discussed (Condon 2012, Farr 2011, Smith 2008). The argument is that neighborhoods that provide good connectivity to jobs, commercial and public services, as well as nature and community places will cause behavioral change in people who will choose active modes of transportation like walking and biking. This in turn will reduce CO2 emissions while contributing to their well-being.

5It can be thus argued that dominant discourse on sustainability addresses the socio-cultural through the lenses of either societal well-being or urban form that invites behavioral changes reducing environmental impact. There seems to be a lack of focus on other social and cultural aspects of urban development and everyday life. Socio-cultural sustainability remains an underdeveloped field (Axelsson et al. 2013, Colantonio and Dixon 2011, Dillard et al. 2009, Hamiduddin 2015, Landorf 2011, Lucas et al. 2010). As Landorf (2011) points out, this might be because other aspects of socio-cultural sustainability are not as easily quantified as some of the economic and environmental factors. In this article we aim to address this by contributing specifically to the work on social and cultural sustainability.

Densification in the Norwegian Sustainability Debate

6We take on Oslo as our case study. In the Norwegian context, just like in the general discourse on sustainability, densification has also been argued to be the solution to pressing environmental problems. According to Falleth and Saglie (2013) focus on densification in the sustainability debate in Norway can be dated back to the World Commission on Environment and Development publication “Our Common Future” from 1987, which in Norway was followed up by a ”Nature and environmental friendly Urban Development”, (NAMIT) research project. Its aim was to develop criteria for sustainable urban development in different kinds of scenarios (Næss 1992, Falleth and Saglie 2013). The scenario evaluated as the most sustainable involved increasing density within already built-up areas in order to reduce the need for cars and thus reducing CO2 emission, and to protect green areas in urban environments. This continues to be the dominant rationale for the public planning agents. Until the 1980s planning in Norway happened within the domains of municipalities and other public actors. However with the neoliberal turn planning have gradually become more and more market driven (Ellefsen 2014: 18) and as a result both planning and the execution of plans was handed over to private developers in the 1990s (Falleth and Saglie 2013). They too favor high density. Their rationale is different though – as high density equals higher profits. Despite these differences, there seems to be a clear collateral agreement between public and private actors on the compact city model.

7The environmental impact that public agents are focused on is symptomatic of planning practice in Norway. It has been argued by a number of scholars that Norwegian planning practitioners downplay the social and cultural as oppose to the environmental (and economic) aspects of sustainability (Asher and Polati Trippe 2015, Luccarelli and Røe 2013, Skrede 2014). As Skrede’s (2014) analysis of Oslo’s new waterfront development project indicates, social and cultural sustainability is often treated instrumentally, as a tool for economic sustainability/growth. With this article we follow up on this argument by bringing the social and cultural sustainability on the agenda by delivering a critical analysis of the recent municipal plan.

8Norwegian scholars that insert a focus on the social into the work on sustainability often address it through the lens of planning that modifies travel behavior and thus reduces environmental impact (Næss et al. 2009, 2011, Røe and Luccarelli 2013, Røe and Saglie 2011, Schmidt 2014). It is emphasized that changing mobility patters requires not only provision of public transportation and infrastructure for walking and biking but also creating an environment with social equity (Schmidt 2014, Bramley and Power 2009) where most of everyday functions can be reached though these active modes of transportation. Work on sustainability in Oslo area has focused on how densification affects these different qualities of residential areas and how the densified areas function as “places for everyday living (Røe and Saglie 201: 47). Falleth and Saglie (2013: 268) deliver a critical analysis claiming that while public agencies and private developers ally in the quest for densification “the role of advocate for the protection of the green areas is left to other actors”.

9Indeed, as Næss and colleagues (2009, 2011) have shown, as densification requires more social infrastructure it has at times been provided at the expense of green areas in the city. Recent work by Schmidt (2014: 27) presents a number of densification projects that have negatively affected not only access to green and other outdoor areas but also sunlight/daylight both in- and outdoors. These are considered “important residential features with regard to public health. Similarly, Næss (2013) refers to quantitative data to argument that densification in Oslo has had a negative effect on public health, including spike in mortality rates. This work provides an important perspective on sustainability issues in Oslo, though it could be argued that it does not address other aspects of social and cultural sustainability.

10As we pointed out earlier, the discourse on the social in work on densification and sustainability has predominantly been focusing on (1) reducing environmental impact through planning that would induce behavioral changes (2) public health effects of densification. As our review shows, these themes have also been important in the Oslo context. And while we acknowledge these as major issues in the sustainability debate, we follow the call of Schmidt (2014) and Skrede (2014) for a more encompassing analysis of densification effects on the social and cultural dimensions of sustainability.

