Towards a relational conception of the compact city

Blog by Kristin Kjærås

13 Mar 2020, 1:16 p.m.
Kristin Kjærås



The construction of compact cities is often promoted as both a desirable and unavoidable solution if we are to make our cities sustainable. Looking at compact city strategies in Oslo, I argue that such strategies are at a danger of reducing our perspectives on what a sustainable city entail. In the article ‘Towards a relational conception of the compact city’ I suggest a renewed perspective on how to understand the sustainability of the compact city – beyond the emphasis on urban form and territorial boundaries.


Within contemporary urban theory, it has become commonly accepted that we need to plan cities that aid our societies in reaching sustainability targets. Cities are both major sources of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as areas marked by social and economic inequality. Compact city approaches have become popular as they seek to reach an eco-spatial consensus, where environmental gains are achieved through efficiency measures while simultaneously supporting diversity and quality of life. Following such logic, a wide range of cities have developed compact city strategies in order to reach sustainability targets.


Taking issue with such developments, I am interested in the ways in which the sustainability of compact cities is contested. While cities across the globe are pursuing high-density, mixed-use developments and energy-efficient transportation systems, the eco-spatial consensus of compact city strategies forecloses a range of debates relevant for global and local sustainability. In speaking with stakeholders in Oslo the compact city seemed to be reaching an impasse. While informants voiced a commitment to adhere to the idea of the compact city, they simultaneously critiqued its current articulation.


In the article ‘Towards a relational conception of the compact city’, I argue that there is no true compact city. I critique the emphasis on urban form and territorial boundaries in guiding measures of sustainability and argue that such a focus ultimately ignores the societal and environmental effects and foundations of current compact city approaches.


I propose a move towards a relational conception of the compact city. Relationality here indicates the way in which the compact city is constituted through the social, material and political relations it creates and maintains. Through my fieldwork in Oslo I discovered that a relational understanding of the compact city was already present, yet vaguely defined and rather fragmented.


3 lessons from taking a relational perspective on the compact city

In a European context, Oslo is experiencing rapid population growth and has put considerable effort in developing their compact city approach. In this paper I provide an analysis of Oslo’s involvement in the EU urban policy network ‘Sub>Urban: Reinventing the Fringe’ and the concrete work following from this network in Hovinbyen, an area east of the city centre. Hovinbyen has been designated as having the greatest potential for absorbing future population growth. Through this case I outline 3 different ways in which a relational conception matter to compact city strategies


First, I show how planners and policy makers unearthed the idea of a true compact city by drawing comparisons across a range of cities. By doing topography actors developed a critical comparative approach to the compact city, identifying commonalities and differences across these cities. These moves provided ground for challenging a narrow definition of the compact city.


Secondly, the paper explores how a relational conceptualisation of density reworks the prioritisation of urban form in compact city approaches. In Hovinbyen such a relational conceptualisation has allowed urban density to emerge as a topological problem of housing politics, land ownership and organisation models.


Thirdly, I explore how the sustainability of the compact city can be viewed through both real and abstract relations to a myriad of other places. In Oslo such a planetary perspective has been largely absent within the compact city discourse, but recent interest in measuring and accounting for scope 3 emissions could potentially shift the logic currently guiding compact city strategies. Through a consumption-based emissions approach, a different topography of GHG emissions could be revealed, and a different topology of GHG emission drivers and clusters could be found.


Overall this paper prompts researchers, policy makers and planners to ask different questions of the compact city and explore alternative regulations, laws, practices and alliances that might enable more sustainable trajectories.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst:



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