Shrinking regions, growing objectives

Spatial planning and land use are increasingly required to contribute to economic growth. In Emel Tuupainen’s dissertation, the declining provinces serve as an example of the key project points for sustainability transition planning.

The potential of architects and designers is being wasted. This is the view of Emel Tuupainen, PhD researcher, who feels that planners are being forced to focus on enabling growth and capital accumulation when they should be able to plan for a sustainable transition and a good life for all.

“How many urban planners dare to criticise growth objectives, even if they are in obvious conflict with biodiversity?” Tuupainen asks.

Tuupainen is writing their PhD thesis “Economic norms in the transformation of eco-social space” for the University of Tampere, funded by the Nessling Foundation. The dissertation work was prompted by an observation they kept coming across in his own work: economic and political norms influence planning situations and are the key challenge on the road to ecologically and socially sustainable planning.

Construction, building heating and electricity use account for more than 30% of Finland’s greenhouse gas emissions. “Too often, design work contributes to greenwashing,” says Tuupainen. But that’s not the only problem: “The hypothesis of my thesis is that typical spatial planning approaches fail to properly address the growth-centricity that causes regional inequalities. To eradicate it, tools that take a stand on economic thinking should be emphasised.”


Tuupainen’s research focuses in particular on the planning of shrinking regions, i.e. counties with shrinking populations. Adding biodiversity conservation to the equation provides a representative example of the key issues at stake in planning for sustainability transition.

“Austerity policies have led, for example, to a reduction in state contributions to local government and, as a result, to the prevalence of a market-based approach to planning. Shrinking regions may be tempted to adopt land uses that do not really deliver social or economic benefits for local people.” Tuupainen says.

As a side project to their dissertation, Tuupainen, together with Elsa Kivinen of Rethinking Economics Finland, is organising a course for planners in shrinking counties. When the course is over, Tuupainen and Kivinen will present its results in all of Finland’s shrinking counties. Their target audience is experts and planners in the field of construction and land use.

Photo: Miikka Pirinen

Why shrinking regions?

“Despite alternative models, the diversity of economic policy ideologies has not been normalised in society, and it is in the shrinking regions that the need for a different way of thinking is especially acute. Current mainstream thinking is prone to marginalise shrinking regions, but economic theory perspectives that emphasise ecological and social sustainability, such as doughnut economics or degrowth, bring the preconditions for a good life to centre stage.” Tuupainen replies.

In the best case, the course and a tour of the region will lead to discussions that transcend borders. Tuupainen feels that fragmentation prevents addressing key structural challenges: “Populist policies that exploit inequality must be challenged by discussing human rights and the good life within planetary boundaries. Our concrete aim is to lower the threshold between researchers and planners – and perhaps start a debate on these issues on the scale of Finland.”

Tuupainen points out that it is fruitless to set urban and rural areas against each other: neither should be discussed in isolation, but it should be understood that the prevailing economic policies have a parallel effect in both contexts. There are economic motives behind extractivism and biodiversity degradation, and both urban and rural development are linked by the pressure to pursue economic profit.

For example, it is often thought that urban living is ecological, but research has shown that once a certain point has been reached, densification does not produce a lower-emission urban structure in the Finnish context (Ottelin et al. 2019aOttelin et al. 2019b). “In such situations, densification mainly supports economic interests,” Tuupainen concludes.

Border crossings large and small

Tuupainen’s dissertation branches in many directions: it moves between geography, economics, planning research and global development studies. “I am struggling between different paradigms, but on the other hand, multidisciplinarity is embedded in spatial planning and I think it is important for the future of planning.” Tuupainen says.

During their architectural studies, Tuupainen felt that the teaching was very technology and creation-centric, and that the social perspective was not properly addressed, even though it is an essential part of a designer’s toolkit. During their studies, Tuupainen joined the You Tell Me collective of young architects, which aims to challenge the prevailing norms of the industry through peer learning and networking, and to promote more socially and ecologically sustainable design. Collectives are a traditional means of changing the way the field of architecture works, and Tuupainen’s dissertation aims to bring about concrete changes in the way the field thinks and works.

If spatial planning and land use are currently dominated by the pursuit of growth, what would be Tuupainen’s dream alternative?

“Economic injustice and inequality underlie the valuation of consumption, and colonialism and racism are indistinguishable from capitalism. A broader cultural change is needed, supported by educational and financial contributions from society. If we are talking about shrinking regions, they have an important role to play in ecological reconstruction, which requires a relative increase in the degree of self-sufficiency in society. But if such a development is not consciously supported, the market does not seem to correct the situation in favour of small towns. Social inequalities will then increase.”

Large-scale social change is complex and requires cross-border cooperation. Tuupainen sums up their life-long guiding principle: “In my personal life as well as in my research career, I want to actively work against serious risks. I hope that we can navigate the ecological crisis peacefully and, in doing so, make a good life possible for all.”

Photo: Miikka Pirinen