11What are these other possible aspects of socio-cultural sustainability to be addressed in work on densification? As there is a general consensus that theoretical work on both social and cultural sustainability is rather limited and fragmented, we frame our understanding after the few that has worked closer with defining the terms while putting our framework in a broader theoretical perspective. Setting aside the debate on whether the social and the cultural should be treated as separate pillars in the sustainability models (Skrede 2014, Saastamoinen 2005, Axelsson 2013, Littig and Griessler 2005), we follow Agenda 21 in understanding that cultural and social resources should be distributed with intra- and intergenerational equity and that these resources encompass both tangible/spatial and intangible resources (Axelsson et al. 2013, Throsby 2005).

12It has been argued that tangible/spatial cultural resources include buildings, structures, sites or artifacts that constitute a habitat for people and carry some aesthetic, spiritual or symbolic values. According to UNESCOs conventions, charters, and operative guidelines tangible cultural resources include cultural institutions, objects, and structures, such as historical remains, buildings, groups of buildings, entire neighborhoods, or even cities and landscapes.

13Similarly, the tangible/spatial has been acknowledged in work on social sustainability, specifically in relationship to sustainable transportation and good connectivity to jobs, commercial and public services, as well as to nature and community places (Condon 2012, Farr 2011, Smith et al. 2008). This so-called equity of services has been developed by Bramley et al. (2009) and later on by Dempsey and colleagues (2012) as one of constituents of their two-fold framework for social sustainability.

14On the other hand, a number of scholars and practitioners have argued for incorporating the intangible in the work on social and cultural sustainability. UNESCO for example includes practices, knowledge, and skills related to local culture and traditions as cultural resources. Similarly, Throsby (2005) inserts practices, believes and traditions as a part of the cultural capital. Others point to sense of place and a broadly defined local culture (Antrop 2003, Claval 2004, in Axelsson et al. 2013, Fairclough and Rippon 2002, Palang and Fry 2003).

15In terms of intangible social resources, Dempsey and colleagues (2012, see also Hamiduddin 2015) point to (non-tangible) community issues as the other component of their framework for social sustainability. The category of community issues involve interactions with other residents (often referred to as social capital), participation in collective community activities, pride/sense of place, residential stability of the neighborhood (Rogers et al. 2013), and sense safety and security.

16As much as this division between tangible/spatial and intangible in the cultural and social is useful when conceptualizing the possible scope of resources, there is also a growing body of research showing an ‘entanglement’ between them that needs to be acknowledged.

17It is evident in the concept of place that has been central for both social and cultural resources. Place is defined as space with assigned meanings (Lewicka 2011, Tuan 1977), with place identity being a sub-structure of a person’s self-identity (Proshansky et al. 1983). In that sense, place is both tangible as a physical space but also non-tangible, with semantic and aesthetic virtues and assigned meanings and representations of lived life, past and present. Here too, social and cultural are tightly coupled. Social and cultural capitals have for example been shown to both have a role in place attachment and participation (Jeanotte 2003, Lewicka 2005). Conceptually, sense of place has been argued to have both social and cultural components to it. As Smith (2006: 75) argues: “Heritage is about a sense of place. Not simply in constructing a sense of abstract identity, but also in helping us position ourselves as a nation, community or individual and ‘our’ place in our cultural, social and physical world.” Heritage is not just a question of preservation; it is also a question of managing change and ensuring continuity and endurance not only of the historic setting in terms of form and function but also in terms of the life lived here and the system of social relations. Heritage is therefore an important part of sustainable development.

18Following this body of work we are skeptical towards such a dualistic split between the material and immaterial world. The interrelatedness of tangible physical settings and the intangible activities, practices, culture and meanings assigned to those settings is what defines our framework. Neither culture nor heritage whether objects or environments, can be refined to their materiality alone, though we recognize that there is a spatial dimension to them. Both are being produced in an active dialogical relationship between people, objects, places, and practices, and as Harrison (2013) and Smith (2006) have argued, dividing them into tangible and intangible has a clear impact on their management. Given that sustainability is defined as the capacity to endure, cultural sustainability is about handing over a processual dialogue, rather than just products.

19Similarly, social sustainability is about handing over the tangible components that constitute social resources. It has been argued that “space is made through social relations and [that] social relations are shaped by the space in which they occur” is often referred to as spatiality (Hubbard et al. 2004: 351). This premise has shaped the work of a number of theorists, in particular Marxist geographers (for example the work of Lefebvre 1999, Harvey 2003, Soja 1980) and those influenced by Giddens’ structuration theory (1984). The focal point for these theorists is the social production of space and the spatial re-production of society. In this framework, both social and cultural sustainability are entangled with the physical environment (Axelsson 2013). Choice of spatiality as our guiding framework is further dictated by shortcomings in existing research on sustainability. Colantiano and Dixon (2011) criticize research on sustainability from social science perspective for often lacking spatial focus. On the other hand, Røe (2013: 3) has argued that in the Norwegian context, discourse on suburbia, densification and sustainability is dominated by “expert-based methodologies that have an essentialist approach, because material aspects of place […] are considered to give the place qualities, an ‘atmosphere’ and identity”. We attempt to overcome these shortcomings by departing from the concept of spatiality as we further operationalize the social and cultural resources in our methods section.

