Oslo, the divided city

The centre of Oslo seen from the Ekeberg hillside with Bjørvika and Barcode in the foreground.

Class segregation in Oslo is a well-known but taboo topic that runs counter to Norway’s ideals of an egalitarian society.

It is a divide with deep historical roots that is becoming more entrenched as housing prices increase and young people give up on exploring other parts of the city.

This social inequality is easy to see in Oslo.

“You can take the metro from west to east and you will see for yourself,” says Jørn Ljunggren, a senior researcher at Norwegian Social Research (NOVA), a research center at OsloMet.

Ljunggren studies how socioeconomic segregation affects outcomes like life expectancy, education, and income levels across the city.

Despite these clear differences, Norwegians have been reluctant to acknowledge this reality—a silence that Ljunggren says has prevented policymakers and Oslo’s residents from addressing the issue.

A segregated metro ride

Ljunggren points out the signs of inequality one can see traversing the city.

“The buildings shift dramatically as you travel from west to east. Houses change from large, single-family houses, to urban apartments, to large multi-family 'blokker', or apartment buildings, in the east”.

There are subtler changes too, the OsloMet researcher continues. Each metro line is characterized by different ethnicities, age groups, and even clothing.

“The metro shows a clear picture of this divide. For example, you see many more blue-collar workers taking the metro from the east early in the morning.”

Impressions from the metro are a focus of Ljunggren’s research because, as he says, “where the metro goes and who rides it determines the culture of the city.”

“You can draw an ‘s’ across the city and map out not just class, but health outcomes and opportunities”  he says.

Ljunggren clarifies that Norway’s welfare system ensures that class divisions across Norway are not as extreme as in places like the US, UK, or France, but the divide is still very present in Oslo.

The Norwegian capital is home to both the richest and poorest people in Norway.

Oslo is different from the rest of the country. There is social inequality everywhere, but it is most pronounced in Oslo. – Jørn Ljunggren

While income plays a significant role, Ljunggren’s research reveals that factors such as professional connections and understanding how to navigate the education and healthcare systems contribute to stark differences like life expectancy being ten years shorter on Oslo’s east side (fhi.no).

A different kind of capital

Ljunggren has contributed to the development of a class structure model that goes beyond strictly income.

It is a more nuanced model that accounts for the fact that while income differences are not as pronounced in Norway as in other countries, other important resources are.

“An art professor does not have a very high income, but he does have cultural resources like contacts with other academics who can help his kids with homework, information about how to navigate higher education, is well read, and knows what is going on in the public debate,” explains Ljunggren.

This "cultural capital", as Ljunggren calls it, can affect class and life outcomes in the same way as the real estate or financial investments a wealthy person enjoys.

To study how cultural capital influences outcomes, Ljunggren looks up factors like occupation and location in "Folkeregisteret", Norway’s National Population Register.

He then uses this information and mathematics to model the composition of class across the city. He has already found some stark contrasts.

“What class you are in determines your location – it is very pronounced.”

Ljunggren’s model also revealed divisions within Oslo’s neighborhoods; while people in the poorer eastern part of Oslo have similar levels of economic and cultural capital, there are distinct variations on the west side.

Cultural capital is important but not as powerful as economic capital in determining where someone lives.

People rich in cultural capital—professors, editors and architects—live more centrally, while the most affluent more often live even further west of the city center, on the “west side of the west side”.

Portrait of Jørn Ljunggren

The burning question

Norway has a history of egalitarian ideals and has not had a system of nobility since gaining independence from Denmark in 1814, so it can seem strange that Oslo has a long tradition of social-geographic differences.

Ljunggren says that some of these differences stem from the fact that "in cities across the world, rich people live in different areas of the city than the poor.” But he also traces the roots of Oslo’s division back to a fire.

In 1624, after Oslo was yet again destroyed by a fire, King Christian IV moved the city from the Gamlebyen area to what is now the Kvadraturen neighborhood.

In an effort to prevent more city-leveling fires, the king required that all buildings in the new city be made of stone or brick.

While this was an effective measure against fires, it also priced many people out.

Brick and stone were so expensive that poorer people, who could only afford to build their houses out of cheaper and more flammable materials, were forced to live outside the city.

The resulting socioeconomic segregation was pernicious and lasting; it can be found in maps throughout the past 400 years and the divide between west and east Oslo continues to this today.

Segregation today

Ljunggren is concerned that social inequality in Oslo is becoming more entrenched.

“That has to do with the housing market,” he explains. “Prices have increased far more rapidly than wages”.

Ljunggren’s research does not examine solutions directly, but he says this is a complex and difficult problem to fix.

There is a lot of interest in keeping things this way. Nobody with a mortgage wants to see housing prices go down so there just aren’t many votes to regulate the market. – Jørn Ljunggren

As housing prices increase, it becomes even more difficult for people to move to wealthier areas.

The OsloMet researcher has seen an important consequence of this in his work researching Oslo’s youth: a narrower world view.

“Young people in Oslo have more closed social worlds. Many do not travel across the city and say they would not consider attending a school on the other side of town, even if that school would be a better fit for them.”

A bridge to a more equitable future

Ljunggren is even more interested in how the social divide plays out among young people than for older residents, because at their age they are still shaping who they will grow up to be.

Early differences in cultural capital, the researcher contends, can have major effects on later outcomes. As the divide deepens, its consequences become more pronounced.

Despite the challenges, Ljunggren is hopeful that his work will spark renewed efforts to study this divide and potential solutions to addressing it.

Ljunggren is currently examining the impact of these social inequalities as part of the “Inequality in Youth” research project.

While the divide in Oslo is getting deeper, Norwegians are becoming more willing to discuss the issue and that, Ljunggren believes, opens up opportunities for solutions.

"The divide does not fit the Norwegian egalitarian self-image very well, but at least it is being talked about more now than it was 15 years ago.”


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A research article from:
Norwegian Social Research (NOVA)
Published: 06/11/2023
Last updated: 07/11/2023
Text: Matthew Davidson
Photo: Benjamin A. Ward / OsloMet and Eivind Senneset