#35 Urbanisation

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#35 Urbanisation

The impact of Covid-19 on urbanisation: insights from Finland

by Tuomas Ilmavirta, Aalto University, Finland


Covid-19 has, at least temporarily, changed the way we use cities. Some of the well-known shifts in our behaviour have been documented in this conversation series. Increases in distant working and the slowing down of public life in general have, on the one hand emphasised the meaning of the home environment and the quality of neighbourhoods, and on the other hand challenged the role of the city centres, office spaces and public transportation.

However, the pandemic has also affected patterns of migration causing longer lasting changes for cities. Self-understanding of the nature and qualities of urbanity has been a recurring topic in Finnish urban debates. Due to exceptionally late urbanisation and a strong agrarian history, for example, Finnish urban self-esteem has been considered weak, and there is still a vocal anti-urban fragment in Finnish society.

In the recent years Finland has been experiencing rapid urbanisation. The biggest cities have grown substantially, but large parts of the country have been struggling with the challenges of decline and shrinkage. Now the pandemic has once again fuelled the public debate about urbanisation and raised new questions about housing preferences and the quality of urban living. Based on statistics (see Link 1 and Link 2), there have been two key shifts since the beginning of the pandemic.

Overall urbanisation has continued, but Helsinki and the whole capital region has lost quite a lot of residents. However, as in the past, the out-migration hasn’t gone to the neighbouring suburban municipalities relying on services of the capital, but increasingly to medium-sized cities further away with urban amenities, history, good connections, decent services of their own, and diverse housing options.

While second-tier cities such as Oulu, Tampere and Turku have continued to grow also during the pandemic, this trend applies to them as well – smaller cities near them have gained new residents, too.

In terms of housing prices, Covid-19 doesn’t seem to have had a significant impact.  Prices in the growing cities are soaring, the more central the location, the more growth there has been (see Link 3).
However, during the pandemic, it seems, the growth has been sustained by increases in the share of single-person households.

Covid-19 has, however, had one clear impact.  In terms of housing types, demand for as well as prices of detached houses and row houses have spiked – most likely reflecting the shift to home working as well as demand for more living space during pandemic. But seen in the light of changing patterns of migration one may ask: Is there now an increased demand for more diverse housing options and small-scale urbanism, too, given the shift to working from home?

It seems to me that Finnish discussion on effects of the Covid-19 on cities and urbanisation has concentrated predominantly on patterns of migration housing prices and macro scale questions of regional attractiveness.

However, this scale disguises and overshadows more qualitative questions relating to “liveability” and inclusion at the neighbourhood level. Instead of only looking at statistics, it is important to understand the reasons behind dwelling choices as well as the role of public space and public life as a component of urban living. Some recent studies have addressed this and recognise the central role of neighbourhood-level public spaces for vulnerable groups especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.

EURA Conversations is now taking a break for the holiday season and will restart on 17 January 2022.  We hope you have a relaxing break!

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