Research Questions

20The research questions of this paper revolve around issues of social and cultural sustainability on different scales. First, we investigate whether cultural and social sustainability is a parameter in these strategies for densification proposed in the new municipal plan of Oslo. Secondly, we set to investigate whether the densification that has already been taking place in one of the areas designated in the municipal plan for densification and redevelopment, has taken into account the social and cultural resources as experienced by the local community.

21 The study area for this article is Helsfyr, located on the fringe of the eastern part of inner Oslo. Helsfyr has been chosen as one of the sites for densification in the municipal plan and is categorized as an area for urban development within immediate proximity of the transportation hub. We use the same demarcation as in the municipal plan, a 500 meter radius around the transportation hub (Figure 1) that includes a subway and bus station. In terms of its population we were not able to assess the exact number of residents in the 500 m radius as the data available from Statistics Norway (SSB) is divided into quarters that do not correspond geographically with the designated area. The population in the 21 quarters located in and around the area is 6,655. More detailed statistics on households and immigration background are available only on borough level. The study area lies within Gamle Oslo borough, which has a substantial share of non-western immigrants (25%) and a high share of single dwellers (62% of all households).

Figure 1. Study area, neighborhoods, and recent housing developments

Figure 1. Study area, neighborhoods, and recent housing developments

Source: Geodata(2015), modified by the authors.


Text analysis of the plan

22The two research questions determine how we further conceptualize socio-cultural sustainability and the choice of methods. The first research question calls for a qualitative inquiry of the new municipal plan text. We conducted a thematic analysis of the text coding it for the social and cultural resources identified earlier based on literature review. As with inductive qualitative inquiry, we approached the analysis without specific preconceptions about how these concepts should be operationalized (or quantified), to rather arrive at how they are defined in the text itself (for example, Camic et al. 2003).

Historiographical analysis of the site

23The second research question calls for shifting the scale and methods. As we set to investigate whether densification that has taken place in Helsfyr has been taking into account social and cultural resources, we first employ historiographical analysis of this site. The method allowed us to identify what experts have considered as resources worth maintaining here. The objective of this method was specifically to describe the spatial and material resources that have been handed over and can be seen as constituents of the areas today. We conducted a broad characterization of the selected urban areas based on site studies and document analysis. This allowed us for both a description of the area and a critical and historical analysis. We include the development history of sub-areas within Helsfyr in their characterization. As shown in an Oslo context (Næss et al. 2009, 2011, Schmidt 2014) densification often affects the open spaces of existing sites, either directly or indirectly. Therefore we have focused not only on the built suburban environments, but also on the open spaces and landscapes.


24Finally, to investigate whether densification that has taken place in Helsfyr has taken into account the social and cultural resources we employed a quantitative survey. We used the method to map out cultural and social resources and how they were affected by the densification as experienced by residents of the different sub-areas of Helsfyr. By employing this method we followed Røe’s (2013) call for focusing on how the socio-cultural sustainability aspects are experienced by the local community instead of limiting the work to critical analysis/ normative criticism.

25In our operationalizing of the social aspects of sustainability, we followed the work of Dempsey et al. (2009), who conducted an extensive review of the dimensions that have been identified as part of social sustainability. Others have used their approach as a structuring framework for their research (Hamiduddin 2015). These dimensions of social sustainability are closely interwoven with the cultural dimensions that we lined up earlier, and are of particular interest when the inter-generational equity is discussed.

26The survey we developed has been partly based on a corresponding survey from the Norwegian Institute for Urban Research’s project on social sustainability (Schmidt 2014). It contained 25 questions relating to equity of services, equity of community issues, and cultural sustainability. In terms of sustainability of social equity the respondents were asked about access to local services, facilities, and opportunities, which include, among others, jobs, affordable housing, health, education, transportation, and recreation opportunities. Community issues were operationalized in a number of items. We asked about how many neighbors the respondent knew (social networks), if they felt safe in the evening in their area (safety), if they were planning to move out and why (residential stability). To ensure validity of responses about informal participation we asked about spare time activities that included, among others, volunteering in organizations.

27Survey as a method to assess place identity gives limited possibilities as compared to other qualitative approaches. To gain an initial understanding of place(s) identity in Helsfyr we asked the respondents in open-ended questions to name the area they live in and to characterize it as well as to point to qualities that they find positive and negative. We were also interested to find out what the residents themselves considered as a resource worth keeping in the perspective of the next 50 years. Due to restrictions related to the privacy of personal data regulation, we did not collect data on the residential addresses. However, guided by our theoretical framework on spatiality, we have included items that would allow us to associate the respondents with the typology of their buildings and neighborhoods.

