• 3 myths about polycentric urban development

    7 kesä 2017
    Petter Næss

    Planning policy documents increasingly promote the ‘polycentric city’ as a model for sustainable urban development, not the least in Finland.  There seems to be a widespread assumption that polycentric intra-metropolitan settlement patterns with compact, transit-oriented cities and neighborhoods will reduce travel distances, discourage car driving and promote the use of public and non-motorized modes of travel. But how well do these assumptions fit with state-of-the-art knowledge about the influences of land use on travel?

    Will polycentric urban development reduce travel distances?

    The short answer is to this question is no. Residents travel on average longer distances for commuting as well as most other trip purposes the farther away from the main center of the urban region they live – up to a turning point beyond which travel distances tend to be reduced if the residential distance to the city center increases even more (Figure 1). This has to do mainly with the greater concentration and density of workplaces, stores and other facilities in the inner than in the outer parts of the metropolitan areas. The more or less radial structure of the main road and rail networks and the fact that the point of gravity of all trip destination addresses in the region is usually located close to the main city center also contribute to this.

    Figure 1: Curve showing how commuting distances tend to vary with among workforce participants living at different distances from the city center of Oslo. N = 1160. Source: Data from the RESACTRA project.

    Proponents of polycentric urban development might argue that travel distances among suburbanites could be reduced if more workplaces and service facilities were decentralized. While it is true that non-specialized facilities such as grocery stores, primary schools and kindergartens should preferably be located close to the residential neighborhoods they are intended to serve, decentralization of specialized facilities will only lead to longer travel distances. This is especially so for specialized workplaces. Decentralizing of workplaces to a suburban sub-center may reduce commuting distances among the local residents, but most companies recruit their employees from a much larger geographic area than the local neighborhood. There is little overall variation between workplaces located at different distances from the city center in average commuting distances, although employees of workplaces close to a second-order center do commute shorter distances than employees at other peripheral workplaces.

    Will polycentric urban development discourage car driving?

    In most city regions, decentralizing residential development to polycentric nuclei contributes to more car driving than if the new dwellings were built as inner-city densification. Although suburban residents living close to a second-order center travel less by car than suburbanites living far away from a second-order center do, especially if they live in the outer suburbs, their car travel distances are substantially longer than those of their inner-city counterparts (Figure 2).
    Figure 2: Weekly travel distance by car for commuting and seven non-work purposes among workforce participants living at different distances from the city center of Oslo and from the closest second-order center. N = 1061. Source: Data from the RESACTRA project.

    Increasing the jobs-housing balance in the suburbs by decentralizing jobs will not decrease car driving, but increase it. Accessibility by car is usually much easier in the suburbs and exurbs than in the inner city. In the suburbs, roads are normally wider and less congested, with fewer light-regulated crossings and easier parking conditions. As a result, the proportion of employees and visitors who travel by car to outer-area jobs and service facilities is much higher and overall distances commuted by car longer than for workplaces and facilities located in the inner city, even for job locations close to second-order centers (Figure 3).

    Screen Shot 2017-06-07 at 14.20.01
    Figure 3: Proportions of regular car commuters (to the left) and mean weekly distance commuted by car (to the right) among employees of workplaces located at different distances from the city center of Oslo and from the closest second-order center. (Please notice that no workplaces located closer than 2 km from the city center of Oslo are located less than 1 km from the closest second-order center.) N = 1160. Source: Data from the RESACTRA project.

    Will polycentric urban development promote the use of public and non-motorized modes of travel?

    Mirroring the different shares of car commuting among employees of workplaces differently located, the proportions of regular public transport commuters are much lower at suburban than at centrally located workplaces (Figure 4). This is true also when the suburban workplace is located close to a second-order center, although such proximity contributes to somewhat higher shares of public transport commuters than among the employees of other peripheral workplaces.

    Figure 4: Proportions of regular public transport commuters among workforce participants living at different distances from the city center of Oslo and from the closest second-order center. N = 1160. Source: Data from the RESACTRA project.

    A similar pattern exists for non-motorized travel. Measured as the share of total travel distance, there is a steep center-periphery gradient, also among residents living near a second-order center (Figure 5). Living close to a second-order center still contributes to higher proportions of non-motorized travel among the suburban residents.

    Figure 5: Non-motorized proportion of total travel distance for commuting and seven non-work purposes among workforce participants living at different distances from the city center of Oslo and from the closest second-order center. N = 1061. Source: Data from the RESACTRA project.


    Polycentric intra-metropolitan settlement patterns with compact, transit-oriented cities and neighborhood perform better, judged from a sustainable mobility perspective, than ordinary outward urban spatial expansion does. However, polycentric development is far less favorable than densification close to the main city center if the aim is to reduce travel distances, discourage car driving and promote public and non-motorized travel. Polycentric intra-metropolitan urban development is likely to increase car travel per capita instead of reducing it.

    Professor Petter Næss, Norwegian University of Life Sciences. E-mail: petter.nass@nmbu.no

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  • Connections within diversity – How to break the silence around multiculturalism?

