How do Norway, Sweden and Denmark address urban segregation differently?

Overview of urban Bergen.

Like in other countries home to diverse populations, residential segregation is an increasing challenge in the Scandinavian countries. Policymakers in Norway, Sweden and Denmark are adopting different approaches to combating it.

Three countries, three strategies

In the report Scandinavia’s segregated cities – policies, strategies and ideals , researchers from the Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research (NIBR) at OsloMet together with colleagues from the Institute for Social Research take a close look at the policies the three Scandinavian countries use to fight residential segregation. 

One way of summarising the differences is to conclude that the Swedish and Norwegian strategies have a greater focus on structures and limitations, while the Danish strategy focuses more on individuals.  

About the project

The project has been conducted on assignment for the Nordic Council of Ministers by the Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research (NIBR) at OsloMet in cooperation with the Institute for Social Research (ISF). The relevance of this topic was underlined by the launch of the Danish strategy One Denmark without Parallel Societies: No ghettos in 2030 in early 2018.

Denmark: a focus on the individual

"The Danish approach is largely based on sanctions against individuals, while the other two countries focus more on strengthening individuals who meet structural obstacles such as discrimination and inequality," explains project head Anne Balke Staver, a researcher at NIBR.

"The difference in approach mirrors a difference in how research is applied in policy development. While expert knowledge is frequently used as a means of understanding the segregation issue and developing measures in Norway and Sweden, there are few such references to research in Denmark," she continues.

Staver points out that Denmark, which has more social housing and where a lower percentage of people own their own home, also employs some political instruments that are not available in Norway and Sweden.

The three countries all aim to devise measures to reduce segregation in cities, but they define the problem in different ways and have different theories about the causes.

While the Danish strategy focuses on areas with large immigrant populations, Swedish policymakers instead focus on neighbourhoods with high concentrations of low-income families.

Sweden and Norway: structural causes

In Sweden, ethnic segregation is typically treated as a symptom of underlying socioeconomic segregation, and not a problem in and of itself.

Norwegian researchers, for their part, tend to look at a broad range of factors that contribute to poverty and exclusion. The Norwegian and Swedish approach, in other words, are broadly similar.

Sanctions and control

Denmark distinguishes itself from the other Scandinavian countries in how policymakers there focus attention on the kinds of urban neighbourhoods people live in.

As Staver explains: "People who receive social assistance in Denmark can have their benefits reduced if they move to what are known as hard ghettos."

Denmark also focuses on crime, particularly by creating specific areas where breaking the law can lead to harsher punishment.

A number of measures also target children and schooling, including compulsory kindergarten and language testing. Sanctions have been introduced to enforce these measures—the child benefit families receive can be reduced if children do not attend kindergarten.

Addressing the root causes in Sweden

While the Danish strategy proclaims that the "ghettos" are to be eliminated by 2030, the other two countries have more modest ambitions to reduce segregation in the labour market, education and participation in order to improve living conditions in these areas.

The Swedish strategy has five areas of intervention:

Simplifying planning processes to allow more homes to be built is a policy proposal that has significant support in Sweden. The self-settlement policy for asylum seekers is also slated for reform to encourage asylum-seekers to settle outside of areas with large numbers of immigrants.

Various labour market measures in Sweden target newcomers, young people, women and the long-term unemployed. The new coalition government that took office in January 2019, agreed to introduce a new "start job" scheme and to reform the Employment Service.

Combating segregation in Norway

The Norwegian strategy is organised around neighbourhood-based policies. As in Sweden, much of the focus of policymakers is on work and education initiatives, and measures targeting children.

"Like in Denmark, the objective is for every child to go to kindergarten, but rather than imposing sanctions, Norwegian policymakers want to achieve this through positive measures such as the provision of free kindergarten," Staver explains.

The housing-related measures in Norway mainly involve subsidies to help low-income families gain access to and remain in the housing market.

Disagreement on what causes segregation

The approaches the three Scandinavian countries adopt through their policies betray different views on the causes of segregation.

"The Danish strategy focuses on immigration from non-Western countries and the idea that insufficient demands have been made of immigrants," the researcher explains.  "The result ,in their view, is that immigrants have decided to cluster together." This understanding of the cause of segregation explains why Denmark has introduced policies that amount to sanctions against individuals.

The Swedish strategy takes into consideration a broader range of factors, in particular growing socioeconomic inequality over a period of many years. It seeks to address different areas of life—housing, education, the labour market, participation in society and crime—and attempts to draw links between these different areas.

At the same time as a new integration strategy was launched in Norway, a commission was appointed to investigate the causes of segregation, with the mandate to look at challenges in living conditions and housing market factors in particular.

Immigration, integration and segregation

The Danish strategy rests on the assumption that the country will admit relatively few immigrants in the years to come. This assumption is not as explicit in the other countries, but both Sweden and Norway are now increasingly settling newly arrived refugees away from immigrant-dense areas in order to create better conditions for successful integration.

Access to the full report

Staver, Anne Balke, Brekke, Jan-Paul, Søholt, Susanne (2019), Scandinavia’s segregated cities – policies, strategies and ideals. NIBR-report: 2019:8 (


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Published: 04/09/2019
Last updated: 04/01/2021
Text: Jan-Tore Berghei
Photo: Florencia Viadana / Unsplash

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