28The data were collected through a telephone survey among residents that live within the study area in July and August of 2015. As discussed earlier, we did not have access to the population statistics in the exact 500 m radius from the Helsfyr station. The population in these quarters (Figure 1), which extends beyond the exact radius, was N=6,655. With a confidence level of 95%, a representative sample size for this larger area would be n=364. We collected n=299 completed surveys. And although the area (and population) in question is significantly smaller, and its population is unquestionably less, the representativeness of this sample is dependent on the unknown size of the population in the area. The sample was weighted to reflect the general age demographic of the area. Based on the data collected, however, we were able to partially group the respondents into categories depending on which neighborhood they lived in. The areas included Etterstad, Grønvold, recent developments in Fyrstikken/Malerhaugen, older housing in Fyrstikken/Malerhaugen and the new residential area Innspurten. Additionally, there were a small number of respondents whom we were not able to assign to either Malerhaugen or Helsfyr industrial park, and excluded them from our analysis.


Text analysis: Social and cultural sustainability in the new municipal plan of Oslo

29Text analysis of the plan reveals that while some cultural and social resources are explicitly taken into consideration, others are only merely, if at all, implied. Cultural sustainability is not a concept that is explicitly used in the new municipal plan, but culture is a reoccurring theme. The plan seems to operate with two different, contradicting, definitions of culture. Culture is understood in an instrumental way, primarily as the cultural institutions that can be used to brand the city, but also recognized in its anthropological sense as the full range of learned human behavior patterns. The first definition of culture is by far the most dominant in the plan. The explicit ambition is to make Oslo the capital of knowledge and culture through an active investment in cultural and knowledge institutions on both a national and international level. The goal is to increase the competitiveness of the city and promote its economic growth. Thus, culture is primarily understood in a very tacit and instrumental way.

30Even though heritage plays an important role in the planning document, it is never explicitly stated what the meaning of the concept is. It is implicitly taken that heritage is something authorized and specific. “Urban interventions should,” it is claimed, “be designed consciously in relation to important sight lines in the city, significant buildings, and important cultural heritage and landscape features in such a way that the new, in its materiality and scale, establish a good relation with the existing built environments and terrain” (Oslo kommune, Plan- og bygningsetaten. 2015: 23). It is also stated that “Oslo’s identity as a historical city and capital [of Norway] will form the basis for further development and refinement. The city’s cultural environments and individual buildings as well as the visual contact with the sea, the city skyline, the hills, and the parks with a view are supposed to be taken care of” (Oslo kommune, Plan- og bygningsetaten. 2015: 31). Such recommendations on how conservation and change should be treated in planning appear throughout the document, especially in the second part concerning the juridical aspects, makes it clear that priority is given to cultural expressions materialized as objects. If sites and sights are given any attention, it is because experts have already found them to be of interest.

31Our analysis revealed that the municipal plan addressed sustainability of social equity issues, and in particular equity of access to and quality of key services. Increased accessibility through transit-oriented development is one of the premises of this municipal plan. Most of the measures proposed in the plan refer to public transportation (and specifically subway and train lines). However, the plan very explicitly defines the goal of urbanization to allow for short distances (to services) for pedestrians and bicyclists. This narrative of pedestrian and transit-oriented development is strongly rooted in the Norwegian context in the climate change discourse, something that is also quite apparent in the plan. On numerous occasions in the text environmental arguments are used to support this densification strategy closely related to transit.

32In terms of social equity issues, Oslo authorities also put strong emphasis on the provision of services and adapting them to the particular changes in demographics that the city is facing. The provision of housing seems to be the one that gets the most attention. According to the municipal plan, housing and its quality should be sustainable for future generations (Oslo kommune, Plan- og bygningsetaten. 2015: 33), and it should also be provided to those in need through a variety of programs enabling people to enter the real estate market and buy apartments. Interestingly, it is argued in the plan that housing provision should go hand-in-hand with so-called mixed-use. In other words, the densification areas should provide both commercial functions and social services. The document implies that this provision should be equal for all people and thus for all the densification areas. The social services provision that should accompany densification is specified in terms of the provision of health services and educational opportunities. And even though the authorities, somewhat uncritically, argue that it is predominantly social background (presumably class and ethnicity) that inhibits children’s education, and they call for equal educational opportunities regardless of the neighborhood one lives in. The provision of educational services and reaching smart as an omnipresent goal seem to be more grounded in the neoliberal rhetoric of education being inextricably linked to value creation in the free market.

