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Lisa Marie Rohrer

  • Faculty of Architecture
  • Urban Studies
  • MA
  • A Better City: Interrogating the Presuppositions of Nordic Urban Visions
  • Tutor: Keiti Kljavin and Maroš Krivý
  • Monograph

This thesis evaluates urban vision documents within the EU states of the Nordic Region—Denmark, Finland, and Sweden—in order to dissect the self-evident claims made through their textual and visual manifestations. By first assembling a lexicon of significant concepts and reviewing the region’s 20th-century geopolitical history, this work analyzes the role of urban visions as utopian and mythological documents that rely on notions of fixed territory and appeal to common sense for imagining a better future. The thesis aims first to confront the naturalization of the urban vision document from the perspective of critical theory. Furthermore, the thesis seeks to pinpoint the incoherency of the visions by unveiling the ambiguity of their moral claims. In doing so, the work poses both a socio-political critique of vision planning as well as a philosophical critique of what it means for the entity of the city to imagine a hopeful future.

D. Wiberg, in City of Stockholm, Vision 2040: Möjligheternas Stockholm [Vision 2040: Stockholm of Opportunities]. 2020.
Selected urban vision documents for content analysis from Copenhagen, Helsinki, and Stockholm, as well as larger territorial vision documents from the Nordic Council of Ministers, European Union, and United Nations.

When Marx first posited a distinction between the bee and the architect, he suggested that the difference was in man’s capacity to “raise his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.”1 This capacity for man to envision a world before he constructs with his hands opens a host of discussions, not least of which includes the history, power, and effect of urban vision planning documents. While the history of vision planning might be traced at least as far back as Plato’s Republic and include a compilation of utopian narratives and futuristic sketches, the contemporary shift towards city vision planning in Northern Europe (as opposed to less strategic land-use or zoning plans) occurred around the 1980s. By 1994 VASAB was founded to create the first long-term vision for the Baltic Sea Region2, and in 1999 the European Commission prepared the European Spatial Development Perspective (ESDP) which set a “vision of the future territory of the EU.”3 In 2007, the City of Stockholm proposed their first long-term vision document (Vision 2030: A World-Class Stockholm), followed by Copenhagen’s Eco-Metropolis: Our Vision for Copenhagen 2015 and Helsinki’s Strategic Spatial Plan (2009) proposing a vision with key themes for the city to transform “from city to city-region.”4 Now, just over a decade later, Stockholm, Helsinki, and Copenhagen—along with many smaller cities within these countries—have adopted long-term vision plans, each of which share common language of sustainability, quality of life, equality, human rights, and providing citizens of the future with a better city.5

Across the world, vision documents have been adopted at a variety of scales and in numerous contexts. Because of Nordic countries’ growing status in global world reports, and their reputation for providing well-being and sustainability, my thesis will focus specifically on the municipal vision documents from the Nordic countries—specifically the capital cities from the EU states of Finland, Denmark, and Sweden—as well as the wider-scale visions that apply to these cities. If it is the case that we raise a structure in imagination before erecting it, then the vision document is not a primary but a secondary step in a multi-level process. While the vision statement precedes strategy, imagination precedes the articulation of the vision in whatever medium it may be manifested. As Hannah Arendt states, “re-presentation … is the mind’s unique gift, and since our whole mental terminology is based on metaphors drawn from vision’s experience, this gift is called imagination, defined by Kant as ‘the faculty of intuition even without the presence of the object.’”6 Imagination is reproduced in the medium of the vision document; its language and visual content are manifestations of the preceding mental process of imagination. This process of envisioning in the mind also involves many pre-existing processes that take place prior to the documentation of such thoughts. It is the realm of pre-existing processes—of worldviews, belief systems, a priori knowledge, and common sense—towards which this thesis ultimately moves. Before arriving at that point, it is useful to first explore the history of envisioning an ideal city, consider the structure and performance of the contemporary vision document, and analyze the concept of territory as a defining feature of the vision document. By exploring these concepts, I critique the naturalization of Nordic vision plans while also pointing out the inconsistencies of language that rely on self-evidentiality alone to communicate meaning. … 


1 K. Marx, Capital, Volume 1, 1867. (accessed 11 November 2020), Part III, Chapter 7, Section 1.

2 VASAB, Vision and Strategies Around the Baltic Sea 2010: Towards a Framework for Spatial Development in the Baltic Sea Region. 2014 [1994]. (accessed 2 March 2021).

3 European Commission, ESDP—European Spatial Development Perspective: Towards balanced and sustainable development of the territory of the European Union. 1999. (accessed 3 March 2021),

p. 11.

4 City of Helsinki, From City to City-Region: City of Helsinki Strategic Spatial Plan. City Planning Department, 2009. (accessed 10 November 2020), p. 5.

5 See, for example, The RiverCity Gothenburg Vision for 2021, Tampere: The Best for You City Strategy 2035,  or Hovedstruktur 2013: En Fysisk Vision 2025 for Aalborg Kommune [City Strategy 2013: A Physical Vision 2025 for the Aalborg Municipality].

6 H. Arendt, The Life of the Mind. Harcourt, 1977. EPUB file, pp. 160–161.

Read the full thesis from the attached PDF: