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  • Figure 1. Conceptual representation of a time space approach to understanding experiences of segregation accross domains in the a day in the life of an individual. Taking slices through the geographies of an individuals time space trajectory at different times of the day can reveal spatio-temporal mobilities and the different population structures in these areas.

Article |  12/28/2020Mathew Page

Beyond neighbourhood differentiation: Towards a multi-domain approach to segregation in Helsinki

The Helsinki City Strategy 2017–2021 outlines that curbing differentiation between population groups and neighbourhoods is high on the city’s agenda, setting the goal of Helsinki maintaining its position as a ‘textbook example in Europe of how to prevent segregation’. (City of Helsinki 2017)


Finland reports some of the lowest levels of wealth inequalities in Europe, and Helsinki has so far been successful in preventing the acute segregation seen in many other European and international cities. However, there are signs that this could be changing, and Helsinki is yet to encounter many of the challenges that its Nordic neighbours have already had to navigate. Wealth inequalities have been growing in Helsinki in recent years and immigration, historically low and increasing only since the 1990’s, is forecast to become increasingly important for the city. In this light, the topic of urban segregation will only become increasingly relevant for Helsinki.

The Helsinki City Strategy stresses the importance of reducing population differentiation at the neighbourhood level. This framing is consistent with most discussions on urban segregation, concerned largely with the static distribution of different population groups in residential space. However, if one of the goals in preventing segregation is to promote integration, and ensure equity of access and outcome between population groups, then only considering where people live is far too limited an approach. In recent years, there has been increasing academic attention on expanding notions of segregation beyond the residence, to other places and times. This stems from a recognition that populations are mobile, that segregation can occur throughout any of life’s domains, and that experiences of segregation may have different implications in different contexts. This article will draw from these discussions, seeking to highlight the complexity and interconnectivity of social segregation in different domains, particularly as it relates to Helsinki.

Segregation and Inequality

What is urban segregation?

Urban segregation is generally defined as the unequal distribution of different social groups in urban space. At a spatial level, segregation may be seen as a physical manifestation of inequalities and diversity within the city. As social segregation often becomes visible in our neighbourhoods and public spaces, there is a tendency to reduce segregation to being a spatial problem pertaining to certain neighbourhoods. In reality, segregation is a much more dynamic and complex phenomenon, and may be experienced in many different ways throughout people’s daily lives.

Who is segregated?

Segregation discourse often emphasises concentrations of low socio-economic or ethnic minority households in certain neighbourhoods. However, in European cities “the highest social strata appear to be the most segregated” (Marcińczak et al. 2015 p. 362). The importance of the actions of these more privileged groups is understated, with increasing evidence that it is mainly through middle-class avoidance and mobility strategies that segregation is produced and sustained, both in our neighbourhoods and within our schools (Bernelius & Vaattovaara 2016; Skifter Andersen et al. 2016; Tunström & Wang 2019). Similarly, ethnic segregation in Helsinki appears to be driven largely by the mobility decisions of Finnish-origin residents, with minority groups preferring mixed neighbourhoods and displaying moving patterns which act to decrease segregation (Dhalmann 2013; Kauppinen & van Ham 2019). Whilst there are legitimate reasons for concern with concentrations of poverty and disadvantage, the lack of problematising the role of the wealthiest and most advantaged groups in contributing to segregationist patterns and market trends distracts from the fact that segregation is a city-wide problem (Tunström & Wang 2019).

When can segregation become a problem?

Segregation is not necessarily a negative phenomenon. People may prefer to live or socialise with others like themselves, with whom they perceive to share a common set of norms, values, culture, language or way of life (OECD 2018). Living in communities with people who share similar preferences and lifestyles can provide agglomeration benefits of shared services such as shops, cultural and religious institutions, and in precarious situations may also provide a safe haven from harassment and abuse (Cheshire 2013; OECD 2018).

Cities, like their populations, are not homogenous, and spatial differentiation is an inherent trait of urban development. However, if spatial differentiation represents, or is produced by, social disadvantage and inequality, it may become problematic for individuals, and for society. This is particularly the case if already-disadvantaged groups live segregated against their will, and experience compounded disadvantage as a result. This disadvantage may result from physical isolation, social problems, a lack of municipal services and amenities, or higher exposure to environmental hazards such as air pollution, which can affect health and wellbeing (Park & Kwan 2018).

