North American Cities: Could we have done better?

Written by: Sam Watt
Edited by: Cynthia Stringer

A wise old uncle once said, “It is important to draw wisdom from many different places. If you take it from only one place, it becomes rigid and stale.” This article series has examined the development of North American cities, with a focus on transportation infrastructure, highlighting how these structures favor economic growth and productivity over the well-being of citizens and the environment. While these aspects undeniably influenced how our cities developed, circumstances differ in other regions of the globe. In the spirit of Uncle Iroh, this article will draw wisdom from a different place: Scandinavia. It will discuss why living standards for urban citizens in Scandinavia exceed those in North America, and which forces drove Nordic development to prioritize these aspects.

To start, let’s explore the ways in which Scandinavian cities “exceed” North American ones. What follows is a list produced by a 2020 study comparing quality of life standards in Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Denmark, and Norway to those in the United States. Although these figures represent entire countries, they still provide valuable insight into urban areas. This is because between 83% and 94% of the populations in these countries reside in cities.

In each of the following categories, the United States ranked below the 5 aforementioned Scandinavian nations: the UN Human Development Index, Life Expectancy at Birth, Government Expenditure on Education, Mean Years of Schooling, GDP per Capita, Income Equality, Carbon Emissions per Capita, Public Spending on Family Benefits, Total Paid Leave for Mothers, Total Paid Leave for Fathers, Public Spending on Childcare, Environmental Performance, and the Gender Gap.

Though these findings may surprise and confound North Americans, they unfortunately reflect the reality of the situation with great accuracy. In almost every category pertaining to governmental support and quality of life, the USA falls short. This raises an important question: How is it possible that the new kid on the geopolitical block, a country with immense economic growth and technological prowess, is not providing its population with the best living standards possible?

The answer to this question can be found by examining the cultural traditions, social expectations, and governmental priorities of Scandinavian cities. Historically, these factors laid a groundwork that positioned Scandinavia at the global forefront of modern sustainable development. Sweden, for instance, hosted the very first UN conference on environmental protection in Stockholm in 1972. The country also has a well-established tradition, dating back a century, of preserving green and blue spaces for urban workers and their families. David Pinder, a professor at Roskilde University in Denmark, said that in the Nordics, “there has long been an emphasis on people in urban life, and putting them at the centre.” This emphasis on people has resulted in planners prioritizing livability, sustainability, mobility, and citizens’ empowerment in their cities; such aspects are manifested as–among other things–an abundance of green parks, well-lit public spaces, and reliable transportation systems.

These priorities, however, would have little power without the cohesion that many Scandinavian systems emphasize. Long-term cooperation between governments, intergovernmental authorities, and urban regions has fostered shared values and methods that support a cohesive approach to sustainable urban development. This cohesion allows the values of sustainability and wellness to be enacted across multiple scalar levels, and it is also something that a deeply divided country like the United States must learn to appreciate. 

This article does not aim to belittle American urban development in favor of the Scandinavian way. Rather, its purpose is to draw meaningful comparisons between the two to highlight the faults in the current American system. Contrary to popular belief, factors such as limited government assistance; poor air, food, and water quality; fragmented communities; and lack of green spaces are not inevitable in modern societies. They result from choices made without prioritizing people and the environment. 

Cities that exceed our expectations exist as such only because of people and care. There is no magic formula, no masterful political play, and no social movement that can improve a city more than care for, and from, those who live in it.


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What the Nordic nations can teach us about liveable cities. (n.d.). Retrieved March 22, 2024, from 

Ten Keys to Walkable/Livable Communities. (n.d.). CivicWell. Retrieved March 22, 2024, from 

Image: Da Ros, S. (2019). copenhagen [Jpg copenhagen]. 

‌United Nations. (n.d.). United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, Stockholm 1972. United Nations.