Nordic density


On Monday, I started a series of posts as part of my reflection on my family’s tour of the capital cities of the Nordic Nations with a post on our Nordic modes of transportation.

It seems there are two city pattern at work: one aimed at serving the movement of cars, and another aimed to serve the movement of people. The city planner in me needs to dig into what is different about cities there (Reykjavik, Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki) and here.

Density by the numbers

I have chosen to compare the five Nordic cities with the three largest cities on the Canadian Prairies, Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg. With the exception of Reykjavik, the cities’ population ranges from just over 600,000 people to just over 1 million. (Note – the population of Copenhagen includes the municipality of Frederiksberg, which is surrounded by Copenhagen.)

population by mun boundary

Area by mun boundary

The Prairie cities and Oslo have cover the largest area of land, with Reykjavik and Copenhagen covering the least area of land to house their inhabitants.

The resulting density of inhabitants per square kilometre is remarkable. Copenhagen and Stockholm are the most densely populated, at 6792 and 4782 people per square kilometre. Edmonton is the least densely populated at 1122 people per square kilometre. Winnipeg and Calgary come in at 1492 and 1555 people per square kilometre.

density by mun boundary

These are very different cities.


A feel for the density

In each city, we chose to stay in neighbourhoods to get a feel for the city. In Copenhagen, we stayed in an apartment in Frederiksberg. Thanks to Google Maps, I can show you the primary city pattern that accommodates high density without high-rise buildings. The overwhelming pattern is 6-storey buildings around the edges of the block with a courtyard in the center.

Frederiksberg Flat in Copenhagen. Image: Google Maps

Every apartment has access to daylight. Every apartment has access to outdoor yard space that is semi-private. All services are stitched into the fabric of the neighbourhood. Businesses, schools and shopping centres are all at hand. So, too, are transportation systems to move people in various ways – by car, by bike, on foot, or bus. Nearby is a Metro station.

A Frederiksberg street
A Frederiksberg street

In contrast, my neighbourhood in Edmonton is mostly single family dwellings. When I moved in 7 years ago the neighbourhood was fighting a second tall building. Now there is spurts of uproar, though not always, about new rules that are allowing duplexes and secondary suites as a strategy to increase density in the city. There’s one tall building (look for it’s shadow) that raises the overall density, but the pattern is simple: 10 homes per block.

My neighbourhood, Glenora, in Edmonton

It’s not ugly. But it is different.

This low density pattern means that I have a 20 minute walk, one-way for groceries and some services. Adequate bus service is nearby. The streets are lined with wonderful trees. In short daylight hours of winter, the sun shines in to our homes. The low density means the use of cars is inevitable (though we are active and fit enough to walk or ride our bikes most often, or take the bus).

Copenhagen is 6 times more densely populated than Edmonton. Copenhagen and Edmonton exemplify two different cultural patterns of city building. One compels us to live physically closer to each other. The other compels to live physically apart from each other, creating space for us to be alone, both on our properties and in our cars. Both patterns have merits.

In my next post I will explore how public transportation infrastructure shows up in these cities and tease out how density relates to transportation infrastructure in practice.

In the meantime, which habitat feels more comfortable to you? The density of Copenhagen, or the expansiveness of Edmonton?  

Your choice shapes your city.




Population, area and density: Thomas Brinkhoff: City Population, 




6 thoughts on “Nordic density”

  1. Edmonton has areas of the high end of medium density in mid town locations with 3 and 4 storey buildings (walk up rental apartments) that are quite walkable with proximity to services (ie 124th Street, Old Strathcona and others) somewhat more akin to the Nordic or other European cities .. then surrounded generally by low rise housing .. some distant suburbs are densifying with LRT, etc (111th Avenue, north of 23rd Avenue) .. and collections of higher residential buildings along the river valley on Jasper Avenue, etc .. I rather like the variety of densities in most Canadian cities, admitting that ‘most’ of the housing is lower rise housing ..

    While the European cities are interesting to visit and are generally more walkable, I am comfortable with the city patterns in North America, where we are integrating more density over time .. it is not realistic to think that North American cities will ‘become’ European cities ..

  2. Thanks, Brian. As I read your thoughts, a question comes to me: Are there things European cities have done that they wish they didn’t do, that North American cities can avoid while densifying?

  3. A great thesis, research topic for a Ph D candidate !!

    One policy concern I have is the move toward most buildings being requested from a policy perspective to be mixed use in the central city in Canada (in our larger communities) .. not all locations should have ground floor retail .. as evidenced in Coal Harbour (Vanc) and CityPlace (Toronto) .. one ends up with covered windows and space being ‘held’ for the future .. the nature of retailing continues to evolve and will have a smaller footprint per capita in the future .. some buildings can simply be wonderful residential buildings .. with community amenities nearby ..

  4. It seems to me that flexibility is the answer… a form-based code would address that. Build to use for residential or commercial, and whatever is needed will show up.

    While I am interested in this stuff, I am certainly not prepared to do a PhD in this 🙂 So if anyone is, would love to hear the results!

  5. In answer to your question I suspect that it depends on what someone is used to based on their own experiences.
    I live in a country town in Australia and the Glenora grid pattern is closer to my environment than Copenhagen.
    The Copenhagen layout does interest me as I can see that both design approaches would work very well from a Town Planning perspective.

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