IDS Policy Briefing 197

The Role of Urban Public Spaces in Managing Displacement in Norway (accessible version)

Published on 24 June 2022

Refugees, temporarily displaced people, and migrants who arrive in Norwegian cities would benefit from equitable access to urban public spaces. Research suggests that the design and management of public urban spaces and local neighbourhood centres can improve migrants’ wellbeing and encourage local cross-cultural interactions. Permanent architectural and urban spaces planned and built for emergency purposes should benefit people who are displaced as well as host communities. To achieve this, urban planning, and migration and displacement management – two mostly separate fields of governance – should collaborate and learn from each other.

Key messages

  • Providing more equitable access to local neighbourhood centres and public spaces in Norwegian cities can improve the wellbeing of displaced people, migrants, and other new arrivals.
  • Planners and decision makers should address the needs of displaced and migrant communities through urban development and public space design.
  • Official displacement and migration management entities should be more aware of the effects of location and design of arrival infrastructure on displaced persons’ wellbeing, and the benefits and challenges for host communities.
  • Architecture and planning competencies should be integrated into the structures managing migration and displacement, and vice versa.

Urban public space (whether indoor or outdoor) should be designed to be as open and inclusive as possible and to accommodate the different groups that will use it.

Designing urban spaces for all

In Norway, decision makers and urban planners often ignore the needs of displaced or migrant populations, while urban planning and design are routinely ignored by those managing displacement. For example, asylum reception centres are mostly located on city outskirts or further afield. This limits refugees’ and asylum seekers’ access to public spaces and other urban amenities, and reduces their opportunities to interact with host communities. While the agencies responsible for refugees recognise the benefits of contact with local communities, for reasons of expediency, decisions about the location of asylum centres occur outside the slow and deliberate urban planning procedures. Urban planning traditionally prioritises permanent solutions for long-term residents over short-term accommodation for transient groups, as does the management of urban space. Transient groups who are not refugees, such as the Roma, are often denied access to urban space by aggressive policing or ‘hostile’ urban design. This actively discourages everything beyond their brief use of public space.

Norway’s government sets expectations for urban planning and requires municipalities to address social problems through planning and other means. It emphasises the role of improving ‘local community qualities in areas with the greatest needs’. However, this requirement does not refer to the fact that the relevant districts in larger cities are dominated mainly by immigrants and have a mix of long-term settled immigrants and more transient or more recent arrivals. This oversight may reflect the underlying ethos of urban planning – that a relatively homogeneous and permanent local population develops an association with a place and builds a local community over time. This assumption of permanence in urban planning is challenged in districts with a high degree of transience and diverse resident groups.

New arrivals include refugees, migrant workers, and other transient groups arriving under the European Schengen Agreement on free movement. Various government bodies and non-governmental organisations manage settlement of these different groups. Arrivals, such as asylum seekers, are often framed within a contingency response, and thus fall outside the remit of conventional urban planning.

Public spaces are places where people who arrive in the country can become visible and can begin to interact with host communities.

Designing for non-emergency use

Norway has a history of addressing contingencies and displacement in urban planning. Throughout the cold war, air-raid shelters were built in Norwegian cities to temporarily house internally displaced populations in the event of armed conflict and nuclear attacks. Since 1998, however, there have been no new buildings constructed for emergency accommodation purposes. Many of these permanent structures were not explicitly constructed to have alternative uses. However, after 1966, the Directorate for Civil Protection proposed that these structures could have additional peacetime uses (for example, as storage space or locations for social events such as youth clubs or sports arenas). In a number of cases, in various cities, sports facilities were co-financed through government civil defence budgets when they were designed as blasted and excavated mountain halls. In at least two instances, these spaces have been used to temporarily accommodate asylum seekers and refugees. However, it is clear that these installations can add real value and benefit the local community when not in use for contingency purposes.

Norwegian cities continue to plan for displacement contingencies but no longer build underground structures. Instead, the plan is that social facilities initially built for other purposes, such as sports halls, can be used as collective centres for a limited number of displaced people in times of emergency.

Designing urban spaces for wellbeing

Access to public urban space and local community centres is crucial to the wellbeing of migrants and displaced people, and designing for displacement can also benefit host communities. In some larger Norwegian cities that are home to immigrant communities or experience social problems, local and national governments have been working to revitalise and upgrade the current housing stock and create new meeting places and safer neighbourhoods. However, the success of such interventions is contested.

Students at The Oslo School of Architecture and Design, in the In Transit Studio, have explored through design proposals how new forms of living and social infrastructure can help create diverse, tolerant, and inclusive neighbourhoods. They have examined how to plan for and facilitate diversity and social sustainability in communities in Oslo’s multicultural eastern boroughs.