33In terms of the provision of health services, particular emphasis is put on disease prevention and care services for senior citizens. At the same time, the plan signals the need for the diversification of services adjusted to the different needs of user groups. Accessibility to healthcare is also prioritized, with public transportation being the preferred mode. To sum up, in terms of equity of social services as a sub-concept of social sustainability, two narratives seem very influential in the municipal plan: environmentalism and a neoliberal take on the economy.

34While equity of social issues and different planning measures are widely addressed in the plan, community issues seem to be somewhat downplayed, with the two exceptions of safety and formal participation in city development. As discussed earlier, safety as a theme gets a lot of attention in the municipal plan. Similarly, formal participation in is explicitly addressed (though not as emphasized as safety) in the municipal plan. Participation in city development is understood as a right of every person.

35On the other hand, social networks are only implied through the provision of so-called meeting places. The plan does specify that all Oslo residents should have access to high quality, user-friendly public spaces. Interaction with other residents is not specifically mentioned, however, it implied in the Norwegian word designating public spaces, i.e., møteplasser (meeting places).

36Similarly, the other components of equity of community issues as conceptualized by Dempsey et al. do not get nearly as much attention as safety and citizen participation. Neither residential stability nor sense of place gets addressed in the plan. By omitting these issues, the authorities seem to (un)willingly imply that these are either unimportant or that planning and policy have little to do with them. Interestingly, these are the exact issues, in which spatiality, or the entanglement between the social/cultural and physical, plays a crucial role. While Oslo authorities focused on the physical space and services provision, they either lack the language or chose not to devote much attention to the community component within social sustainability. Our further analysis looks at how this urban development affects the experience of social and cultural sustainability in Oslo’s fringe suburbia.

Historiography and survey

37The housing in Helsfyr is of various origin and is organized within various and more or less distinct neighborhoods that are generally not thought of as being interrelated or even neighboring, although they are all gathered within walking distance to Helsfyr subway station.


38One of the most well defined residential neighborhoods in the area is Etterstad. Etterstad was primarily built between 1946 and 1960 and includes 51 low-rise apartment building and four high-rise buildings (Kronborg 2014). A development plan for this neighborhood was conceived already in the late 1920s. However, due to the difficult economic situation at the time, only one of the many planned residential buildings was built – the so-called “Etterstadcastle” is today considered worthy of preservation as being the first example of cooperative housing in Norway. When the development of Etterstad was taken up again after World War II, the ideals within urban planning had changed dramatically, and the strong axiality of the first plan was replaced by an open plan where apartment buildings were spread out in a geometrical pattern depending on the topography of the site. The intent was to create a distinct, self-sustained satellite town that had all needed services at hand. Traffic was intended to be kept out of the living area by organizing the housing inside a loop road to secure quiet, green, park like surroundings for the thousand families that were supposed to live here. The apartment buildings organized into several housing cooperatives. Etterstad never became independent of the rest of the city since none of the intended cultural institution, offices or shops were built, but it was well supplied with public transport.

39This is interestingly reflected in our survey data. Residents of Etterstad refer to good public transportation as one of advantages of the neighborhood. On the other hand lack of shopping, restaurants and other activity opportunities – which was planned for but never provided – is pointed to as the main reasons for plans to move out. Additionally, even though still experienced as a downside of living in Etterstad, residents here complain significantly less about it than in other neighborhoods. These findings support the argument that the experiences of living in Etterstad been produced by the politics of planning.

40On the other hand, we found an interesting disconnected between what is listed heritage worth sustaining and what the residents consider a resource for the future generations. Residents are mostly interested in keeping certain qualities of their neighborhood, in particular the green spaces and how the area is organized, and Etterstadcastle, which is officially listed as heritage. Of all neighborhoods, Etterstad has the most defined place identity. To fully understand how different factors contribute to this would undoubtedly require further investigation, however because the findings point to a significant difference in terms of place identity between this area and others, we hypothesize that it is due to the socio-spatial fabric.


41Another neighborhood, Fyrstikken/Malerhaugen, was not built according to such a coherent plan. Part of it has a relatively low density, with mixed housing consisting of single- and multi-family houses and apartment buildings typically surrounded by gardens. The buildings are of varied ages, and the typologies differ accordingly. This part of the neighborhood is built on farm acres during the 18th century. The farm houses are for the most part preserved in situ and are used for housing and protected by law or considered worthy of protection. One of these, the Malerhaugen farm, has given its name to Malerhaugveien, which runs through the area. In 1850 a prison was built here. This prison building, now a single-family house, is listed as heritage. From the beginning of the 20th century, a series of 12 residential multi-family houses for workers from the nearby industry were built. Local heritage authorities consider them worthy of protection because they form a coherent cultural environment.

42Part of the neighborhood has recently been densified with apartment and office buildings and the process is ongoing. This neighborhood did, not surprisingly, stand out in the survey data, as the one area where residents explicitly complain about densification taking place. Interestingly it is the residents in these recent housing developments that are mostly bothered by the densification, specifically by the construction and the noise it causes.

43The densification also took place in some older industrial buildings, including the matchstick factory, which now gives its name to both this part of the area and to some of localities we located here, including a school. Functionally, the school is a recent (2006) addition to the area. It also includes a kindergarten, a library and a multipurpose hall. It is located in the renovated and transformed factory buildings while some new buildings units were added. Recently a few other industrial, red brick buildings in the area have been converted into apartment buildings.

44Before the transformation the architectural styles of the factory buildings differed in both style and material. Meanwhile the buildings that were found worthy of preservation and preserved were all in red brick, while buildings in less durable materials were demolished. This expert evaluation of what should be preserved for future generations corresponds partly with that of the residents. The residents agreed that both the industry and the industry buildings were valuable to keep in a future perspective; however, similarly to the inhabitants at Etterstad, they were more interested in sustaining the spatial organization of the area and the green spaces. In other words, the resources worth sustaining were not entirely the same as the heritage as those designated by the experts.

45Another interesting finding that emerged from the survey data is relevant to the discussion on place identity as a resource to be sustained. We found out that the recent developments around Malerhaugen and Fyrstikkfabrikken take on the same identity as the older neighboring developments. Here the residents of the recent densification use the same names as those living in older housing. This finding seems very intuitive. This is a neighborhood where densification has been taking place, transforming existing buildings and partially inserting new buildings into the fabric. This is reflected in how the residents experience these densifications as part of the existing places.


46Grønvold is a relatively small area which includes remaining buildings of Grønvold farm, dating from the last half of the 19th century and the so-called Grønvold hageby- named after the farm and built on its land in the beginning of the 20th century to house the workers form the nearby matchstick factory. Both the farm buildings and the townhouses that constitute the hageby are today considered worthy of protection.

47Grønvold stood out in that, unlike in other older neighborhoods; the residents here prioritized groups of buildings as most worth preserving (significantly more than elsewhere). However, as in other neighborhoods, preserving green spaces was also important for the residents here. Additionally, in terms of social equity, Grønvold in comparison to other areas stood out as significantly worse in terms of access to nature.


48Innspurten (in English: the final sprint) is an area located next to Grønvold. This name descends from the sporting events related with Valle Hovin stadium and the adjacent bike arena. The area is currently being transformed as a development site. In contrast to Malerhaugen area, here none of the oldest features, neither the public school nor the adjoining re-creative areas with the bicycle arena, have been considered to be of any significance by the heritage authorities. The public school, Hovin School which was erected in 1955 in relation with the new build public housing areas nearby, was demolished during summer 2015.According to a new plan propagated by a private developer a development with mixed-use is going to replace not only the school but also the adjoining re-creative green areas, including the bike arena. This new development will have a high density and will thus be in line with the neighboring office buildings that have been built over the last three decades and, with up to 16 floors, have introduced a new scale to the area. Infrastructure and parking areas take up a relatively high share of the public space in this area today, and the amount of public and green spaces will, with the already planned development, go further down.

49Survey findings concerning this area should be interpreted with precaution, as the sample of respondents was very small (n=4). Some tendencies in the data are clear though. This area has most the most diffused place identity, meaning that the residents would either not have a specific name or use multiple names to describe it.

50Many of the significant findings that have emerged are area specific. In other words, these areas are products of both their geographies and the politics of planning specific for them. In our analysis we looked also at the specific concepts and if they were possibly affected by other factors than their location. What particularly stood out was that respondents living in recent housing developments (across the neighborhoods) scored significantly lower on social networks. Social networks were operationalized as a variable on ordinal scale with categories describing amount of neighbors one knows (graded from ‘no’ to ‘a really large number’). Through further ANOVA analysis we have found that there are a number of variables that explain this difference (R=0.543). One factor that contributed strongest to increased social networks is living in a building that houses fewer neighbors (Table 1). In other words, those living in single-family houses had higher social networks (in terms of knowing their neighbors) than those living in semi-detached houses and those living in apartment buildings. Additionally, having children contributed to increased social networks, which is consistent with other studies (Kroll 2011). Living longer in an area (but not age) was another factor that contributed to social networks (Table 2).