Even if segregation is ‘voluntary’, public and political attitudes towards segregated areas and communities may produce negative outcomes. Discrimination and stigmatisation of population groups and neighbourhoods can reinforce, if not create disadvantage (e.g. Blanc 2010). Jørgensen (2015), for example, contends that the Danish policy interpretation of low-income areas as ghettos is stigmatising, reinforcing existing patterns of segregation and discrimination. Helsinki is not immune from this, with stigmatisation appearing to affect the lived experiences of residents, with clear spatial patterns (Hiekkavuo 2015).

If segregation results in people living in sustained ‘social bubbles’, there is concern that their daily lives and experiences become increasing disconnected. This may have implications for societal development, hindering integration and social cohesion. It is particularly in this regard that it is important to understand the many domains in which segregation can occur, and the mechanisms which may produce or moderate experiences of segregation throughout daily life.

A multi-contextual ‘domains approach’ to segregation

Segregation is often considered a residential problem that can be curtailed through housing policy. Focussing only on the residential context can understate the importance of segregation experienced in other domains of life, including work, education, transport and leisure (Kukk et al. 2019; Park & Kwan 2018; Piekut et al. 2019; van Ham & Tammaru 2016). It may be that the public realm; the community centre, workplace, park, or other public spaces, are more meaningful sites of segregation or integration in people's everyday lives (Piekut et al. 2019). It is here where parallel or integrated lives may play out. Segregation can be multi-contextual, presenting differently for different people in different domains. Experiences of segregation in one domain may further intensify, or moderate, experiences of segregation in another, highlighting the need to consider the linkages between domains.

Residential Domain

The residential domain is where people begin and end their day, and remains an important centre of activity for many people (van Ham & Tammaru 2016). Whilst living in segregated neighbourhoods can have negative outcomes in some contexts, the neighbourhood may not hold the same importance in structuring the daily life of all residents. Local contacts within a neighbourhood have been observed to be of higher significance for ethnic minorities and residents of low socio-economic status, whilst for children and the elderly, mobility limitations may accentuate the importance of the neighbourhood (van Kempen & Wissink 2014). For other groups, the neighbourhood may be less important. With an increasingly mobile population (both physical and virtually), contacts outside the neighbourhood have become more significant. Limiting the focus to the residential context, can therefore ignore a considerable share of everyday experiences, which may reinforce or temper the impact of segregation experienced in the residential domain.

Work Domain

If night-time segregation is more closely associated with residential segregation, workplace segregation may be more significant during the day. For many, workplace interactions may represent the bulk of their socialising, spending more time at work than they do awake in their neighbourhood. Interactions occurring within the workplace may reduce or reinforce the impact of segregation in other domains, although the causal relationships can be complex and multi-directional (van Ham & Tammaru 2016). Contacts within the residential neighbourhood may lead to job opportunities, whilst residential decisions may arise from contacts with colleagues. Similarly, work may be sought close to home, or people may change residence due to work.

The first line of segregation in the work domain is between those who are employed, and those who are absent or excluded from the labour force. Employment may be influenced by a number of factors including gender, ethnicity and age (Statistics Finland 2015; THL 2018). Being without work may inflate the importance of the residential domain. Even for those residents who spend the majority of their time in the residential neighbourhood, it is insufficient to only consider residents who live in a neighbourhood when analysing segregation. This can discount potential interactions with people working or trading in the area, which may represent important regular interactions.

When in work, specialisation in professions means that workplaces are often characterised by division. This may be in terms of education level, income, ethnicity, gender, age or otherwise. Certain industries may have a more homogenous workforce, and even within individual workplaces there may be hierarchies or divisions which create vastly different lived experiences for different employees. This division can also be temporal if shift-work is considered. Consequently, even if an employer has a diverse payroll, social segregation may still exist within a workplace if there is limited interaction between the different population groups. Spatial divisions may also arise if the workplaces of different population groups are separated into geographically distinct areas of the city (Marcińczak et al. 2015).

Inequalities and segregation within the employment domain limit possible inter-group interactions and can affect income levels, which may then contribute to sorting residents into high and low-income neighbourhoods. Residential and workplace ethnic segregation may also be connected, with immigrant groups that are more segregated at home found to also be more segregated in workplace neighbourhoods (Marcińczak et al. 2015).

