Doctoral dissertation: How are the suburban housing estates built in the 1960s and 1970s faring?

Suburban housing estates have been considered problematic almost ever since their establishment, but are they merely scapegoats for broader societal issues?

In his doctoral dissertation in geography, Mats Stjernberg examines the evolution of suburban housing estates built in Finland in the 1960s and 1970s, observing that, until the recession of the early 1990s, they were neighbourhoods of average characteristics but suffered more from the recession than other areas.

Community planning does not solve problems in the job market

Many issues which are considered problems originating on housing estates are actually the result of wider societal problems reflected in the reality of housing estates.

“For instance, unemployment caused by the 1990s recession seems to have remained at a permanently high level on many housing estates,” Mats Stjernberg notes. According to him, many of such extensive structural problems are difficult to influence locally, leaving them beyond the control of individual municipalities or cities. For instance, community planning cannot be used to solve problems prevalent in the job market. It appears that the current era of permanent unemployment is not a passing structural change, something that is clearly evident on suburban housing estates.

After the recession of the 1990s, the levels of income and education among housing estate residents have decreased compared to other neighbourhoods. Another significant change can be seen in the age structure of the population. A large number of families with children moved to new housing estates, but over the lifecycle of these areas the population structure has changed, resulting in an increasingly ageing population. The research findings indicate that, since the early 1990s, these residential areas have become considerably less attractive.

Structural changes in the job market and the ageing of the population are most clearly evident on the housing estates of traditionally industrial municipalities.

Even though most Finnish housing estates have markedly declined, there are some neighbourhoods whose socioeconomic status remains good. According to the dissertation, suburban housing estates cannot be perceived as uniform residential districts due to significant differences in their evolution.

What should we do about problems related to housing estates?

Even if the poor reputation of suburban housing estates may often be exaggerated, Stjernberg’s research findings corroborate the validity of the public concern about these areas. In fact, housing estates appear to be among the central challenges of urban planning and housing policy in the coming years.

If the situation of housing estates is perceived in terms of inequality, those in a less advantaged position should be the focus of our concern. In such cases, contributions to early childhood education and education in general, as well as youth services, would be worthwhile.

“If we want to maintain the attractiveness of existing neighbourhoods, we should not be building an overly monotonous housing stock,” Stjernberg notes.

In Helsinki, for example, mixing rental and owner-occupied housing has most likely slowed down the concentration of disadvantage in certain areas, even if it has not succeeded in preventing segregation within the city. If the goal is to have diverse populations, maintaining services in these areas is essential. Infill development and various renewal projects could provide the means through which to diversify the housing stock and preserve local services.

Mats Stjernberg, Master of Science, will defend his doctoral dissertation entitled "Concrete Suburbia – Suburban housing estates and socio-spatial differentiation in Finland” on 7 June 2019 at 12.00 in the Faculty of Science, University of Helsinki. The public defence will take place at Porthania, lecture hall PII, Yliopistonkatu 3.

Assistant Professor Wouter van Gent from the University of Amsterdam will serve as the opponent and Professor Mari Vaattovaara as the custos.

The dissertation will be published in the series Department of Geosciences and Geography A 77.

The dissertation  Concrete Suburbia – Suburban housing estates and socio-spatial differentiation in Finland is also available in electronic format through the E-thesis service.

Further information:

Mats Stjernberg, Master of Science,, phone:  +358 40 5522817