Their research reveals that an abundance of low-intensity urban space in the existing modernist new towns has the potential for a deliberate redesign to function as meeting spaces in these neighbourhoods. New meeting spaces can be designed for use by a variety of groups, and not just reflect the needs of the majority or dominant groups in society. The research also showed how public spaces and local centres could be designed to function as meeting places that become central to the local identity of urban districts.

A well-located and well-designed public urban space can play a central role in the daily life of a local community. Public spaces are places where people who arrive in the country can become visible and can begin to interact with host communities. To make sure that the design and management of public space enables this, arrival and contingency should be a concern for planning. Thus, temporary events and short-term contingency should be permanent features of city management and public urban space design.

Designing urban space to be open and inclusive

Urban public space (whether indoor or outdoor) should be designed to be as open and inclusive as possible and to accommodate the different groups that will use it. However, it is not enough just to be inclusive when designing open spaces; their management also has to be inclusive, in terms of policing and facilitating various activities, to provide possibilities for people who are newly arrived to use and see public space as welcoming. It is important to think carefully about what residents and new arrivals perceive as safe public spaces, as this is not always determined by who owns and manages the space.

Management of urban space, and policing of access, happens through both direct and indirect regulations, and it is not always clear what is allowed, and for whom, in a given space. Urban space and local community centre design can be exclusionary as a result of surveillance and vandalism prevention measures, for example. The public nature of an urban space and its openness to being appropriated by different groups is not a fixed design outcome, but a continuous process that requires ongoing attention and management.

Policy recommendations

Migration and displacement management bodies should:

  • Acknowledge the importance of access to public space for the wellbeing of refugees, migrants, and other temporary or transient groups.
  • Consider where to locate arrival infrastructure to achieve long-term benefits to both the people who are arriving and host communities, beyond short-term measures.
  • Develop best practice guidance for designing public space that caters for the needs of different groups.

Planning agencies and cities should:

  • Include temporary, contingency needs as a permanent feature of the planning and design of local urban centres and other community spaces.
  • Design urban space to be inclusive and amend regulations that intentionally or unintentionally exclude certain groups.
  • Consider public space management in terms of regulation of access and use over time.

Migration management and planning bodies should:

  • Be aware of the effects of public space on the wellbeing of new arrivals and other groups.
  • Ensure that decisions on the location and inclusion of migrants in local communities are knowledge-based.
  • Adopt a mixed-use approach to selecting sites and planning and managing facilities for displaced groups.
  • Adopt a multi-use approach for contingency planning in cities.
  • Collect and disseminate best practice examples of planning and design for inclusion and wellbeing, for refugee, migrant, and other groups as well as host communities.

Further reading

Breivik-Khan, H.; Selmer-Olsen, T.; Lucas, P-A. and Quý Sơn, B. (2021) In Transit Studio: Oslo Files, Oslo: The Oslo School of Architecture and Design

Ruud, M.E. et al. (2019) Spenninger og harmoni – Sosiokulturell stedsanalyse for Furuset, NIBR-rapport 2019:18, Oslo: Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research, OsloMet

Saunders, D. (2010) Arrival City: How the Largest Migration in History is Reshaping our World, New York NY: Penguin Random House

Simonsen, A.H. and Skjulhaug, M. (2019) ‘Living on the Threshold: The Missing Debate on Peri-Urban Asylum Reception Centres in Norway, 2015–16’, in A. Toft, M. Rönn and E. Wergeland (eds), Reflecting Histories and Directing Futures, Proceedings Series 2019-1: 181–202


This IDS Policy Briefing was written by Peter Hemmersam, Håvard Breivik-Khan, Morgan Ip, and Tone Selmer-Olsen from The Oslo School of Architecture and Design and edited by Kathryn O’Neill.

It was produced as part of the Displacement, Placemaking and Wellbeing in the City (DWELL) research project. The support of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is gratefully acknowledged (Grant Ref ES/R011125/1). The project is also grateful to the two research frameworks of the Global Challenges Research Fund and the EU-India Platform for the Social Sciences and Humanities (EqUIP) for their arrangement and support. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of ESRC or IDS.

© Institute of Development Studies 2022. This is an Open Access briefing distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence (CC BY), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original authors and source are credited and any modifications or adaptations are indicated.

Cite this publication

Hemmersam, P.; Breivik-Khan, H.; Ip, M. and Selmer-Olsen, T. (2022) 'The Role of Urban Public Spaces in Managing Displacement in Norway', IDS Policy Briefing 197, Brighton: Institute of Development Studies, DOI: 10.19088/IDS.2022.041


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