Education Domain

Segregation and education have a complex relationship. Students may be segregated within schools or universities, whilst educational attainment can itself become a factor for segregation in other domains, namely work. Schools have the opportunity to be key places of early inter-group interaction, fostering long-term social integration. Parents, however, may associate a school’s composition and the socio-spatial characteristics of the catchment area with its educational quality, with middle-class parents in particular more likely to exercise ‘flight’ or ‘avoidance’ behaviour when making decisions about schools (Bernelius & Vaattovaara 2016; Bernelius & Vilkama 2019; Kauppinen & van Ham 2019). Educational outcomes are highly related to family socio-economic background (OECD 2019), and in Finland immigrant background is also associated with lower education outcomes (Bernelius & Vilkama 2019). Accordingly, ‘school-shopping’ of this nature not only reduces potential inter-group contacts and intensifies segregation within schools, but can also have the effect of exaggerating differences in educational outcomes between schools.

There is a strong connection between school segregation and segregation in the residential domain. As schools generally collect pupils from the surrounding residential neighbourhood, the social composition of pupils within a school will often reflect that of the neighbourhood. In many cities, Helsinki included, school selection strategies are also accelerating residential segregation, as school preferences may provoke relocations within the residential domain (Bernelius & Vaattovaara 2016; Bernelius & Vilkama 2019). Segregation within education and work can also be interconnected. Educational outcomes and social networks formed during education may influence sorting into different occupational fields and workplaces. If educational outcomes influence income via mechanisms within the work domain, this can in turn affect residential opportunities.

Leisure Domain

Leisure time activities have the potential to be important sites of inter-group contact, and may be highly connected to geographies and activities in other domains. Many leisure activities still take place close to home, so the residential domain remains important, however leisure activities may equally arise from school or work connections, or take place close the geographies of these domains. The relationship may also be inverse, as work opportunities may arise from leisure-time contacts for example.

When considering leisure time activities, a distinction may be made between segmentation and segregation (Kukk et al. 2019). Segmentation refers to the structure of leisure time activities which may differ between groups based on factors such as differences in wealth, age, gender, status identification and cultural preferences. For instance, cultural differences will influence attendance at a place of worship, whilst sports activities such as skateboarding can be both gendered and predominantly a youth activity (Bäckström & Nairn 2018). Segregation in leisure time activities refers to the spatial dimension of differentiation. This is an important distinction, as different groups may share the same activities, but in geographically distinct locations. At a minimum, groups must share the same activity and location to permit the possibility of interaction. However, even when groups share the same location and activity, such as visiting a café, they may visit at temporally distinct times of the day, or co-habit a location without any cross-group interaction.

Spatiotemporal data revealing leisure-time activities has historically been limited. In recent years, novel forms of data have increasingly been analysed to reveal population movements outside of work and home, finding evidence of segregation in leisure activities. In their analysis of mobile phone data from Tallinn, Järv et al (2015) found significant ethnic differences in the activity spaces of Estonian and Russian speakers. In Helsinki, language analysis of Instagram postings made within parks in Helsinki identified geographically distinct usage patterns when comparing Finnish speakers to other language groups (Heikinheimo et al. 2020). The question often left unanswered in these exposure studies, is whether those different groups we know to be present are interacting in any meaningful way.

Evidence from Helsinki and local policy responses

In the residential domain, the spatial organisation of the housing market and housing systems play a large role in determining the extent to which income inequalities lead to socio-economic segregation (van Ham et al. 2016). The City of Helsinki has a considerable advantage in its ability to regulate the housing market due its large share of land ownership. The tenure mixing policy which Helsinki has pursued since the 1970’s has resulted in the large social housing sector being much more dispersed than its Nordic neighbours (Skifter Andersen et al. 2016). Spatial differentiation of population groups in Helsinki is thus more fine-grain compared to other cities. Foreign-born residents have been overrepresented in social housing in Helsinki for some time, so tenure mixing has had some effect in moderating ethnic segregation. This reliance by on state-subsidised housing has, however, been decreasing for foreign-born residents since 2006 with private rental becoming more common (City of Helsinki 2020c). Currently, segregation by income and education are both notably higher than ethnic segregation in Helsinki (Bernelius & Vilkama 2019). In some cities, institutional arrangements mean that the neighbourhood in which you reside directly affects the quality of public services. Helsinki’s egalitarian approach in public service delivery, prioritising equal access to necessary services such as health, education and childcare goes a long way to reducing inequalities between neighbourhoods. Despite early successes, tenure mix has not stopped selective migration becoming a major driver of segregation in Helsinki and the ongoing strength of these policies has been questioned as to their inefficiencies in addressing the structural drivers of segregation (Vaattovaara et al. 2018).