    29 huhti 2017
    Kaisa Schmidt-Thomé

    If we want to break the silence around multiculturalism in Finnish urban planning, we need to develop vocabulary for it. The people involved in urban planning will also have to start thinking in terms of relations – between people.

    The future of our country will be multicultural, as Kimmo Lapintie wrote in his BEMINE blog text in February (Lapintie 2017). While the natural growth rates are low, the population growth is already based entirely on immigration. Considering this, it is indeed remarkable that multiculturalism considerations have remained absent in the urban and regional planning documents (Lapintie 2014). According to Lapintie, this reflects the bio-political nature of urban planning which is ”interested in people as population groups with biological features, such as age, gender, fertility, health and disability.” He would like to see a new understanding that brings in the cultural and social features instead of focusing on the variables such as the size and productivity of the population.

    What if we took on the challenge of creating a post-biopolitical planning? How should we grasp the socio-cultural diversity and cultural as well as religious differences conceptually? The terminology is not established, and there are not that many Finnish words available for the vocabulary. Besides multiculturality/-culturalism (monikulttuurisuus) one can talk about interculturality and transculturality – both of which might translate as ’kulttuurienvälisyys’. But does it really matter which words we pick? My point is that it helps if you pay attention to the concepts and their different burdens in terms of connotations. What may suit a more contextual discussion might not be that well-placed when talking about encounters between citizens.

    Multiculturalism can be understood as the recognition of co-existence of a plurality of cultures within the context of a nation (state). In this discourse the common understanding is that different cultural groups are awarded equitable recognition (Stratton et al. 2001). That would sound like a great achievement already in many countries, wouldn’t it? However, such a society might still consist of parallel ’realities’ where encounters across the divides would be few. It could also mean that people remain locked within the circles that they allegedly belong to. The question then is, how can the different social and ethnic groups be recognised without being essentialized?

    Interculturality helps us here because it focuses on relations. It shares the recognition of difference and equality included in the multiculturalism discourse, but it brings in the principle of positive interaction. It centres individuals and institutions instead of focusing on the relations between fixed cultural groups. The focus on relations helps to avoid ‘ethnicizing’ cultural differences. The intercultural character of a society is a matter of cultural diversity as a whole, not only a matter for those who are allegedly different from some assumed unity within the society. As everyone is someone else’ s Other, interculturality is everyone’s issue (Guilherme & Dietz 2015).

    But let’s get back to urban planning. Should it become more aware of multiculturalism or try to promote intercultural encounters? In my view, these two tasks should complement each other. Building on Kymlicka’s (2003) model, I would like to see a combination of intercultural citizens and institutions operating in the multicultural cities. Urban planning would in this context be much about getting rid of the barriers that prevent groups from receiving equitable recognition. However, of at least equal importance, from my point of view would be the creation of encounters. By that I don’t mean only that planners would have to know how to provide spaces of encounter. First and foremost, they should be able to feel for the ’full’ individuals instead of their bio-political reductions, as Lapintie might refer to the end-users whose multiple affinities are currently not taken into account.

    In order to manage the diversity and maintain individuals’ equal access to resources, major institutional reforms – even radical intercultural openings (Terkessidis 2010) – are needed. This would mean also that (planning) education has to be rethought. Here I do not mean providing people with ‘recipes’ of accurate behavior in given intercultural contexts (Guilherme 2013 ) nor schooling students as if the intercultural competences drastically differed from the intracultural ones. Rather, I call for more diversity-awareness and self-reflexivity as well as for making new connections within the existing diversity.

    In cities that are bundles of different pasts, no single type of existence can represent “normality”. Unlike the nation states that still try to stick to some largely imagined shared past, cities have to be prepared to share the future, by creating connections within the diversity.



    Guilherme, M. (2013). Intercultural competence. In Byram, M. & Hu, A. (Eds.) Encyclopaedia of language teaching and learning. London: Routledge. Pp. 346–349.

    Guilherme, M. & Dietz, G. (2015). Difference in diversity: multiple perspectives on multicultural, intercultural, and transcultural conceptual complexities. Journal of Multicultural Discourses 10:1, 1-21.

    Kymlicka, W. (2003). Multicultural states and intercultural citizens. Theory and Research in Education 1:2, 147–169.

    Lapintie, K. (2014). Miksi monikulttuurisuus ei mahdu suunnittelijan suuhun – eikä päähän? Yhdyskuntasuunnittelu 52:3. http://www.yss.fi/journal/miksi-monikulttuurisuus-ei-mahdu-suunnittelijan-suuhun-eika-paahan/

    Lapintie, K. (2017). Three invisible things in Finnish urban planning III: multiculturalism. Blog post of the BEMINE project 14.2.2017. http://bemine.fi/three-invisible-things-in-finnish-urban-planning-iii-multiculturalism/

    Stratton, J., Ang, I., & Bennett, D. (2001). Multicultural imagined communities: Cultural difference and national identity in the USA and Australia. In Multicultural States: Rethinking Difference and Identity.

    Terkessidis, M. (2010). Interkultur. Edition Suhrkamp.

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