Table 1. Social Networks: ANOVA

Model 1

Sum of Squares


Mean Square





















Source: Rambøll survey, conducted by ANOVA analysis. a. Dependent Variable: SOCIALNET_ord. How many neighbors you know

Table 2. Social Networks: Coefficients

Model 1

Unstandardized Coefficients

Standardized Coefficients



Collinearity Statistics



Std. Error













































Source: Rambøll survey, conducted by ANOVA analysis. a. Dependent Variable: SOCIALNET_ord. How many neighbors you know

Cultural and Social Sustainability in Practice in Oslo’s Suburbia

51We set out to investigate whether cultural and social sustainability is a parameter in the strategies for densification proposed in the new municipal plan of Oslo. Based on the analysis of the municipal plan we conclude that attention devoted to social and cultural resources and strategies for managing them are partial. We have shown that culture is primarily understood in a tacit and instrumental way. This thinking has been present in the Norwegian planning policy for more than two decades, where culture institutions and events, along with historic buildings and environments, have increasingly been seen as drivers in urban development projects, often promoted as “sustainable” (Swensen et al. 2012). Several Norwegian political documents from the recent past (Kultur- og kirkedepartementet 2009, Norsk Kulturminnefond 2011, Kunnskapsdepartementet 2006) in fact recommend increased use of culture and cultural heritage as strategic tools in urban development projects and in regional branding. Bridging the gap between culture and business will, it is argued, help to increase the creation of societal values, mostly understood in economic terms. Applying such a definition to culture and heritage means that both concepts are seen as commodities, i.e., as products and services rather than as processes actively being negotiated and handed over between generations. Citizens are subsequently more frequently referred to as users and consumers of culture than as producers thereof.

52Moreover, heritage is being reduced not only to the cultural expressions, but to the physical and monumental materialization hereof, that is the buildings which already have been listed and authorized by the official heritage institutions. The definitions, valuations, and management of heritage are considered primarily as something that the official heritage authorities are taking care of. Such an attitude has, as we have observed in our case analyses, a number of consequences not only for what is considered worth sustaining, but perhaps more importantly for the resources; human, spatial and/or material that are not included in neither heritage nor planning processes.

53Through the text analysis we have also been able to show that the understanding of social sustainability is similarly limited. In terms of equity of social services as a sub-concept of social sustainability, two narratives have been shown to be dominant: environmentalism and a neoliberal take on the economy; this proves to be in line with the observations done by both international and Norwegian scholars (Skrede 2014, Schmidt 2014). This is for example evident when provision of educational services is discussed with education being inextricably linked to value creation in the free market rather than social justice issues and the right to (education in) the city (Harvey 2003). In terms of equity of community issues, the themes of safety and formal participation are explicitly pointed out in the municipal plan, while other community issues are little attention. On a policy level we have observed that little attention is paid to social networks and place identity. These findings confirm an earlier argument by Asher and Polati Trippe (2015) that in planning practice in Oslo there is not enough focus on social aspects.

54Our analysis of how sustainability is sought to be operationalized in the plan not only restates that several discourses on sustainability exists side by side (Skrede 2014), but also that the social and cultural dimensions of sustainable urban development and their relation and interdependence with the economy and environment dimensions are underplayed. Though the rationales and rhetoric used in the various sustainability discourses may vary, the tools used in order to acquire the coveted sustainable development are often more or less the same. As Skrede has shown in his analysis of Oslo’s recent waterfront development, there seems to be a coalition of discourses when it comes to the preferred urban development model: densification, mixed-use, and walking distance to transportation hubs. Our analysis has shown that this thinking is also dominant in the municipal plan.

55In the survey, we looked further into how the densification that has already been taking place in Helsfyr, has taken into account the social and cultural resources. We have sought to cast light on how the densification and the management of resources is experienced by residents of the study site. On the one hand, the recent densification that has been taking place on a site that does not yet constitute a neighborhood (Innspurten) produces an area underserved in terms of public services. On the other hand, a well-established neighborhood like Etterstad, a distinct product of an earlier planning model, is underserved in terms commercial services that are in the hands of private actors. This is symptomatic of how the different politics of densification have been producing realities of everyday life in the neighborhoods and in particular availability of various services. This finding speaks to the argument that planning in Norway has gradually become more market driven (Ellefsen 2014: 18) and resulting in neither public nor private developers taking the responsibility for provision of certain resources (Falleth et al. 2013).

56Our preliminary findings on place identity have shown that densification that refers to an existing tangible urban tissue or to the practices and meanings that can be assigned to it, allows for the new residential developments in the area to take on those meanings. The heritage that carries tacit identity, allows the new residents to “position themselves and their place in the “cultural, social and physical world(Smith 2006). On the other hand we see that residential densifications like Innspurten, that is developed on an almost cleared site, and doesn’t build on the neither the existing urban fabric nor the practices that once took place here, face the challenge of not having a place identity to associate with.

57When comparing what experts and residents consider the sustainable resources specific to an area to be, it becomes clear that the assessments of these two groups are not always aligned. Our survey has shown that in particular neighborhoods common green spaces are considered as a more valuable resource by the inhabitants than the buildings that are ascribed with heritage values by the authorities. As a local heritage these spaces are continuously produced, represented consumed, negotiated and handed over by the residents and thus constitute a local heritage. As such they are of course threatened by densification since they do not fit with the monumental and relatively static, and material conception of cultural heritage promoted by the authorities. Conceptualizing these findings within the theoretical concept of spatiality proves to be useful in terms of emphasizing the coupling of the spatial with the socio-cultural and the political.

