Swedish cities are grappling with a puzzle: how do you build dense, but green, cities? Urban density is helping Sweden pursue decarbonization to address climate change, but it also creates new challenges related to urban greening. While green space plays important roles in dense cities, it can easily be outcompeted and paved over as pressure on urban space increases.

Sweden has committed to carbon neutrality by 2045 and aims to become one of the world’s first fossil free welfare countries. Some cities in Sweden are aiming to hit the target even sooner. Stockholm, for example, aims to become fossil-fuel free by 2040. Cities are taking different pathways to reach urban carbon neutrality, but they will all need to tackle the same basic facets of urban development: where people live, how people get around, what kinds of energy powers the city, what kind of industry is allowed, and what people consume. Increasing the density of urban development is one key way to put cities on more sustainable footing.

But, dense cities have fierce competition for land use. Areas around public transit hubs, for example, will be targeted for housing development in order to get more people using sustainable forms of transportation, which might conflict with goals to preserve green space in the area. At the same time, nature-based solutions offer benefits particularly well-suited to dense development in Sweden, such as lessening the urban heat island effect, managing stormwater to reduce flooding, and providing recreation opportunities to urban dwellers. Nature is an essential part of a climate changed city.

A dense, but green, approach to cities will mean finding ways to accommodate nature-based solutions into high-density development. There are various models of compact urban development and research has found that some offer more access to nature than others. In addition, designing the same piece of land to play multiple roles mean that it is not necessarily optimized for any one of them, but instead offers a balance between them. Swedish cities are finding that this means that, as projects are developed in cities, discussions about trade-offs between different sustainability goals are even more important. Nature-based solutions can be a helpful concept to navigate the conflicts between density and urban greening since it is fundamentally about addressing multiple sustainability challenges at once.

As more and more cities pursue zero-carbon, climate resilient development, it will be increasingly important to understand how to pursue dense, but green, pathways.

Laura Tozer is a Researcher at Durham University working on the NATURVATION project.