One reason for thinking beyond the residential domain is that, broadly speaking, housing policy in Europe has poorly achieved its intended outcomes of reducing segregation once patterns are already established (Bolt et al. 2010). Whilst ‘place-based’ policies may be effective in redistributing population groups within static space, they often do little to address the underlying inequalities, and risk displacing existing residents into more disadvantaged locations (Jørgensen 2015; van Ham et al. 2016). Helsinki’s strategy of building low-rise dwellings within the greenbelt surrounding the city’s large housing estates is one example of a place-based approach (Vaattovaara et al. 2018). Longitudinal studies investigating selective migration have yet to be undertaken for such renewal projects, so the long-term impact remains unknown. On the other hand, ‘people-based’ measures, focussed on improving education and employment situations, such as Sweden’s area-based urban policy, generally take longer to see any results and suffer from issues around selective migration, meaning the local result is not always as intended (Andersson et al. 2010; van Ham et al. 2016). To be most effective, a combination of both place-based and people-based measures is likely required, with neighbourhood measures viewed in connection with city-wide processes and other interconnected domains. Whilst tenure mix has been successful in distributing population groups in Helsinki, the capacity of socio-spatial mixing policies to achieve the desired outcomes of increased bridging capital and integration between population groups remain unclear (Cheshire 2013; van Kempen & Bolt 2012; Vaughan & Arbaci 2011). Rather than living integrated lives, different population groups may instead be living ‘parallel lives’, with only fleeting contact. Determining the extent to which groups may be integrated requires a consideration of how segregation is playing out in other domains.

Within the employment domain, Finland may be considered highly segregated both in terms of ethnicity (Statistics Finland 2015) and gender (THL 2018). Unemployment and underemployment is more common for those with foreign background in Helsinki. This is particularly acute for those of Somali, Afghani and Iraqi background (City of Helsinki 2020b; Saukkonen 2017). Whilst holding tertiary qualifications can improve chances of employment (Statistics Finland 2015), even when holding equal qualifications compared to native residents, ethnic minorities in Finland may experience discrimination when applying for jobs (Ahmad 2020). Being unemployed may have the effect of reducing contacts and networks outside of the residential neighbourhood.

Different population groups also remain segregated on an occupational and sectoral basis. Many professions in Finland remain highly gendered, and ethnically divided. Residents with a foreign background are underrepresented in expert occupations and over-represented in service and sales work compared to persons with Finnish background (Statistics Finland 2015). The temporal variances of segregation are underscored by the fact that residents with a foreign background are also more likely to work shift-work than those with Finnish background (Statistics Finland 2015). Gender can also be an important intersectional factor in workplace segregation. Women continue to undertake more unpaid domestic work and childcare than men (Grönlund et al. 2017), are overrepresented in lower-paid occupational sectors (THL 2018), and suffer labour market disadvantages in the transition from education to work, despite outperforming men in school (Vuorinen-Lampila 2016). In addition to affecting income, this may have the effect of increasing the importance of networks within the neighbourhood, and requiring a need to work closer to home (Marcińczak et al. 2015).

Leading by example, the City of Helsinki has undertaken to employ a public sector which reflects the diversity of its population (City of Helsinki 2019a). Currently 8.5% of city employees are foreign-language speakers. Whilst this percentage is increasing, it remains short of the 16% of the city’s residents who have an immigrant background (City of Helsinki 2019a). From the beginning of 2021, the city is set to take over responsibility for the statutory employment services of over 50,000 jobseekers, including all foreign language speakers (City of Helsinki 2020a). This nationwide municipal employment experiment will provide the city an opportunity to learn more about challenges encountered, and test new policies and support measures for disadvantaged residents.

Finland has been at the top of international rankings for educational outcomes and educational equalities for many years. In the most recent 2018 PISA results, between-school differences in Helsinki accounted for less than 15% of the total variation in performance, well below the OECD average of 29% (OECD 2019). There is limited evidence in European cities that the residential neighbourhood one grows up in is a deciding a factor in educational outcomes.