58We have further shown the role of spatiality for social networks. Our analysis reveals that social networks decrease with the number of neighbors one has in immediate proximity. This means that densification of housing with apartment buildings does not afford as much social capital in the community as it would in other less dense types of housing.

59To sum up, our findings from both survey and historiographical analysis indicate that what is experienced as resources is different for different neighborhoods. In other words, resources and the need for their management are dependent on the specific geographical location as well as their historical, spatial and socio-cultural constitution. Addressing these aspects within planning policy and practice would mean that spatiality of designated densification areas, like Helsfyr, is taken into account. Our study also confirms that the neoliberalization of planning have led to a situation where provision of services, in particular commercial services and green areas, is not always equally distributed. Since social equity is a fundamental component in sustainable development, political tools that can secure a more even distribution of services in planning, need to be implemented. Additionally we argue with reference to Røe (2013) that place identity as a resource needs more attention if planning policy is to be sustainable and democratic. Since place identity is a sub-structure of a person’s self-identity (Proshansky et al. 1983), it requires approaches that allow for understanding it as experienced by the people inhabiting the densification areas.

Implications for Policy

60Our survey has shown that inhabitants might have other preferences as to what is representative and considered worth keeping than that which can be ascribed with monumental and scientific values. As Waterton (2005: 319) has put it, “The paradox, of course, is that we have the label ‘public heritage’, but there is no distinct role for the ‘public’ within the management process”. Because heritage is solely considered as cultural heritage and conceived of as something unchanging, material, and rather monumental, the preservation values that the residents in Helsfyr ascribed to their immediate surroundings, the green areas and public spaces, are destined to be considered as resources for growth rather than resources in themselves. The municipal plan states that “many of Oslo’s built cultural environments have heritage values that should be care taken of in future developments,” but insofar that these values are defined by experts and taken to be immanent in the heritage objects, other aspects of heritage are bound to lose. We argue that in identifying the resources to be sustained (like place identity) public participation is needed. Based on our findings – and inspired by Harrison (2013) and Smith (2011) – we suggest an inclusive and thoroughly dialogical planning process that allows for a flattened hierarchy in the decision making on what and whose resources should be sustained, where and at what cost. As this study has shown, methods borrowed from social science like surveys prove to be useful in providing a representative picture of what local community experiences as resources

61Further on, our findings indicate that the ways in which densification is conducted, and in particular the building typology that is introduced has a clear influence on social networks. In other words, densification strategies affect community issues. We are far from interpreting these findings as an argument against densifying with apartment buildings.

62However, as the plan analysis has shown that these issues remain outside the planning discourse, we argue that more community building measures are needed. Such measures could make up for the “loss” in social networks that occurs because of the housing typology.

63Our research points at several mutual conflicting aims and unresolved questions in the municipal planning and the new municipal plan - which should be sought answered or at least addressed if sustainability is supposed to be something more than an empty signifier that functions as a vehicle for absorbing just about any meaning that planners, politicians and developers might impose upon it. If planning is supposed to be part of a democratic process, then the social and cultural dimensions of sustainable development have to be given a higher priority.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1. Study area, neighborhoods, and recent housing developments
Credits Source: Geodata(2015), modified by the authors.
File image/jpeg, 463k
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Electronic reference

Rikke Stenbro, Aga Skorupka, Kirsten Østensjø Kørte, Erik Bjørnson Lunke and Hege Hellvik, Suburban Densification in Oslo through the Lens of Social and Cultural SustainabilityArticulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 13 | 2016, Online since 02 April 2016, connection on 30 November 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Rikke Stenbro

Rikke Stenbro is a senior advisor within urbanism and cultural heritage at Rambøll, Norway. She holds a PhD in architectural transformation processes from Aarhus School of Architecture and is affiliated as a censor and external lecturer at the post-professional master in architectural heritage at The Oslo School of Architecture and Design. Email:

Aga Skorupka

Aga Skorupka is an architectural psychologist at the urbanism group at Rambøll, Norway. She holds a PhD in environmental psychology from City University of New York. Email:

Kirsten Østensjø Kørte

Kirsten Østensjø Kørte, MSc in City and Regional Planning, is consultant in department for Plan and Architecture, Rambøll, Norway. Email:

Erik Bjørnson Lunke

Erik Lunke, MSc in human geography, is a consultant in department for Plan and Architecture in Rambøll, Norway. Email:

Hege Hellvik

Hege Hellvik, MSc in human geography, is senior consultant in Rambøll Management Consulting, Norway. Email:

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