Oulu – special city
for European Capital of Culture 2026
Oulu feels like a special city to me. I think it has something to do with the light. When I first visited, in June last year, the sky was a brilliant blue, the sun was dazzling, and light was reflecting across every surface. In my next visit, in February of this year, the sky had darkened but the quality of light was still so strong – street lights reflected in the snow, ice shimmering where rivers otherwise flow.
This light is also present in the people. There is an energy and active ‘can do’ culture in Oulu. The people seem resourceful, attentive, curious and sprightly. People cycle, run, swim and walk at speed. They are close to nature and of the city; environmentally conscious; rooted; and digitally connected.
These qualities shape the city’s identity and its cultural landscape. The key cultural organisations are led by teams of sharp, practical and centred people who share a sense of responsibility for the wellbeing of their communities. The municipality, university and businesses bristle with purpose, keen to do what is right for the city and conscious that for Oulu to thrive requires them to work very hard to support citizens to actively contribute to their city’s future.
Oulu seems like a relatively balanced city – it has a mix of industries, it is easy to navigate, and nature weaves its way through the urban landscape. It is also a city which creates and makes things and does so in a way that embraces the city’s distinctive climate and location. From tar to Nokia, digital games to polar bear pitching, Oulu is a city that creates an idea and runs with it.
But it is not clear if the city is as inclusive as it might be. For example, how open is the city to a diversity of cultures, ideas and attitudes? Can Oulu change as the population changes? Also, might Oulu be more connected? With the downtown area providing more of a hub for the civic, social, economic and of course cultural life of the city. And with the university a platform for collaboration across the city and a key connector between the city and the world.
This is where European Capital of Culture provides such an opportunity. It can help facilitate dialogue and exchange regarding the city’s identity, purpose and trajectory. It can help convene new relationships – within the city and with neighbours across Europe. It can also help to build and grow the role of the cultural sector as a progressive force that can help nurture positive change. After all, every city has to change if it is to remain relevant to its present and future communities.
European Capital of Culture puts the people to the heart of the conversation. It requires us all to imaginatively consider how a city can build from its cultural qualities to change for the better. It mobilises a fresh look at the city and its role in Europe. And it inspires us to dream, to collaborate in new ways, and to play with the light that makes the city so special.
The Oulu2026 application is being completed together
The Oulu City Council unanimously decided that Oulu aims to achieve the title of European Capital of Culture in 2026. The Capital of Culture is an European Union initiative whose 2020-2033 rules have been decided in the EU in 2014. According to these rules, Oulu has begun the preparatory work for ECoC 2026.
The Capital of Culture is selected by an EU-appointed international expert panel based on the six criteria decided by the EU. The participation of various residents, local artists and cultural institutions in the preparation and implementation of the cultural programme is one of the most important and key criteria. Above all, its goal is to actively involve those groups of people who are generally excluded from cultural services.
The Capital of Culture is a major project and much more than just a cultural programme implemented during the specific bid year. It is broad-based city development with co-operation together with various producers in the region. To ensure this perspective, the City Council appointed a large delegation to support the preparation of the Capital of Culture bid. The delegation does not include the preparation or implementation of a cultural programme, but rather its mission is to commit the Oulu region to the project.
The cultural programme is implemented through open programme application searches. When the application is submitted in 2020, the cultural programme’s key themes and partners must be visible. To make the programme fresh in 2026, it is not appropriate to finalise the plans too early. The themes are sought together with the residents and members of the cultural field, reflecting on the challenges that Oulu aims to develop and impact during this project. Climate change in the Arctic, co-operation between technology and creativity, challenges and opportunities for digitalisation - what are the most pressing issues that art and culture should improve on together with European partners are the key questions.
The project’s core values were established last autumn 2017 as 1200 children and youngsters told their dreams about the future of Oulu. The answers emphasized openness and closeness to nature as well as metropolitan and functional public transport, which were also communicated as a wish.
The Capital of Culture will have the feel and the look of the Oulu region as we do it together. There is a need for a wide range of working methods and arenas, while the delegation and civil servants are only part of this whole project.
Now’s your chance, please join us!
Project Director, Oulu2026