Kauppinen (2007 p. 440) reports “no neighbourhood effects on the probability that young people will complete secondary education in Helsinki”. However, this has not prevented parental decisions regarding school choice from amplifying segregation within the classroom, whilst equally contributing to residential segregation. Whilst this may impact educational outcomes for individual schools, the negative effects have been somewhat tempered by the Helsinki’s ‘positive discrimination’ policy. This policy, where disadvantaged schools receive additional funding, has been effective in increasing the likelihood of pupils continuing their studies in secondary education, particularly for those pupils with an immigrant background (Silliman 2017).

Whilst it is more difficult for the City to intervene directly with leisure activities compared to other domains, the City can play a role in providing the facilities and encouraging participation in leisure activities which may facilitate inter-group contacts. On this front, the City strategy states the objective that every child and adolescent has a hobby, and emphasises the need for high-quality leisure facilities to be provided throughout the city (City of Helsinki 2017). Some segmentation of leisure time activities is inevitable and can be highly beneficial for residents, concerning participation in cultural activities for example. Research from Tallinn suggests that it may actually be more difficult to reduce segregation during leisure than to reduce segmentation (Kukk et al. 2019). This spatial dimension of leisure activities has already been shown to be highly interlinked with activities in other domains.


The Helsinki City Strategy outlines ambitious targets for reducing inequalities and segregation between population groups and neighbourhoods in the city. Helsinki has had success thus far in keeping acute residential segregation at bay through preventative housing policy, however there are signs that this may be changing. Wealth inequalities are growing in Helsinki and both residential segregation and school segregation are on the rise. The number of residents with a foreign mother tongue is expected to grow to just over 25% of Helsinki’s population within the next 15 years (City of Helsinki 2019b). Helsinki’s modest levels of immigration to date may have contributed to previous successes in keeping ethnic segregation low in the city. Experience from other Nordic cities suggests that larger immigrant populations may lead to stronger processes of ‘white flight and avoidance’, accelerating segregation (Skifter Andersen et al. 2016). With these developments, the topic of segregation is poised to remain a key focus in Helsinki.

This article has sought to extend this focus beyond the residential domain, presenting segregation rather as a dynamic and multi-contextual phenomenon. Whilst addressing disadvantage and societal challenges produced by neighbourhood differentiation remains of high importance, housing policy alone is insufficient to address the inequalities for which segregation may be symptomatic. Simple segregation indexes derived from static register data can not go so far as to speculate on whether a mixed neighbourhood is actually integrated or inclusive, who is actually in the neighbourhood at any time, or that its residents are not disadvantaged by exclusion in other domains. For this reason, segregation research has increasingly adopted a time-space approach (e.g. Järv et al. 2015; Tan et al. 2017; van Ham & Tammaru 2016). Novel forms of data, such as mobile phone and social media data, are permitting an increasing understanding of spatial practices and segregation dynamics through time and space. Whilst these methods may provide a better reflection of the lived experiences of residents, comprehending the potential mechanisms of interconnectivity between segregation in all of life’s domains remains a key challenge.

Taking a domains approach to segregation underscores the need for coordinated and transversal policies focussed on addressing the systemic inequalities which can produce negative outcomes for segregated groups, in different domains. On this front, the Helsinki City Strategy outlines wide-ranging goals, from gender equity and immigrant employment through to educational opportunities and softer goals of promoting tolerance and inclusivity (City of Helsinki 2017). The important connection between school segregation and residential segregation has been well studied in Helsinki, emphasising that patterns of segregation in one domain cannot be fully understood without understanding what is going on in the others.

With a diverse population, some degree of segregation is unavoidable in a city, and is not always a negative occurrence. A multi-contextual approach prompts a reflection of some of the fundamental questions concerning segregation flagged at the beginning of this article; Who is segregated? When does segregation produce negative outcomes, and in what contexts? What are the underlying goals of anti-segregation policy? And on what basis can measures be deemed successful?

Populations are mobile, and this mobility can result in dynamic patterns and processes of segregation with varying temporal rhythms. Segregation and exclusion may be experienced in many different contexts throughout people’s daily lives, and the causal links between segregation in different domains can be multidirectional. By embracing this complexity and taking a multi-contextual approach to segregation, Helsinki can continue to take a leading role on the subject in Europe.

Mathew Page is a Master’s student in the joint Urban Studies and Planning programme between University of Helsinki and Aalto University. Mathew is currently working as a Research Assistant at the City of Helsinki and writing his Master’s thesis investigating segregation dynamics through agent-based modelling. 


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